DEFINING BASE COMMUNITIES
It is time to take stock and to address the varieties of ways in which base communities could manifest themselves in the years under consideration. As in other parts of the world where they emerged at roughly the same time, religious base communities were autonomous informal associations of individuals who, in whole or in part, focused on aspects of ecclesial life outside the regular structures of the—in this case Catholic—church. Individuals may have simultaneously been members of more traditional associations of Catholic life, such as Catholic Action, in particular Specialized Catholic Action, or members of Catholic (or Catholic-dominated) trade unions or political parties. But for an informal association of individuals to be considered a base community, the latter would have to operate largely independently of the traditional structures belonging to the Catholic official pillar. Members of base communities could (and did!) hail from all walks of life. Members of the clergy could (and did) fulfil important roles within such base communities—although usually priests performed such functions over and above their primary roles as spiritual guides of a parish. In fact, part of the characteristic of base communities was precisely its role separate and distinct from regular parish life. Though sometimes first emerging within one specific parish as a natural extension of habitual sociabilities, base communities most frequently included individuals who hailed from any number of distinct parishes. There were, however, some examples of base communities which evolved out of traditional parishes, including cases where in effect a specific parish evolved into a base community lock, stock, and barrel. In such relatively rare cases, however, in most instances certain innovative practices had led to tensions with the local hierarchy which in turn led a specific parish to pursue a pathway in open conflict with their superiors. Certainly in the Italian case, most base communities evolved out of any number of activities originally performed as part of regular parish life, most frequently within youth groups which first had met and carried out common activities as part of a parish-based effort.
In most cases, members of base communities did not practise communal forms of living, although sometimes communal living arrangements evolved in the process of ongoing common activities—by all or part of the group. Most frequently, base communities consisted of individuals who lived in nuclear families or on their own. Even less frequent than common living situations were communal work projects as (common) sources of income. Sociologically, most individual communities tended to have a distinct profile, in common with the specific group’s outlook and goals, though cases of cross-class membership were by no means unusual and often warmly welcomed. Women were frequent participants in base communities, though almost always seriously underrepresented at the leadership level of such groups.
Informal associations of individuals were, of course, all the rage in the years under consideration—and not just in Italy. To be considered a Christian base community, however, a portion of their activities had to be geared towards ecclesial action. Many groups combined their characteristic ecclesial orientation with action programmes derived from their often prominently developed sense of social responsibility. This often took the form of social assistance to disadvantaged social strata or occupational categories (migrants, prostitutes, unskilled workers, etc.) or volunteer work in disadvantaged neighbourhoods or activities geared towards the workforce of a targeted enterprise. What characterizes many groups’ evolution over time was a frequent shift in the axis of their concerns, i.e. from an exclusive focus on ecclesially oriented activities towards a significant commitment to social services or political work, then shifting back again towards a period when spiritual and intellectual reflection dominated their practices. Still, in the course of the 1960s, a certain evolution in their inner orientations can be traced over time. Towards the beginning of the decade, membership in (the left wing of) DC was quite common, as was membership in any number of associations of Catholic life, such as the CISL, the ACLI, the FUCI, GIAC, or, where it existed, GS. Likewise, at the very beginning of the 1960s, it seems that study groups with a distinct intellectual remit and pre-requirements were far more common than towards the end of the decade. Also, the role of priests as spiritual—and frequently organizational—linchpins of such nascent base communities was rather prominent then. Yet DC membership of individuals partaking in base communities became increasingly rare as the decade progressed. And a similar assessment pertains to membership in most Catholic Action groups or, a case apart, GS. ‘1968 definitely witnessed the crumbling of traditional organizations, such as Catholic Action, or the movement of GS.’
Before setting out to cast some light on the capstone experience of the Italian sessantotto, ushering in a new period, it may be expedient to further highlight the varieties of base communities in Italy as a whole by one more concentrated look at the world of base communities in the capital city of Piedmont. For, as Enzo Bianchi, whom we first met in the pages of this book at the turbulent gathering of Italian worker priests in Serramazzoni in early 1976 and who in later decades evolved into one of Italy’s premier media personalities, remarked at the onset of his 1970 survey of base communities in his native Piedmont:
The phenomenon of ecclesial groups has thus far proven to be truly complex. Often one is confronted with facts as part of supposed evaluations which, for those living within these groups, have nothing or very little to do with reality. It is also not very easy to orient oneself within the lifeworld of these groups, and this for several reasons: the pluralism of motivations for their emergence; the diversity of ecclesial situations within which they operate; the rapidly changing attitude vis-avis political and ecclesial action; the high turnover of the membership; and the facility with which new groups see the light of day with an all-too-short lifespan.
The Spirit of Vatican II