–          Mathew Vattamattam cmf

1. Introduction

japaneseWe are at a privileged moment in history when people of different cultures and continents come to know each other, meet together and live closer at a fast growing pace due to migration, travel and work in multi-national firms. As the world is becoming a global village where all cultures are exposed to each other and enrich one another, we come across positive efforts to build together a better world. But we also find fundamentalist movements and ethnic conflicts that disrupt peace and co-existence of different groups in the society.

The Gospel of love which can build unity in diversity becomes all the more relevant and needed in our times. Hence new evangelization assumes special significance in today’s world for the Church to give witness to the unifying love that can celebrate God’s gift of creative diversity in the world. Pope John Paul II urged that “in the third millennium Christianity will have to respond ever more effectively to the need for inculturation”[1] and the Church will also be “characterized by the face of the many cultures and peoples where it is taken up and rooted”[2].

2.Mission of the consecrated amidst the diversities in the world

Consecrated life knew the challenges of multiculturality through the lived life of thousands of missionaries long before social sciences and multinational companies began to talk about it. Almost all institutes of consecrated life are multicultural as they are constituted by members from various ranks and cultures. Religious have been on the vanguard to reach out to people of other cultures. As a result most of the religious communities of institutes of pontifical rite are intercultural and have missions across cultures. Besides, a reverse missionary presence in the west is taking place as vocations from Asia and Africa are supplying personnel in many communities in Europe which make these communities international. But very little systematic research and study is done on the dynamics of intercultural living in religious life.

Vita consecrata states, “ The Church entrusts communities of Consecrated life the particular task of spreading the spirituality of communion, first of all in their internal life and then in the ecclesial community and even beyond its boundaries by opening or continuing a dialogue of charity especially where today’s world is torn apart by ethnic hatred and senseless violence”[3] . The challenge of interculturality and inculturation today calls for a revision of how we form our candidates to respond to the need of new evangelization in the third millennium.

3. Understanding cultures and the global culture

With Pope Francis we shall look at culture as “the lifestyle of a given society, the specific way in which its members relate to one another, to other creatures and to God. Understood in this way, culture embraces the totality of a people’s life”[4]. There is a dynamic and creative aspect of culture as “each generation passes on a whole serious of ways of approaching existential situations to the next generation, which must in turn reformulate it as it confronts its own challenges” [5].

There are treasures hidden in the various forms of human culture.[6] There is no culture which is so poor that it has nothing to offer to others nor is there a culture so perfect that it has nothing to learn from others. There are deficiencies and limitations proper to human nature which also find their place in any culture.
Apart from the diverse cultures of people we should also take into account the emerging global culture which the fathers of Vatican II noted as the emergence of a“ new age in human history” and the “birth of a new humanism” [7]. On one hand this “universal form of human culture”[8] gives hopes for better promotion and expression of the unity and joint responsibility of the human race. On the other hand there is also the danger of destroying the wisdom received from ancestors and losing the character proper to each people.[9] Pope Francis decried the evils of the present globalized culture pointing to the consequences of a “throwaway culture” which treats humans as consumer goods to be used and discarded, a culture of prosperity that excludes the poor and promotes the globalization of indifference.[10] Humanity is still struggling to build unity amidst diversity.

4. The need for inculturation of the Gospel

Jesus Christ and his Gospel transcends all cultures, even if they are entirely penetrated by the presence of the risen Christ and his Spirit.[11] Hence Gospel, and therefore evangelization, are not identical with culture and they are independent in regard to all cultures.[12] This transcendence of the Gospel in relation to cultures makes it possible for the Gospel to enter into dynamic relationship with all cultures and let the light of the Gospel to penetrate all sectors of society and the leaven of salvation to transform society from within, fostering the growth of a culture imbued with Gospel values[13]. Through inculturation the Church introduces peoples, together with their cultures into her own community and every culture offers positive values and forms which can enrich the way the Gospel is preached, understood and lived.[14]inculturate

5. The agents of inculturation

The protagonists of inculturation are the Holy Spirit and the people of each culture. Whenever a community receives the message of salvation, the Holy Spirit enriches its culture with the transforming power of the Gospel. Once the Gospel has been inculturated in a people, they also transmit the faith in ever new forms in their process of transmitting their culture and thus we can say that a community continuously evangelizes itself.[15]

The evangelizers become catalysts of inculturation in the measure they are instruments of the Holy Spirit and share in the life of the community. Unless they allow this transforming process happen in themselves which enables them to transcend their own cultural limits and embrace other people as their own, they may remain only as onlookers without taking any active part in the process of inculturation.

The beautiful osmosis between Gospel and Culture taking place through the transforming presence of the Church in various cultures and, in return, their contribution to the life and mission of the Church is very vividly expressed in the intercultural dimension of the life and mission of consecrated people. Dialogue is the key to facilitate the process of inculturation.

6.Consecrated life, witness of communion and evangelizing presence in the world

6.1.Witness of communion

Pope John Paul stated that “in today’s world which is torn apart by ethnic violence and senseless violence, the Communities of consecrated life, where persons of different ages, languages and cultures meet as brothers and sisters, are signs that dialogue is possible and that communion can bring differences into harmony”. [16] The Pope hopes that “the International institutes can achieve this effectively, inasmuch as they have to face in a creative way the challenge of inculturation, while at the same time preserving their identity”.[17] The witness of communion in intercultural communities and their commitment to the people of God beyond their cultures render consecrated life an effective evangelizing presence in the world today.

6.2.Evangelizing presence

Vita Consecrata[18] identified several ways that religious communities offer concrete and effective cultural proposals such as:

  • when they bear witness to the evangelical manner of practicing mutual acceptance in diversity and of exercising authority
  • when they give an example of sharing material and spiritual goods,
  • being truly international,
  • cooperating with other Institutes,
  • listening to the men and women of our time

Further, the manner of thinking and acting of those who follow Christ more closely gives rise to a true and proper point of reference for culture; it serves to point out all that is inhuman; it bears witness that God alone strengthens and perfects values. In turn, a genuine inculturation will help consecrated persons to live the radical nature of the Gospel according to the charism of their Institute and the character of the people with whom they come into contact” [19]

The consecrated people can carry out this mission only in fidelity to their own charism and living its prophetic thrust so as to act as a leaven within a culture, purifying and perfecting it, fostering the growth of a culture imbued with Gospel values.[20]

7. Intercultural communities: Graces and challenges

Consecrated life lived in intercultural communities giving witness to communion in the Church and Christian fraternity finds many challenges in actual life. Untold sufferings, conflicts and communication failures are common features in many institutes especially because of ignorance about cultural differences, lack of awareness about community dynamics, and insufficient spiritual and charismatic growth. We shall identify a few of the blessings and challenges of intercultural communities.

7.1.Intercultural community: Graces

Consecrated persons who live in intercultural communities have wonderful opportunities for personal growth and missionary witness in spite of moments of difficulties and misunderstandings. The communities where differences are perceived positively and conflicts are addressed maturely, there are many blessings:

  1. Witness of God as the father of us all
  2. A model of communal harmony
  3. Opening to broader perspectives about reality
  4. Better Self- knowledge and personal growth
  5. Healthy confrontation and mutual learning
  6. Apostolic effectiveness through a wide variety of evangelizing approaches

 7.2.Intercultural community: Challenges

In the communities where differences are perceived as a threat, there are various defensive dynamics that drain the vitality of members and enthusiasm for mission.

1) stereotypes and Prejudices

Stereotypes are generalizations about a group of people that over simplify their culture. Prejudice is a pre-judgement about an outgroup based on preconceived ideas and evaluations without knowledge or evaluation of the available information. They can render group life miserable.

2) Cultural domination

In an intercultural group the predominant group (persons from economically/ numerically/ socially favorable groups) tend to consider themselves superior and impose their group norms as normative for everyone. Weak groups tend to be subdued and may resort to passive resistance.

3) self-victimization

One who suffers from low self-esteem may easily perceive discrimination and ill-treatment from those of perceived cultural superiority even when there are no objective evidence for it.

4) Cultural shield

Members of an ingroup defend their self-interests using cultural differences as a shield.

5) Minority discount

A minority group may enjoy privileges and attention from superiors at the beginning and may be granted undue exceptions which may affect their growth as well as the future of the institute.

6) Majority group’s cultural insensitivity

The predominant group may take others for granted and remain unaware of the challenges faced by “outgroups”. They may practice their own language and customs ignoring others.

8. Formation for cultural competence

Formation for intercultural living and mission calls for adequate training for it apart from spiritual and intellectual training. There are several studies on the dynamics of intercultural groups living which are beneficial for improving the life of intercultural communities.

8.1. Differences and similarities among cultures.

Cultures are studied in their various dimensions and each culture can be situated in a continuum in each of these dimensions. Awareness of the cultural differences can reduce anxiety and improve relationships. We shall see six cultural dimensions[21] and their possible effect on communication among people of different cultures.

1) Individualism versus collectivism

 This dimension is based on predominance of individual over group or group over individual. In individualistic cultures interests of the individual prevail over the interests of the group “I” takes precedence over “we”. In Collectivistic cultures interests of the group prevails over that of the individual. Personal needs are expected to fit into their group’s needs.

2) Hierarchy versus Equality (Power distance)

This refers to the extent of distance or equality that exists and is accepted among people with and without power in a culture. People in hierarchy (high power distance) cultures accept unequal distribution of power and they understand “their place” in the system. There is high respect and reverence to authorities. In equality (low power distance) cultures superiors and members are considered almost equals. Team work and sharing of responsibility is valued.

3) High context versus low context

This dimension refers to the manner of communicating messages. In high context cultures Communication is indirect and meaning of a message is found in the situation and in the relationships of the communicators. People avoid direct confrontation or hurting the feelings of others. In low context cultures communication is direct and explicit. Meaning of a message is stated clearly and people keep conversation clear and to the point.

4) Uncertainty Avoidance versus ambiguity tolerance

This dimension refers to the extent to which members of a culture feel threatened by an uncertain or unknown situation. In cultures high in uncertainty avoidance, people try to avoid ambiguous situations by planning events well in advance and making rules and policies. Cultures low in uncertainty avoidance give lot of space for spontaneity and less bothered about planning in advance. They manage ambiguous situations and take risks with much ease.

5) Masculinity versus Femininity

This dimension refers to how much a culture sticks with and values traditional male and female roles. In masculine cultures men are expected to be tough, assertive, strong and be the provider. In cultures low in masculinity the roles are very much blurred. Men and women can work equally across many professions. Men are allowed to be sensitive and women can work hard for professional success.

6) Long term orientation versus short term orientation

This dimension refers to how much a culture appraise long standing traditions and values. In cultures with high LTO fulfilling social obligations and avoiding “loss of face” are very important. In cultures with low LTO is consistent with spending to keep up with social pressure, preference for quick results and less savings. Creative expressions and novel ideas are valued more than sticking to tradition.

The various dimensions of cultural differences presented above are helpful to understand the behavior of outgroup members and improve communications with them. But it does not mean that members of a culture share its traits in the same degree. For example, there can be many people in a collectivistic culture who have individualistic traits to a higher degree.

8.2. Moving from ethno-centrism to Cultural-relativism, a developmental perspective

Formation in intercultural competence is necessary to form life enhancing intercultural communities. Better intercultural relationships are created as a person moves from ethno-centrism to cultural relativism (ethno-relativism).

Ethnocentrism is an early stage in intercultural relations at which a person tends to hold the view that one’s own group is the centre of everything, and others are scaled and rated in reference to it. A highly ethnocentric person sees his group as virtuous and superior and the values of his group as universal. He also sees outgroups as contemptible and inferior and reject its values. It is akin to the typical grandiosity of a child in its early stage of growth. Everyone is ethnocentric to some degree and it is by becoming aware of one’s own ethnocentric tendencies that s/he can grow towards better ways of relating with others.

Cultural relativism is the opposite of ethnocentrism. “Cultural relativism means that we understand a culture from the inside and that we look at the behaviour of people from their point of view. Further we respect the differences that contrast with our own culture”[22]. Studies in intercultural relations highlight various stages through which an individual may pass from ethnocentrism to cultural relativism. Awareness of these stages is helpful for formators to help formees to move from their level of ethnocentrism to a higher degree of cultural relativism.

9. Dealing with the challenges of intercultural communitiesculture

Immature forms of intercultural relationships prevent growth, drain the creative energy of members and dampen apostolic effectiveness. Avoiding difficulties and refusing to address issues may give a temporary sense of well- being, but in the long run it will only promote individualism and “groupism” among the members of a community . Here are some principles to promote group cohesion in intercultural communities:

  1. Priority of vocational values over cultural values: A religious community Is formed by the call of the Lord and the charism and mission of the institute unites those who are called by the Lord into a charismatic family.We need to allow the Gospel values become the sole criteria to affirm, purify and develop the cultural values both of one’s own culture as well as that of the culture of the place where a s/he is sent.
  2. Clarity between cultural relativism and moral relativism. Cultural relativism is a positive attitude that respects and appreciates each culture and its differences. Moral relativism is not an acceptable attitude. Objective moral principles are applicable to cultural norms and practices when they are contrary to objective moral values.
  3. Priority of Inculturation Our presence in a culture is because we are sent there to proclaim the Good News to the people there. In an intercultural community, customs, language and practices of the host culture should have priority over that of the culture of individual members.
  4. Problem management. When relational problems arise between two persons, it is to be handled as personal issues rather than as cultural issues.
  5. Conflict management. Conflicts and tensions are natural for any group. In an intercultural community conflicts may assume cultural nuances and can create added complications. Healthy ways of managing community conflicts address the core issues of differences and refuse them to be communalized . 

10. Proposals for Intercultural formation

The Church affirms that the renewal of religious life depends on effective formation of its members.[23] It calls for appropriate training of suitable directors of formation.[24] Formators have a crucial role in accompanying formees in growing in intercultural competence and capacity for inculturated evangelization. Here are some possible orientations for effective formation:

  1. Young candidates need to have good foundation in their own culture before they are sent to another culture. Hence care should be taken to promote the original culture of the candidates and not assimilate it into a foreign culture. It is within their own culture that candidates must recognize the call of the Lord and respond to it in a personal way[25] (PI 43).
  2. Formator’s awareness of his own ethnocentric tendencies, stereotypes and prejudices about other peoples will help him to disengage from the grip of these tendencies and understand the formees in a more unbiased way. S/he should cultivate a reasonable level of cultural intelligence, interpathy and capacity for dialogue before he invites his/her students to develop them.
  3. Formators need to listen to the expectations of candidates and try to understand the cultural roots of these expectations. It will allow him/her the opportunity to explain the formative expectations from the part of the institute and avoid eventual frustrations in the case of a clash of unveiled assumptions.
  4. Formators become familiar with the different dimensions of culture and acquire knowledge about the cultural background of the students. This will help him/her to choose appropriate actions to support students in their growth. For example, in a conflict situation, it may not be helpful to confront formees from high context culture in public.
  5. It is important to help students to strengthen those aspects that are weak in their respective culture. For example, an individualistic student needs to be helped to work in teams while a collectivistic student needs to grow in healthy autonomy so that both can grow into a mature level of healthy interdependence.
  6. Formees need to be made aware of the need to grow in the attitude of cultural relativism and be helped to process their own growth through various stages so that they can enrich themselves from their encounter with people of other cultures and serve the mission better. Cultural intelligence and interpathy are qualities that need to be cultivated in a religious by making use of the studies in the field of intercultural communication. Creating opportunities for knowing and appreciating the culture of the members is important in an intercultural community.
  7. Formation should strive to cultivate in the students the capacities for critical judgement based on the Gospel, interior harmony to integrate love of God and love for fellow humans, sound prayer life and dialogue between faith and the contemporary mentality.[26] It is also important also develop the human faculties of admiration, of intuition, of contemplation, of making personal judgement, of developing a religious, moral and social sense in order to engage in dialogue with cultures.[27]  
  8. Facilitate the systematic learning of the language of the place where the student is sent in mission. Often one is forced to begin with the minimum required than the maximum one can reach to do the mission effectively.
  9. Education on the use of media and internet to serve the mission. Positively it can help students to learn about cultures and peoples. It is also possible that a student remain more attached to one’s own native culture through the unlimited possibilities offered by modern technology. (for example, excessive use of skype, watching native films etc) that may prevent the necessary distancing from one’s own culture and get inculturated into the new culture.
  10. Theological formation needs to become more life-oriented and experiential. Theology has to enter into dialogue with others sciences and human experiences In order bring the Gospel message to different cultural contexts and groups[28]
  11. As evangeliztion involves the path of dialogue, formation programs should prepare formees to enter into dialogue with cultures, the sciences and other believers. [29] Intercultural competence is an important skill for dialogue and evangelization because in an authentic dialogue, the believer rooted in one’s own deepest convictions, clear and joyful in one’s own identity, is open to understanding those of the other party, knowing that dialogue can enrich each other.[30]


We have looked at the present context of our history as a beautiful opportunity for the Gospel to become the transforming presence within the diverse cultures and the emerging global culture. The Gospel of love is capable of creating unity of humanity with all the diversity of cultures that enrich the world. The evangelizing task of the Church is to announce Gospel in all cultures so that the Gospel finds a home in each culture in its own categories. It is the way of inculturation.

In a progressively growing intercultural world scenario, Institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life have a special role to play as a witnesses of unity and fraternity before the world by the quality of life and relationships both within their communities and with others in mission. This calls for formation for cultural intelligence, intercultural competence and capacity for dialogue. Formation in consecrated life needs to integrate this aspect in the preparation of their members for intercultural fraternal life and inculturation in order to contribute their share in the new evangelization.

[1] Cf. Novo Millennio Ineunte, 40.

[2] Cf. Starting Afresh from Christ (SAFC), 37.

[3] Vita Consecrata (VC), 51

[4] Evangelii Gaudium (EG), 116.

[5] EG. 122.

[6] Cf. GS. 44.

[7] Cf. GS, 54, 55.

[8] Cf. GS, 54.

[9] Cf. GS 56.

[10] Cf. EG 53, 54, 62, 77.

[11] Cf. Potissimum Institutioni (PI) 91.

[12] Cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 20.

[13] Cf. VC 98.

[14] Cf. RM 52; EG 116.

[15] Cf.EG, 122.

[16] Cf. VC 51.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Cf. VC 80.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Cf. VC 80, 98.

[21] Hofstede’s research on five Cultural dimensions has been widely known and accepted. There were additions by others like Edward T Hall (dimension of Low context-high context ) and Michael H. Bond (Long term orientation). Cf. Hofstede et al., Cultures and Organizations, Mc Graw Hill, 2010.

[22] Everett M. Roggers, Thomas M. Steinfatt, Intercultural Communication, Waveland Press, Illinois. P. 226.

[23] Cf. PI 1; SAFC 18)

[24] Cf. PI 110; VC 66; SAFC 18.

[25] Cf. PI 43.

[26] Cf. VC 67; SAFC 39.

[27] Cf. GS 59.

[28] Cf. EG 133.

[29] Cf. EG 238.

[30] Cf. EG 251.