Cardinal Poupard on Enculturation; Olympic Peace

“The Gospel Always Comes From the Outside”

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By Delia Gallagher

ROME, AUG. 19, 2004 ( French Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, celebrates both the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination and the 25th anniversary of his episcopal ordination this year.

In his honor, the Vatican has published a book entitled “Culture, Incroyance et Foi” (Edizioni Studium), a collection of essays written by cardinals, priests and academics on the situation of Catholicism in the modern world.

I sat down with Cardinal Poupard this summer to discuss his memories of life at the Vatican and the work of the Second Vatican Council in infusing culture with the Gospel message.

“One of my most extraordinary memories of my time at the Vatican is when I went to the Soviet Union,” said Cardinal Poupard. “I have a great veneration for the Apostle Paul — I carry his name — and I said to myself that I wanted to bring Christ to Moscow.”

“I think I was the first cardinal to be invited to the Kremlin in ’91, still the time of the old Soviet Union, and perhaps the only one, since the USSR disbanded shortly thereafter,” he recalled. “I remember that they interviewed me on television, and to my surprise, the presenter showed me a Bible and asked me to explain it to him!

“I had to quickly improvise a catechesis. I said the first words of Genesis in Hebrew: and God created the world and created us in his image and likeness. Even if someone is not aware of it, he is created in the image of God.

“I said it was my joy to participate in this visit with my brothers, because we are all brothers, whatever our political persuasion, because we are all created in the image of God.”

The process of incorporating the Gospel into a culture is known today as enculturation. It involves a delicate balance of respect for the practices and beliefs of a given culture, with a firm commitment to instilling the Gospel message and Catholic traditions within a society.

Cardinal Christian Tumi of Cameroon, in his essay in “Culture, Incroyance et Foi,” writes of the challenges of enculturation in Africa, observing, “The real problem is not that of the rapport between the Gospel and culture, but that of the rapport between the new Christian traditions with those that have monopolized Christianity. … [T]hroughout the history of Christianity, ‘Christianists’ have attributed to God political or cultural choices that conform to certain interests.”

I asked Cardinal Poupard about Cardinal Tumi’s observation.

“Twice the Holy Father sent me to Africa,” said Cardinal Poupard, “and when you are in Africa you understand perfectly what Cardinal Tumi says: that some Europeans or Americans might tend to think that enculturation is something done in a laboratory by scholars instead of being the lived Gospel. …

“The first time I went to Kinshasa, in Zaire [Congo], I was speaking to a group of Africans and after I’d finished, one man stood up and said, ‘Well everything you say is fine, but you Europeans have brought us all of your customs and beliefs, they are not ours,’ and everyone applauded.

“I waited for a moment because the atmosphere was very tense and then I said, ‘Dear friends, I ask your pardon because I do not have the good fortune to be Belgian,’ and everyone relaxed with a laugh. Then I made my point, ‘The Gospel always comes from the outside. To you, it came from Belgium. To me, a Frenchman, it came from Vienna. When you turn to real origins of the Gospel — from where does it come? From God.”

Cardinal Poupard continued: “St. Paul brought it to Rome and transformed Rome from a great pagan empire. And, this is cheeky of me to mention, but it wasn’t so much the priests who brought the Gospel from the East, but in France it was above all the military men, like St. Martin, and merchants.”

“Tomorrow,” he added, “I told them, it will be you, Africans, who bring your enculturated Christianity to other countries.”

In fact, this migration is already happening in Europe where African priests are working in parishes, filling the gap left by declining European vocations.

“We, Europe, have grown old,” said the cardinal. “We forget, first of all, that the problem has its roots in society. Christians are not a species from another world; we are in this world. Those responsible need to become aware that if we continue like this, Europe is going toward its demographic demise.

“When I was a boy, the average families were made up of five or six children, today two, for many, is already numerous. So we have this rich ‘Christian’ Europe with few children, while in the South they are poor but have many children.”

Is a black pope in the future? I asked.

“Who predicted Karol Wojtyla?” said Cardinal Poupard. “It was an extraordinary, unthinkable event at the time that today everyone takes for granted.

“When I participate at meetings with cardinals, we are from all nations, which was unthinkable when I first came to Rome in ’59. So the problem in electing a Pope isn’t one of nationality, but of personality.

“The future is in our hands, and we are in God’s hands. We cannot forget that the Holy Spirit, at the right moment, makes us do the right thing, and with great creativity.”

“I like to say that the first millennium was that of Europe; the second of the New World; and the third will be of Asia: China and India contain half the world’s population, of which there are still few Christians,” Cardinal Poupard said.

“I dare to say, following Tertullian, who said that pagan hearts were naturally Christian, that the Chinese heart is naturally Christian,” he said.

“I was struck by the autobiography of a former Chinese government minister who ended up a Benedictine monk,” the French cardinal continued. “Don Wu speaks of his conversion and says it was not a conversion; he followed one of my favorite saints, the great St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and he said that through this little way of love he found the same things that his parents and Confucianism taught him. He didn’t renounce anything, but was opened and grew in Christianity.

“The more I reflect on it, the more I am convinced that in the Chinese culture, there is no obstacle to the Good News.

“For the moment the Church there is in difficulty, yes, due to Chinese politics. But the religious dimension is written on the heart of every man, even if he doesn’t know it; man cannot live without the Absolute.”

And the culture of Islam?

The question of the future of Christianity and Islam is tied to the previous question of demographic decline, said the cardinal.

“Europe suffers from aphasia, which I hope is not the same as amnesia,” he said. “Aphasia is the condition of not knowing how to speak. I say, He who does not want to speak anymore, perhaps will forget too.

“So Europe suffers from a lack of future, without children, and now a lack of a past because it forgets its roots. Do you know a tree that grows without roots and looking toward the sky? Islam has faith in its future and knows its past.”

The cardinal continued: “There are new signs of Christianity in Europe and I hope it will be enough to create an inversion of this decline and it will to the extent that Christians know how to rediscover their Christian roots. I see millions of young people who follow the Pope — this is promising, this is the future.”

He added: “Once I was at lunch with the Pope and someone suggested that his popularity was due only to his personality and not to the Church, and John Paul II said, ‘This is not the charisma of the Pope, it is the charisma of Peter.'”

* * *

True to a Truce

For a thousand years from the inception of the Olympic Games to their abolition by Emperor Theodosius, there was such a thing as an “Olympic Truce,” an agreement to suspend all wars and fighting between nations for the duration of the games.

In view of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the United Nations proposed a resolution to renew the Olympic Truce and more than 100 international leaders signed on, including the Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.

The Greek ambassador to the Holy See, Christos Botzios, revealed what happened when the proposal was brought to John Paul II, in an interview this month in Italian magazine 30 Giorni.

“We asked the Pope to sign on to the resolution for the Olympic Truce very early on,” said Botzios. “I contacted Archbishop Celestino Migliore, who was still in the Secretariat of State then.”

“Initially, there was some hesitation,” he said. “It was noted that the Pope does not usually sign on to resolutions for things that do not enter in directly to the mission of the Church. But then it was decided that there were no contraindications to prevent the Pope from supporting this pre-Christian tradition.”

In the end, the Pope once again availed himself of the opportunity to call nations to peace, signing on to the resolution and releasing his own message for a “lasting suspension of every violence,” during the Olympic Games.

* * *

Readers may contact Delia Gallagher at

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