Redemptoris Missio 53: Immersion and Translation

We continue an extended discussion of “Incarnating the Gospel in Peoples’ Culture,” a topic for sections 52 through 54 of Redemptoris Missio. Pope John Paul II gives essential advice:

Missionaries, who come from other churches and countries, must immerse themselves in the cultural milieu of those to whom they are sent, moving beyond their own cultural limitations. Hence they must learn the language of the place in which they work, become familiar with the most important expressions of the local culture, and discover its values through direct experience. Only if they have this kind of awareness will they be able to bring to people the knowledge of the hidden mystery (cf. Rom 16:25-27; Eph 3:5) in a credible and fruitful way.

What is also needed here is a deeper trust from those in the First World. Skeptics on inculturation and its manifestations really must take a second seat to the witness of people who have actually spent years living and working in mission lands. The less research and listening a person, even a prelate, has done, the fewer fruits will result from any kind of directive that impacts the mission of the Gospel in faraway lands.

We don’t give away all of what has formed us:

It is not of course a matter of missionaries renouncing their own cultural identity, but of understanding, appreciating, fostering and evangelizing the culture of the environment in which they are working, and therefore of equipping themselves to communicate effectively with it, adopting a manner of living which is a sign of gospel witness and of solidarity with the people.

As with so many things, this requires careful discernment. Simple things come to mind in the realm of liturgy: the colors of mourning, the use of images, texts of songs, and the level of language needed for translations of rites and Scripture. This last note is mentioned in the second paragraph of this section. Let’s keep reading:

Developing ecclesial communities, inspired by the Gospel, will gradually be able to express their Christian experience in original ways and forms that are consonant with their own cultural traditions, provided that those traditions are in harmony with the objective requirements of the faith itself. To this end, especially in the more delicate areas of inculturation, particular churches of the same region should work in communion with each other (Cf. Ad Gentes 22) and with the whole Church, convinced that only through attention both to the universal Church and to the particular churches will they be capable of translating the treasure of faith into a legitimate variety of expressions.(Cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi 64) Groups which have been evangelized will thus provide the elements for a “translation” of the gospel message,(Ibid., 63: Particular Churches “have the task of assimilating the essence of the Gospel message and of transposing it, without the slightest betrayal of its essential truth, into the language that these people understand, then of proclaiming it in this language…. And the word ‘language’ should be understood here less in the semantic or literary sense than in the sense which one may call anthropological or cultural.”) keeping in mind the positive elements acquired down the centuries from Christianity’s contact with different cultures and not forgetting the dangers of alterations which have sometimes occurred.(Cf. Address at the General Audience of April 13, 1988)

My comments:

  • Addressing the “gradual,” we might ask, “How long?” Latin America first received the Gospel five centuries ago. Are we there yet? And if we are not, does that not condemn so much of the efforts linked with colonialism, evangelization, and other Western failures?
  • I believe the primary thought about “particular churches” mentioned here is on the diocesan level. But it doesn’t seem to exclude important exchanges between parishes, mission outposts, and important leadership below the circle of bishops.
  • Note the discussion on “translation.” First, we are not only talking about words to words, but expressions of culture. I would think of the arts and customs of people, but not exclude language. The long quote is from Pope Paul VI, and you can check the blog about it here from eight years ago. True and effective communication always involves three things: the speaker, the listener, and the message. The first two switch back and forth, of course. But if any of these three elements are missing, then nada.
  • And lastly, while the Holy Father is right to call out the “dangers of alteration,” he does miss the boat on the occasional inability of the institution to listen to newcomers and missionaries and to discount their witness. Sometimes that failure costs greatly. Discernment stretches across communities, and must include trust and a recognition of the desire for fruitfulness.

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


About catholicsensibility

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