Today’s Catholics are called to be leaven in the new millennium. This is a tremendous challenge, as the richness of our Catholic faith isn’t reducible to mere soundbytes, and timeless Christian wisdom is often portrayed today as simply one voice among many or as the “spin” of the religious right.
This all points to the ongoing need for prudent inculturation, which is the process of adapting–without diluting or disfiguring–the Gospel for new cultures and generations. Rather than withdraw into a secure Catholic ghetto, we’re called by our Holy Father to be an evangelizing presence in the world, allowing God’s grace to transform a generation that at times seems to be lost in cyberspace.
The Catechism provides an outstanding exposition of the catholicity of the Church, which is one of her distinguishing marks, for we believe in “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.” The Church is “catholic,” or “universal,” both because she has already received from Christ the fullness of salvation (cf. Eph. 1:22-23), and because she has been entrusted with the mission of bringing the Gospel to the entire human race.
Regarding the Church’s missionary nature, the Catechism devotes an
important paragraph to inculturation (no. 854), worth quoting in full:
“By her very mission, the Church travels the same journey as all humanity and shares the same earthly lot with the world: she is to be a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God. Missionary endeavor requires patience. It begins with the proclamation of the Gospel to peoples and groups who do not yet believe in Christ, continues with the establishment of Christian communities that are a sign of God’s presence in the world, and leads to the foundation of local churches. It must involve a process of inculturation if the Gospel is to take flesh in each people’s culture. There will be times of defeat. With regard to individuals, groups, and peoples it is only by degrees that [the Church] touches and penetrates them, and so receives them into a fullness which is Catholic.”
The “new evangelization” requires profound respect for other peoples, cultures, and generations and absolute fidelity to the Person and teaching of Jesus Christ. It’s not an either-or proposition.
The Church calls us to build on the truths we already have in common with others while patiently fostering full communion in the Body of Christ. The glass is never only half full or half empty, it’s both. Dialoguing without ever summoning to conversion is cowardly and weak; summoning to conversion without first connecting with other people is foolhardy and harsh. We need grace and courage to hold these two realities together in our own particular network of relationships.
But, most of us aren’t missionaries in the strict sense. We don’t go anywhere except maybe to work or the grocery store or the mall. How do we live the catholicity of the Church?
First, we have to affirm with St. Paul that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for through Baptism all of us can become children of God and heirs of heaven. No group of people is excluded from this invitation. For us to look down on or at least refuse to engage others because of their race, culture, or nationality is an implicit denial of the catholicity of the Church.
Second, the Church is by her nature missionary. She has been sent to make disciples of all peoples. All Catholics are bound to support the missionary efforts of the Church. Certainly material support by way of contribution, clothing, medicine, and the like are all very important. But even more fundamentally, we should regularly pray and offer our daily sufferings for the spread of the Gospel. This spiritual foundation is the engine without which the Church’s missionary activity would be in vain.
Third, we must not be ashamed of the fact that all salvation comes from Christ. As Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said: “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12). And we further believe that Christ entrusted the fullness of the means of salvation to His Church, so that those who hear the apostles and their successors–the Pope and the bishops in union with him–hear Christ Himself.
This does not mean that those who are not Catholic or who are not even Christian can’t be saved, for nothing is impossible with God.
But if we really do believe what the Church teaches about salvation in and through Christ, doesn’t it make sense that we’re going to use every means at our disposal to let the whole world know about it? This is not to use truth as a club to beat people with or as a license to be obnoxious. But I think most of us probably err on the side of being too soft-spoken in our presentation of the Gospel to others.
In this year devoted to St. Paul, let us say with the Apostle to the Gentiles: Woe to us if we don’t proclaim the Gospel!