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DISCOURSE TO THE PLENARY ASSEMBLY 
OF THE PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR CULTURE

 

Your Eminences,
Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. It is with special joy that I welcome, for the first time, and officially, the Pontificial Council for Culture.

First of all, I would like to thank the members of the international Council whom I recently appointed and who responded so quickly to the invitation to meet in Rome in order to discuss the orientation and the future activities of the Pontifical Council for Culture. Your presence on this Council is an honour and a source of hope for the Church. Your acknowledged reputations in widely diverse areas of culture, of the sciences, of the humanities, of the media, in universities, and in sacred disciplines, allow one to anticipate fruitful work from this new Council that I decided to create, taking my inspiration from the directives of the Second Vatican Council.

2. The Second Vatican Council has given a new dynamism in the domain of culture, especially in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes. Today it is indeed an arduous task to understand the extreme variety of cultures, of customs, of traditions, and of civilizations. At first sight, the challenge can seem to be beyond us, but is not this very challenge proportionate to our faith and our hope? During the Second Vatican Council, the Church recognized that a dramatic gap had established itself between the Church and culture. The modern world is fascinated by its conquests, and its scientific and technological achievements. But, too often the modern world gives itself over to ideologies, to ethical criteria dictated by practicality, to behavior which is in contradiction to the Gospels, or which, at least, calmly discounts Christian values.

3. Therefore, it is in the name of the Christian faith that the Second Vatican Council committed the whole Church to listen to modern man in order to understand him and to invent a new kind of dialogue which would permit the originality of the Gospel message to be carried to the heart of contemporary mentalities. We must then rediscover the apostolic creativity and the prophetic power of the first disciples in order to face new cultures. Christ's word must appear in all of its freshness to the young generations whose attitudes are sometimes so difficult to understand for the traditionally-minded, but who are far from being closed to spiritual values.

4. Many times I have affirmed that the dialogue between the Church and the cultures of the world has assumed a vital importance for the future of the Church and of the world. If I may be allowed today to do so, I should like to return to this subject in order to emphasize two principal and complementary aspects which correspond to the two areas in which the Church is active: that of the evangelization of cultures and that of the defence of man and of his cultural advancement. Both of these tasks demand that new pathways of dialogue between the Church and the cultures of our period be forged.

This dialogue is absolutely indispensable for the Church, because otherwise evangelization will remain a dead letter. Saint Paul did not hesitate to say: "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!" At the end of the twentieth century, as in the Apostle's time, the Church must be all things to all people, embracing today's cultures sympathetically. There are still classes and mentalities, countries, and entire areas to be evangelized, which presupposes a long and courageous process of inculturation so that the Gospel can penetrate the soul of living cultures fulfilling their highest expectations and making them grow proportionately in Christian faith, hope and charity. The Church, through its missionaries, has already accomplished incomparable work on all continents, but this missionary work is never completed, because sometimes cultures have only been affected superficially, and in any case, as cultures continually change, they demand a renewed approach. Let us even add that this noble term of mission applies henceforth to old civilizations marked by Christianity, but which are now threatened with indifference, agnosticism, or even irreligion. In addition, new sectors of culture are appearing, with diverse objectives, methods, and languages. Intercultural dialogue is therefore a must for Christians in all countries.

5. In order to evangelize effectively, it is necessary to adopt resolutely an attitude of exchange and of comprehension in order to sympathize with the cultural identity of nationalities, of ethnic groups, and of varied sectors of modern society. Moreover, it is necessary to work for a greater closeness among cultures, so that the universal values of man will be accepted everywhere in a spirit of fraternity and solidarity. Consequently, evangelization presupposes the penetration of the specific identity of each culture and also favours exchanges among cultures, opening all of them to universal values and, I would even say, to the values of Catholicity.

It was in thinking of this heavy responsibility that I wanted to create the Pontifical Council for Culture, in order to give the whole Church, both its leaders and the faithful, a strong incentive to become aware of the duty that is incumbent upon all to listen carefully to modern man, not in order to approve all of his behaviour, but rather in order to discover first of all his latent hopes and aspirations. This is why I have invited bishops, those who work in the various services of the Holy See, international Catholic organizations, universities, and all men of faith and of culture to commit themselves with conviction to a dialogue among cultures, bringing to this dialogue the salvific word of the Gospel.

6. We must, in addition, remember that Christian have much to receive in this dynamic relationship between the Church and the contemporary world. The Ecumenical Council of Vatican II emphasized this point and it is appropriate to remember it. The Church has been greatly enriched by acquisitions from so many civilizations. The secular experience of so many nationalities, the progress of science, the hidden treasures of diverse cultures, through which the nature of man becomes more fully visible, and through which new paths toward the truth open up, all of that is an indisputable advantage for the Church as the Council recognized (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n. 44). And this enrichment continues. Indeed, think of the results of scientific research which have led to a better knowledge of the universe, to a deeper understanding of the mystery of man; think of the advantages that the new means of communication and contact among men have procured for society and for the Church; think of the capacity of producing innumerable economic and cultural goods, and especially of promoting the education of the masses, and of healing formerly incurable diseases. What admirable achievements! All of this is to man's credit. And all of this has greatly benefited the Church itself, in its life, its organization, its work, and its own labour. Thus, it is understandable the People of God, in solidarity with the world in which they live, would recognize the discoveries and accomplishments of our contemporaries and participate in them as much as is possible so that man himself may grow and develop to the full extent of his potentiality. This presupposes a great capacity to accept and to admire, but also a clear sense of discernment. And now, I would like to elaborate upon this last point.

7. In urging us to evangelize, our faith inspires us to love man himself. And, man, today, more than ever before, needs to be defended against the threats which weigh upon his development. The love we draw from the spring of the Gospel, in the wake of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word, brings us to proclaim that man merits honour and love for himself and must be respected in his dignity. Thus, brothers must learn again to speak to each other as brothers, to respect each other, to understand each other, so that man himself may survive and grow in dignity, liberty, and honour. To the extent that the modern world stifles dialogue among cultures, it heads towards conflicts which run the risk of being fatal for the future of human civilization. Beyond prejudices and cultural barriers, of racial, linguistic, religious, and ideological separation, human beings must recognize themselves as brothers and sisters, and accept each other in their diversity.

8. The lack of understanding among men makes them run a fatal risk. But man is also threatened in his biological being by the irreparable deterioration of the environment, by the risk of genetic manipulations, attacks against unborn life and by torture, which is currently still seriously widespread. Our love for man must give us the courage to denounce ideas which reduce the human being to a thing that one can manipulate, humiliate, or arbitrarily eliminate.

Man is also insidiously threatened in his moral being, because he his subject to hedonistic currents which exacerbate his instincts and fascinate him with illusions of consumption without discrimination. Public opinion is manipulated by the deceitful suggestions of powerful advertising, the one-dimensional values of which ought to make us critical and vigilant.

In addition, man is currently humiliated by economic systems that exploit entire collectivities. Furthermore, man is also the victim of certain political or ideological regimes that imprison the soul of the people. As Christians, we cannot keep silent and we must denounce this cultural oppression which prevents people and ethnic groups from being themselves in conformity with their profound vocation. It is through these cultural values that the individual or collective man lives a truly human life and one cannot tolerate that his reasons for living be destroyed. History will judge our period severely to the extent that it has stifled, corrupted, and brutally enslaved cultures in so many areas of the world.

9. It is in this sense that I was eager to proclaim to UNESCO, before the assembly of all nations, what I am permitting myself to repeat to you today: "It is essential to affirm man for himself, and not for any other motive or reason: uniquely for himself! Moreover, it is necessary to love man because he is man, it is necessary to demand love for man because of the particular dignity that he possesses. These affirmations concerning man belong to the very substance of Christ's message and of the mission of the Church, despite everything that critics have been able to declare on the matter, and everything that the diverse currents opposed to religion in general and to Christianity in particular may have done" (Address to UNESCO, June 2, 1980, n. 10). This message is fundamental for making possible the work of the Church in the contemporary world. This is why I wrote in the conclusion of the encyclical Redemptor hominis that "man is and is always becoming the "way" for the daily life of the Church" (n. 21). Yes, man is "the way of the Church", because without this respect for man and his dignity, how could one announce to him the words of life and of truth?

10. Thus, it is in remembering these two principles of orientation, evangelization of cultures and defence of man, that the Pontifical Council for Culture will pursue its own work. On one hand, it is required that the evangelizer familiarize himself with the sociocultural environments in which he must announce the word of God; more important, the Gospel is itself a leavening agent for culture to the extent that it reaches man in his manner of thinking, behaving, working, enjoying himself, that is, as it reaches him in his cultural specificity. On the other hand, our faith gives us confidence in man - in man created in the image of God and redeemed by Christ - in man whom we want to defend and to love for himself, conscious as we are that he is man only because of his culture, that is, because of his freedom to grow integrally and with all of his specific abilities. Your task is difficult but splendid. Together you must contribute, to blazing new paths for the Church's dialogue with the contemporary world. How can one speak to the heart and to the intelligence of modern man in order to announce to him the salvific word? How can one make our contemporaries more sensitive to the intrisic value of the human being, to the dignity of each individual, to the hidden wealth in each culture?

Your role is great, because you must help the Church to become a creator of culture in its relationship with the modern world. We would be unfaithful to our mission to evangelize the present generations, if we left Christians without an understanding of new cultures. We would also be unfaithful to the spirit of charity which must animate us, if we didn't see in what respects man is today threatened in his humanity, and if we did not proclaim, by our words and actions, the necessity of defending individual and collective man, of saving him from the oppressions and enslavements which humiliate him.

11. In your work you are invited to collaborate with all men of good will. You will discover that the spirit of good is mysteriously at work in so many of our contemporaries, even in some of those who do not claim affiliation with any religion, but who seek to accomplish honestly and with courage their human vocation. Think of so many fathers and mothers, so many teachers and students, of workers dedicated to their tasks, of so many men and women devoted to the cause of peace, the common good, international cooperation and justice. Think also of all of the researchers who devote themselves with moral constancy and rigour to their useful work for society, of all the eager artists and creators of beauty. Do not hesitate to enter into dialogue with all of these persons of good will, many of whom perhaps secretly hope for the testimony and support of the Church in order better to defend and promote the true progress of man.

12. I warmly thank you for having come to work with us. In the name of the Church, the Pope is counting a great deal upon you; because as I said in the letter by which I created it, your Council "will bring regularly to the Holy See the echo of the great cultural aspirations throughout the world, delving into the expectations of contemporary civilizations and exploring new paths of cultural dialogue". Your Council will have above all else the value of witnessing. You must show Christians and the world the deep interest that the Church has in the progress of culture and in a fruitful dialogue among cultures, as in their beneficial encounter with the Gospel. Your role cannot be defined once and for all and a priori: experience will teach you the most efficacious means of action and those best adapted to the circumstances. Keep in regular contact with the Executive Committee of the Council - whom I congratulate and encourage - participate in their actions and in their research, propose your initiatives to them, and inform them of your experiences. What is evidently requested of the Council for Culture, is to implement its activity by means of dialogue, inspiration, testimony, and research. There is in those activities a particularly fruitful manner for the Church to be present in the world and to reveal to it the always new message of Christ the Redeemer.

With the approach of the Jubilee of the Redemption, I pray Christ to inspire you, to help you, so that your work will serve his plan, his Work of Salvation. And, with all my heart, I thank you in advance for your cooperation, I bless you, in the name of the Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit.

18 January 1983

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