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The Bishop asked our confrere, Father Norberto Ábrego, CM, to make of the new parish entrusted to him a “community of communities”!

 

In his homily before the people of the parish, he specifically said: “be especially attentive to the integral formation and the organization of Ecclesial Base Communities.”

It is no secret that In the United States most of our parishes seem to have lost a sense of intimacy with others who are also responding to the call to celebrate and deepen their faith and “go out” to the peripheries as evangelizing disciples called for by Pope Francis.

Ecclesial Base Communities? What are they?

For the average North American Catholic, the words have a strange sound. Yet, Ecclesial Base Communities are part of the vocabulary of the church in other continents. Indeed the Bishops of Latin America, Asia and Africa have been very vocal in calling for such developments.

The parish is conceived of as a community of communities. People gather in smaller and more intimate communities but still come together with a larger eucharistic community.

The Bishops of the Philippines describe the reality well.

“They are small communities of Christians, usually of families who gather together around the Word of God and the Eucharist. These communities are united to their pastors but are ministered to regularly by lay leaders. The members know each other by name, and share not only the Word of God and the Eucharist but also their concerns both material and spiritual. They have a strong sense of belongingness and responsibility for one another.” (PCP II 138)

St. John Paul II describes BECs as part of the effort to decentralize the parish community and regard them as expressions and means for a deeper communion:

“These are groups of Christians who, at the level of the family or in a similarly restricted setting, come together for prayer, Scripture reading, catechesis, and discussion of human and ecclesial problems with a view to a common commitment.

Father Norberto himself writes,

“The Congregation of the Mission is challenged to create an environment in which the parishioners are able to live as missionary-disciples of Jesus Christ and able to become a living cell of the Church, ever more alive as a parish … as the Aparecida Document states, the parish is the privileged place where the majority of faithful have a concrete experience of Christ and of ecclesial communion.” [Ed. Many describe the Aparaecida document as the blueprint for Pope Francis. That is material for another post.]

Is this happening in the United States?

The vocabulary may be strange. But that does not mean it does not happen.

In so many ways our parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe in North Carolina is living this new way of being church. With some 4,000 engaged each Sunday, Our Lady of Guadalupe is the largest Hispanic parish and, indeed, one of the largest parishes in Charlotte. While not formally modeled on the Base Ecclesial Community model it embodies many of the practices.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that what may be the largest Catholic parish in the United States is also in Charlotte. America Magazine recently presented insights on “Lessons on evangelization from the largest parish in the United States”. The article explains in greater detail this paradox of being so large yet offering a sense of closness among the people.

“Thirty years ago, St. Matthew had only 237 registered families, but the church has mirrored the explosive growth of Charlotte and now serves over 10,000 registered households, putting it in contention for being the largest parish in the United States.

Of course, there is also St. Vincent’s Parish in Germantown.For years they have been living many of these elements.

Historical and Geographical Perspectives

After a time of reflection and discernment, the Region of Panama, with the approval of the Visitor and his council, has made a commitment to administer the parish of Santa Maria de Belén. Fr. Norberto offers the following

This decision is in accord with the Five-Year Plan of the Region which recommended involvement in a new work. In light of that recommendation, a process of evaluating various proposals was initiated … at the end of this process, the parish of Santa María de Belén in the Diocese of Colón Kuna Yala was chosen as the new work for the confreres.

Before accepting responsibility for the parish, the Regional Council (chaired by Father Teodoro Justavino, CM), the confreres at the Colón House, Father Stephen Grozio, CM (Visitor of the Eastern Province USA) engaged in a lengthy dialogue Bishop Manuel Ochogavía Barahona, OSA.

The parish is located in the Costa Abajo area of Colón and is composed of communities in two districts: Colón and Chagres. Many of the communities are only accessible by boat and others are located in the mountain area and only accessible by horseback. The geographical area of the parish is very diverse as are the people (the majority of the people are from the interior of the country and dedicate their time to the cultivation of the land). The people closer to the city of Colón work in the Free Trade Zone of Colón.

The people in this area have a history engaging in the struggle for justice. Years ago many members of these communities organized themselves to fight against a project that would have submerged their lands and their houses underwater … water that would be used for the Canal and thus allowing larger ships to transit the Canal. As a result of their organization and mobilization, the project was halted.

Even though that battle was won, the communities remain alert to projects that would expose their land and/or their community to danger.

For example, the current expansion of the Panama Canal and the bridge that connects the city of Colón with the coastal region … this expansion provides easy access to this area. This is intended to provide people with a better quality of life and yet this progress and development also threatens these communities (presently people are experiencing problems with drugs and juvenile delinquency, problems that previously did not exist in this area).

The ways in which the people of this area organized themselves enriches the parish life Santa María de Belén.

The parish has youth groups, catechists, individuals who lead the community in Sunday celebrations of the Word, etc … each chapel has a Catholic Committee that is involved in social, ecological matters as well as ecclesial matters.

Previously, the Claretians, together with a missionary team composed of laymen and women and religious men and women, ministered in this area that was known as the Missionary Zone of Costa Abajo.

Bishop Manuel viewes the presence of the Congregation of the Mission in the parish of Santa María de Belén as an opportunity to continue to strengthen the Vincentian charism in the Diocese.

The Congregation is challenged to create an environment in which the parishioners are able to live as missionary-disciples of Jesus Christ and able to become a living cell of the Church, ever more alive as a parish