Catholic News Service
In the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Mark, Jesus gives his disciples a final command before he ascends into heaven: They are to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world, making disciples as they go, and teaching a way of life. Scripture scholars call this the “great commission.”
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).
According to tradition, the disciples took this command seriously. The church in India traces its founding to Thomas. Philip and Bartholomew proclaimed the faith in Turkey. Paul and Andrew were the apostles to Greece. In each of these countries people came to believe in the Lord Jesus and were baptized. The faith was inculturated into each of these local churches, and each developed its unique way of following and worshipping Jesus Christ.
The process by which the faith takes root in a culture and brings forth fruit unique to that culture is called “inculturation,” a word created by the Catholic Church to describe this process of sharing faith across cultures. Inculturation describes the work of missionaries and evangelists who strive to bring the message of Christ to the wider world.
Inculturation was once a word used mostly by theologians and sociologists of religion, but has becoming increasingly important in parishes within the United States as they become more ethnically and culturally diverse. The religious practices of the many different communities are influencing the way that the faith is practiced locally.
This mingling of cultural and ethnic groups within one parish is a relatively recent phenomenon in the U.S. During previous great waves of immigration that shaped the nation, ethnic parishes were often established. It was not uncommon then for even small towns to have two or three Catholic churches to serve the various ethnic groups that lived in the area.
This happened because people are generally more comfortable in a setting in which they know the language and customs than they are when things seem foreign to them.
A similar discomfort is often felt by members of an established community. They have grown comfortable with their communities. Often, they’re happy to have them as they are, and do not want to see them change. When they feel that they are being pressured to change by newcomers — even if the pressure is nonverbal and very light — tensions may mount, resulting in erected barriers and harsh words.
In the year 2000, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops hosted “Encuentro 2000: Many Faces in God’s House.” This event was designed to celebrate the many gifts shared within the church by the various ethnic communities who now are members of our parish communities.
As part of Encuentro 2000, the bishops’ Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs — the originator of the event — created a process that brought all of the different communities in a parish to the table for conversation and fellowship. As people came to learn more about each other, tensions and misunderstandings were resolved, cooperation and collaboration between people were encouraged.
The USCCB’s Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church has recently created a training program to help parishioners become better aware of the great gifts that people from various cultures bring to the life of a faith community.
The training program, which can be found at www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/cultural-diversity/intercultural-competencies/index.cfm, focuses on helping people develop intercultural competencies.
The page begins with a quotation from the recent world Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization that explains the importance of being open to other cultures if we are to spread the Gospel effectively today. It says:
“A new evangelization is synonymous with mission, requiring the capacity to set out anew, go beyond boundaries and broaden horizons. The new evangelization is the opposite of self-sufficiency, a withdrawal into oneself, a status quo mentality and an idea that pastoral programs are simply to proceed as they did in the past. Today a ‘business as usual’ attitude can no longer be the case.
“Some local churches, already engaged in renewal, reconfirm the fact that now is the time for the church to call upon every Christian community to evaluate their pastoral practice on the basis of the missionary character of their program and activities.”
The training program is available online or can be purchased in printed form. The program can be studied by individuals, by small groups, by parishes or by dioceses. All that is needed is the willingness to be open to those from other cultures, to invite them into our communities and encourage them to make a home among us.
As Christians, we were commissioned by Christ to proclaim the Gospel to the world, and to inculturate it everywhere. We have an opportunity, now that the world has come to our country, to proclaim the Gospel to these new members, to be open to letting them proclaim the Gospel to us in new and exciting ways.
Mulhall served for 10 years as assistant secretary for catechesis and inculturation for the USCCB.