2023-07-13 AUSTRALIA

Star of the Sea: a diverse and pluralistic Province

Tomorrow (14 July), Aotearoa New Zealand celebrates Matariki with a public holiday and festivities. New Caledonia will also celebrate Bastille Day. Yesterday was Kiribati National Day. Last week in Australia was NAIDOC, recognising Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and their cultures. Last Friday was the Solomon Islands’ Independence Day.

These all remind us that ours is a diverse and pluralistic Province. Our lives and even our beliefs have been shaped by vastly different cultural factors and experiences. We look at life and the world differently. There are subtle differences in how we express our faith. Part of the diversity is cultural, part is generational.

Despite the strong emphasis some in the Church place on uniformity and orthodoxy, plurality has been a feature of our faith from the earliest times. The Hebrew scriptures that nourished Jesus’ spirituality contain enormous diversity: there are myths, laws, poetry, prophecy, history.

There isn’t really one cohesive theology, but rather a series of patterns that don’t necessarily fit easily together. Despite this, in the scriptures there is a fundamental unity that has enriched and nurtured the faith of people for millennia.

The same is true in the Christian scriptures. We know that the Evangelists presented different images of Jesus depending on the audience for whom they were writing. Matthew and Mark wrote primarily for Jewish Christians, Luke for the Gentiles, and John, more specifically, for those of a Greek background.

What each emphasised about Jesus and the way they structured their respective narratives therefore varied. Within these communities of believers there were different pastoral needs, and these are also reflected in the Gospels and in the other New Testament writings.

Andrew Walls, the famed British missiologist, wrote extensively about early Christianity. He explored the impact of the early Christians’ preaching to the Greeks in Ephesus and Antioch. When speaking to the Greeks, Paul didn’t use the term “Messiah”, because it didn’t mean anything to them. For the Jews, the idea of “Messiah” held rich resonances, but not for the Greeks. In this setting, Paul spoke of Jesus as Kyrios, as Lord. The use of this title led to new theological questions being asked by the Greeks, such as how did Jesus relate to God, Creator and Father? Are there two Lords’? In response to these questions, the concepts and later doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation
emerged. These are essentially Greek contributions to Christianity. These came from the Greek mind and from Greek culture.

Each culture has the capacity to offer new insights into our Christian faith and our understanding of Jesus. The Faith comes alive when it is inculturated in different places in different ways. Think of the diversity of images of Mary – in Africa there are depictions of Mary as black, in Asia as Asian, in the Pacific as Pacifican. These nurture a local relationship with the Christian faith tradition.

For centuries Missionaries had the task of inculturating the Gospel into new environments. In every continent and part of the world, they succeeded to a certain degree. Some adaptions were possible and acceptable, and others weren’t. The more doctrines, traditions and practices became entrenched in the Church the less likely was their adaption in new environments. Some would argue that the Church today is suffering because it is unwilling to adapt to what is a new cultural environment: 21st century life.

How has the faith been inculturated in our part of the World? Maybe the real question is ‘has it been adequately enculturated’? How is Pacific Christianity expressed in its diversity?

Interestingly, the Report of the February 2023 meeting of the Federation of Catholic Bishops Conference of Oceania, convened to prepare for the Synod on Synodality, has a separate section on Inculturation and Localisation. The Bishops focus mostly on liturgical adaptions, but their final statement on the issue is most significant:

Overall, it is important to emphasise the importance of cultural diversity to the life of the Church: “We must start by being fully ourselves. It is only in our distinctiveness that we can make any kind of contribution to the larger society. It is only by being what we are that we retain a reason for existence at all”.

From our Province perspective, the issue about pluralism isn’t difference; it’s about the richness and added dimensions that the difference brings to our shared life and mission. We need to nurture genuine cultural expression, to ‘be what we are’, so that the ‘whole’ is enriched.

Think of Paul’s writing about the different gifts. 1 Corinthians 12 is about diversity, and unity through diversity. You know it well: it says that within the body of Christ there are different people with different gifts, abilities, callings – cultures too – just as within the human body there are various limbs, organs and functions. All the parts of the human body are needed and important. Each and every Christian – or Marist
– is equally important and equally needed. Paul’s argument does not begin with the human body, but with God. There is diversity in the Godhead, which is revealed as Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Because the Christian God is a unity in diversity, so people on earth will be a unity of diverse people. The Trinity, as a model of community and co-operation, stands behind every New Testament picture of the community of God’s people.

The point Paul wants to make is that unity does not mean uniformity. A united community is not one where every member is a clone of the leader. The point is about gifts. Gifts are a sign of diversity, given to help build a unity of co-operation and creativity within the Church. It is precisely because we are not all the same and don’t all have the same gifts, says Paul, that we can grow as Christian people in God’s world as we meet together, share our experiences and build one another up in our faith. The tragedy is that there’s a tendency (definitely in the past) for the church to force people into a particular mould, saying, in effect, ‘If you want to feel welcome here, you’ve got to be like us.’

This can’t be our Marist way. We speak of inclusivity and family and we need to mean it, and practice it. Our Province, and all in it, need to accept and welcome diversity, and to work with this reality. We can truly be a communion of believers and Marists: united in our diversity, a truly pluralistic Champagnat Family.

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Star Messenger – 13 July 2023 | Edition 37

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