Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Inculturation: A two-way street

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

During last month’s Synod for the Amazon held in Rome, an incident occurred that outraged many people. Early one morning, two people removed from the Church of St. Mary in Traspontina statues that were used in the opening ceremonies of the synod — and threw them into the Tiber River.

The artwork from the Amazon region depicted a pregnant woman, a symbol of motherhood and the sacredness of life, that represents for indigenous peoples the bond humanity has with our “mother earth,” much as St. Francis of Assisi portrayed in his Canticle of the Creatures. As a further act of contempt, those responsible posted a video online showing them leaving the church with the statues and tossing them into the river. The public celebration of this act was done in the name of defending Catholic tradition and doctrine, as the perpetrators claimed the statues were pagan idols and had no place in a Catholic Church.

Let’s admit that the statutes originate from a religious culture that is pre-Christian or considered “pagan.” What is the church’s approach as it engages such cultures? From the early days of the church, Christians believed that the seeds of faith have been planted in the hearts of all human beings, even before the Word of God is proclaimed. As such, the early church welcomed people of every culture, realizing that both the cultures and the church are enhanced in coming to know God.

A 1994 document issued by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, “Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy,” speaks of the double movement of “inculturation.” On the one hand, the spiritual qualities and gifts proper to each people are brought to fruition in a way that “strengthens these qualities, perfects them and restores them in Christ” (Gaudium et Spes, 58). “On the other hand,” the text continues, “the church assimilates these values when they are compatible with the Gospel, ‘to deepen understanding of Christ’s message and give it more effective expression in the liturgy and in the many different aspects of the life of the community of believers’ (Gaudium et Spes, 58). This double movement in the work of inculturation thus expresses one of the component elements of the mystery of the incarnation.”

The newly canonized St. John Henry Newman reminded Christians in the 19th century to approach other cultures, even if they are non-Christian, with humility. In his 1878 “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” he noted that the church has always adopted pagan elements in its traditions and especially its liturgical rites:

“The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints, and ornamented on occasions with branches of trees, incense, lamps and candles; votive offerings on recovery from illness; holy water, asylums; holy days and seasons, use of calendars, processions, blessings on the fields, sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure, the ring in marriage, turning to the east, images at a later date, perhaps the ecclesiastical chant, and the Kyrie Eleison, are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the church.”

I was pleased that a Vatican spokesman cited this passage in response to the vandalism in Rome.

The starting point for coming to a proper understanding of inculturation in our tradition, then, is the humble recognition that, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets and in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe.” God has revealed himself in human living, in an incarnational way, and the fullness of the Incarnate God is the person of Jesus.

During my years serving as the bishop in western South Dakota, I learned a great deal from the Lakota people. For instance, they helped me to better understand Catholic teaching on the communion of saints. The Lakota have a rich tradition of honoring their ancestors. The curtain between time and eternity is much thinner for them, which has much to say to us Christians who live in a Western culture where the sense of the eternal or life beyond this world is losing meaning.

Our tradition and my own experiences have taught me that our approach to other cultures always must be done with humility, but also curiosity, always open to how God’s self-revelation can be better understood in the double movement inculturation implies. At the heart of our tradition of inculturation is the fundamental belief that God desires the salvation of all he has created. A recent passage we read in our liturgy from the Book of Wisdom testifies to this belief in praising God with these words: “You have mercy on all because you love all things that are.”


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