Local Churches Have Missionary Task

Author: Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

General Audience, June 14, 1995

1. The Church was founded by Jesus Christ as one and universal: two dimensions which, as we have seen in previous catecheses, are based on the will of Jesus Christ himself. Nevertheless the Acts and Letters of the Apostles show that the local Churches were formed within the one, universal Church through the work of the Apostles or their co-workers, and afterwards by their successors. Thus a distinction appears between the "universal" Church entrusted to the Apostles under the guidance of Peter, and the "local" Churches with their own Pastors. We recall that of Jerusalem, to which elders were appointed (Acts 11:30) with James (Act 12:17; 21:18); that of Antioch, with prophets and doctors, and the other communities in which Paul and Barnabas were "elders" (Acts 14:23; 20:17) or "guardians" (Acts 20:28).

2. While the composition of the one Church in a plurality of local Churches corresponds to Christ's institution, it is also in conformity with the sociological and psychological law of her localization and co-existence in local communities in which links remain strong and fruitful. At the religious and Christian level, the existence of the local Churches is essential to the universal Church's life. Christ's disciples need communities where they can live the Gospel, which is identical for all, in conformity with their specific culture. The Second Vatican Council recalls that the Church's two dimensions do not contradict one another, but that the universal Church subsists in the local Churches, while they express the universal character of the Catholic Church in their life as individual communities. "Holding a rightful place in the communion of the Church there are also particular Churches that retain their own traditions, without prejudice to the Chair of Peter which presides over the whole assembly of charity" (Lumen gentium, n. 13).

3. Yet a third principle governs the mission of the local Churches within the universal Church: that of the inculturation of the Good News. Evangelization takes place not only through its adaptation to the cultural expressions of the various peoples, but also through a vital integration of the Gospel into their thought, values, customs and prayer, thanks to research and respect for the core of truth, which can more or less be openly found there. This is the concept explained in Redemptoris missio (cf. n. 52), in harmony with previous documents of the papal Magisterium and the Council, following the logic of the Incarnation.

The Incarnation is the model for every evangelization of culture.

Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, came into the world to redeem all humanity and to be "Lord of all" (Acts 10:36). Nonetheless, he was a part of ad lived the religious tradition of Israel (cf. Lk 2:22-24, 39, 41; Mt 4:23; 17:27), bringing it to fulfilment however, in accordance with a new form of Covenant which he inaugurated by surpassing some elements of the Old Law, as the New Testament writings state (cf. Mt 5:17-20; 15:1-6; Rom 8:1-4; Gal 4:4). Jesus, however, also thought and spoke of the "other sheep" whom he, as the one shepherd, wanted to lead back to the one fold (cf. Jn 10:6).

Further, St. Paul, called by Christ to be the "Apostle to the Gentiles" (Rom 11:13; cf. Rom 1:5), established that the new Christians in "all the Churches" should remain in the state in which they were at the time of their conversion (cf. 1 Cor 7:17, 20, 24); in other words, they should not adopt the cultural practices of the Jews, but were to continue in their own culture and live their Christian faith within it.

4. This explains and justifies why Christian culture and civilization accepted the contributions of even pagan cultures and religious traditions belonging to peoples or nations foreign to Israel, but for which the spirituality of the Old Testament prepared the ground. This is a historical reality that should be considered in its profound religious dimension. The Gospel message, in its essence as the revelation of God through the life and teaching of Christ, should be presented to different cultures by fostering the development of the seeds, longings, expectations—it could be said, almost the presentiments of Gospel values—already present within them. Consequently a transformation can take place which does not result in the loss of peoples' cultural identity. On the contrary, precisely because this is a message of divine origin, it tends to enhance the local culture, stimulating it and encouraging it to yield new fruits at the highest level to which Christ's presence brings it, with the grace of the Holy Spirit and the light of the Gospel.

5. In fact this is an arduous undertaking and a "difficult process", as we can read in the Encyclical Redemptoris missio, "for it must in no way compromise the distinctiveness and integrity of the Christian faith" (n. 52). It will never be admissible to give up part of Christian teaching so that the truth proposed may be more easily assimilated. It will never be possible to embrace customs that contradict the decisions of the Gospel.

It would be an illusion to attempt a harmonization that would introduce foreign elements from other religions into Christ's teaching. This would be mere religious syncretism, an unacceptable solution. Instead, a true and elevating transformation is necessary, and when it happens, it renews the cultures that receive Christian revelation and wish to be nourished by its life-giving content.

In this way, original expressions of Christian teaching and experiences of life can be produced, the variety of which is an enrichment for the universal Church. Thanks to inculturation in the local Church, "the universal Church herself is enriched with forms of expression and values in the various sectors of Christian life, such as evangelization, worship, theology an charitable works. She comes to know and to express better the mystery of Christ, all the while being motivated to continual renewal" (Redemptoris missio, n. 52).

Rightly understood and carried out, inculturation expresses better the meaning of the Church's universality, which takes up and assimilates all cultural manifestations, as it accepts and incorporates all human realities in order to sanctify and transform them according to the plan of God.

In the particular Churches that arise and develop in areas where the Gospel is preached, this work can and must be carried out as a valid and fruitful missionary task. The criterion everyone must follow is that in every culture it is possible to find and to discern authentic values, but in none is there absolute truth nor an infallible rule of life or prayer.

Thus it is necessary to recognize these values, as the Fathers already did in the first centuries with Greek and Latin culture, and then, gradually, with those of the peoples evangelized. Today, too, the local Churches are called to exercise their missionary vocation in fostering the meeting between the Gospel and cultures, in order to achieve the unity and universality of God's family.

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