No matter our fears, inculturation is essential to evangelization.
There is a fear which has developed in our time and it stifles our efforts at evangelization. It is the fear of one’s culture – the culmination of human expression found at one point in time and place. But it isn’t just that we fear the culture out there; strangely, many of us fear the culture found within, in the life and person God has called each of us to be.
The people of our time are looking for people just like themselves to show them a way decidedly unlike the ways they have known.
This makes sense to some extent.
After all, although we do not subscribe to the culture of death within which many of us have grown up and been raised, we nevertheless speak the same language, eat the same food, and dress in surprisingly similar ways as those who do believe in and live out this culture. And so, in many ways we are one of them, and this frightens many good Catholics.
This is why, I suppose, many would prefer Catholicism to look like it did in 12th century Italy.
This is why, I suppose, many more keep talking about the good old days of the early Church, or the holy Roman Empire, or the years before the Second Vatican Council.
In each of these time periods, the scandal, the immorality, the confusion, and the challenges of my time are not present, and that sounds like something worth celebrating.
It’s another case of “the grass is greener on the other side.”
And yet, every time the great missionaries of the past have traversed land and sea to bring the Gospel to the nations, we observe a common pattern, a method almost lost on us today as we struggle to understand how to win back this age for Christ.
For when these missionaries went to the New World, to the far East, or to the Northern or Southern hemispheres, they learned to speak like those they encountered, they learned to dress like them, to eat like them, and to live as they lived. In other words, they adapted everything that was good and Godly about the people they came to evangelize, all in an effort to orient them back towards God.
That’s what inculturation is all about.
Inculturation is about preserving what is best about a culture while letting go of its destructive elements. Practically speaking, it means adding our Faith component to an otherwise “secular” way of life in order to show others how the two can co-exist in this time and place; that it is possible to live out our Faith in today’s culture; that our Faith and contemporary culture do not have to be mutually exclusive.
And that is what’s so strange about our current fear. For all the talk about evangelizing others, many Catholics intent on living better lives try to shed their culture, hoping that in some way this will bring the “lost” back to the Faith.
But that’s not how it works.
The people of our time are looking for people just like themselves to show them a way decidedly unlike the ways they have known. They need to see their customs, their language, and their traditions being lived out in a radically different way than what they have experienced. Our neighbours and colleagues need to be able to look upon each of us and say, ‘there I go, but with the grace of God!’
But if we’re just going to abandon our robes and accents for something we have read about in a history book, a seemingly perfect time to be a Catholic, then we will be waiting a long time for the conversion of those near and dear to us.