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The Church must transform society

Communities in the Church and in society must forge a new path for the future

  • Desmond de Sousa CSsR, Goa
  • India
  • December 16, 2011
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Not all social change is acceptable to the person of faith. But social transformation in the direction of the values of the Kingdom is a faith commitment.

As Pope Paul VI wrote: “At the heart of the world there dwells the mystery of man discovering himself to be God’s son in the course of a historical and psychological process in which constraint and freedom as well as the weight of sin and the breath of the Spirit alternate and struggle for the upper hand.”

There is a crisis within the existing historical model of the Church in Asia transported from Europe, called Christendom. But the transition to the growth of an indigenous historical model, called the Church of the Poor, has not yet taken place.

This transition demands a shift of the institutional Church away from the ruling classes and power structures towards the life-threatening struggles of the  more impoverished and oppressed sectors of Asian society.

The Small Christian Community (SCC) is the foundational structure of the Church of the Poor, which permits the participation of the people who are traditionally marginalized – the young, the women, the farmers, indigenous people, workers, the poor, the oppressed. It is difficult to bring these people together in the geographical area of a large parish community. But the small human community provides the space for creativity of a new language, new symbols, new expressions of the marginalized people’s cultural identity.

However these SCCs cannot remain in splendid isolation from their neighbors of other faiths in the human community. They must become the soul and point of encounter for Small Human Communities (SHCs) in the geographic area. What the SCCs learn and experience within themselves as the foundation of the Church of the Poor, they begin to share in a “dialogue of life” with the broader community of people of other faiths.

In practice, the challenge to SCCs as the foundational building blocks of an emerging Church “from below” is of nurturing Basic Human Communities (BHCs), as a new operating model of the Church’s mission.

As Pope Paul VI further wrote: “It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own countries, to shed on it the light of the Gospel’s unalterable words and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgment and directives for action from the social teachings of the Church.”

A network of SHCs can create a mass infrastructure that produces a genuine change in people’s social and political consciousness. The main hope of reshaping Asia’s future lies in locating power among the people themselves.  The SCCs become the school for lay leadership and social responsibility through various ministries in their own parish Church. So also the SHCs become the training workshop for assuming leadership within the local community by becoming active and conscious subjects in the process of constructing a just and participatory democracy.

All this process of popular participation, whether in the Church or civil society, is a long and slow process. For several years people have remained passive and uninvolved until suddenly there occurs what is called the “irruption of the poor as subjects of their own history.” When these counter-cultural, SHCs link together into a mass movement, then they participate in the process of transformation of society “from below.”

A key concept for understanding the SCCs and SHCs is that of participation. They provide opportunities for people’s participation, where people begin to think, to speak and organize their action. It is within the SHCs that people organize themselves into a mass movement or people’s movement, when all the SHCs network together like beads in a necklace.

This “irruption of the poor” onto the center stage of history constitutes a new and authentic democratic movement. It is the breaking of the authoritarian structures within the Church and society, and the emergence of a new operating model with maximum participation of the people, which is the most significant contribution towards the reconstruction of genuine democracy in civil society.

However, this new concept of democracy, whether in the Church or in society, entails a belief in the capacity of the people to be the subjects of their own destiny. They are demonstrating that they can organize themselves in such a way that they can solve many of the fundamental problems of society. The SCCs in the Church and the SHCs in society that are linked together into a people’s movement comprise the base of this new concept of democracy as genuine participation of the people.

The Church continues the mission of Jesus, in whom the Kingdom of God erupted into the world. It is an adventure of God in history, with people as God’s privileged partners. The Kingdom of God consists in the ordering of human society according to God’s rule. To this the Church must witness; of this she must be a sign and symbol.

Her mission requires that she embodies in her own life and structures the Kingdom values of freedom, fellowship and justice based on an intimate, personal relationship with God as “our Father/Mother.”

It also requires that she contributes to the promotion of these values in the ordering of human society. The struggle for a new society is therefore a constitutive element of the Church’s evangelizing mission. As the Synod of Bishops in 1971 proclaimed: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”

Her specific contribution to a new society consists of inserting the values of the Gospel into human relationships, both personal and structural. Negatively, this will mean prophetically denouncing whatever structures militate against human freedom, fellowship and justice. Positively it will mean joining with all people of good will in promoting those values in society that Jesus commissioned the Church to announce.

Humankind is the Church’s arena and a new society is her agenda. It is at once the privilege and the obligation of the entire people of God to bring about such a new society.

Redemptorist Father Desmond de Souza formerly served as the executive secretary of the Office of Evangelization in the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference. He was closely associated with the Churches in Asia from 1980 to 2000. He is now based in Goa.
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