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Lion in winter

NCR Staff

Culture became the rage in the 1990s. Even the word multiculturalism was enough to start bread fights in the newspaper columns.

Culture was what anyone said it was.

But not to Spiritan Fr. Vincent Donovan, a man well-known in some Catholic circles for his talks and challenging books (Christianity Rediscovered, 1978; The Church in the Midst of Creation, 1989).

“Jesus commanded us to evangelize the cultures of the world,” said Donovan, “and this is what Pope Paul VI had the courage to say in Africa -- that the cultures of Africa had been Christianized, but had not yet been evangelized. Look at Rwanda.”

Look, too, said Donovan, at our own immediate world. “Science and capitalism are the Western culture. Both sweep the world, yet neither has been evangelized. That’s why the church must be in the world, not inside the structures, the buildings.”

Donovan is a lion in winter. The septuagenarian, ordained in 1952, came to the microphone this one last time, in December, to quietly roar that the church has it wrong worrying about buildings, just as, 40 years earlier, missioners who talked about pre-evangelization had it wrong. (Pre-evangelization was the idea that people had to be raised up socially -- better housed, better educated -- before they’d be ready to hear the gospel. It was an approach Donovan fought. In his writings he held to the firm belief that every people, right now, is ready for the gospel.)

This evening’s talk, he announced, was his final public one. Once, when his health was better, this gentle man roared louder. The talk was to honor a colleague’s Golden Jubilee: he and Spiritan Fr. Edward Kelly of Our Lady Queen of Peace community, Arlington, Va., had served together in Tanzania.

If Donovan’ voice faded at times, his message didn’t.

“If Christ is in a culture,” he said, “something in that culture will live and something will die. Something will be fulfilled by the culture, something prophesied against the culture by the gospel.

“Evangelizing a culture is not an empty gesture, not without repercussions. There’s plenty of repercussion.”

People tend to want things, want the church to stay the same. What did Mary Magdalene want that Easter morning, asked Donovan, when she clung to Jesus?

“ ‘Let me rise,’ he said. ‘You are stopping me from rising and going to my father.’

“Jesus did become the Roman Christ,” said Donovan. “He became the Greek Christ, the medieval Christ, the Mediterranean Christ, and then he stopped. He went no further, personally, on earth.

“I think we have to say the purpose of history is to allow Jesus to become the Christ. There is no such thing as a black Jesus of Nazareth. There is a black Christ, a Spanish Christ, an Irish Christ, an American Christ. That is the meaning of the gospel. That’s why Jesus said to his apostles, ‘Reach out to all the cultures, and I will have spoken.’ “

Donovan said this new millennium is “a moment of truth for us, of humility. Of honesty. There is a whole group of cultures out there, waiting. What is the stumbling block?”

The church, he said, is qahal, an assembly the Jews had out in the desert, the wasteland, when they were on the move, on safari. It was qahal Jesus referred to when he spoke to Peter: “I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my qahal.”

“The assembly: moving, nomadic. The people are nomads, they are the church on safari. Those on safari are restless, seeking, never satisfied. They keep searching. It’s a beautiful description of the church. Moving. What kind of church would it be, a church moving into this new century. A church with no baggage. What a dream.”

Jesus, said Donovan, did not give this safari church “a mandate to go out and convert everybody in the world. The mandate was to evangelize all the tribes of the world. What did he mean by this, make disciples of all nations? Not Canada, not the United States, not Mexico. The Bible knew nothing of such nations. It’s a different kind of nation: social, ethnic, cultural. Evangelize those.”

There is no point, no value in attempting to convert another unless one is, oneself, open to conversion in return, said Donovan. And he made the larger connection. “Jesus tried to teach his apostles you can become stumbling blocks to the Holy Spirit.” The answer to stumbling, suggested Donovan, is to be open to others.

“We have built our spirit, our holiness, our religious life, our church as we know it, on the Mediterranean Christ. It’s been a beautiful experience. It is not the end. But we’re tired.

“I would suggest,” he said, “that there’s more about Christ that isn’t known than is known. Who is going to teach it to us? Not ourselves, I think you can say, but those other tribes. We have tried to teach, to Christianize, to evangelize. It is time to be taught, and further Christianized and evangelized ourselves.”

This, he said, is the meaning of the Kingdom, the entire Kingdom, of God, on earth.

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2000