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De-Europeanising the universal Church

Missionaries, migrants, international businesspeople, diplomats and refugees all find the experience of moving from one culture to another changes them.

They remain themselves, but find that they are themselves in ways they may have never imagined possible.

A Korean who lives in France does not become French, but learns new things about being Korean, previously unsuspected potentialities of Korean-ness. 

The process of entering that transformation is called inculturation.

That word was often used in Catholic circles after Vatican II, especially in terms of liturgy and mission, the twin activities that define the Church.

Catholics realised that like the Korean moving to France, the catholicity of the Church could and should be influenced and reshaped by encounters with cultures around the world.

Those encounters and that reshaping would help us deepen our understanding of what Christianity is, as we view it in new garb.

However, with the election of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, modern and universal inculturation became suspect. 

Especially under Pope Benedict’s re-Latinising of the liturgy, inculturation in a single place—southwestern Europe—and a single time—the late Classical period modified by the Medieval and Baroque, was to become once again the worldwide norm for Catholicism.

A ludicrous example occurred when a Japanese bishop tried to explain to a cardinal in Rome why the bishops from Japan want to maintain the post-Vatican II practice of bowing before the altar instead of kissing it.

The cardinal responded by saying that kissing is a sign of respect and surely the Japanese bishops genuflect and kiss the ring of the county’s emperor if they meet him.

The cardinal was skeptical when the bishop said that is not the practice, but in fact, photographs confirm that the emperor of Japan does not wear a ring.

Eventually, when the bishop managed to convince the cardinal that the kiss is a solely sexual gesture in Japan, permission was given to keep bowing instead, so long as it was not a Japanese bow!

The Liturgy Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan has spent several years trying to determine the difference between a Japanese bow and the non-Japanese variety!

A less amusing result of the abandonment of inculturation was pointed out in an article attributing the sudden decline in adult baptisms in the United States of America to the inability of the Latinate maltranslation of the liturgy to engage people.

In fact, inculturation, under the designation incarnation is the basis of Christian faith. God the Son inculturated himself as a human being in Galilee during the Second Temple period of Judaism under the Roman Empire.

He spoke a rural dialect of Aramaic. He wore the same clothing as his neighbours. He had a common name. He worked at a trade. He worshiped according to the traditions of the people among who he lived.

He also shared the graces and the limitations of their culture. In Jesus, God has shown what we must do as well. 

At the close of the Synod on Family Life, Pope Francis declared inculturation an essential element of Church life and mission, bringing it back to its central place in the proclamation of the faith. 

“And—apart from dogmatic questions clearly defined by Church Magisterium—we have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion.

“Cultures are in fact quite diverse and each general principle needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied.”

The pope clearly recognises that such inculturation may highlight differences, but also that those differences may indicate new possibilities for proclaiming what St. Augustine called the beauty ever ancient ever new.

As the pope puts it, “Inculturation does not weaken true values, but demonstrates their true strength and authenticity, since they adapt without changing; indeed they quietly and gradually transform the different cultures.”

Of course, inculturation is not a blind acceptance of all the elements of a culture. The gospel stands in judgment of all human creations.

But, through an encounter between the gospel and a given culture, the resulting tension can deepen our understanding of God’s will, while calling anti-gospel elements of the culture to conversion. 

This is different from acculturation, where the gospel is absorbed by a culture and is neutralised. Such, in fact, is what happened in Europe. How else, in spite of some 1,800 years of Christianity, could Nazism and Communism arise on that continent?

That in itself is sufficient argument for seeking new, non-European ways to show the world the gospel. 

We need to prayerfully, intelligently and sensitively inculturate our faith throughout the world so that all God’s people may recognise the joy of the gospel.

Pope Francis’ restoration of inculturation to its proper place as an important aspect of Church life may become one of the most significant legacies of his papacy (UCAN).

Father William Grimm MM


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