1975 to the present

For various reasons, the year 1975 represented an important landmark in the historical trajectory of the comunidade eclesial de base. In the first instance, 1975 witnessed the first national gathering {encontro} of the base ecclesial movement in Brazil. This national encontro heralded the beginning of a new collective moment in the life of the CEB, Second, it was from 1975 onwards that Brazilian president General Ernesto GeisePs policy of distensao (MecompressionTliberalisation*) started gaining momentum towards a gradualised return to normality {abertura) and full democratic elections by 1986, In addition, it might also be noted that 1975 saw the issuing of the first of a series of increasingly captious statements regarding the military government by the National Conference of Bishops in Brazil/7 Over the course of the next decade these statements would be followed by a number of progressive documents, in which the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Brazil assumed a more prophetic stance regarding matters of justice, equality, land rights, and democracy,18 As such, it was in a climate of growing hierarchical sympathy with matters pertaining to political and socio-economic conditions at the base that the first interecclesial gathering of the CEBs occurred.

Upon the lapsing of the Joint Pastoral Plan (1966-70), the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Brazil was keen to ensure that each of its subsequent biennial plans give prominence to CEB implantation/9 Consequent upon such hierarchical encouragement, not to mention the increasingly fruitful labours of those already working at the base, there existed by the end of 1974 an estimated 40,000 Brazilian CEBs scattered throughout at least forty dioceses/0 In the light of such CEB proliferation, a number of pastoral agents and bishops who had been influential in the early successes of the CEB in Brazil sought to organise a national forum by which previously disparate and often solitary CEB experiences could be shared and reflected upon. As a result, the first of a series of national CEB conferences took place at Vitoria {Espirito Santo) between 6 and 8 January 1975.

With over seventy participants, comprising ordinary cebistas {members of a CEB), pastoral agents, bishops and intellectuals, the people at Vitoria gathered under the encontro theme of 'A Church born of the people1/1 For our purposes, the encontro event held two significant implications. First, the establishment of a national conference provided a forum in which previously isolated CEB experiences could be disseminated. Within such sharing, cebistas and pastoral agents alike gained encouragement from the stories and histories of other individuals and communities, found comfort in the news that they were not the only ones struggling to be church at the base, and were emboldened by the fact that the God of the poor was seemingly undertaking a new venture in which all of God's people are called to participate on an equal footing. Whether in formal conference proceedings or after sessions had closed, common experiences were reflected upon, divergent emphases explored and a wide variety of motivations, objectives and struggles argued over in the cause of mutuality and learning. It was in view of this critical interaction that the CEB movement as such was born, and continues today to generate common themes of study and programmatic action along diocesan, state and national lines.

The second major implication emerging from the interecclesial encontro was the provision of an environment in which theologians could begin to learn from and take stock of the voiced experiences of those living day in and day out at the socio-economic base. Attending in the capacity of periti (professional advisers} to the first conference, for example, were Leonardo Boff, Carlos Mesters and Eduardo Hoornaert; with the likes of Joâo B, Libânio, Pedro A, Ribeiro de Oliveira swelling the ranks in later years and

Gustavo Gutiérrez and Thomas Bruneau attending as guests- Although inter-ecclesial CEB gatherings subsequent to the first at Vitoria would increase in popular participation and progressively come under the organisation and oversight of cebistas themselves (rather than their clerical counterparts), the advisory role played by these theologians and sociologists would continue to be regarded as essential to the ongoing success of the movement itself.

Emerging from experiences gained via the encontro event, and growing out of a reflection upon a number of reports and histories furnished by various CEBs throughout Brazil, the second interecclesial gathering (again, at Vitoria) saw the production of a number of papers by, among others, Eduardo Hoornaert, J. B. Libanio, Carlos Mesters, and Leonardo Boff/* Carlos Mesters' paper, 'Flor sem defesa: 1er o evangelho na vida', would later form part of his highly influential book, Defenseless Flower: A New Reading of the Bible. Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is Leonardo Boffs 'Eclesiogcnese: as ceb reinventam a igreja*, the blueprint from which would be developed Ecclesiogenests: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church.

Providing the initial grounding in issues and concerns of the base, the interecclesial gatherings acted as a springboard for various young thinkers who would later come to be recognised as the second generation of Brazil's theologians of liberation/3 What is important to note, however, is that the experience of the CEB gained at these early encontros represented the impetus towards the later formulation of ecclesiological themes which subsequently formed an integral part of the theoretical bedrock upon which a more mature theology of liberation came to rest. Such ecclesiological themes also led to Vatican disapprobation and the subsequent censure and silencing of Leonardo Boff,M Although it can be said, therefore, that the majority of its theological and socio-political critique was in place prior to the mid-1970s, it was only via its engagement with the nascent CEB movement that Latin American liberation theology was fully enabled to root itself within the lived experiences of the masses at the base. Without this praxiological grounding, liberation theology would neither have been able to articulate the sufferings of the poor, nor been allowed to claim the representative status upon which so much of its credibility continues to rest.

By the late 1980s, the political and ecclesiastical climate in Brazil had undergone considerable change. Under the direction of president Joao Figueiredo, distensao was carefully nurtured into abertura (opening). In the face of increasing popular and middle-class mobilisation, the democratic party system was restored, direct gubernatorial elections in 19 8z allowed and the first open presidential elections for over twenty years held in 1986,35 On the ecclesiastical front, the conservative 'restorationist' programme set in motion by John Paul II was now fully up and running, and in the light of this traditionalist resurgence strong pressures were brought to bear upon any in Latin America espousing anything close to a liberationist line.36 In view of this shift in climate, and although there existed an estimated t00,000 CEBs in Brazil alone at this time, there was much talk about how this once innovative and challenging ecclesial phenomenon was in danger of becoming no more than a depoliticised and spiritualised shell of its former self.37

As the only national institution which could face up to die military dictatorship and survive, and with no legitimate or effective opposition existing throughout the prolonged period of socio-political closure in Brazil, certain progressive sectors of the Roman Catholic church came to represent for many the only avenue through which democratic ideals and popular aspirations could be both espoused and pursued. Furthermore, given the repressive nature of the national security state and the timely emergence of many CEBs within neighbourhoods throughout Brazil, it was upon these small, intimate and local ecclesial communities that growing numbers of those at the base came to pin their hopes for a better future, It was, therefore, within the burgeoning number of CEBs that local pockets of popular organisation, previously channelled through unions, professional associations, state campaigns, and political parties, were enabled to survive,38 Nurturing the democratic ideals of mutuality, participation and corresponsibility, which the military in Brazil had supposedly upheld by torturing and killing thousands, by the late 1970s the CEB movement was in a most advantageous position from which to exploit the growing benefits of distensao and organise the increasingly coordinated movements of popular protest which eventually drove decompression into full ahertura,

With the onset of full democratic elections, however, those channels of popular organisation and expression previously closed to the masses were once again opened. As such, the need for the base ecclesial community to function as a space for the preservation and pursuit of many popular aspirations and concerns thereby ended, as did the religions motivations of a number of people who had attached themselves to the CEB movement throughout the years of dictatorship. To this extent, the CEB movement can be said to have undergone a certain degree of depoiineisanon, as it handed back 10 the appropriate and ultimately more eïîecrive channels those ta ski it had undertaken by virtue of its peculiar status within dictatorial Brazil/4

Already exerting concerted pressure upon the ecclesiastical hierarchy since 1985, Vatican-orchestrated forces took the démocratisation of Brazil as their cue for a further push towards a comprehensive adoption of the restorationist line.40 In view of recent events within the political arena, Vatican orthodoxy soon gained hegemony, with the church subsequently reverting to a pastoral concentration upon the middle classes and bourgeois elite as the principal bulwarks of its influence in Brazil Concomitant with this rapprochement with the petite bourgeoisie and economico-political elite, the now powerful conservative lobby within the ecclesiastical institution took this opportunity to lessen the church's emphasis upon the popular pastoral As they sought to eradicate all potential sources of compromise and embarrassment in the face of the new political regime, the CEB movement and its progressive agenda were regarded as one such likely well-spring of contention. Consequently, previously available personal and financial resources were gradually withdrawn and a growing number of prelates began to impress an increasingly traditionalist agenda upon a pastoral terrain which until recently they had been content to leave to the oversight of pastoral agents within their charge. Emphases upon ecclesial engagement with land, housing, health, and education matters were now played down in favour of an individualised spirituality based upon a passive, unquestioning deference to hierarchical authority and the privatised veneration of our Lady and the saints/1 It is to this extent that the CEB movement has undergone some form of spiritualisation.

Having acknowledged the processes of depoliticisation and push toward spiritualisation to which the CEBs have been subjected since the mid-1980s, it is not intended to create the impression that these pressures have left the CEB movement in Latin America altogether devoid of influence and relevance, Certainly, changes in the political and ecclesiastical climate have made it difficult for the CEB to continue in the same manner as before; but, where is it written in stone that this is what the CEB or any other movement of God must do? Rather, the fortunes and emphases of the CEB differ from country to country, diocese to diocese and even parish to parish.

Furthermore, it should be noted that talk of the depoliticisation of the

CEB must not be allowed to mask the still significant continuity of pastoral practice and engagement between the pre- and post-abertura CEB. Whilst issues pertaining to party politics and unionisation, for example, may well have been gladly handed back to the proper channels, many CEBs continue to play an influential role within local campaigns for improved sanitation and health facilities, better educational and housing provision, and other ongoing struggles towards the improvement of life chances at the base. Wirhin the contrasting political climates of narional security and open democracy, however, the same actions can assume marked J v different overs tones and implications, ¿5 we/i as eliciting somewfiar divergent responses from the powers that be. Having thereby acknowledged the transition from dictatorship to abertura, it can be seen that it is not necessarily the nature of all CEB activity which has changcd over this period, but also the socio-political matrix in which the content of such activism is interpreted. What was regarded as political agitation in 1975, for example, might not be regarded as such today.

In addition to recognising the changing nature of the political in Brazil (and, therefore, the changing nature of what constitutes politicisation), the enduring pragmatism of the masses must also not be overlooked as an important guarantor of the CEB legacy. It should not be forgotten, for example, that one of the principal contributing factors towards the integration of the incipient ecclesial communities within their surrounding locale was the refusal of many at the base to concern themselves with any venture whose raison d'être stood divorced from those preoccupations, struggles and needs generated at almost every turn by life at the bottom of the social pyramid. It is upon this continuing refusal of the faithful to countenance any religious undertaking which has no relevance to the everyday experiences of poverty that much of the future hope of the base ecclesial community lies.

For the last decade, Brazil has continued down the road of democratic politics. It is, however, a politics of democracy which continues to rest upon the unbridled exploitation of the many by a small minority. High unemployment, low pay, poor working conditions, lack of job security, and myriad restrictions in health care, schooling and decent housing all conspire to prevent the impoverished masses from learning to strive for that which justice demands they have. Within a context such as this, the comunidade eclesial de base continues to have relevance and purpose. Yet, it is a relevance and purpose which has meaning only to the extent that the powerless assume a role, the voiceless are empowered to speak out, and the poor are enabled to seek the Reign of God by way of engaging in the transformation of our world towards that for which the God of justice calls,

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