Communities of believers, inspired by liberation theology, have been prevalent in Brazil and Africa since the 1960s. They do not have a strong presence in France, but in recent months some dioceses have been studying ways of adapting this model for their areas.
In Villeneuve-du-Paréage, a small town of 500 inhabitants a few kilometers from Pamiers (Ariege), it all began with the story of a trip.
In late 2012, a handful of parishioners listened to Fr Bertrand de Sentenac as he told them of his stay in Burundi in “a vibrant, rejuvenated church borne on the wind of the basic ecclesial communities”. His story set the tone and a first fraternal community of Christians was born in Villeneuve-du-Paréage.
Its members reflect on passages of the Bible, help prepare mass, hold vigils for the sick, and organize concerts and children’s shows. “For five years now, we have been meeting once a month; our community gradually became deeply involved in the life of the village,” says Severine Léonarc, one of the two leaders of the small group in Villeneuve.
The meetings are attended by six to nine persons at any given time.
“The basic ecclesial communities respond in particular to the needs of rural parish assemblies,” says Fr De Sentenac, who is now a priest at Saint-Girons (Ariège).
Here, together with his pastoral team, he reflects on the establishment of similar communities. “Since they are not based solely on the charisma of a priest officiating in ever broader sectors, they enable everyone to experience community life, to receive training in groups and to be of service to others,” he explains.
In France, this reflection on the creation of the communities, which used to be rather rare, is now occurring in many dioceses. In Blois, Msgr Jean-Pierre Batut plans to set up working groups based on a principle “that will not be clerical”.
“A working group will not be a fraternity of priests, it includes all possible vocations,” he explains. “God’s alliance is incarnated in various facets of life – celibacy, marriage, the ministerial priesthood, religious life. It is essential to highlight their existence and complementarity.”
His many pastoral visits have led Msgr Batut to the conclusion that the logic of territorial networking, with a priest in charge of a parish, “has had its day”.
He feels that it is not the principle most in line with the discourse of the Church which, itself, is defined as “an assembly centered around the world of God, the Eucharist and the concrete exercise of charity”.
Currently studied by pastoral teams, movements, and officials of Catholic establishments, the plan to set up the communities will be presented in autumn at the diocesan assembly.
In the diocese of Sens-Auxerre, it is mainly the idea of “a gap between the lone Christian, who lives his faith within the family or alone, and the Sunday parish community” that led Msgr Hervé Giraud to come up with the idea of setting up basic ecclesial communities.
The bishop prefers the term “fraternities” to that overly administrative appellation, which is still synonymous in some quarters with centers of rebellion in Africa or Brazil.
“Made up of about six, eight or ten Christians wishing to reflect, pray and act together, these fraternities would not conform to a structure that’s too complicated, and even constraining,” added the bishop, who is also awaiting the approval of the diocesan assembly in December. “They would be based on simple principles, organizing themselves by sector or by major themes of reflection.”
The question that remains is why are the basic ecclesial communities, so prevalent in Latin America, hardly present in France. “This somewhat late awakening is perhaps due to a type of fear, of reticence towards reforming and reinventing the priestly ministry,” Fr de Sentenac suggests. He welcomes, however, the “real movement of emulation, of effervescence, that is beginning to develop around the issue today in many dioceses”.