Inculturation and the Guadalupana

Henry Shea SJ


In his recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis emphasizes “the importance of understanding evangelization as inculturation.  Grace supposes culture,” he writes, “and God’s gift becomes flesh in the culture of those who receive it” (EG 115).  Expressing themes that have recurred throughout his life and ministry, Francis proceeds to lauds the role of popular piety in the life of a people, maintaining that its accessible, incarnate features exemplify the embodiment of an evangelical faith in culture.  Echoing Aparecida, Francis describes popular piety as a “spirituality incarnated in the culture of the lowly” and “the people’s mysticism” (EG 124).

It would be difficult to find a more significant example of the convergence of these themes than the celebrated image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to which Francis himself expresses devotion.  What is it about this symbol that has captivated the hearts of so many?  Using Francis’ words in Evangelii Gaudium as a point of departure, this paper analyzes the Guadalupan image and event as a potential model for inculturation.  It focuses upon three key features of the image from which can be gleaned broader principles for inculturation, namely: (1) its interlacing of cultural and revelational symbols in such a way that the cultural symbols are affirmed as well as transformed, (2) the use of inculturated symbol as a way of maximizing what Rahner refers to as “the overplus of meaning” communicated through “primordial” words and symbols that evoke deeper, transcendental aspects of human experience, and (3) finally the use of inculturated symbol to mediate interpersonal faith-encounters that can be  shared through the renewed culture and the bonds of community.

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