The topic of Jukka Raunu’s lecture, under the theme of “The power of religion in Brazil”, was Catholicism and Pentecostalism in Contemporary Brazil, but he also talked a lot about the history of religion in Brazil. In that context, he mentioned several times Base Communities, which seemed to have an important role in Brazil’s religious landscape in the 1960’s. Base Communities also came out in Markus Kröger’s lecture concerning landless and pulp business, so I considered that it would be interesting to find out a little more about these communities, and that’s what I will do in this report.
Base Communities, or Basic ecclesial communities, are groups that are organized around congregations or chapels by the initiative of laypeople, pastors or bishops. They are usually related to Catholic Church. Base Communities have been inspired by liberation theology, and they consist of local communities which members are usually lower class people with common needs and concerns. Within Base Communities, laypeople, women as much as men, can participate in the organization and in all the tasks of the community. This participation is not restricted to the ecclesiastical field, but encompasses all aspects of society, as Base Communities emphasize the importance of the struggle in favor of the transformation of society. The bible and its interpretation has a really important place in Base Communities.
Even though some signs of the emergence of Base Communities can be seen already in the end of the 1950’s, it is usually considered that Base Communities in Brazil were born in the beginning of the 1960’s, which was the time of the military regime and restriction of freedom of speech. In that time, many of the members of Base Communities were imprisoned and tortured, as they took actively part in the opposition of the regime. However, this opposition wasn’t born spontaneously, but with a help of the prevailing system. As all the participation to political decision making was made impossible, people found a new space to organize in the church, which was the only institution in Brazil that the authorities were not able to control directly. People discovered the church in a new way; it wasn’t only a place to worship God, but also a place to get organized and mobilized. After The Second Vatican Council, the church took a stand against torture and for human rights, which led to imprisonments of religious people and pastors.
Base Communities today
The importance of Base Communities has decreased after the fall of Brazil’s military regime, as people now have more possibilities to express their opinions elsewhere.
Even though the society where Basic Communities act nowadays is so different from the times of the military dictatorship, they still have a strong focus on social issues. In Brazil, the growth of Pentecostalism and also the charismatic catholic movements has been considered as a threat to Base Communities. Nevertheless, communities themselves aim at constructive dialogue between other religious movements to fight together in favor of people.
How do Base Communities function in practice?
Base Communities never had the objective of growing huge. Communal work is considered important, because it guaranties the ties between the members. Contrary to the centralizing tendency of the Catholic Church, Base Communities encourage lay participation. Official pastors are few; their tasks are given to trained lay members of the community, called pastoral agents. The objective is not to train mighty leaders who would tell people what to do, but to make the action in communities more organized. Pastoral agents for example help the members to express themselves in the meetings by asking questions. Concrete action and doing things together is considered important. Reunions are communicative and the pastoral agents try to avoid being the only ones speaking. The pedagogy of Base Communities has been inspired by the Pedagogy of the Oppressed of Paulo Freire.
A typical member of Base Community is low-income and unschooled. Base Communities are most popular in rural areas, as Brazilian peasant’s world view usually is very religious.
Members of Base Communities gather in meetings. They can be held in peoples’ houses or simply outside, in the shadow of a tree. Talking, singing and praying are essential parts of meetings, and in that regard they are more similar to Afro-Brazilian religious cults than to formal catholic Mass.
Base Communities use the method of “see-judge-act”. Meetings begin with prayers and hymns of praise, after what the members can tell their problems and difficulties to others. Problems are usually either domestic, like a sick family member, or professional, such as unemployment. Then comes judging, which is the second part of the method. This part is always connected to the Gospel: someone suggests a fragment in the New Testament that combines with the problem. Others listen, and then discuss the problem. The last part of the method is to act, to create a concrete plan of action to solve the problem. The method is not mechanical; sometimes members have to spend several months trying to find a solution to one single problem. It is also not linear; different parts of the method get mixed up with each other.
Base communities also celebrate the Mass. Celebration can take place in a church or in a chapel, or then it can be celebrated in the meetings. Objects used in the Mass can be extremely simple: altar is a normal table covered with a cloth, communion wafer is the same bread anyone can buy in the bakery. The action within Base Communities is ecclesiastic, but also clearly political. They celebrate the Mass and liturgical parties and take part in social battles. Frei Betto describes the discourse used in base communities as “religious and politically liberating”[i]. Pastoral agents interpret the Bible in a political way and explain its content to others. Bible is not interpreted in a traditional way where the poor have to adapt and be humble so that God would compensate their suffering in the afterlife.
Importance of the Bible
First base communities emerged from Bible study groups, and still today, the Bible has an essential role in the communities. The Bible is interpreted in favor of poor people, in a way that people become familiar with the book and find similarities between their own life and the text. Many Base Communities have Bible study groups that use booklet-version of Bible, made with visual and concrete language, under the supervision of the pastoral agents. Community members suggests a theme or a text on base of which pastoral agents make a first version of a booklet, which is then submit to community members who can propose changes. Booklets link the events of the Bible with events of everyday-life of people of the community.
Effect on the society
In the time of the military dictatorship Base Communities introduced new social ideas and democratic methods which led to many participants’ active involvement in popular movements of Brazil that worked for social change. Still today, Base Communities introduce to their members a new way of understanding religion and help unschooled people become more conscious of their rights. Religion is not seen any more as a relief to one’s suffering, but as an instrument to fight the oppression. As members of Base communities fight to achieve their goal, they realize the power of popular organization and mobilization. Even the unpolitical groups within Base Communities, like mother clubs, can achieve surprising results when there emerges a concrete need in the neighborhood. Problems discussed in the meetings, concerning neighborhood’s problems, have in many regions given birth to many autonomous social movements and clubs which gather people regardless of religion.
In this photo from 2011, Base Communities of the Archdiocese of Fortaleza demonstrate for the reduction of the cost of sanitary sewage.
Frei Betto: O que é comunidade eclesial de base, Editora Brasiliense, 1981
Faustino Teixeira: Comunidades eclesiais de base no Brasil (available in http://www.iserassessoria.org.br/novo/arqsupload/89.DOC)
[i] Frei Betto O que é comunidade eclesial de base, Editora Brasiliense, 1981