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Inculturate or perish

The Eucharistic Congress in Cebu in The Philippines was only the fourth to be held in Asia since the first one took place in 1881 in Lille, France.

That was a small event, only intended to involve locals. But as the years rolled by, congresses gathered momentum and in 1893 became truly international with the holding of the first one outside Europe in Jerusalem.

In 1910 it ventured to northern America, Montreal in Canada, and in 1928 reached the antipodes of the earth in Sydney, Australia.

Asia had to wait until 1937 to get its chance, when Manila in The Philippines became the host city. A quarter of a century wait ensued for the Asian Church until Mumbai in India got its turn and then a similar period elapsed until Seoul in South Korea received its opportunity in 1989.

As with all congresses, Cebu held something special, as it was in the centre of a struggle to recover from a major earthquake and one of the biggest typhoons ever to make landfall. The preparation for the congress was a quintessential element in the recovery process and an important factor in the healing of many scars.

But while there was great excitement in The Philippines, internationally the congress remained a fairly well kept secret. During the preparation period it barely bothered the pens of journalists from the Catholic media and, probably as a consequence, the secular media either.

After all, Philippine news is about disasters, corruption and human rights abuse. As a Catholic event in Asia it barely stirred interest and although Hong Kong did send a delegation, there were priests who celebrate Mass for its large Filipino population who were not aware it was happening.

All this was reflected in the small number of foreign guests, not even half the number that managed to get to India 52 years ago, well before the advent of generally affordable air travel.

Hopefully, it will not be an opportunity missed, as the hosts did turn on a marvellous show, with a series of events reflecting the deeply embedded faith in their culture and how God speaks through the customs and traditions of the people.

These were of a quality to spark the imagination of people from any background and demonstrated a highly important facet of Church life that most countries struggle with—inculturation.

Archbishop Piero Marini, who spent decades cobbling highly imaginative liturgies together for two popes in many parts of the world, highlighted the importance of this with the stark warning—inculturate or perish. “Liturgies that are not inculturated are lost,” he warned.

His message was backed up by the down-to-earth Bishop Robert Barron, from Los Angeles, who said the Church is only running on fumes today. Pointing out that Christians are called to immerse themselves in the drama of God’s story of salvation—not invent one to suit themselves—he said that the liturgy of the Eucharist plays a vital role—as it is the primary place where people can actively participate in the story.

Bishop Barron warns, “If the Church can’t find a way to tell that story in a theo-dramatic way, people will drift away to this easy self-invention philosophy. So it is a real challenge… We’ve got to be bold.” JiM