Pope Francis: To evangelize, ‘faith must be inculturated’

pope francis Pope Francis at the general audience at St. Peter's Square on Oct. 25, 2023. | Credit: Vatican Media

Pope Francis in his ongoing catechetical series on apostolic zeal on Wednesday spoke about the example of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the ninth-century “apostles of the Slavs” whose mission was built on three pillars: unity, inculturation, and liberty.

At the center of the pope’s Oct. 25 general audience was an emphasis on the relationship — and harmonization — between culture and faith. This process of inculturation is seen in the example of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, whose task was to “study the culture of those peoples in depth,” the pope said. 

Pope Francis recounted the story of the two brothers as one of encounter with the Slavic people, who had to confront a “pagan” culture, thereby integrating the faith into the specific, local cultural context. 

Sts. Cyril and Methodius, born circa 826 and 815, respectively, hailed from modern-day Thessaloniki, Greece. Pope Francis recalled how the brothers, who came from an aristocratic family, “renounced a political career to devote themselves to monastic life.” 

Departing from his prepared remarks, the pope stressed that “faith must be inculturated and culture must be evangelized. The inculturation of faith, evangelization of culture — always.”

At the center of the saints’ effort to evangelize was localizing the faith. For Cyril, this work consisted of developing a native, Slavic alphabet. “Indeed, to proclaim the Gospel and to pray, one needed a proper, suitable, specific tool. So, he invented the Glagolitic alphabet. He translated the Bible and liturgical texts. People felt that the Christian faith was no longer ‘foreign,’ but rather it became their faith, spoken in their mother tongue,” the pope said. 

The Holy Father went on to remark: “Just think: two Greek monks giving an alphabet to the Slavs. It is this openness of heart that rooted the Gospel among them.”

“Some opposition emerged on the part of some Latins, who saw themselves deprived of their monopoly on preaching to the Slavs,” he said.

Taking a moment to go off script, the pope emphasized: “That struggle within the Church, always like this.”

“Their objection was religious, but only in appearance: God can be praised, they said, only in the three languages written on the cross: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin,” Francis continued.

Again departing from the prepared text, the pope excoriated those who opposed their efforts by saying: “These were closed-minded to defend their autonomy.”

The pope, showcasing Cyril’s tenacity and love of God, said: “But Cyril responds forcefully: God wants every person to praise him in their own language.”

The theme of unity has been at the center of Pope Francis’ pontificate and at the fore of Synod of Synodality, which closes its first session this weekend.

In the Sep. 30 public consistory for the creation of cardinals, Pope Francis reminded the newly-created cardinals that they were “representing the harmony and synodality of the Church.”

“Mother Church, who speaks all languages, is one and is Catholic,” he said, stressing that “the faith is transmitted in dialect.” 

During Wednesday’s audience, the pope went on to stress that the evangelical mission of Sts. Cyril and Methodius is one rooted in unity, between “the Greeks, the pope, the Slavs.” He continued: “At that time, there was an undivided Christianity in Europe, which collaborated in order to evangelize,” the pope said. 

“Evangelizing culture and inculturation shows that evangelization and culture are closely connected. You cannot preach an abstract, distilled Gospel. No, the Gospel must be inculturated and it is also an expression of culture,” the pope said. 

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The saints hold a special place both for the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. St. John Paul II, the first Slav to become pope, made the saints co-patrons of Europe, alongside St. Benedict, in 1980. They are also venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Churches as “equal-to-apostles,” a title given to those saints whose contribution to the spread of Christianity is equivalent in scope and magnitude to the apostles. They have the additional appellation of “enlighteners of the Slavs.” 

The pope closed his audience highlighting the third element present in their witness: “In preaching you need freedom, but freedom always needs courage. A person is free the more courageous he is and doesn’t let himself be chained by many things that take away his freedom.”

At the end of the greetings to the various pilgrim groups present in the piazza, Pope Francis renewed his appeal for peace.

“I always think of the serious situation in Palestine and Israel: I encourage the release of the hostages and the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza,” he said. “I continue to pray for those who suffer and to hope for paths of peace, in the Middle East, in the tormented Ukraine, and in other regions wounded by war.”

“I remind everyone that the day after tomorrow, Friday, Oct. 27, we will experience a day of fasting, prayer, and penance at 6 p.m. in St. Peter’s [Square]; we will gather to pray to implore peace in the world,” he concluded. 

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