As the Church engages itself with various cultures it takes on the qualities of the cultures in which it lives. Put simply: the Church is always incarnate in a specific place and time, among a specific people. Pope Paul VI summarized it well when he said in Evangelii Nunciandi #62:
“In the mind of the Lord, the Church is universal by vocation and mission, but when she puts down her roots in a variety of cultural, social and human terrains, she takes on different external expressions and appearances in each part of the world.” …”This universal Church is in practice incarnate in the individual Churches made up of an actual part of mankind, speaking such and such a language, heirs of a cultural patrimony, of a vision of the world, of an historical past, of a particular human substratum.”As the Church cannot remain untouched by its encounter with various cultures, so too the cultures themselves change as they encounter the Church. This is no chance encounter between the Gospel and cultures it is a matter of conviction for the Church.
Inculturation has been a tool and a result of evangelization throughout the history of the Church (1). It is the act of becoming incarnate within a people. Pope John Paul II expresses it well in Redemptoris Missio: “The process of the Church’s insertion into people’s cultures is a lengthy one. It is not a matter of purely external adaptation, for inculturation ‘means the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures.’ The process is thus a profound and all-embracing one, which involves the Christian message and also the Church’s reflection and practice. But at the same time it is a difficult process, for it must in no way compromise the distinctiveness and integrity of the Christian faith” (2)
“Through inculturation the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community. She transmits to them her own values, at the same time taking the good elements that already exist in them and renewing them from within. Through inculturation the Church, for her part, becomes a more intelligible sign of what she is, and a more effective instrument of mission.” (3)
(1) Redemptoris Missio, Op.cit., No 52.1
(2) Redemptoris Missio, Op. cit., No 52.2 citing Second Extraordinary Assembly ( 7 December, 1985) Final Report, II,D4.
(3) Redemptoris Missio, Op. cit., No 52.3 quoting Catechesi Tradendae (October 16, 1979) 53: AAS 71 (1979), 1320; Slavorum Apostoli, Op. cit., No 21.; Ad Gentes, Op. cit. No 22: “The Christian life will be adapted to the mentality and character of each culture and local traditions together with special qualities of each national family, illumined by the light of the Gospel will be taken up into a Catholic unity. So new particular Churches, each with its own traditions, have their place in the community of the Church, the Primacy of Peter which presides over this universal assembly of charity, all the while remaining intact.”