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The New Evangelization in a Diverse Church:
Culture Matters

Hosffman Ospino  

"What is new about the New Evangelization; much of what I see seems the same," quipped a good friend in a recent conversation. People in the parish where I serve as well as some of my graduate students in theology and ministry at Boston College have made similar comments, although with different nuances. I usually respond by noting that what is new is mainly the socio-cultural context in which we live, the diversity of voices in the Church engaged in creatively interpreting the experience of God in our communities, and an awareness that unless we pay serious attention to these two realities we may discover ourselves as obstacles to the work of the Holy Spirit today. Let us put some more flesh on these ideas.

We can fairly say that Catholics are, by and large, familiar with the term "evangelization." Most would associate it with the work of missionaries, clergy and vowed religious, and increasingly, the many forms of pastoral service among lay leaders. For Spanish-speaking Catholics, evangelization immediately evokes the word for Gospel, evangelio, likewise in the case of Portuguese-speaking Catholics (evangelho) and French-speaking Catholics (évangile). Yet, Church leaders are now talking about the "New Evangelization," and this has caught the attention of many. What are Catholics up to this time? What will signal the newness? How do we know that there is something new? For whom is this new? What will be the effects of this effort? That people are asking about the meaning of the New Evangelization is an excellent excuse to talk about evangelization in general.

The Synod on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith (October 7–28, 2012) was an excellent opportunity to reflect upon who we are and what we do as disciples of Jesus Christ in the twenty-first century. The meeting of bishops gathered voices from the various corners of the planet where the Church witnesses to her faith in Jesus Christ, shares the Good News of salvation, and serves as an instrument of God's reign in the here and now of history. The topic invites reflecting on identity and mission.

This was not the first synod dedicated to evangelization. In 1974, just a few years after the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), Pope Paul VI gathered with bishops from around the world to reflect about this same topic. A year later, in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World), he reminded all Catholics that the Church "exists in order to evangelize" (14). Most recently, official documents, popes, bishops, theologians, and many other pastoral leaders have incessantly addressed the question of evangelization. In fact, one could argue that hardly any topic in the Church has received more attention in the last four or five decades than evangelization. It was a constant theme of the writings and pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Of particular interest are John Paul II's post-synodal exhortations leading to the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. Some of the best documents from regional conferences of Catholic bishops where the Church is steadily growing (that is, Asia, Africa, and Latin America) are those that focus on evangelization. Even the most discussed theological works in ecclesial and academic circles creatively challenge us to reflect on our evangelizing identity and mission. Of particular interest are such works on ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, faith and culture, and contemporary spirituality, to name a few.

A key category in the conversation about evangelization is culture: culture matters when we evangelize. It is tempting to dismiss the importance of this observation, arguing that "this is something we already know and do" or that "evangelization cannot be reduced to cultural anthropological concerns." Of course, both are extreme positions, yet both can be judged as subtle ways of dismissing the significance of reflecting on culture. On the one hand, taking for granted the role of culture in our evangelizing initiatives can lead to ineffectiveness and irrelevance because we may do too little to carefully know our context. Isn't this what sometimes occurs when Catholics venture into the public square in the name of our faith, but soon realize that we speak rather different languages and our arguments often then fall onto "deaf ears," even among the baptized? This may also apply to evangelizing initiatives in pastoral settings where we do not seem to know how to engage youth, young adults, and the immigrants transforming our faith communities. To assume that the relationship between culture and evangelization is value free (it is not!) or that it can afford to ignore the differences that shape human experience (it should not!) risks creating undesirable conditions of exclusion for the community that seeks to evangelize and/or the community invited to receive the Gospel.

On the other hand, evangelizing efforts that ignore the social, cultural, political, and economic realities of the communities where we hope the Good News grows roots run the risk of reducing the praxis of the faith into a disengaged pietism, concerned little or nothing about how human existence unfolds in the everyday. True, evangelization cannot be reduced to mere political activism or social interventions; but neither can it be determined by what I would call "evangelistic docetism," namely, the attitude of downplaying or dismissing what is human in the process of facilitating people's encounter with God.

Why is this an appropriate moment for Catholic pastoral leaders, educators, and theologians to think about matters of culture in the context of the New Evangelization? The answer to this question is threefold. First, much has been learned about culture since the Second Vatican Council and Evangelii Nuntiandi, placing us in a better position to understand its centrality in the evangelizing process. Second, Catholics are increasingly embracing cultural diversity as a gift to the Church instead of a problem to be solved—a true sign of conversion with still a long road ahead to be traveled. Third, in our globalized world, we see a growing polyphony of voices, in an amazing process of cross-cultural fertilization, transforming the way we do Catholic theology, how we celebrate and share our faith, and how we build ecclesial communities. This growing awareness about the value and potential of cultural diversity should be interpreted as a kairos in the work of evangelization.

The 1974 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops gathered around the topic of evangelization in the modern world and laid out a few key ideas about the relationship between evangelization and culture. As indicated earlier, Evangelii Nuntiandi builds on the insights and recommendations from this gathering. Evangelization consists in "bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence, transforming humanity from within and making it new."1 But human experience does not unfold in the abstract. We live in history. Persons and communities are deeply shaped by the specific cultural circumstances in which they live. Thus, it is important to hold an understanding of culture that is dynamic enough to affirm human agency and expression, while guaranteeing the appropriate conditions for spiritual growth, the development of life-giving relationships, and openness to transcendence. To this extent, the apostolic exhortation affirms the vision of culture that the Second Vatican Council proposed in its pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes:

The word "culture" in its general sense indicates everything whereby man develops and perfects his many bodily and spiritual qualities; he strives by his knowledge and his labor, to bring the world itself under his control. He renders social life more human both in the family and the civic community, through improvement of customs and institutions. Throughout the course of time he expresses, communicates and conserves in his works, great spiritual experiences and desires, that they might be of advantage to the progress of many, even of the whole human family.2

Evangelization is an ecclesial experience that aims to transform the depths of culture with the richness of Gospel values. It is about facilitating an encounter between the Gospel and culture(s). To do this, the Church must speak the language and understand the symbols that give meaning to entire communities, employing methodologies that are consistent with the particularity of a given culture.3 While evangelization is not identical with culture, it cannot happen without it.4 Furthermore, Evangelii Nuntiandi acknowledges the existence of a plurality of cultures shaping the richness of the human experience, their potential to receive the Gospel, and the need for the Church to remain aware of this diversity.5

During the almost four decades between the 1974 and 2012 synods, the reflection on the role of culture in the Church's evangelizing mission has significantly evolved and expanded. New terms and theoretical frameworks have been introduced; magisterial documents constantly refer to the need of engaging culture(s) in all their expressions while addressing specific concerns emerging in particular moments and places. In 1982, the Pontifical Council for Culture was created to facilitate and encourage conversations about the encounter between the Gospel and culture(s); years later, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization (created in 2010) would make more explicit this commitment to conversation with culture as part of the Church's mission. Rapid developments in the worlds of media, technology, and transportation have made us more aware of the globalizing forces that shape contemporary cultures, and the Church has realized that it cannot afford to be absent from these conversations. This period has also given rise to new questions that increasingly challenge the imagination of Catholic theologians and pastoral leaders as we ponder the many ways in which culture influences the ways in which we live our faith. While the critical conversation with modernity continues, today many speak of the challenges and possibilities of post-modernity. The effects of secularism in Western Europe and other first-world nations have thrust Catholics into a serious soulsearching journey. In the meantime, the same dynamics of secularization are making significant inroads in societies whose structures and institutions have traditionally been shaped by Christianity, thus forcing Catholic scholars and practitioners to envision possibilities of dialogue with what philosopher Charles Taylor has called the "secular age."6 Lastly, the ecumenical and interreligious efforts of the last decades have created new and interesting opportunities for Catholics to talk about identity and mission.

These are some of the most urgent conversations and questions at the heart of our contemporary culture(s), and Catholics must be aware of them as we reflect on what it means to evangelize. Such is precisely the context within which the 2012 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops took place. If something is "new" in the New Evangelization, I think it is a more sophisticated understanding of the complexity of culture and a sincere desire to engage in mutually critical dialogue with the culture(s) of our day.

Three dynamics are important to reflection on cultural diversity and evangelization.7 To illustrate, I will refer to them.

Inculturation and Interculturality
"Inculturation," a relatively new term in our vocabulary (although what it conveys is as old as Christianity), has become a common category in Church documents, theological works, and pastoral initiatives to describe the relationship between faith and culture. Evangelii Nuntiandi does not make reference to it. Coined in the 1950s, it was introduced in official documents in the late 1970s. Inculturation, mirroring the mystery of the Incarnation, can be defined as "the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures." 8 Inculturation rightly assumes that the conversation between faith and culture is possible, thus dismissing the temptation to conceive these two realities as radically incompatible or naively reducing one into the other.9 The relationship mediated by the process of inculturation is not value neutral. The Gospel has the capacity "to value what is positive in every culture" and to purify it "from elements that are contrary to the full realization of the person according to the design of God revealed in Christ."10

Notwithstanding the contributions of inculturation to the analysis of the relationship between faith and culture, the term, when narrowly defined, may convey the idea that this relationship is de facto unidirectional: faith culture. If that is the case, inculturation may leave little room for evangelizers to reasonably ask whether culture has anything to say about how Christian communities receive and interpret revelation and how the complex interaction among cultures shapes the way Christianity is lived in history. The term also presents some limitations when determining with clarity the difference between the Gospel message and the means, institutional structures, practices, and constructs that serve to communicate that message. The absence of such differentiation can be greatly problematic. The emergence of the term "interculturality" in contemporary theology as an alternative category to read the faith-culture dynamic seems to address some of the concerns,11 although no category may claim to fully capture the complexity of such a dynamic. Interculturality, like inculturation, also builds on the conviction that the relationship between faith and culture is possible. It invites us to contemplate—on a more even ground, yet acknowledging particular differences—the complex interchange among cultures and the several appropriations of God's revealing presence in those cultures. Interculturality intentionally safeguards the "legitimate autonomy of culture,"12 repeatedly highlighted in Gaudium et Spes,13 without necessarily turning it into an absolute autonomy. Interculturality facilitates a creative dialogue that can significantly enhance the evangelizing process.

The widespread and growing influence of secularism in societies, West and East, is perhaps the most challenging cultural phenomenon that contemporary evangelizers face. Reflections about culture in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century addressed the militant character of secularism as a tendency to exclude God and religion from the life of women and men in society, particularly in contexts where historically Christianity had grown deep roots. Evangelii Nuntiandi, echoing the language of the Second Vatican Council, spoke of secularism largely as an ideology, "a concept of the world according to which the latter is self-explanatory, without any need for recourse to God, who thus becomes superfluous and an encumbrance."14 For most of the modern period, the Church spoke of secularism as a threat with very serious consequences for not only believers but the whole society. But the language has shifted, acknowledging that secularism is not only a threat but a condition: "We are Christians living in a secularized world,"15 concluded the bishops gathered at the 2012 synod. Christians lament this situation highlighting that the dichotomy between the human and the sacred, also expressed as "the split between Gospel and culture," 16 fails to capture the fullness of human experience: faith and life are inseparable. Christians cannot forfeit our responsibility of sharing the Good News and remain silent: "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel" (1 Corinthians 9:16); neither can we ignore the questions and the challenges of our secularized societies, which constantly make claims on the lives of believers (Christians and others) and non-believers alike.

The New Evangelization is ultimately an invitation to renew the "ardor, methods and expression"17 that will allow the Church to be faithful to her vocation and successful in her mission in the context of the secular age. This requires that Christians boldly enter the "new areopaghi"18 ( that is, new media, new scientific discoveries) with our voices and message. This requires that we understand the dynamics of the secularized culture and respectfully, yet with critical minds and artful skill, engage what Pope Benedict XVI has called the Courtyards of the Gentiles, "places to initiate a mutually enriching and culturally stimulating encounter between Christians and those who do not profess any religion but wish to approach God, at least as something unknown in their lives."19 The rigorous and scientific study of theology, particularly in the context of the Catholic university, is important to address the questions and challenges of secularism: "Scientific theology has its own proper place in the university where it must carry out dialogue between faith and the other disciplines and the secular world."20 It is heartening that the synod affirmed the importance of the work of professional theologians and our contributions to the New Evangelization. We dedicate our lives and energy to engage the difficult questions that emerge in the context of the secular society and to help fellow believers to better understand and articulate the core convictions of the Christian faith. Hence the renewal of the invitation to advance our work thinking and feeling "with the Church (sentire cum Ecclesia)."21

This is even more significant considering that during the last half-century, Catholic theological voices have become increasingly diverse: many more lay theologians, more women advancing theological scholarship and teaching theology, and a growing body of theological scholars from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This diversity places academic theology in a unique position to model conversations about emerging and challenging questions formulated in the context of our diverse and complex culture(s). Such experience can only enrich the Church's evangelizing efforts.

From the beginning, Christianity has been a culturally diverse experience: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). Responses to cultural diversity have varied throughout the centuries. On occasion, cultural diversity has been resisted, sometimes misunderstood or ignored, but more often than not, it has been intentionally embraced. This we have learned from centuries of missionary activity, locally and globally. Regardless of how Christian evangelizers look at cultural diversity, it is crucial to recognize that this is the de facto condition within which the Christian community exists in history. Contemporary reflections about global Catholicism have raised a renewed awareness about this dynamic in the life of the Church.22 Of particular attention are the special assemblies of the Synods of Bishops of the various continents around the time of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 and the apostolic exhortations emerging from these gatherings.23 These assemblies provided Catholics with a unique opportunity to contemplate the beauty of cultural diversity in the Church around the world. Time spent studying these documents is worthwhile. Nearly half of all Catholics in the world live in the American continents, primarily in Latin America. The Church is growing at a very fast pace in Asia and Africa. Cultural diversity has definitely been a central characteristic of the Church in Oceania. The Catholic experience in Europe and North America is increasingly being sustained and transformed by immigrants from various parts of the world—a breath of fresh air in largely secularized societies. After reading the documents leading to the latest synod and the propositions emerging from it, one wishes that they had been more explicit and affirming regarding cultural diversity. This is certainly an area that deserves further exploration. Cultural diversity is both a reason to recognize that the Spirit continues to engender the life of God among us and an opportunity to embrace new ways of being Church.

As the Church strengthens her roots in the many cultural contexts in which she proclaims the Gospel, we must expect new questions, possibilities, and, of course, new challenges. This is even more obvious as we witness rapid changes in our societies and cultures, thanks to contemporary globalization. Cultural diversity, then, impels evangelizers to engage these new realities with creativity and renewed zeal. Even in those contexts in which Catholicism has been present for centuries, contexts in which it could be assumed that there is already a well-defined way of being Church, it is important to pay attention to the various dynamics of culture that shape lives and how people enter into relationship with God. Whether those ways of being Catholic are transformed by the regular development of local cultures (keep in mind that culture is never a static reality) or the influence of external forces and voices (for example, immigration, literature, and media), one conviction remains true: culture matters.

These thoughts together serve as an introduction to more focused analyses about the New Evangelization in culturally diverse contexts. For Catholics in the United States, it is clear that this conversation is to take place acknowledging the major demographic and cultural transformations amidst which we welcomed the twenty-first century. Without a doubt, cultural diversity is a major characteristic of the U.S. Catholic experience. And it is in light of this diversity, that we welcome the invitation to reflect on our identity and mission as evangelizers. The next step is to explore how the various voices that constitute the polyphony we call U.S. Catholicism challenge and advance the idea of a New Evangelization.


  1. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, On Evangelization in the Modern World (1975), 18.
  2. Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, On the Church in the Modern World (1965), 53. Note: non-inclusive language is part of the original document.
  3. See Evangelii Nuntiandi, 40.
  4. Ibid., 20.
  5. See ibid. This recognition is also an echo of Gaudium et Spes's dynamic understanding of culture. See Gaudium et Spes, 53.
  6. See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007).
  7. At the time of writing this essay, the apostolic exhortation that customarily follows ordinary synods has not been issued. However, Pope Benedict XVI allowed that the fifty-eight propositions approved at the last synod be shared before the writing of such document. They will certainly inform his post-synodal exhortation and, as usual, will not deviate significantly from what was approved by the participant bishops. These propositions provide us with a good sense of the spirit of the Synod on the New Evangelization and the reflections emerging from this gathering. They build upon the various conversations among synod participants and the more elaborate documents that helped to prepare and guide the gathering. See Synod of Bishops, XIII Ordinary General Assembly, The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith: Lineamenta (2011); Instrumentum Laboris (2012). The language and insights in these documents, along with some that preceded them on the same topic, will continue to shape major conversations about evangelization in the near future.
  8. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, On the Permanent Validity of the Church's Missionary Mandate (1990), 52.
  9. For a classic typology of the relationship between faith and culture see H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951, 1975).
  10. Bulletin of the Synod of Bishops, XIII Ordinary General Assembly, The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, Proposition 5. All fifty-eight propositions approved at the end of the synod are available online at www.vatican.va. The translation of these propositions is not official.
  11. See Orlando Espín, "Intercultural Thought." In An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies, edited by Orlando O. Espín and James B. Nickoloff (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2007.
  12. See Gaudium et Spes, 58; Evangelii Nuntiandi, 55.
  13. Gaudium et Spes suggests that the legitimacy of culture is intimately related to its appropriate development. See 56–59.
  14. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 55.
  15. Propositions 8 and 13.
  16. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 20.
  17. See Instrumentum Laboris, 45.
  18. Ibid., 62.
  19. Lineamenta, 19; Instrumentum Laboris, 54; Proposition 55.
  20. Proposition 30.
  21. Ibid.
  22. See for instance John L. Allen, The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday 2009).
  23. Ecclesia in Africa (1995), Ecclesia in America (1999), Ecclesia in Asia (1999), Ecclesia in Oceania (2001), Ecclesia in Europa (2003); all available online at www.vatican.va.

Hosffman Ospino, PhD,
is assistant professor of pastoral theology and religious education at Boston College, School of Theology and Ministry. He oversees Boston College's graduate programs in Hispanic Ministry. He is the editor of Hispanic Ministry in the 21st Century: Present and Future (Convivium Press, 2010) and the principal investigator for the 2011–2013 National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry.

This is the first of a series on the New Evangelization:
The New Evangelization in a Diverse Church: Culture Matters
Wisdom from the Church in Latin America on the New Evangelization.

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