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A Joint Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishops of the Sudan

A Joint Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishops of the Sudan

26 November 1995

This has been an historic year for the Catholic Church in Africa, historic because the labours of the African Synod of Bishops have been brought to fruition. For the past six years, the people in their preparatory parish meetings, and then the African Synod of Bishops itself deliberated on "The Church in Africa and her Evangelizing Mission Towards the Year 2000". Not only has the Holy Father announced in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, "The Church in Africa", the message of hope emanating from the work of the Synod of Bishops, but he came himself to Africa, delivered the message in person and celebrated with the multitudes of the Catholic faithful in Africa. It is against this background that we the Bishops of Southern Africa, at this time, wish to address you on the subject of inculturation which presents a real challenge to us as we seek to become a Church which is truly a family.

Feeling at Home in One's CultureLet us begin with a question to each one individually: Do you, yourself, feel fully "at home" in the Church? And if you can truly say: "Yes, I do", do you think all your fellow-parishioners could say the same? And are you sure all the people of your neighbouring parishes, too, can say that they feel fully at home in the Church?

You surely realize how important this question is. You can probably remember times when you did not feel "at home". Maybe you were on a journey far away from home and people spoke an unfamiliar language, behaved in an unfamiliar way, wore unfamiliar clothing, sang unfamiliar tunes. Everything was strange to you and you did not feel at home. You longed to get home again and to feel at ease.

We have a word for the things which make us feel "at home" - our way of speaking, of singing, of behaving, of celebrating the events of life, of expressing joy or sorrow, of relating to others, and most of all the revered customs handed down to us by our forefathers. These many things we call "our culture". When we act and move within our culture we feel "at home".

Feeling at Home in the ChurcNow let us come back to our initial question: Do all Catholics feel truly "at home" in the Church? What can be done to make all feel: "This is our way of celebrating; this is our way of praising God; this is our way of expressing our joy and our sorrow to God; this is our way of being God's family"? For this difficult process of making people feel at home in the Church we use the term "inculturation". The faith must be inserted into the culture; the culture must be inserted into the faith. Faith and culture should be two deeply connected parts of a single whole.

Healing the Wounds of the PastThe Synod for Africa is a stimulus for us to engage ourselves more resolutely in the process of inculturation, even if it is a long process, even if it entails many difficulties. There certainly are difficulties. One difficulty is that in each of our parishes there are several different types of people. By trying to make some feel more "at home" in our liturgies we might make others feel "no longer at home". The only solution is to plan and reflect together, to respect everybody, to listen to everybody, to make decisions together and not in isolation. Another difficulty we will encounter is the already existing deep wound caused when the local culture was neglected or even despised for many years. We have to work for the healing of such wounds. We begin our task of inculturation by asking pardon for having hurt others by not respecting their culture in the Church for so many years.

The Challenges of Inculturation Let us not be discouraged from the start by allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the immensity of the task. We list the many challenges which will arise when we deal with inculturation. We cannot deal with them in this short document but let us at least enumerate some of them briefly:


  • How can we at the same time include the local culture and yet preserve the historic treasures of our liturgy?
  • How can we make our liturgical services lively and yet retain a sense of sacredness and reverence?
  • How can we respect traditional culture which did not favour the equality of women and yet accept the legitimate longing of women for equal respect and treatment.?
  • If we concentrate on mending the gap between culture and faith, will this not cause us to neglect issues of social justice?
  • How will we prevent individual parishes from making decisions on inculturation which go beyond their competence?
  • How can we maintain unity in the Church while allowing for various cultures to use diverse expressions of their faith?

    Guidelines have been prepared for all who will engage in the task of inculturation. Study sessions, meetings and workshops will have to be conducted to ensure that this important task is undertaken in the right way.


    An Invitation to All

    Some parishes may mistakenly think that they cannot do anything at all until complete instructions on inculturation have been issued. It will take a long time for these to become available. National and diocesan offices, experts, researchers and study centres will certainly have an important role in this process of inculturation, but parishes are also encouraged to play their part.



    Build Community in the process



    We suggest that each Parish Pastoral Council studies the whole or at least part of the document "The Church in Africa" (e.g. No. 42-43; No. 62-63). Probably there are some immediate small steps which each parish can take on its own in order to come closer to local culture - simple changes concerning music, the style of celebrating, wider participation in leading the liturgy. We do however suggest that, to avoid any part of the community not to feel at home, all such initiatives be first planned carefully and then presented to the community for their comments before being implemented. Respect and togetherness are among the highest values in all cultures and they are the dearest to the gospel as well. What is introduced into the liturgy should be acceptable to all. The parish, together with its priest(s), will certainly sense where its own competence ends and which kind of innovations cannot be introduced just by one parish without consulting the diocesan authorities.

    We wish you God's Blessing on your efforts towards true inculturation.

    Issued by: Secretary General