Go Church or BE Church

As Catholics, we are constantly reminded to always go to church at least once a week to attend Mass. For most people, this will usually be sunset Mass on Saturday or Sunday Mass.

Feb 10, 2023

                                                     REMINISCING CHURCH

By Richard Chia

As Catholics, we are constantly reminded to always go to church at least once a week to attend Mass. For most people, this will usually be sunset Mass on Saturday or Sunday Mass. Our Catechism teaches us that the Holy Eucharist is a sacrament, and that, as Catholics, we are obliged to attend and celebrate Mass every week, as a minimum. Perhaps many among you attend daily Masses too. This is what being a Catholic means to me — Mass attendance, going to church, receiving the Holy Eucharist, going to Confession, etc. This is what I was taught from young, and continue to teach others today.

Today, when we pick up any bulletins or materials about Church, we read about the “new way of being Church”. Emphasis is on “BEING Church”, not going to church. What does this mean? Isn’t church where we go to worship every week? Isn’t church the community we belong to where we attend Mass, send our children for Sunday catechism and fulfil our Sunday obligations?

The phrase A New Way of Being Church was first announced at the Peninsular Malaysia Pastoral Convention (PMPC) II in 1996. This was a follow through from the Fifth Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) held in Bandung, Indonesia in 1990, where the phrase was first suggested and subsequently adopted by the Churches in Asia. Several years later, the phrase A New Way of Being Church appeared at formation sessions for Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs), parish formation and in church bulletins.

You may ask: “what exactly does new way of being church” mean? What’s wrong with the old way? Why do we need a new way? Why being church?

This was the challenge posed to the 390 participants who attended the PMPC II gathering at Plentong, Johor in 1986. Having to disseminate and communicate this new abstract thinking to the larger community, a red booklet entitled Towards a New Way of Being Church in Malaysia was published. The booklet attempted to summarise the findings of the PMPC II, including the vision and mission statement of the Church in Peninsular Malaysia, and detailed the various pastoral priorities of the Church in Peninsular Malaysia. As with most Church documents, the laity, if they chanced on the document, found it extremely heavy, sounding theological and difficult to grasp. Not to say it was incomprehensible and not directly implementable.

In 1997, realising the need for the Church to disseminate this new “concept” to the larger community, a peninsular-wide event was organised. It was commonly dubbed as “the Bishops Roadshow” where a total of 20 resource persons, led by then Auxiliary Bishop Rt Rev Murphy Pakiam (now Archbishop Emeritus) and comprising other bishops, priests and laity, journeyed to 18 districts in the one archdiocese and two dioceses in Peninsular Malaysia, to communicate and engage with the grassroots leaders in the Church. This roadshow was conducted in four languages and involved many thousands of participants. As expected, lots of questions, concerns, issues and deliberations resulted.

In response, in 1998, the Church published Guidelines for BEC and Guidelines for parish structure in an A4-sized book. Limited copies of these books were circulated among the Church leaders and many attempted to implement these guidelines in their respective churches. In 2001, the first revision of the book was made, where the book was shrunk to half an A4 size, commercially printed, mass produced and sold at an affordable price. This was generally dubbed “the pink book”. Two more revisions were made in 2002 and 2004, with inclusions of more appendices and examples. Many of the newly formed BECs then were encouraged to use this book, as it contained the WHAT, HOW, WHY, WHEN, WHERE answers to many of the questions commonly asked. E.g. — What is a BEC? What do we do at BEC gatherings? How do we conduct BEC gatherings? When should BEC gatherings be held? Who should lead? Why do we need BECs?

To support the implementation of this New Way of Being Church (NEWBEC), several support structures and roles were proposed. BEC Coordinating Team (BECCOT), BEC Animating Team (BECAT), Zone Coordinators, Messengers, etc. Parish structures were also changed. Before, the governing body for any parish church was the parish council, comprising representatives from all church ministries and church groups. A parish council typically comprised 20-30 people, and they met once a month, headed by the parish priest. As you can imagine, a typical parish council meeting could last many hours, especially when each parish representative brought forth issues and deliberations could last forever. Most times, parish council meetings were loud, focused on administrative, operational and sometimes technical matters of the church.

With the New Way of Being Church guidelines, parishes began to slowly reorganise themselves into three structures: Parish Pastoral Council (PPC), Parish Coordinating Council (PCC) and Parish Finance Committee (PFC). The many functions of the previous parish council are now separated into three bodies, each focusing on their respective areas – pastoral planning, pastoral implementation and coordination, and managing parish financial resources. The number of members in each council are reduced and the frequency of meetings per year are also limited.

“Being Church” means the emphasis is now on the people of God, the parish community as well as the community at large. Church here is premised on the teaching of Jesus where He said “For where two or three gather together in My name, there am I with them”. (Matt 18:20). Even though the institutional church remains, the people of God becomes the church priority for pastoral and spiritual advancement.

As such, the New Way of Being Church is not merely about being a dutiful churchgoing Catholic once a week but rather, living Christ-centred lives daily, rooted in the Bible, 24/7 wherever we are – at work, at home, at play, while shopping, or anywhere else. The New Way of Being Church is not just about being active by joining a church ministry, a church group or attending seminars, retreats, prayer sessions and Mass, but all of the above plus living our Christian life rooted in communion with the Holy Trinity and in solidarity with the whole human family and creation. Tall order, yes? Certainly. Richard Chia has been actively involved in Church since young. He held full-time corporate jobs while serving in ministries and groups at various church levels for the past four decades.

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