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  • Inculturation as Evangelization: The Dialogue of Faith and Culture in the Work of Marcello Azevedo
  • Jorge Presmanes O.P.


From the first century when Jewish Christians began their evangelizing endeavors in Gentile cultures, inculturation has been integral to theological discourse and ecclesial ministerial praxis.1 The early Christians’ engagement of non-Jewish cultures produced not only the conversion of those who were the object of the evangelizing effort, but it also caused the young church to rethink its theology and ecclesiology. As in the time of the Jerusalem Council, the Church’s leaders who gathered at the Second Vatican Council struggled to move from a theology and ecclesiology that many thought to be on the threshold of becoming irrelevant in the modern world to an aggiornamento (updating) of its theology and ecclesiology by critically engaging human experience and the world’s many cultures. As in the first century, the debate resulted in a theological and ecclesiological transformation of such magnitude that Yves Congar metaphorically described it as an ecclesial “October Revolution.”2

In the political and economic multi-polar world of today, secularism, globalization, rapid technological advances, and a multicultural reality in which pre-modern, modern, and post-modern cultural sensibilities collide, the inseparable relationship between faith and culture continues, as it always must, to be a primordial concern of [End Page 59] both pastoral agent and theologian alike.3 This is of particular concern for the Church in the United States. In his book Latino Catholicism, Timothy Matovina brings to light the remapping of American Catholicism given the ever-expanding numbers of Latinos in the U.S. Catholic Church.4 To a lesser but significant degree, immigrants from Asia and Africa are growing in numbers and are also changing the face of North American Catholicism. This ecclesial multiculturalism is forcing pastoral agents to seek methodologies of inculturation that facilitate effective ministerial praxis in the context of the cultures in which they minister.

Framed by the work of Brazilian Jesuit Marcello Azevedo, the pages that follow will attempt to provide a backdrop for an understanding of the process of inculturation as culture-specific ministerial praxis that posits faith and culture in a relationship of dialogue and dialectic.5 A cursory historical overview of the missiological praxis of the Church will demonstrate that, for the most part, the Church failed to embrace the dialogical posture between faith and culture that marked the evangelizing ministry of first century Christianity. Inculturation will be presented here as a liberating alternative to the often hegemonic and ethnocentric style of evangelization that prevailed in the historical period between the Jerusalem Council and Vatican II. The concept of inculturation that Azevedo envisioned is one by which the Christian life and message are embraced through culture. Moreover, he saw inculturation as evangelizing processes within an ecclesiology of communion and participation that is itself locus of revelation. Finally, he pictured inculturation as a dialectical process in which the Church and the culture embracing the Christian message are both enriched, transformed, and evangelized through a mutual commitment to openness and dialogue.6 We begin, however, with a very brief historical analysis of inculturation as evangelization.7

Historical Footprints of Inculturation as Evangelization

Azevedo, a cultural anthropologist and theologian, was an important voice in the field of theology of culture and evangelization during the latter decades of the twentieth [End Page 60] century. In his monograph Inculturation and the Challenges to Modernity, Azevedo highlighted some peak moments in the history of inculturation. Azevedo characterized the period between the Jerusalem Council and Vatican II as one that was largely devoid of a missiological praxis that placed the tradition of faith and culture in a relationship of dialogue.8 According to Azevedo, the openness to cultural dialogue that marked the evangelizing effort of primitive Christianity came to an end by the fourth century when the Church wedded itself to the Roman Empire. The bold and prophetic understanding of an inculturated Gospel for all nations was usurped first by the power and might of the Empire and subsequently by the privileged and powerful position assumed by the Church within European social structures.9 By the end of pre-modern times, the Church was...


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