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“Cultural appropriation” or authentic inculturation? The work of love


Kircher Athanasius | CC BY-SA 3.0

Jean Elizabeth Seah - published on 09/14/17

Taking on the clothes, styles and languages of another culture as part of a gentle evangelization has a long pedigree.

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Every liturgy and ministry in the Catholic Church involves inculturation, “[transforming] the existing culture through a new and deeper knowledge and experience of God” (Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy). Just as the Second Person of the Trinity chose a specific culture and time in which to be born, and to transform, so does the Body of Christ continue His ongoing work of salvation in the context of various cultures, melding the faith with – and revivifying – what is good, true and beautiful in them.

The saints have helped to incarnate Christ in every culture, not brushing aside their visible characteristics as superficial, but incorporating these physical traits into their ministry, elevating their purpose and transforming civilizations from the inside-out. As Aquinas wrote, grace perfects nature.

For instance, in order to create a Slavic liturgy, Saints Cyril and Methodius formulated an entire alphabet: Glagolitic, the precursor of Cyrillic. German clerics objected to this – however, the sainted brothers prevailed, devising not only the liturgy and a Bible translation for the Slavs, but also the first Slavic Civil Code.

Mother Teresa, born Macedonian-Albanian, clothed herself and her sisters in saris, the cultural dress of the Indians they served in Calcutta. Matteo Ricci and his fellow Jesuit mathematicians and scientists dressed as mandarins when they went to China in the 16th century, having thoroughly studied Chinese philosophy and culture. Later missionaries observed this practice; some wore pigtails to match the native men.

This brings us to the Chinese jijin (祭巾, literally, “sacrifice towel”), a hat worn by priests while celebrating Mass, instead of the European biretta. The Chinese considered it disgraceful to leave one’s head uncovered in the presence of superiors, especially the emperor. Thus, the Jesuits obtained permission from Pope Paul V to wear the jijin in the presence of God. This custom prevailed throughout the late Ming (ca. 1615) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Jijin continued to be used during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but fell into disuse in the 1920s as Western attire was popularized.

Theresa Davis of Madonna House, founded by Catherine Doherty, relates this tale:

Most of the time, we do not see the spiritual fruits of our doing little things well for the love of God, but every once in a while God gives us a glimpse. Here’s one story that happened during my time in Madonna House Israel, a house where we worked among the Palestinians in Haifa. The Israeli government would not allow young Palestinian men to congregate. Our house was one of the places where they could come, since we were under the umbrella of the archbishop. We used to serve the young men and women coffee; they taught us how to make good Arabic coffee. We would empty their ash trays and serve them royally. They hung around our house a lot, and we developed a great love for these young people. We watched them change before our eyes. After four years in the Holy Land we had to close our house for political reasons. Later on, when we were back in Combermere, one of those young Palestinian men came as a working guest to Madonna House. One day at our after-dinner spiritual reading, he shared the following story: “There was a group of young men who worked in the armory as painters. The government needed to employ Palestinians because the Jewish men were in the army. These young men, led by me, were going to steal seven machine guns and station ourselves at the busiest intersection in Haifa. “When the traffic lights turned green and all traffic converged, the plan was to kill as many Israelis as possible. “However as the time neared for us to carry out our plan, each one of us realized that we could not go through with it because our hearts were changing. The staff at Madonna House were having a softening effect on our hearts. “We talked about how we were served and waited on by the women, and how they tried to learn our language. Up to now, most of the missionaries who ran schools made us learn their language, which indicated to us that our language was second class compared to their ‘first class’ one. “We had hated the Church: it was foreign to us. Up to now, we had not seen a group of missionaries whose sole intention was to come and identify with us, live like us, live where we lived, serve us, and consider us first-class citizens.” After this story Catherine turned to me and said: “Do you see the power of doing little things with love?” – Theresa Davis, “God in the Nitty-Gritty,” Living Fully in Our Times

When people fall in love, they begin to identify with each other, taking on one another’s mannerisms and learning to appreciate each other’s tastes, while bearing burdens and sharing joys together. It is the same with God. He loved us so much as to become one of us, bearing our sins so that we may share in the freedom of His glorious love.

When we share the good news of salvation with others, let us remember to first identify with them, learning to see through their eyes so that they can see through ours to the divine plan of God.

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