Redemptoris Missio 52ab: Incarnating the Gospel in Peoples’ Culture

In three long sections, John Paul II discusses “Incarnating the Gospel in Peoples’ Culture.” We’ve had a lengthy discussion here on liturgical inculturation in the past. The discussion widens a bit here. While many aspects of culture, especially art and social mores touch on worship, the view is a bit wider here.

As she carries out missionary activity among the nations, the Church encounters different cultures and becomes involved in the process of inculturation. The need for such involvement has marked the Church’s pilgrimage throughout her history, but today it is particularly urgent.

The urgency thirty years after this was written remains real. One aspect of colonialism has been the attempt to impose European culture on non-European people. This was exactly what the most effective evangelizers of any age did not do. Read the summary of that key event in Church history in Acts 15:

It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell. (v 28-29)

Much abuse, pain, and ineffectiveness could have been avoided if missionaries attended more carefully to the witness of Saint Paul rather than monarchs, conquistadors, and business opportunists.

The process of the Church’s insertion into peoples’ cultures is a lengthy one. It is not a matter of purely external adaptation, for inculturation “means the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures.” ( Extraordinary Assembly of 1985, Final Report, II, D, 4) The process is thus a profound and all-embracing one, which involves the Christian message and also the Church’s reflection and practice. But at the same time it is a difficult process, for it must in no way compromise the distinctiveness and integrity of the Christian faith.

In a single word here, discernment. The institution must look at its own practices, and be honest about what is essential to communicating the Gospel message, and what is human culture, regardless of how old, honored, or widespread it may be. Truly, if a Christian is obstinate about shedding a non-essential, how can we expect others to follow a different example?

As for other cultures, patience would seem to be another virtue for the missionary and institution to embrace. The modern world expects immediacy in most everything. Politics. Sports. Economics and business. Compliance with orders. For true faith to take root, a deeper commitment to discipleship, we must be prepared to simply walk with people, be with them. We examine our own lives–part of a living example of how to be a Christian. Then we have faith it will work.

This document is available online here and is © Copyright – Libreria Editrice Vaticana


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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