'With us' and not 'against us'

Originally Appeared in : 9922-10/24/19

This has been a very busy month for Pope Francis. On Oct. 4, he ordained four priests as bishops; on Oct. 5, he created 13 new cardinals (10 eligible to vote in conclave)—including one of the newly-ordained bishops; on Oct. 6, he opened the Synod on “Amazonia,” and on Oct. 13, he canonized five new saints, including John Henry Newman. Yet these significant events were overshadowed in some Catholic social media sites by the puzzling optics of an informal interreligious prayer service held in the Vatican Gardens on the Memorial of Saint Francis of Assisi (also on Oct. 4).


Many commentators professed to be outraged that the Holy Father prayed with pagan Amazonian shamans as well as with Catholics. These “optics” provided a springboard for a premature judgment on the synod still in session, on the long-established premise that the universal Catholic faith needs to be expressed in terms of each particular culture’s “genius” (the process known as “inculturation”), and even on the validity of Pope Francis’ election 6 years ago.


I write this article to allay certain apprehensions about the particular issues at stake in connection with the above, by offering historical background and theological context to aid in evaluating the synod, which will not be complete until the Holy Father issues his eventual “post-synodical apostolic exhortation” many months hence. Any attempt to evaluate all this in advance would be premature—the Amazon synod is not yet ready for “prime time” commentary (pun intended).


Regarding the prayer service on the Memorial of Saint Francis, Pope Saint John Paul II set the precedent for it by convoking leaders of the world’s religions in Saint Francis’ hometown of Assisi on Oct. 26, 1986 to pray for peace. There are still some Catholics who regard that event and subsequent reiterations of it decades later as “sacrilegious” and don’t hesitate to sit in judgment on that great Vicar of Christ, even after his canonization as a saint. They seem to adhere to only one of Jesus’ sayings about being for him or against him.


In Mark 9:38-40, Apostle John asks Jesus: “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” Jesus replies, “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.” In this situation, “Jesus instructed his disciples not to stop anyone from acting in his name even if they didn’t have the proper credentials.”


But in Matthew 12:30, we find Jesus saying, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” But here, Jesus is not referring to people who are acting in his name, but to demons acting contrary to that name. In fact, the Gospel according to Luke captures in one book both the Lord’s affirmation of people acting “with us” (Luke 9:49-50 parallels Mark 9:38-40) and his condemnation of demons acting “against us” (Luke 11:23 parallels Matthew 12:30). Are non-Catholic religious leaders praying with the pope people who are “with us” or demons who are “against us?”


The synod is addressing “inculturation” in terms of one particular culture, “Amazonia.” As Joseph O’Brien recently noted, “In 1994, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments” issued a document on “Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy” that stated that “through the liturgy the Church seeks to present a clear expression of the faith to various cultures while also readily adopting and adapting aspects of those cultures that are not opposed to the faith or to the common good.”


The document notes that, “On the one hand the penetration of the Gospel into a given sociocultural milieu ‘gives inner fruitfulness to the spiritual qualities and gifts proper to each people …, strengthens these qualities, perfects them and restores them in Christ,’” and that, “On the other hand, the Church assimilates these values, when they are compatible with the Gospel, ‘to deepen understanding of Christ’s message and give it more effective expression in the liturgy and in the many different aspects of the life of the community of believers.’”


I have recently reflected on the attempted inculturation of the Catholic faith into Chinese culture by the great Italian Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), who mastered the Chinese language, grew a (Confucian) scholar’s long beard, and began the long process of “inculturating” the Catholic faith in an ancient Eastern land, very different from the Western lands in which Christianity had developed.


The Jesuit missionaries who followed in Father Ricci’s footsteps not only celebrated the sacraments of the Catholic Church in Chinese rather than in Latin, but also argued that the traditional “Chinese ritual practices of honoring family ancestors and other formal Confucian and Chinese imperial rites” did not qualify as religious rites properly so called, and were thus compatible with the Catholic faith. Father Ricci saw those who practiced those traditional rites as potentially “with us” and not “against us.” He was on the brink of converting the Dowager Empress (Queen Mother) to Catholic Christianity when he died in 1610.


Unfortunately, Franciscan and Dominican missionaries disagreed with Father Ricci and the Jesuits, and saw those who practiced the Chinese rites as necessarily “against us.” These missionaries demanded and obtained a prohibition from the Holy See against Ricci’s approach to “inculturation” in 1645. The Empress did not convert to Catholicism, nor did her court and people. The promising Catholic missions to China stalled from 1645 until 1856, when the prohibition was relaxed. Finally, on Dec. 8, 1939, Pope Pius XII definitively sided with Father Ricci and the Jesuits, “authorizing Chinese Catholics to observe the ancestral rites and participate in Confucius-honoring ceremonies,” a mere decade before the atheistic Communists seized power.


It would be a shame for the Catholic Church to make the same mistake in Amazonia in 2019 that it made in China in 1645.


 Father Douglas K. Clark is the retired pastor of Saint Matthew Church, Statesboro.

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