Cultures recognize God but they also recognize that God makes use of culture to speak to us
Father Léonard Santédi (Photo by Guy Aimé Eblotié/La Croix Africa)
Father Léonard Santédi is a professor of theology, a former member of the International Theological Commission and rector of the Catholic University of the Congo in Kinshasa. In this interview with La Croix Africa, he explains the concept of inculturation.
“Inculturation means taking incarnation seriously. It means a God who enters into a culture and takes flesh there,” said Father Santédi of the Catholic University of the Congo.
Lucie Sarr for La Croix Africa speaks with Father Santédi.
La Croix Africa: What is inculturation ?
Father Léonard Santédi: Inculturation is an encounter between life and the Christian message and culture, understood as a way of living in the world.
In this perspective, the Gospel message encounters a culture, enriches it and transforms it by enabling it to display all its harmonics.
However, in welcoming this message, a culture simultaneously enriches the heritage of the church.
Here, it is also important to note that the Gospel message is always transmitted via a culture. It is not something chemically pure.
On the contrary, it is lived out within a culture without limiting itself to that culture because it is a revealed message that transcends all cultures.
Therefore, the Gospel is always inculturated. The Gospel as we received it in Africa was influenced by Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek as well as Latin culture.
The West added its own vision before it arrived in Africa and Asia. This is why we are able to speak of African or Asian Christianity.
Jesus’ message is received on African soil. From this marriage, new fruits develop which enrich the church’s heritage.
This new Christianity is not a certified copy of Western Christianity.
If there can be an African Christianity as well as an Asian Christianity, what is the foundation of Christianity’s oneness?
The church always remains itself but is never the same, even though it always continues to recognize the same faith and the same God as father of all.
As our fundamental reference we have the word, which is recognized as the Word of God for all cultures.
These cultures recognize God but they also recognize that God makes use of culture to speak to us.
Moreover, in Scripture, God spoke to Israel in these terms: “You are not the best in the world but I chose you.”
As he chose Israel, as he became Emmanuel – God with us, he also chooses Africa and Asia.
To be clear, the primary things we have as fundamental references that make us Christians are the life and message of Jesus contained in the Gospel.
This life, which is preserved in the tradition and magisterium of the church, watches over the assembly in charity of all church communities.
Drawing on these fundamental references, the Spirit speaks unceasingly to the various churches.
Inculturation is a fruit of the Spirit. It does not follow a morbid desire to distinguish oneself. On the contrary, it is a revelation of God that transcends all cultures. If not, God would be limited to a single culture.
Inculturation means taking incarnation seriously. It means a God who enters into a culture and takes flesh there.
It also means taking Pentecost seriously. It means a God, who manifests himself in all cultures and all languages.
Finally, there is an Easter dimension in which God, by entering into our culture, takes on everything except sin.
Thus, the concept of inculturation involves both rupture and continuity.
There has been a lively debate in Africa for some time over priests dancing at Mass. In your view, can a priest dance at Mass? Is this a form of inculturation?
When Pope John Paul II visited the DR Congo in 1980, we danced around the altar in front of him.
The Roman missal for the Churches of Zaire is an example of inculturation. But it is not untamed creativity. It remains subject to the Roman Magisterium, which authorized the Zairean rite and the Roman missal for the Churches of Zaire.
Inculturation imposes a reflection on us regarding the meaning of gestures and words. We need to ask ourselves the question: What do the gestures such as dance mean in our particular culture?
In one culture, dancing may signify entertainment; in other cultures, it may signify praising or glorifying with one’s body.
Indeed, in our (DR Congolese) culture, we dance at the birth of a child, after a death or when the Lord brings us together.
For some people, remaining immobile may distract them because they do not feel they are involved or participating.
Moreover, in the Zairean missal, the penitential rite takes place, not at the beginning of the Mass but after the homily and before the offerings.
We are even in the process of writing an inculturated catechism of the church because inculturation needs to impact in every area, including the organization of parishes, dogmas, etc.
It is an “orthopraxis” of the Christian faith, a correct and authentic way of living out the Christian faith.
It is precisely for this reason that the Second Vatican Council, beginning from Ad Gentes 22, says that the Christian heritage contained in Scripture and Tradition belongs to each socio-cultural territory and appropriates itself and expresses itself without falling into religious sycretism.
Indeed, African cultural practices are sometimes often deeply affected by traditional religions. How to remain faithful to African culture without falling into religious syncretism?
Inculturation is linked to the Paschal mystery. The Word which became flesh has become like us in all things except sin.
There are deviations in every culture. In inculturation, the Gospel becomes the catalyst for culture but it is not a trailer truck.
It comes to fertilize and transform. All this wealth is then expressed because it contributes to the praise of the Lord.
However, anti-values need to be placed to one side. In inculturation, there is a death of all anti-values.
There is often debate over the veneration of ancestors…
There is no question of adoration with respect to veneration of ancestors. The Lord comes to meet us with all our values, including everything that our ancestors taught us that is good, such as solidarity, hospitality, etc.
Ad Gentes 22 expresses this very well. The church in no way rejects all this wealth of forms of expression that are found in every culture.
In the Old Testament, we find pagan saints such as Melchisedech, who did good things, which have been incorporated (in the Christian faith).
This is what we mean by summing up all things in Christ.
In the Zairean rite, our good-hearted ancestors participate in the Eucharist, which we begin by invoking them.
So we say: “You, our ancestors, be with us at this moment when Christ is coming to save us.
“And you, our ancestors with an upright heart, you who have taught us hospitality, be with us at this moment when Christ has come to save us.”
This enables us to see that everything is created by God. African humanity is also created by God.
This also allows us to not turn our ancestors into Gods. The anti-value here would be for our ancestors to become Gods or idols to be feared. This is exactly the notion that we want to overcome.