THE CHARISM OF CONSOLATION AND THE CHALLENGES OF TODAY’S CULTURE
The subject of culture or “cultures” is certainly relevant to any discussion of missionary activity. But questions about what this involves and how we should approach or engage in this discussion from the perspective of our charism, consolation, are not easy to resolve. The problem arises from the complexity of this subject (culture), its geographical location and our point of view.
Our point of view will define the importance of culture; do we see it as a key to the heart and life of a people we hope to evangelize.
Anyone who has lived even briefly in Europe during the last twenty or thirty years will be aware of the enormous cultural confusion that exists; the continent has undergone astonishing upheavals. The great political, ideological and religious world-views have disappeared and all that remains is a weak and fragmented philosophy, a formless, amorphous culture that takes its form from the situations it experiences. This “liquid” culture is capable of “liquefying” (relativizing) anything solid it encounters: examples to be imitated or reproduced, categorical (including moral) principles… Even religious conviction is relegated to the realm of the private and has little impact on society. Nowadays the subjective is the measure of all things; one is like a supermarket customer free to choose or reject an item depending on how it makes him feel – and this includes religion.
These phenomena are certainly changeable but their effect reaches beyond the boundaries of Europe and influences cultures on all continents – cultures that may be less embattled or more fragile. Missionaries in Africa, Asia or Latin America should harbor no illusions: these problems do not concern only “old, decadent Europe.”
The same phenomena affect religious life and our Institute. We must learn to calculate their impact on how we understand and practice the essential aspects of consecration, spirituality, poverty, community life and the apostolic spirit.
Undoubtedly the validity of a missionary method or model depends on its ability to mediate the Gospel in a given culture. Missionary action is effective when it can establish a link between the Gospel and the heart and center of a culture.
There is an example of the ideal relationship between missions and culture that predates the Christian missionary enterprise began – it almost predates the foundation of the Church. In the Letter to the Philippians (2,5-8) we read: “Make your own the mind of Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are; and being in every way like a human being, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.”
The Incarnation: God becomes man and lives in the midst of men; the historical Jesus is the example from which we take inspiration. Jesus shows us that God is “near and participates” in human affairs – Jesus makes human affairs worthy of God’s presence.
Jesus’ is obedient to the Father, his Word reveals the Father and his actions demonstrate how God works in the midst of men. This is a source of inspiration for any missionary work that hopes to establish a “saving” presence in a specific human context.
Basically the missionary enterprise is an attempt to open human space to the presence of God. This attempt may not force the issue but at the same time it is a fearless, direct and explicit proclamation.
The basic, fundamental attitude is one of closeness and identification with the world in which we live. This attitude moves both “intellect and feeling.” We cannot be a bearers of consolation unless we love the human milieu in which we work. This “love” reflects the great love God has for the portion of mankind we serve.
St. Paul the Apostle is the model of all missionaries; he writes: “I made myself weak with the weak to win the weak over. I became all things to all people without regard to cost to win over some. I do everything for the sake of the Gospel – to share it with them.” (1 Cor 9,22-23).
Authenticity of life and explicit proclamation. Certainly Europe – but other continents as well – is witnessing religious and cultural upheavals in its search for an authentic lifestyle, for men of integrity whose lives reflect their message.
Men seek a clear message that is not excessively convoluted and conditioned; a message that speaks about every-day life and its “usefulness.” The explicit proclamation of the Word is central to missionary and pastoral work if it responds to the needs and expectations of contemporary man.
Religious and community life is a primary instrument of evangelization. It is meaningful if it speaks to and shares the human situation – if it is close to the people. Some communities have perfectly balanced schedules and commitments but the outside world in which they live finds them impenetrable.
Careful attention to global subjects: peace, justice, globalization, economics, politics, ecology. Is there an “evangelical-missionary” way of engaging in global discussions and movements? Can the missionary movement with its rich experience make a contribution to the debate about a livable future for everyone. Can the missionary movement overcome its fragmentation: Africans are only interested in African problems; Europeans with European problems and so forth…?
A visceral love for local culture. Local culture is the terrain in which the Gospel must be planted if the people are to accept it. To succeed in this endeavor one must love, study and understand a culture and its wellsprings. The life of the missionary and the life of the community in which he works must merge. This must happen if there is to be a fruitful implantation of the Gospel. For a clear vision of the future an appreciation of local culture and history must be accompanied by close attention to changes taking place now.
In the local church. There is a process of enculturation that must be engaged by and in the Church: “… for the Church it is not just a question of preaching the Gospel in ever more extensive geographical areas or to ever more people but of attacking and overcoming criteria of judgment, guiding values, points of interest, ways of thinking, the wellsprings and role models of human life that are contrary to God’s Word and His Plan of Salvation. In a word: evangelization must be radical and profound and not superficial - applying a coat of paint. Evangelization must reach the roots of man’s “culture” as this word is defined in the Apostolic Constitution ‘Gaudium et Spes’. Culture starts with the individual and returns to his relationship with others and with God” (EN 19-20).
To be “bearers of consolation” in a rapidly changing and dramatic world involves recognition of the positive and hopeful elements that certainly exist in our time. To cite only a few: a nostalgia for the good and the beautiful; a search for religiosity that speaks to both the head and the heart; a desire for an open and welcoming community; a broad sense of sharing in and assuming responsibility for a more just and livable world. We must look positively at human affairs. The missionary presence is most needed where human affairs are complicated and dramatic because it can “convert and transform” individuals and environments.
- What marks can we give our Region for its attention to the culture of the people among whom we work?
- Is our missionary activity close to and engaged in the daily life of our people?
- Are there any systematic or interesting efforts to understand culture and create an “acculturated” evangelization?
- What kind of training do we give new missionaries arriving in our region? Is it sufficient?
- What contribution does IMC make to the process of enculturation in the local Church?
Father Ernesto Viscardi