When I first began to contemplate a vocation to the priesthood as a child in grade school, I dreamed of being a missionary to Africa. At the time, there was a lot about Africa in popular culture. My favorite television show was “Daktari,” about a veterinarian working in a fictional animal study center in East Africa. I remember that I loved listening to the dialogue, because the actors sometimes spoke to each other in Kiswahili.
I never did make it to Africa. I was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. However, I did spend four years of my priesthood in our archdiocesan sister parish in the Dominican Republic, La Parroquia Sagrada Familia, or Holy Family Parish. It was a blessed time for me to be able to minister in a culture and a language different from my own.
Oct. 24 is World Mission Sunday. It offers a great opportunity for us Catholic Christians to contemplate our spirituality of mission. An integral element in mission spirituality and in the process of evangelization — the spreading of the Gospel — is the Church’s dialogue with culture. While we understand the Gospel to be independent of all cultures, evangelization necessarily means the incarnation of the Gospel within a particular cultural milieu.
Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi describes evangelization as bringing the Gospel to the people, transforming and renewing them through the influence of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Evangelization focuses on conversion through the proclamation of the Gospel message.
The purpose of evangelization is to transform human beings and their cultures. While the Gospel itself is independent in relationship to culture, it proclaims the Kingdom of God to persons immersed in particular cultures. For that reason, evangelization uses cultural elements in order to proclaim the Gospel message. Evangelii Nuntiandi states that the evangelization process is able to engage all cultures without becoming dependent upon any particular culture.
According to the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, authentic Christian witness includes engaging the culture of the people. As Christ sought to win the hearts of the people through dialogue, so, too, should the followers of Christ learn to dialogue in order to discover the gifts God has given those they seek to evangelize.
Evangelization is at the very heart of the Church’s activity. Witnessing to the Gospel relates to the notion of Christian charity. The boundaries of race, ethnicity, socio-economic condition or religion cannot limit charity, the inspired outpouring of love for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Evangelization is an act of extending God’s love gratuitously.
The Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity supports explaining Christian revelation in terms of the people’s own way of thinking and expressing themselves. Christian life can adapt to the mentality and character of each culture while still maintaining its transformative power. Those involved in the mission of preaching the Gospel among people of diverse cultures must learn how to accommodate themselves to the traditions and circumstances of the people among whom they live and to whom they preach.
In his encyclical letter Redemptoris Missio, Saint John Paul II states that the Church is missionary in its essence. The encyclical names three types of mission. The first is the mission ad gentes (“to the nations”), in which the Church engages people unfamiliar with Christ and the Gospel, or Christian people whose communities have not yet developed to the point of being able to make the faith their own and extend it to others. The second type of mission situation is the witness of the Church in communities that have established ecclesial structures and that carry out their pastoral activities with a consciousness of the universal mission of the Church. The third mission situation is that of the “new evangelization” or “re-evangelization” in places that were traditionally Christian but have grown apart from the Church.
According to Redemtoris Missio, it is not sufficient for the Gospel simply to be adapted externally to a culture. Rather, the Gospel must be inserted into culture, and cultural values must be transformed through integration into Gospel values. In this way, Christianity becomes culture.
We understand culture as a human creation that, as such, stands in need of perfection. Insertion of the Gospel into culture, or “inculturation,” is a way of transforming culture while simultaneously respecting and challenging it. The encyclical letter is clear that inculturation must be consistent with the Gospel and the teachings of the universal Church.
In his Post Synodal Exhortation, Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis states that Christianity, “does not have simply one cultural expression. What is needed is courageous openness to the novelty of the Spirit, who is always able to create something new with the inexhaustible riches of Jesus Christ.” (Querida Amazonia, 69)
In my time in mission work, I learned many things about my Christian faith. The people, in their material poverty, reflected the generosity of God in the way they shared the little that they had with one another. They demonstrated love of neighbor in the way they cared for one another and identified with one another in communal and family life. They proclaimed the joy of the Gospel in their energetic approach to worship and their willingness to share their faith with others. It was a blessing for me to be able to dialogue with them about Jesus and his great love for us.
World Mission Sunday is a reminder for us all to pray for and support all of those involved in the missionary activity of the Church. We pray for the blessings that we need in order to participate, each in our own way, in the spreading of the Good News of Jesus Christ.