Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia (Beloved Amazon), issued in early February, makes a renewed call for inculturation of local churches. The idea of inculturation — adapting local cultures to express faith — is not a new one. Such adaption is essential to the Church's earthly existence and growth.
It is time the Church in Asia thought of an Asian rite, particularly when Querida Amazonia
encourages and emboldens churches to do that. The thought of Pope Francis is nothing new. We saw its official expression in the Second Vatican Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy more than 50 years ago.
The council asked for a "more radical adaptation of the liturgy" (Sacrosanctum Concilium
, 37-40, 65, 77, 81). Pope Francis in Querida Amazonia
puts this in focus: "For the Church has a varied face, not only in terms of space … but also of time."
"Here we see that the authentic Tradition of the Church, which is not a static deposit or a museum piece but the root of a constantly growing tree. This millennial Tradition bears witness to God's work in the midst of his people and is called to keep the flame alive rather than to guard its ashes." (no.66)
Pope Francis also quoted St. John Paul II to stress his point: "A faith that does not become culture is a faith not fully accepted." In other words, a living truth is an embodied truth; a word made flesh. If we do Christology in Asia, that is to practice Christian faith in Asia, we are called to inscribe Christ into the times and cultures of Asia.
This concept of inculturation then means openness to accept cultural diversity and not to insist on uniformity. Universality and oneness of the Catholic faith should not be understood as uniformity of the whole Church in expressing its faith. While faith is unique, one, and unchanged, it could be expressed and responded to in different ways. A central authority of approval for such expressions then becomes superfluous.
Two terms are important here: diversity and decentralization. A major hurdle in the move to diversity and decentralization is clericalism. Clericalism is an authoritarian concept derived from Caesar's divinity of domination and colonization — the solar perception. The Church is suffering from the ghosts of the past, of Maximus Pontifex and their governors. Will holy synodality govern the Church?
"The history of the Church shows that Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression" and "we would not do justice to the logic of the incarnation if we thought of Christianity as monocultural and monotonous," says Pope Francis (no.69).
Where and how do we meet Jesus Christ in Asia? Are our acts of interpretation governed as much by our own cultural standpoint of linguistics and symbolic metaphors? We have to address the issue directly with the question of Mary Magdalene: "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away" (Jn 20:15
). From that point on, we have lost his physical body because the body of Jesus is no longer available.
The call of the Church is to create the body for the Christ, make him seen among cultures on earth. Each Catholic is called to become the body of Christ. The Eucharist becomes the core of this transformation, making each Catholic individually and as a group the body of Christ. Each Catholic then becomes duty-bound to give his or her body to Christ, to help Christ speak and act in his or her language and culture. It is through this local Catholics that Christ lives in their land, taking part in their language, literature and clothing. Christ sings their songs, eats and drinks their food, works and celebrates with them, making their culture encounter him. In other words, the body of Christ carried away from Mary Magdalene resurrects in their culture.
There is no single access point to the Church; no single culture is responsible for incarnation or resurrection. The lack of inculturation cries out the absence of the body of Christ in cultures. Therefore, it also reveals the absence of incarnation and resurrection in those cultures. One can enter into history and civics only with a body. The lack of body is a lifeless existence or no existence at all, however mystically, one would bring about that existence.
The Council of Chalcedon, formulated Christ as vere homo, et vere Deus
(true man, and true God). The real presence is to be created in every culture. Every generation and every community must be able to touch and see the true man and the true God. A "God lived with men as a man that man might be taught to live the divine life: God lived on man's level that man might be able to live on God's level," as Tertullian testified.
Through the life expressions of liturgy, art and literature, we make today the events and feelings that were made in the past. That expression cannot speak a language of God unintelligible to the body of Christ. The call is to give body to justice and love, here and now. The language and expression should become strictly and precisely of the humans who make up the body.
Catholics in Asia predominantly use Latin rite, which has no cultural relations with Asia. The other two Eastern rites in Asia — based on ancient Greek or Syrian systems — are also far away from what is considered as Asian culture today. The churches in Asia should join together to disassociate with the historical accidents and arrogance that imposed these rites on them and allow their churches to evolve and inculturate in their cultures.
How these rites have to evolve is a matter of faith than of any external structure. Primarily, they should be allowed their freedom without theories and principles being imposed from above. The process of evolution should be allowed to take place without having a predetermined result. Preferably, the process will start with activating the synodality of the Church.
Acceptance of synodality as the authentic form of management and guidance of the Church is the first step towards the inculturation of the Church.
Father Paul Thelakat is a Catholic priest of the Eastern Syro-Malabar rite and former spokesman of its synod of bishops. He is editor of Light of Truth, a church-run biweekly in Kochi, India. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.