Pope Francis speaks of the need for Contextual Mission

The Church urgently needs to stop seeing itself as a Western export
11 December 2013 by Fr Robert Kaggwa

Pope Francis’ comments on the need for the Church to develop non-Western expressions of the faith are a breath of fresh air. In his Apostolic ExhortationEvangelii Gaudium, he wrote: “We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture.” He thus reaffirmed the spirit of the Second Vatican Council that had been obscured in the past decades by a militant restorationism.

Coming from Africa, I have seen how the Church has been Western not only in its liturgy but also in its personnel, finance and theology. Although recent decades have seen dramatic improvements, one can still see how this dependence is not going away soon. While a lot has been achieved in new forms of worship, and today one can speak of Christianity already becoming a truly African religion, a lot remains to be done, particularly in the area of theology.

In his interpretation of the significance of Vatican II, the German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner argued that the Church had shifted from being a Western Church to becoming a world Church: Pope Francis is reminding us of what his fellow Jesuit said.

One could point to how developing non-Western theologies could be a risky business. In a way, theologians in Africa, Asia and Latin America are on a pioneering venture: the task of breaking new ground; and it is not guaranteed that they will not fumble and even make mistakes in the process. Who has not made mistakes? Peter? Paul? Tertullian? Augustine? Aquinas? Rahner?

In the Catholic Church and particularly during the last two papacies, we have seen an effort to block the contextualisation and inculturation of Christianity in local cultures. The achievements of Vatican II have been weakened by a call to a uniform, standard, mandatory way for all. Today we know that this presumed standard theology is simply the accumulation of traditions, methodologies, topics and questions that have served to answer the needs of the Western world over the past few centuries.

When the Christian faith came as the Good News to non-Western peoples, there were many elements of its theology that did not address the questions raised by the new believers in any satisfactory or relevant way. The message was then found to be scratching where its hearers did not itch. The task of non-Western Christians has been to make the Christian message address and challenge these new contexts of people’s lives.

Unless this is done, Christian faith will tend to be seen as a system of venerable ancient formulas that make much of issues that very few people (in this case some isolated groups of specialists in Church circles and academia) are interested in.

Worse still, its theology will seem to be an irrelevant exercise of complicated reasoning over matters which make the Christian faith look like the promotion and defence of an outdated system, rather than the welcome promise of a God who liberates and empowers ordinary people.

The Christian faith has shifted its centre of gravity away from the affluent Western nations into countries where the majority are victims of poverty, powerlessness, violence, exploitation, disease and oppression. It is these people in the first place that are waiting to receive the Good News. Theology has to give priority to the task of listening to these people and of seeking ways of speaking about God in ways that make sense to them. Pope Francis’ message is thus a welcome reminder and a true message of joy.

Ugandan-born Fr Robert Kaggwa is a Catholic chaplain and lecturer in theology and religious studies at the University of Roehampton, south-west London. One of his courses is Theologies from the non-Western world.

Above: Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro of Juba, South Sudan, presides over the ordination of three deacons. Photo: CNS/Paul Jeffrey


This article from today’s issue of The Tablet discusses Pope Francis’ statement of the Church’s need to allow theology to be processed in the local context by indigenous theologians. No longer can the Church expect to perpetuate its own brand of missionary activity onto the Church in the third World:

” Today we know that this presumed standard theology is simply the accumulation of traditions, methodologies, topics and questions that have served to answer the needs of the Western world over the past few centuries.”

This augurs well for Roman Catholics in non-Western contexts to be allowed to evangelize their indigenous people with methods that are pertinent to the culture of the local people.

Roman Catholics – at least since Vatican II – have long engaged in some form of identification with the local people and their customs – certainly in the realm of expanding their understanding of elements of the Mass. I well remember, when living in Fiji in the latter part of the 1960’s, when the local Roman Catholic Bishop authorised an Indian custom into the provision of the species of the elements at the Mass – the ‘Missa Puja’ allowed for Indian naan bread to be used instead of the  unleavened white wafer bread, and for Indian music to be substituted for the Gregorian plainchant of the Mass. This was certainly viewed by the local immigrant Indian congregations as en encouragement for their participation in common worship.

Obviously, what Pope Francis is suggesting for the future is for a more radical inclusion of local customs and missiological  insights into how the Faith is propagated and practised in the local situation of non-Western countries – in order to encourage more local involvement in the life of the Church.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand



About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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