Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Policies and Sanctions in Basic Ecclesial Communities

Fr. Amado L. Picardal, CSsR, SThD

Along the Way

FOR the last forty-five years, as part of the renewal promoted by Vatican II, Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) have sprouted all over the country. The PCP II in 1991, formally adopted the formation of BECs as a pastoral priority and since then, more and more dioceses have vigorously promoted BECs. Forming sustainable BECs is not easy. Thus, BEC practitioners came up with various methods. One of these was the introduction of policies with corresponding sanctions.

There are some dioceses and parishes that have adopted the so-called “policies and sanctions” that would deny the sacraments to those who are not actively involved in BECs. This means that active membership in these communities is a pre-requisite for receiving the sacraments. For example, parents are required to get a signed certification from their BEC leaders that they are active members of their family groupings and BECs. This means, regularly attending their neighborhood Bible-sharing sessions, weekly community Bible-Service in the chapel, monthly Mass and other BEC activities. This also means paying their monthly or annual dues. In one diocese, the signatures of the heads of the various BEC/chapel ministries (worship, education, service, temporalities, family & life, youth) are needed for certification.

If they are not active members, the leaders won’t give them a certification. No certification means no baptism. Some parishes require BEC certification for those intending to get married. Some parishes refuse to conduct funeral masses for those who have not been actively involved in BECs and have not paid their dues. Other parishes have a policy that no fiesta Mass will be celebrated for BECs if there is gambling going on during the fiesta. Some parishes have a policy that a Mass in the BEC can only be celebrated after the community has paid the dues in full or have paid a quota for construction of the cathedral. Other parishes have a policy that BECs without a full line up of officers be suspended and no BEC Mass will be celebrated unless they are able to elect a complete set of officers.

The number of dioceses and parishes that have adopted such policies and sanctions may be few–only less than 15 percent (mostly in the South). This has become part of the BEC culture in these places. Due to negative feedbacks, some have already abandoned this and replaced “certification” with “information” emphasizing that those who are not active members be made to understand and encouraged to participate in their BEC activities so that reception of the sacraments becomes meaningful. But others continue the practice which is also being introduced in a few dioceses in the Visayas and Luzon, although some bishops have cautioned against it or refused to adopt it.

The justification of those who adopt these policies and sanctions is that this is a good way of instilling discipline among the lay faithful. Those who want to avail of the sacraments must have already lived as genuine Christians and active members of the Christian community (the BEC). They believe that this is an effective way of forming and strengthening the BEC.

On the other hand, this has caused a lot of hurt, anger and resentment among many who have been denied the sacraments. Consequently, this has alienated them from the Church or even drove them away from the Church. The joy of parents and relatives over the birth of a child has been replaced by anger and hurt when told they could not be given a certification to have the child baptized because they were not active in their BECs. How do you console the bereaved when their loved one who just died cannot have a funeral mass because he was not an active member of his BEC or failed to pay his dues? How would the lay faithful feel if they are already gathered in the chapel for the fiesta mass but the priest who has just arrived decide to cancel the Mass and go home because he saw several people violating the policies by gambling outside? There are some priests who are more lenient and compassionate and who allow those without certification to avail of the sacraments. For not strictly following the policies, they get the ire of other priests and also of their own lay leaders who get discouraged and think of resigning.

Some bishops and many canon lawyers have commented that these policies and sanctions are even stricter than canon law. Indeed, there is no canonical basis for them and they are not in accordance with Church law. Canon 213 states: “Christ’s faithful have the right to be assisted by their pastors from the spiritual riches of the Church, especially by the word of God and the sacraments.” According to canon 843 no. 1 “sacred ministers may not deny the sacraments to those who opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.” Canon 1184 no.1 lists down those to be denied Church funeral rites and funeral mass. This list does not include those who are not active members of BECs. These three canon law provisions tell us that the faithful cannot be denied of the sacraments just because they are not active members of the BEC. What is required as stipulated in canon 843 no. 2 is that “pastors and other members of Christ’s faithful have a duty to ensure those who ask for the sacraments are prepared for their reception. This should be done through proper evangelization and catechetical instruction…” Thus, what is important is the preparation for the reception of the sacraments through evangelization and catechesis.

A paper presented by Msgr. Rey Monsanto during the 2013 annual convention of the Canon Law Society of the Philippines and which was endorsed by the body and submitted to the CBCP states: “Hence, the BECs, while being strongly made a parochial or diocesan thrust, should never be imposed on the faithful. Attraction should be the strategy… Therefore, while the faithful should be educated on the BECs and kindly invited and encouraged to be active members, no one should be “forced” nor inactive membership threatened with penalty, like deprivation of a sacrament for oneself or for any member of the family… The right of the faithful to the sacraments and to the spiritual assistance from their pastors must always be respected (c.843 and c.213). Hence, active membership in the BECs can never be made an absolute condition, or “conditio sine qua non”, for participating in the celebration and/or reception of the sacraments and sacramentals… Hence, BECs and Parish Priests should avoid making “penal policies” that will sound more like threats, and thus turn people off. It is enough that they follow and implement the laws of the Code, and the laws of the diocese to which they belong. Too many minute laws will make them sound like the Pharisees of old. “

These policies and sanctions present a negative image of the BECs as a new way of being Church. This image of the Church is contrary to the Vatican II and PCP II vision of a renewed Church. It presents an image of the Church that is highly institutionalized, and bureaucratic, with a leadership style that is authoritarian. It is based on the strict observance of rules and policies which the Pharisees promoted and which Jesus criticized because they lacked mercy and compassion.

There is a need to come up with more creative and effective ways of promoting, forming and revitalizing BECs. This requires a lot of patience and compassion. This also requires new ardor and methods of evangelization that lead to personal conversion and communion with Christ and the community. Active membership in BECs should never depend on coercive policies and sanctions. This requires, according to the 2012 Synod of Bishops, abandoning a strategy of maintenance and adopting a more missionary strategy–that is, of reaching out to the vast majority of our members who are nominal, and many of whom are hurting or alienated from the Church. The BECs must incarnate the image of a Church of mercy and compassion. As Pope Francis reminds us: “the Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium 114).

Pope Francis has something to say to those who are obsessed with policies and sanctions: “Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself “the door”: baptism. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” (Evangelii Gaudium 47).

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