Aparecida and Inculturation

By: Bob Mosher
September 6, 2011

Bob Mosher

New Insights from the Latin American Church

When Columban missionaries cross boundaries of culture and language that separate peoples, they help harvest the richness of a tremendous variety of ways of life and gather them into the unity of the community of Christian faith, the people of God. The new program and teaching of the Latin American Church, expressed in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, offers us some deep insights into bringing our faith and cultures into contact, and challenges all disciples of Our Lord to fortify their own missionary calling throughout the world.

The title page of the Aparecida Document announces that Catholics in the region are called to be “Disciples and Missionaries of Jesus Christ, so that our Peoples have Life in Him.” Pope Benedict XVI, in his inaugural address to the conference, warmly welcomed the theme. The disciple of Jesus, he declared, “feels driven to bring the Good News of salvation to his brothers and sisters. Discipleship and mission are like the two sides of a single coin: when the disciple is in love with Christ, he cannot stop proclaiming to the world that only in Him do we find salvation. (cf. Acts 4:12) In effect, the disciple knows that without Christ there is no light, no hope, no love, no future.”

Crossing Boundaries

Disciple and Missionary

The Church in Latin America took a fresh look at mission in this “Aparecida Document,” and proposed launching a permanent Continental Mission in the region. “We cannot let this hour of grace slip by,” the bishops announced. “We need a new Pentecost! We need to go out to meet individuals, families, communities, and peoples to communicate to them, and share the gift of encounter with Christ, who has filled our lives with ‘meaning,’ truth and love, joy and hope!” (Paragraph 548)

By identifying the values of truth and love, producing joy and hope especially for the poor and marginalized of the region, the bishops directed their attention towards the values, and also the disvalues, present in the many cultures in Latin America today, and the need for further and 4 August/September 2011 www.columban.org deeper influence of the values of the Gospel. They defined culture as “the particular way in which human beings and peoples cultivate their relationship to nature and with their fellow humans, with themselves, and with God, so as to attain a fully human existence.”

Culture and our Relationship to Nature

The bishops link the mission of the Church to the need for a healthy relationship to the planet when they wrote of the ecological implications of Christ’s message of salvation. In this way, understanding and appreciating the culture of a given people, especially of the indigenous societies in the Americas, opens the Church to recover ancient and venerable practices of respect for the cycles of replenishment in nature, and—a universal phenomenon—for the transcendent dimension of God’s Creation.

“With the native peoples of the Americas, we praise the Lord who created the universe as the realm of life and the shared existence of all His sons and daughters, and left it to us as sign of His goodness and His beauty,” the bishops wrote. “Creation is also the manifestation of God’s provident love; it has been entrusted to us so that we may care for it and transform it as a source of decent life for all.”

“Although a greater valorization of nature has become more widespread today,” the prelates continued, “we clearly see how many ways human beings threaten and are still destroying their habitat. ‘Our sister, mother earth’ is our common home and the place of God’s covenant with human beings and with all creation. To disregard the mutual relationships and balance that God Himself established among created realities is an offense against the Creator, an attack on biodiversity and ultimately against life. The missionary disciple to whom God has entrusted creation must contemplate it, care for it, and use it, while always respecting the order given it by the Creator.” (Paragraph 125)

The Church leaders in Aparecida did not shy away from confrontation with the destructive practices of our age. Besides denouncing the destruction of ecosystems within the countries of the Amazon basin, the pastors likewise looked toward the glaciers melting at the southern cone of the continent as a result of global warming.

“Today the natural wealth of Latin America and the Caribbean is being subjected to an irrational exploitation that is leaving ruin and even death in its wake, throughout our region,” the bishops declared in a prophetic voice. “A great deal of responsibility in this entire process must be attributed to the current economic model which prizes unfettered pursuit of riches over the life of individual persons and peoples and rational respect for nature.”

“The devastation of our forests and biodiversity through a selfish predatory attitude, involves the moral responsibility of those who promote it because they are jeopardizing the life of millions of people, and particularly the milieu of peasants and indigenous, who are pushed out toward hillside lands and into large cities where they live overcrowded in the encircling rings of poverty.”

In the same tone, the bishops took note of “the problems caused by the savage, uncontrolled industrialization of our cities and the countryside, which is polluting the environment with all kinds of organic and chemical wastes. A similar warning must be made about resource-extraction industries which, when they fail to control and offset their harmful effects on the surrounding environment, destroy forests and contaminate water, and turn the areas exploited into vast deserts.” (Paragraph 473)

Culture and Our Relationship to Others

The region of Latin America and the Caribbean is home to a wide variety of cultures. The Aparecida Document specifically holds up both ethnic and social groups as examples of distinct cultures, naming not only the Native American (indigenous), the African-American and the mestizo (mixed European and indigenous) cultures, but also examining the urban cultures of the region. They also identified the carriers of culture from one generation to the next, such as family, schools and the media of communication.

The Aparecida Document reminds all believers that our faith must reach deeply into the substrata— the most profound levels—of the manners of living and the collective values of a society in order for Gospel values to really have an effect.

The worldwide phenomenon of globalization has economic, political and cultural dimensions, with both positive and negative consequences for Latin America. Although the bishops quoted Pope Benedict XVI, in his address at the opening of the conference, regarding the “achievement of the human family” that globalization represents, allowing “access to new technologies, markets, and financing,” they also warn that, “…in its current form, globalization is incapable of interpreting and reacting in response to objective values that transcend the market and that constitute what is most important in human life: truth, justice, love, and most especially, the dignity and rights of all, even those not included in the market….” (Paragraph 61)

“…Hence, faced with this type of globalization,” the bishops continue, “we feel a strong call to promote a different globalization, one characterized by solidarity, justice, and respect for human rights, making Latin America and the Caribbean not only the continent of hope but the continent of love, as Benedict XVI proposed in the Inaugural Address of this Conference.” (Paragraph 64)

The process by which the Gospel becomes a normative experience for a culturally defined group of people is called inculturation. The 150 bishops present at Aparecida regarded this meeting of faith and culture in the continent as a two-way street, not only challenging and liberating societies with the message of Christ, but also finding fruitful benefits for the Church itself.

“…With the inculturation of the faith, the Church is enriched with new expressions and values, manifesting and celebrating ever better the mystery of Christ, and is enabled to unite faith more with life, thereby contributing to a full catholicity, one that is not simply geographical but cultural as well.”

Such inculturation will necessary eliminate, as it grows to unite a colorful variety of peoples, glaring social inequalities. “…There is certainly no other region that has so many factors of unity as Latin America, one of which is the fact that the Catholic tradition is the foundation on which it is built,” the bishops state. “However, it is a unity torn apart because it is permeated by deep dominations and contradictions, still incapable of bringing together into itself ‘all the races’ and overcoming the gap of tremendous inequality and marginalization. It is our great homeland, but it will be really ‘great’ only when it is so for everyone, with greater justice. Indeed, it is a painful contradiction that the continent with the largest number of Catholics is also the one with the greatest social inequity….” (Paragraph 528)

Culture and Our Relationship to God

Culture also represents the particular way in which members of a given group of people relate to God. Popular religiosity is a strong feature of local cultures on the continent, and the bishops highlight it as a good starting point for inculturation. In one beautiful passage, the Church leaders put an emphasis on pilgrimages as an especially fruitful tradition:

“…There the believer celebrates the joy of feeling surrounded by myriad brothers and sisters, journeying together toward God who awaits them. Christ himself becomes pilgrim, and walks arisen among the poor.”

“The decision to set out toward the shrine,” continue the pastors, “is already a confession of faith, walking is a true song of hope, and arrival is the encounter of love. The pilgrim’s gaze rests on an image that symbolizes God’s affection and closeness. Love pauses, contemplates mystery, and enjoys it in silence. It is also moved, pouring out the full load of its pain and its dreams. The confident prayer, flowing sincerely, is the best expression of a heart that has relinquished selfsufficiency, recognizing that alone it can do nothing. A living spiritual experience is compressed into a brief moment.” (Paragraph 259)

In the Manner of Jesus

“This Fifth Conference, recalling the command to go and make disciples (cf. Mt 28:20), wishes to awaken the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean toward a missionary impulse,” the shepherds of the Latin American and Caribbean flocks conclude. This is not a matter of waiting for one stage to end before bringing in a missionary stage, as if Latin America were ending its period of discipleship. The missionary dimension of the life of faith is present at all times and levels of Church growth and formation, and reflects the manner in which Jesus Himself trained his followers.

The bishops identify the implications for the Latin American church of this manner in their own recommendations for the formation of disciple missionaries in all their countries: beginning with an encounter with Jesus Christ that leads to conversion and friendship with Him, strengthened by the teachings and in the fraternal life of the Church, while sharing with others, especially the neediest, their joy.

“We cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings….We are witnesses and missionaries: in large cities and the countryside, in the mountains and jungles of our Americas, in all the areas of shared social life… assuming ad gentes (to the nations) our concern for the Church’s universal mission.” (Paragraph 548).