Querida Amazonia 66: Inculturation

One might think that inculturation shouldn’t be this hard. Clearly, it wasn’t an issue for Saint Paul, who stood firmly with one foot in his Jewish heritage and another in the Greek-influenced Empire. Over the centuries, the Church has suffered something deeper than skepticism. It shades often to suspicion and hostility. This has hampered the spread of the Gospel. Long-time readers here know of my deep criticism of the Tridentine Era. Singular figures stand out, certainly, for their efforts in evangelization. But most lacked the handoff to local gifts and talents. In the previous paragraph, the Holy Father cited Saint Turibius of Mogrovejo and Saint Joseph of Anchieta. They each did holy and vigorous work. They were each born in Europe. Where were their students and successors among the populations of Latin America? Second century Christianity had already moved beyond its roots in Jewish Palestine. Ambrose of Milan had his Augustine. Albert the Great had Thomas Aquinas. The poverty of Roman inculturation has been a serious obstacle to the Gospel taking more firm root in the Third World.

In paragraphs 66 through 69 Pope Francis’ post-synodal exhortation treats “inculturation.” Let’s read:

66. As she perseveres in the preaching of the kerygma, the Church also needs to grow in the Amazon region. In doing so, she constantly reshapes her identity through listening and dialogue with the people, the realities and the history of the lands in which she finds herself. In this way, she is able to engage increasingly in a necessary process of inculturation that rejects nothing of the goodness that already exists in Amazonian cultures, but brings it to fulfilment in the light of the Gospel.*

The foot note here is long:

* As the Second Vatican Council states in No. 44 of the Constitution Gaudium et Spes: “The Church learned early in her history to express the Christian message in the concepts and languages of different peoples and tried to clarify it in the light of the wisdom of their philosophers: it was an attempt to adapt the Gospel to the understanding of all and the requirements of the learned, insofar as this could be done. Indeed, this kind of adaptation and preaching of the revealed word must ever be the law of all evangelization. In this way it is possible to create in every country the possibility of expressing the message of Christ in suitable terms and to foster vital contact and exchange between the Church and different cultures.”

Our discussion on Gaudium et Spes 44 is here. I think looking back to the sources, the ancient Church is less an exercise in some kind of recovery of a “truer” expression, and more learning from what was a most effective period in preaching, growing, and developing the faith. Portuguese Catholics came to Brazil five centuries ago, and were well-established a few generations later. What is the difference between Latin America in the 21sts century and Western Europe in the 6th? Would you say significant? I would.

We do not lose touch with the Christian tradition, certainly:

Nor does she scorn the richness of Christian wisdom handed down through the centuries, presuming to ignore the history in which God has worked in many ways. For the Church has a varied face, “not only in terms of space… but also of time”.[Letter to the Pilgrim People of God in Germany, 29 June 2019, 9: L’Osservatore Romano, 1-2 July 2019, p. 9.]

So we take good lessons from the evangelical fruit that brought Christ to a pagan empire  in just three centuries. And yes, we also look to the pillars of missionary activity: those who came to the New World, and those who were effective in Europe after the Reformation. I also think the various flavors of monasticism can form and inform our efforts. And not least, the mystical tradition of prayer and worship.

Here we see the authentic Tradition of the Church, which is not a static deposit or a museum piece, but the root of a constantly growing tree.[Cf. Saint Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium primum, cap. 23: PL 50, 668: “Ut annis scilicet consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate”.] This millennial Tradition bears witness to God’s work in the midst of his people and “is called to keep the flame alive rather than to guard its ashes”.[Letter to the Pilgrim People of God in Germany, 29 June 2019, 9. Cf. the words attributed to Gustav Mahler: “Tradition ist nicht die Anbetung der Asche, sondern die Weitergabe des Feuers”: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes but the passing on of the flame”.]

It’s a good quote, and an antidote to the unfortunate quotes concerning a smaller, purer church. Any thoughts?

This document is © Copyright – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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