Author: St. Louis de Montfort




I. Inculturation: "The Law of All Evangelization" (GS 44). II. The History of Catechesis as the History of Global Inculturation: 1. The cultural dialogue in the patristic era and the Middle Ages; 2. The sixteenth-century evangelization of the American Indian; 3. Inculturation in the Far East. III. Inculturation and the Missionary Work of Montfort: 1. Christological criterion; 2. Ecclesialogical criterion; 3. Anthropological criterion. IV. Conclusion.

I. Inculturation: "The Law of All Evangelization" (GS 44)

For the Second Vatican Council, the history of evangelization has been and continues to be a process of cultural adaptation, of "communion with various cultural modes," "a living exchange . . . between the Church and the diverse cultures of people" (GS 58, 44). The council noted that the Church profits from the treasures buried within the diversity of human culture and that "from the beginning of her history, [the Church] has learned to express the message of Christ with the help of the ideas and terminology of various peoples, and has tried to clarify it with the wisdom of philosophers, too. Her purpose has been to adapt the gospel to the grasp of all as well as to the needs of the learned, insofar as such was appropriate. Indeed, this accommodated preaching of the revealed Word ought to remain the law of all evangelization [‘lex omnis evangelizationis’]. For thus each nation develops the ability to express Christ’s message in its own way. At the same time, a living exchange is fostered between the Church and the diverse cultures of people" (GS 44).1 John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris missio (December 7, 1990) emphasizes the necessity of inculturation of the faith as a serious and urgent ecclesial duty, especially today.2


We intentionally speak of the history of catechesis rather than the history of theology as such because we take the word "catechesis" to include the multi-faceted evangelizing activity of the Church.

1. The cultural dialogue in the patristic era and the Middle Ages

Like the complex prepaschal catechesis of Jesus (which was not simply the spoken word but also included action, attitude, gesture, silence, witness, suffering: "the total experience"), the postpaschal catechesis about Jesus by the Apostles and the Christian community was highly articulated. It included preaching but also liturgical/sacramental and Eucharistic experience, expressed in everyday life. Communication of the faith was thus made complete through kerygma (the Word), leitourgia (the Sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist), diakonia (service), koinonia-ekklesia (ecclesial communion), martyria (giving witness even through martyrdom).3

In the patristic era, for example, there was a very lively cultural dialogue with Stoicism and contemporary philosophical middle-Platonism. Non-Christian religions, which were rapidly multiplying in the Roman Empire at that time, also participated.4

Following the Greco-Roman example, even the grandiose conversions of the Germanic and Slavic peoples were modest attempts to inculturate the faith (with the adoption of practices, customs, language, legal behavior, religious expressions). Thus, the learned medieval summae can be considered not just innovative in methodology, but attempts to promote dialogue between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (cf., for example, the Summa contra Gentiles of St. Thomas Aquinas). The great schisms themselves, in the East (1054) and in the West (in the sixteenth century) can be viewed as the affirmations of different "cultural" conceptions and traditions of Christian experience by particular communities, eastern or western.

2. The sixteenth-century evangelization of the American Indian

More than anything else, missionary activity has been a proven source of evangelical inculturation. The evangelization of the American Indian in the sixteenth century, for example, represents an exemplary parable of the process of inculturating the Gospel. The missionaries rejected the models of Germanic and Slavic evangelization and hoped to imitate the style of true Apostles: to refrain from using weapons, to respect the laws of the peoples, to defend the rights of the native inhabitants, to study and adapt to their psychology, to become familiar with their religious beliefs.5

However, the Spanish colonizers were violent and dishonest: a painful thorn of counter-witness. Nonetheless, the fact remains that evangelization triumphed over immense problems.

3. Inculturation in the Far East

Another significant example of inculturation of the faith in this period was the work of missionaries in the Far East, such as the Jesuits Robert de Nobili in India, Francis Xavier and Alessandro Valignano in Japan, and Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci in China. Matteo Ricci made himself into "a Chinese man among the Chinese."6 He became fluent in the language and gave himself the Chinese name Li Madou. He assumed the clothing of a Confucian man of letters; he wrote books in Chinese and lived in Peking from 1601 until his death in 1610. His interpretation of certain Confucian rites was impressive, albeit completely misunderstood (for example, in Benedict XIV’s apostolic constitution Ex quo singulari in 1742). These rites were, in his view, not so much expressions of religion, as of filial respect and piety between those who govern and their subjects, between father and son or husband and wife, between elder and younger brother, among friends, between the living and the dead.

III. Inculturation and the Missionary Work of Montfort

Basing ourselves on certain criteria of inculturation, we will endeavor to evaluate Montfort’s personality and achievement in the context of the ecclesiastical culture of his time.7

1. Christological criterion

This is the first criterion of inculturation. Preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a radical cure for human "nature" (fallen because of sin) and human culture by means of grace is an inculturation: "The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (Jn 1:17). The inculturation process is actually a genuine incarnation of Christ and of his Gospel within a particular culture: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us" (Jn 1:14). Following the example of Christ, who judged and condemned the negative values of his time, the Gospel, too, continually evaluates the limitations and errors of the culture in which it exists. The reception given to the Gospel, the recognition of a culture’s riches, and, at the same time, the purification or refusal of negative values enable a culture to rise and grow in a Christian way. The incarnation of the Gospel in a culture signifies the "conversion" of that culture to the Gospel and also the profound purification of that culture.

This was the existential experience of Montfort, who incarnated in his life and in his preaching the folly of the Cross (cf. 1 Cor 1:23). Con- fronted with the French culture of his time, licentious, irreligious, and profoundly ignorant of the poor in particular, Montfort became the herald of the Gospel by imitating Christ in his life and by preaching Christ’s word in his parish missions. His vocation was to be a missionary of Jesus Christ, by example and preaching, by establishing religious communities of men and women.

His missionary work was especially addressed to the poor, the suffering, the humble, the marginalized, the sick. Montfort lived in poverty among the poor. He understood their language and their culture, so much so that they called him "he who so loves the poor."8 According to R. Mandrou, a specialist in popular culture, "Grignion de Montfort is undoubtedly one of the rare clerics of the early eighteenth-century French Church who grasped the necessity of revitalizing Gospel instruction for the sake of the poor, who constituted the majority of the French people."9

In this way, he made a clear, motivated choice, preferring to devote himself not to the high theological culture of his time (academic, sterile, and often indifferent to the dramas of history), but to preaching and serving the people. Even in this choice, he preferred to model himself not after the models of the great orators of his day but on the popular preachers who evangelized the sordid peripheries of the large cities and the neglected countryside.

2. Ecclesiological criterion

Like Jesus, the Church lives in one time and place, in a particular society, in a specific culture. And, again like Jesus, the Church proclaims conversion to the Gospel to particular cultures (Mk 1:15). As the "body of Christ" (LG 7) and "sacrament of intimate union with God" (LG 1)—but also as a "community" and an "institution"—the universal and particular Church is thus, in history, the setting, agent, and guarantor for a true culmination of the inculturation process.

It is in the concrete reality of the life of the Church that inculturation is purified, carried out, and realized. For this reason, the historical Church is the setting for experiencing inculturation; it is the agency of inculturation; it governs the criteria for assessing the validity and legitimacy of inculturation. The postpaschal Christian community was the first to use inculturation as an ecclesial experience of both welcome to and purification of the "Hebraic religious culture." Both worship (where "the breaking of bread" replaced the ceremonies of temple and synagogue) and behavior saw the effects of this purification; circumcision was no longer imposed on converted pagans for this very reason (Acts 15:28-29): "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love" (Gal 5:6). The fundamental principle, however, remained the acceptance of authentic cultural values. Paul, for example, states: "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Phil 4:8).

Distinguishing between faith and culture, between values and counter- values, is not always easy. Finding solutions is often arduous. But when they are adopted, they are to express the faith of the Church. That is why inculturation can be defined as an ecclesial method of incarnating and vitally re-expressing the Gospel, using a culture’s own values, and purifying or denying those cultural realities that are opposed to the Gospel. Inculturation is a marvelous and mysterious exchange of gifts: "In one direction, the Gospel reveals to each culture the supreme truth of the values that the culture embodies and allows the culture to unleash that truth; in the other, each culture expresses the Gospel in an original way and reveals new aspects of it."10

Montfort’s life and evangelical work fit perfectly into the framework of the Church of his time, and they are also in perfect obedience to the Pope, the bishops, and his other superiors. His constant and extraordinarily heroic obedience to his masters at Saint-Sulpice, even when they apparently did not agree with his choices, is significant. His pilgrimage to Rome and his official investiture by Pope Clement XI on June 6, 1706, when he was named "Missionary Apostolic," are the expression of a great ecclesial sensibility which enhanced the orthodox inculturation of his apostolate.

3. Anthropological criterion

According to this third criterion of inculturation, true evangelization becomes a grace-filled process of salvation of the human being, respecting the integrity of his nature and his culture. Conversion to Christ does not imply rejection of social or religious cultural values. On the contrary, conversion animates and fulfills these values in its gift of grace. Because each person is the object and the bearer of the Gospel, both as an individual and as a member of human and ecclesial society, inculturation reveals itself through the promotion and illumination of humanity and through the complete liberation of humanity from the negative realms of sin, death, injustice, meaninglessness, violence, poverty.

In this context, the work of Montfort was exemplary. He was a popular catechist. His language was simple, devoid of rhetorical flourishes, direct and clear.

One of his innovative means of evangelization was the use of hymns. His songs in the vernacular have no pretensions to being masterworks of pure poetry, but they are nonetheless lively, moving compositions, simple and yet full of evangelical wisdom. Montfort himself realized that not all his verses were beautiful. But he knew that they were good and that they preached the wonders of God (H 2, 39). His collection of religious hymns was a way of making faith live and flourish in the hearts, in the spirits, and on the lips of the simple and the humble; restoring smiles and joy to people who were often sad and desperate. More than the artifice of style, the hymns contain the salt and light of Divine Wisdom. Montfort, an implacable ascetic and penitent, reveals himself in his hymns to be a joyful promoter of happiness and evangelical peace.

Montfort’s vivid language, punctuated with comparisons and proverbs, was borrowed from the people. He speaks of the devil as a "counterfeiter" (TD 90) and of the Christian without courage as a "wet hen" and a "dead dog." With the wisdom of the countryside, he reminds us that "we must not believe that all that glitters is gold" (TD 82). His pen sometimes produces charming parables, like that of the peasant who offers to the king, by way of the queen’s hands, a sorry, wormy apple (cf. TD 47). The missionary saint is not afraid to adopt key words of popular culture, such as "secret" and "contract," to express the vital and fundamental issues of Christianity, (for example, perfect devotion to the Virgin or the covenant with God).

We must acknowledge Montfort’s Christian genius in "his capacity for synthesis, adapting popular values and promoting a highly demanding and indeed truly spiritual evangelical program. . . . Montfort demands personal awareness and renewal of baptismal promises, the passage from Christianity by proxy to a mature choice of Christ through Mary (TD 126), the total Consecration of oneself for time and for eternity."11

Inculturation guides the life of God’s people, by directing it toward concrete forms of social action and witness, characterized by justice, brotherhood, equality, participation, and communion. In this context, investigation into the practical and liberating aspect of the Christian message is of profound concern. The goal of Montfort’s popular mission was not simply the practice of the Christian life but also the education of children and of the poor. As Grandet reports: "Grignion de Montfort’s principal preoccupation in the course of his missionary work was to establish Christian schools for boys and girls."12

That was why the Daughters of Wisdom were given the task of assuming responsibility for the charity schools "to instruct and promote their [the students’] spiritual welfare, a task performed out of pure charity" (RW 281). In RW, Montfort gives a meticulous description of the rule to be adopted in these schools, to ensure adequate time (about three hours per day) and progressive training both for beginners and for more advanced students (RW 281-292).


In his apostolic exhortation Catechesi tradendae, John Paul II describes the concept of inculturation this way: "The term ‘acculturation’ or ‘inculturation’ may be a neologism, but expresses very well one of the components of the great mystery of the Incarnation. We can say of catechism, as of evangelization in general, that it carries the strength of the Gospel to the heart of culture and cultures. For this reason, catechism will attempt to know these cultures and their essential components; it will learn their most significant expressions; it will respect their values and riches. In this way, catechism will be able to impart to these cultures the knowledge of the hidden mystery and to help them energize their own living tradition of giving original expression to Christian life, celebration, and thought" (no. 53).

Montfort aids us in this undertaking of evangelical inculturation by his own saintliness as well as by his application of Christological, ecclesiological, and anthropological criteria to his own missionary work. He teaches us how to listen to "the cries of the poor" (H 18) and to incarnate the entire Gospel, including the Cross, in the popular culture.

To be true followers of Montfort we must present an undiluted Christianity. Authentic Montfort spirituality is Christianity in all its liberating and sanctifying fullness. It is a spirituality where the message and the medium are one. It is a spirituality communicated in understandable language and clear example.

A. Amato

Notes: (1) For the conciliar understanding of the term "culture," expressing the universality of mankind’s ways of life, behavior, and expression in history and in society, cf. GS 53. For an adequate investigation into this theme, cf. H. Carrier, Gospel Message and Human Cultures: From Leo XIII to John Paul II, trans. John Drury, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh 1989; L. J. Luzbetak, The Church and Cultures: New Perspectives in Missiological Anthropology, Orbis, Maryknoll, N.Y. 1988; Pontificia Commissione Biblica, Fede e culture alla luce della Bibbia, (Faith and Culture in the Light of the Bible) Elle Di Ci, Leumann 1981; P. Poupard, Il Vangelo nel cuore delle culture (The Gospel in the Heart of Cultures), Città Nuova, Rome 1988; R. J. Schreiter, Faith and Cultures: Challenges to a World Church, in Theological Studies 50 (1989), 744-760. The continuing attention of the Church to dialogue with cultures led in 1982 to the establishment of the Pontifical Council on Culture, which since 1988 has published a monthly bulletin entitled Church and Cultures. (2) Inculturation is a "grave and urgent necessity, especially today" (Redemptoris missio, 52). (3) Cf. J. Daniélou and R. du Charlat, La catechesi nei primi secoli (Catechesis in the First Centuries), Elle Di Ci, Leumann 1982; E. Germain, 2000 ans d’éducation de la foi (2000 Years of Education in the Faith), Desclée, Paris 1983); J. Longère, La prédication médiévale (Medieval preaching), Etudes augustiniennes, Paris 1983; C. Wackenheim, La catéchèse (Catechisis), PUF, Paris 1983. (4) For inculturation among the pre- Nicean and post-Nicean Fathers, cf. respectively the studies by F. Bergamelli and O. Pasquato, in A. Amato and A. Strus, Inculturazione e formazione salesiana (Inculturation and Salesian Formation), SDB, Rome 1984, 57-73, 75-115. (5) Cf. P. Borges Moran, Metodos misionales en la cristianización de América. Siglo XVI (Missionary Methods in the Christianization of America, 16th Century), Univ. Ed., Salamanca 1960. (6) "We made ourselves into Chinese in order to win the Chinese for Christ"—Matteo Ricci in a letter to his superior, writing in a mixture of Italian and Latin. Cf. Opere storiche del P. Matteo Ricci sj (Historical Works of Matteo Ricci), under the aegis of the Committee for National Monuments, with preface, notes, and tables by P. Tacchi Ventury, vol. 2, Le lettere dalla Cina (Letters from China), Tip. Giorgetti, Macerata 1913, 416. (7) Cf. A. Amato, "Verbi revelati ‘accomodata predicatio’ lex omnis evangelizationis" (GS no. 44). Riflessioni storico-teologiche sull’inculturazione (Historical- Theological Reflections on Inculturation), in Ricerche teologiche (Theological Research) 2 (1991), 102-124, especially 117-123. (8) A letter from 400 poor people of Poitiers to M. Leschassier, cited by Father Pauvert, La vie du Vénérable Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (The life of the Venerable Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort), Oudin, Paris and Poitiers 1875, 140. (9) H. Mandrou, Montfort et l’évangélisation du peuple (Montfort and the Evangelization of the People), in RMon 11 (1974), 18. (10) Commissione teologica internazionale, Temi di ecclesiologia (Ecclesiological Themes), 4, 2. (11) S. De Fiores, Grignion de Montfort et la spiritualité populaire (Grignion de Montfort and Popular Spirituality), in Dossier montfortain 4 (1984), 16-17. (12) Grandet, 382.

Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St.
Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).

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