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Keynote Address, Bangkok, Thailand, 1 February, 1999.

Cardinal Paul POUPARD


During the Special Synod of Bishops of Asia held at the Vatican in April-May last year, in which I had the privilege and the joy to participate, so much was said and heard on this fundamental theme. Almost like a leit-motif, intervention after intervention on the Synod floor, emphasised the need in Asia to inculturate the faith and evangelise culture.

Christian Humanism

God loves all people and wills all to be saved. No one is excluded from His loving embrace. His love is a gift that can neither be earned nor merited, but can only be received. His love flows from His goodness and goodness is diffusive of itself. God's goodness is seen in creation, for having fashioned the vast universe He saw that it was good. But the centrepiece of His creative goodness is the human being. All things were made for man, but man alone was made for God. God fashioned man and woman in His own image and likeness and entrusted the work of His hands to them. They were to fill the earth and bring it under subjection. Even after they disobeyed Him by sin and hid themselves from His goodness and love, God did not abandon them. He takes the initiative and seeks them out. "Where are you?" It is not a question of condemnation but of concern. It is not a reproach but a reminder of the fact that as far as He is concerned, nothing had changed, that He still loved them with a love that is first and last. "Where are you?" That is the question God still asks man and woman today. We might hide from God, but He never tires of pursuing us. We might try to put Him off the track, but God perseveres with and pursues us until He catches up with us. We might stop conversing with Him and slam the door on Him. But God keeps on knocking until we open and is always the first to begin the dialogue again. By sin, man and woman had apparently foiled and frustrated God's plan. But Love endures all and is neither frustrated nor foiled. Thus even their sinful fall becomes a "Felix Culpa", a "Happy Fault", of which Mother Church sings with joyful exultation in her Paschal Liturgy.

The uniqueness of Christianity lies in the fact that it is not man and woman who seek God, but God Who seeks them until He finds them! In His infinite love and wisdom God recreates what had been ruined, restores what had been lost, renews what had been broken and in the fullness of time sends His only Son, Jesus Christ, to be our Saviour. God no longer saves from without. No, He enters the human community, takes upon our weakness, becomes like us in all things but sin and saves us from within. As one medieval mystic expressed it: "God took on a back to feel the scourges of our pain." If we wish to know Who God is, we need only to know Jesus Christ, Who is "the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation" (Colossians 1:15).

Indeed, Jesus Christ reveals not only Who God is. He also reveals who we are. Christ is the measure and meaning of every human being for "Christ fully reveals to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear" (Gaudium et Spes 22). God not only loves all people but earnestly desires that all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). He invites all men and women "to become true images of his Son" (Tertium Millennium Adveniente 7). This is our sublime calling, to become sons and daughters in the Son, to share in His divine life and be co-heirs with Him. This indeed is the grace that God offers each of us as He pours into our hearts the Spirit of His Son that makes us cry out "Abba! Father!" (Romans 8:15). This is also the assurance that Jesus gives us when He says: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). The sharing in this life, mediated through Christ, so as to become His true images is at the very heart of Christian Humanism.

Just as we cannot conceive of a circle without a centre, we cannot think of Christian Humanism without Christ. He is the "new man". By assuming human nature, He has in a certain way united Himself with each one of us. He humbled Himself to share in our humanity so as to make us partakers of His divinity. When the Church therefore preaches and proclaims God's salvation to man, far from diminishing his dignity, She strives to enhance and enrich it. The Church, "an expert in humanity", has always championed the cause of human dignity bringing hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness, joy where there is sadness, freedom where there is slavery and life where there is death. She makes her own like her Founder the joys and sorrows of the people of her time. That is why the Gospel is Good News. That is why too Jesus willed that the Gospel be preached and proclaimed to the ends of the earth. It is this Good News that we are called upon to preach by the testimony of our lives. Our world today is rightly tired of teachers. If it listens to teachers, it does so, because they are also witnesses. Mere words are soon forgotten; but example always remains an inspiration.

The Church in Asia, despite being "a little flock" in most of the countries of this vast continent, has made great strides in the field of education, health care and social upliftment. History shows how wherever the Church has been planted, She has made herself effectively present in these important fields, through her vast and efficient network of schools, colleges and universities; through her well maintained clinics, medical centres and hospitals; through her lovingly cared for orphanages, homes for the aged, the dying and the destitute; through her courageous defence of human rights and constant fight against injustice. For all these works She has at times paid the price even to the point of shedding blood. "But the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christianity." But together with and alongside the glow of all these apostolic works, She must also carry the "burning bush" of prayer and contemplation for only when we have first been disciples sitting at the Master's feet listening to His life giving word and studying Him first hand, can we be then sent out by the Lord to be apostles. The Church in Asia at times seems to come across perhaps as too much a Teacher and too little a disciple. Does She need to be burned in the fire of contemplation and yet not be consumed? Will She only then become that devouring fire that Jesus Himself came to cast on the earth (Luke 12:49)?

2. Illuminating with the Light of the Gospel

To bring the faith to culture and to inculturate the faith are the major challenges for the Church in Asia on the threshold of the third millennium. The pastoral approach to culture finds support in the great cultural traditions of Asia in order to bring them the Good News of Jesus Christ. As we launch forth on this venture we need with Mary our Blessed Mother to meditate in prayer this "inculturated rosary", if I may coin this phrase, as we contemplate the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries through which culture must pass. These are mysteries of grace that are celebrated even more deeply in the Liturgy - the mystery of the birth, the death-resurrection of Jesus and that of the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. When the Church therefore inculturates the faith and evangelises cultures, She follows the pattern of these three mysteries: She assumes, purifies, and elevates cultures. I wish to explain briefly these three phases.

The Gospel assumes cultures just as in the mystery of the Incarnation, that of Christmas, Jesus assumed everything human but sin. The Word of God was not conceived in a void or in a vacuum but in the womb of Mary. There It took flesh and became man. Jesus was born at a particular time, in a particular place. He spoke a particular language with a particular accent. He dressed in a particular manner and was brought up in the customs and traditions of a particular culture. The Incarnation, the mystery of the Word made flesh, is therefore also a cultural event. Faith too is never conceived in a void. It must take flesh in culture.

The Gospel too must make itself incarnate, enter into a given culture and assume that culture. The Gospel must touch the heart of man, for then it touches the heart of cultures, and meets at the same time the great millennial religions. Man is always at the heart of cultures, the kernel of which bears a religious dimension.

But the Gospel must not only assume culture but also purify and redeem it. The mystery of the Incarnation is necessarily followed by that of the redemption. There must be a painful death, a dying to sin and evil in culture, if there is to be a glorious resurrection. This is the mystery of Easter. "Since culture is a human creation and is therefore marked by sin, it too needs to be 'healed, ennobled and perfected'" (Redemptoris Missio 54). There is always the "risk of passing from a form of alienation of culture to an overestimation of culture" (ibid.). We need to steer clear of both extremes. The first extreme would be to alienate ourselves from culture, but that would bring us no benefit for the world cannot be saved from outside. There is no salvation without the Incarnation. Just as the Word was made flesh, and assumed humanity, the Gospel must enter culture and assume it. The second extreme would be to so identify with culture as to lose one's identity. This too would be of no avail. The Word became flesh but did not cease to be divine. This indeed is the challenge for the Church in Asia today, to enter into the rich mosaic of Asian cultures, to identify with these cultures without losing her own identity, to assume these cultures and to redeem and purify them from what has been touched and tainted by sin and evil.

The Gospel must not only assume and redeem culture but also elevate it. That is the third phase of the Church's evangelising mission. The Word became flesh, redeemed humankind, but also lifted it up and made it share in Its divinity. This demands reliving the mystery of Pentecost when the Spirit came down with power and might enabling diverse peoples from diverse cultures to hear each in his own language the mighty works of God. Pentecost is the reverse of Babel. In the episode of Babel one people with one language and culture got confused, as communication broke down and the project of building the tower had to be abandoned. In the Pentecost event, a diversity of people with a diversity of cultures got united and were able to understand and communicate with each other. The Church in Asia needs to work towards and look forward to a new Pentecost so that the diversity of peoples can bring to the Universal Church the riches and treasures of their own culture, forms of worship, poetry, music and art, literature and philosophy, theology and mysticism bearing in mind always the two guiding principles that Pope John Paul II has clearly stated, namely, "compatibility with the Gospel and communion with the universal Church" (Redemptoris Missio 54). Perhaps, one of the reasons why Christianity at times is still looked upon as a foreign religion in Asia is because inculturation has been attempted not at the roots but only at the branches. The roots, I wish to underline, are not abstract or abstruse concepts, drab and dreary ideas that have no bearing on reality and day to day life. No, the roots touch the very core of life for they are real and form part of the mystery of God, Who in a profound act of love, assumed our humanity, Who was born, died, rose again, and after His ascent to the Father, sent upon the Church His Spirit at Pentecost.

3. The Mosaic of Asian Cultures: richness and variety

Asia with its diversity of cultures and creeds, some of which are more ancient than Christianity, presents itself as a cultural mosaic. In any mosaic, every piece, howsoever small, is important to complete the whole picture. If one piece is missing we have an ugly gap. In Asia the mosaic is already there; what we need to do is to illumine it with the Light of the Gospel, so that its beauty shines forth with greater splendour. Let me make use of a parallel. A couple of years back Michelangelo's Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel was restored. This masterpiece, which has been viewed and admired by millions of pilgrims, tourists and art lovers now stands out in all its radiant beauty. The restoration work that took years did not add to the genius of Michelangelo. It only took away what prevented and obstructed his genius from being seen more clearly. It got rid of the soot and dirt that dulled the painting and robbed it of its inner glow.

I like to compare the exposure of diverse cultures to the Gospel as a kind of "restoration". In his latest Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II dealing with the encounter between the Gospel and cultures clearly states that "the proclamation of the Gospel in different cultures allows people to preserve their own cultural identity. This is no way creates division, because the community of the baptised is marked by a universality which can embrace every culture and help foster whatever is implicit in them to the point where it will be fully explicit in the light of truth" (No. 71). He further adds that "the Gospel is not opposed to any culture, as if in engaging a culture the Gospel would force it to adopt forms which are alien to it. On the contrary, the message which believers bring to the world of cultures is a genuine liberation from all the disorders caused by sin and is, at the same time, a call to the fullness of truth" (ibid.). The encounter of the Gospel with cultures far from diminishing them only further develops them as they open up and blossom more fully.

I wish to conclude with the appeal that the Holy Father makes in the same Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio to India in particular, and to the great cultures of China and Japan, and the other countries of Asia as well, inviting and encouraging them to explore the riches of their respective cultural heritage to discover therein the elements that are compatible with the faith. "It is the duty of Christians now to draw from this rich heritage the elements with their faith in order to enrich Christian thought" (No. 72). Let this be our focus and our goal as we begin this Convention. Thus will Asia be able to reveal anew the face of Christ, thus will Asia make Christ feel at home, for it is in Asia that He was born, for it is to Asia that He gifted the Church and it was from Asia that He sent His first disciples to preach the Good News to the very ends of the earth! May these days together fill us with greater zest and zeal as we approach the Third Millennium to be joyful messengers of the Gospel illuminating with its Light the Mosaic of Asian Cultures and knowing that He is with us always as He promised to be "to the end of time" (Matthew 28:20).

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Promouvoir le dialogue entre la foi chrétienne et les cultures, et inculturer la foi, tels sont les défis actuels majeurs de l’Église qui est en Asie, souligne le Cardinal Paul Poupard dans son intervention (p. 100-105). Dans le double mouvement d’évangélisation et d’inculturation, l’Église " assume, purifié et élève les cultures ". Telle est la tâche qui attend l’Église en Asie : " entrer dans la riche mosaïque des cultures asiatiques, y identifier - avec ces cultures - ce qu’elles comportent de bon sans leur faire perdre leur identité, enfin les assumer, les racheter et les purifier de tout ce qui est entaché de péché.

Promover el diálogo entre la fe cristiana y las culturas, así como inculturar la fe son los mayores desafíos para la Iglesia en Asia en el umbral del tercer milenio, subraya el Cardenal Paul Poupard en su artículo (p. 100-105). En su compromiso con la inculturación, la Iglesia "asume, purifica y eleva las culturas". Esta es también la tarea en el caso de Asia: "entrar en el rico mosaico de las culturas asiáticas, identificarse con ellas sin perder su propia identidad, asumir las culturas, redimirlas y purificarlas en lo que tienen de tocado y manchado por el pecado y el mal"

Pour une pastorale de la culture

Document du Conseil Pontifical de la Culture, publié en Français, Anglais, Espagnol, Italien, Portugais et Allemand ; 86 pages.

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Towards a pastoral approach to culture

Document of the Pontifical Council for Culture published in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and German; 86 pages.

Price: 10.000 ITL / 6 USD / 34 FFR / 11 DEM / 6 EUR + postage costs

Orders to: Pontifical Council for Culture, 00120 Vatican City

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Para una pastoral de la cultura

Documento del Consejo Pontificio de la Cultura en Español, Francés, Inglés, Italiano, Portugués y Alemán; 86 páginas.

Precio: 10.000 ITL / 6 USD / 34 FFR / 11 DEM / 6 EUR + gastos de envío

Pedidos: Consejo Pontificio de la Cultura, 00120 Ciudad del Vaticano