Basic Communities Flourish in Paraguay

Article excerpt

SAN PEDRO APOSTLE, Paraguay -- The prospects for basic Christian communities, late in Pope John Paul II's disapproving pontificate, rise and fall from country to country.

Brazil, for years the breeding ground of tens of thousands of such communities, has become an ominous example of endangerment and decline. In the favelas of Sao Paulo this summer, members expressed their regret: "To see basic ecclesial communities at their best, you are 10 years too late." Brazilians are eternal optimists, but under a rash of conservative episcopal appointments, the base communities are becoming more cautious, more churchy, more circumspect.

Not so in Paraguay. Even as Brazil grows cautious and restricted, its little, landlocked neighbor is opening up. The development comes after 34 years of savage repression under one of South America's most notorious dictators, Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, who went into exile in 1989. The people are slowly overcoming their fear as they find they can now meet in groups without being arrested.

Under Stroessner there had been a development of "agrarian leagues," which were another form of basic Christian community, founded on biblical teaching, communal sharing and cooperative labor in support of the poor. The agrarian leagues were bloodily suppressed around 1975 and their leaders tortured: One peasant described her sister wheeled home from prison in a little cart, unable to walk and scarcely recognizable after the torture.

This hard historical burden makes even more remarkable the enthusiastic promotion of basic ecclesial communities. The southern diocese of Misiones (the land of the old Jesuit missions or "reductions" for indigenous peoples) has just embarked on a decade of promoting Christian communities. The booklet for the Organic Pastoral Plan shows the people gathered into "authentic Christian communities" around Christ and held safe on the palm of God's hand.

In the old Jesuit reduction of Santa Maria live some of the peasant leaders of the Christian communities. Juan lives in the most primitive of huts. His weatherworn face and strong, coarse accent were indications that he came from the simplest of peasant families. Yet he is a local leader.

"The Bible has a very profound message for us, and it always touches us deeply," he said. "But some people cannot cope with the challenge they hear in the Bible and they go away again."

Meanwhile, to the north, the diocese of San Pedro Apostol held its first diocesan meeting of basic ecclesial communities earlier this year. Bishop Fernando Lugo concluded from that meeting that the communities "have a responsibility in the eradication of poverty." He added, "We can see with joy a new Pentecost, a new enthusiasm, a new awakening in the life of the communities."

In Paraguay, barely half the children finish their primary education, and one person in four is illiterate. Only 18 percent of those over 60 receive a pension, and 39 percent of the population lives in poverty. San Pedro represents the poorest elements of the country, largely because it is so hard to reach. Several hours of hard driving along a dust road, impassable after rainfall, separate it from the rest of the country.

Yet it was the San Pedro diocese that was chosen as the site for the Fifth Congress of Latin American and Caribbean Basic Ecclesial Communities last August. The very insignificance of the place made an important point about the strength of the church coming from below. …