Mission World - May 2024

Inculturating the Gospel  

When we look at the various ways Christian missionaries throughout the world attempt to create bridges between the cultures of the people among whom they preach the Gospel and the ancient cultures that gave rise to the books of the Bible, we can speak broadly of three approaches.

First, there is the adaptation approach whereby the missionary plants the seed of the Word and allows it to germinate in its own way within the soil of a local culture. An inspirational account of how this is done is found in the book Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai (first published in 1978, SCM Press) written by the Jesuit priest Vincent Donovan.

Following the translation approach the missionary is one who learns from the people how to translate and communicate the message he or she wishes to teach them. Then, as the people hear and read the Scriptures in their own language, they may discover the freedom to interpret the texts for themselves. This approach was highlighted by the great scholar Lamin Sanneh. One of his earlier texts was Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Cultures (Orbis, 1989).

The inculturation approach is one which allows for the Gospel to radically penetrate a local culture in such a way that the message that is received will undergo gradual and significant change as it becomes an integral part of the local tradition. An earlier proponent of this approach was Aylward Shorter who wrote the book, Toward a Theology of Inculturation (1988, Geoffrey Chapman).

Generally speaking, Protestants would prefer to use the term contextual theology rather than inculturation. Others favour the translation approach.

Catholics are not united in their support for the ideas and practices of inculturation. Pope Benedict, for example, was suspicious of inculturation (see Stephen Bevans, “Pope Francis and Inculturation”, JURNAL LEDALERO, Vol. 18, No. 2, December 2019, pp. 205-206).

On the other hand, Pope Francis favoured this approach. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis wrote, “We would not do justice to the logic of the incarnation if we thought of Christianity as monocultural and monotonous…. in the evangelization of new cultures, or cultures which have not received the Christian message, it is not essential to impose a specific cultural form, no matter how beautiful or ancient it may be …” (n. 117).

Pope Francis went on to quote the Bishops of Oceania who asked that the Church “develop an understanding and a presentation of the truth of Christ working from the traditions and cultures of the region” and invited “all missionaries to work in harmony with indigenous Christians so as to ensure that the faith and the life of the Church be expressed in legitimate forms appropriate for each culture” (John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Oceania (November 22, 2001), n. 17).

Respect for and sensitivity to local cultures have been a hallmark of Columban mission. It is especially vital, in the present day and age, that we maintain this commitment to the inculturation of the Gospel for there are so many forces, such as television and computer technology, that are undermining the vitality and even the very survival of local cultures.

Columban Fr Tom Rouse lives and works in New Zealand.

Mission Intentions

May -  For the formation of men and women religious, and seminarians: Let us pray that men and women religious, and seminarians, grow in their own vocational journey through human, pastoral, spiritual and community formation, that leeds them to be credible witness of the Gospel.   

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