Pontifical Council for the Pastoral
Care of Migrants and Itinerant People


Culture and Education

 (Unofficial translation)  


            H.E. Msgr. Savio HON TAI-FAI

Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples


       I gladly accepted to take part in this meeting of international students who are exchanging views and reflecting on the reality of culture and cultures. They have become fundamental elements for the peaceful cohabitation among peoples if relations are set up marked by respect and reciprocal enrichment in view of the complete humanization of humanity.  This is a theme that interests us Christians, and especially you, the students, who are called to play an important role in your countries and Churches in this precise historical moment.

“Today, the human race is involved in a new stage of history. Profound and rapid changes are spreading by degrees around the whole world...Hence we can already speak of a true cultural and social transformation, one which has repercussions on man's religious life as well” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 4).

Humanity finds itself in a phase of gestation of a new world (FABC: new-born world), almost a break with the whole path it has followed until now. This planetary transformation is not due to one precise and principal factor. It is rather a complex of elements that have all emerged together synchronously. Religion and religions, culture, philosophy, technology, politics and communications have brought about a different view of man and society and produced different cultural models, lifestyles and activities. 

I will divide my talk into three points: 1. Cultural Transformations; 2. New Frontiers of Education; 3. Inculturation of the Gospel and Faith. 

1.      Planetary Transformations

We have embarked on an unstoppable path whose outcome we cannot see yet.

The cultural passage is a global event. This is not the first case in history which in some particular moments witnessed quality leaps that were surely prepared by preceding circumstances but which exploded suddenly and affected not only some sectors or particular contexts but all of human reality. This seems to be one of the historic eras that will be remembered in this sense.

One of the main agents of this transformation is surely the world of communications, which has put the most varied cultural models into contact on a planetary level while at the same time influenced their choices too.

A new cultural order is being built.

Let us take the term culture as it is used by the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes, No. 53, which says: “The word 'culture' in its general sense indicates everything whereby man develops and perfects his many bodily and spiritual qualities; he strives by his knowledge and his labor, to bring the world itself under his control. He renders social life more human...through improvement of customs and institutions. Throughout the course of time he expresses, communicates and conserves in his works, great spiritual experiences and desires, that they might be of advantage to the progress of many, even of the whole human family”.

Why has culture taken on such an important role in our times?  Because it is like the fundamental dynamism of all social, economic, political and international life that wants to be truly human.  Today it is understood as a constitutive reality of man as a human being.  In its anthropological meaning, it includes human reality with its positive and negative elements in relation to an ideal culture considered as a reference point, a means of humanization. Therefore, culture is like a people's genius, and it can be more properly described as an organic whole of principles, beliefs, life models and practices – handed down from the past generations, practiced, changed, enriched or impoverished by the present generation and transmitted to the future generation – through which a given group of people is constituted and perpetuated as a human community. It is in this sense that the Second Vatican Council said: “Man comes to a true and full humanity only through culture, that is through the cultivation of the goods and values of nature. Wherever human life is involved, therefore, nature and culture are quite intimately connected one with the other” (No. 53). It enables man to not be or feel like an isolated individual but a person in communication and communion with his fellow men, a member of a community built on the permanent foundations that we call cultural roots. It is the place of interaction where people exercise reciprocal influence over each other and contribute to the progressive process of humanization. 

Therefore, every culture is almost like a living organism. Culture is human to the extent that man is affirmed only for himself.

Now culture and the cultures are immersed in a qualitative change, so much so that the Council in the 1960s already spoke about “a new age of human history” (No. 54).

It is a delicate moment that calls for vigilance and discernment of the human phenomenon.

If the fundamental models of peoples' lives are weakened, that is, if the understanding of self, society and the universe change, it is almost like an earthquake from the semantic viewpoint, which becomes a problem for any field of action. Moreover, culture and the cultures cannot be fixed once and for all because they are not static; they are dynamic and always evolving in order to attain the maximum level of humanization. When they reject an evolutionary dynamism, they become the subject of ethnological study and are destined to die. 

2.      Constants of the Transformations

Human culture necessarily includes a historic and social aspect and the term culture often takes on a sociological and ethnological meaning. In this sense, we can talk about the plurality of cultures (No. 53,3). The reaffirmation of the dignity and the originality of the religions, the social transformations, the emergence of new mentalities and technological progress have profoundly changed the way we conceive of culture and analyze social phenomena marked more and more by a clear pluralism. Culture and the cultures. It is a centripetal and centrifugal movement.  While a universal culture is becoming established from different viewpoints with regard to understanding man and his international relations, there is also each particular culture's demand for its own originality and specificity to the point that it becomes a kind of culturalism or cultural tribalism.

Never as at this time, however, have cultures met or clashed so much and, in any event, been so interdependent, and so they are all in the dynamics of transformation.

The constants that characterize the changes can be summed up as follows:

· a less enchanted and mystical view of the universe

· man as the master of his history and destiny

· crisis in the traditional social and religious values

· economic, materialist, consumerist mentality

· ethical relativism, absence of absolute ideologies

   Together with these aspects, which can be described in a certain sense as devastating, some positive values are emerging such as:

· the search for a more authentic and human meaning of life

· the aspiration to justice among peoples and peace

· the dynamics of universal solidarity

· the defense of human rights, especially of the weakest and the most vulnerable      peoples and classes

· the emergence and importance of civil society

· the encounter-dialogue between cultures and religions.

We are, so to speak, in the middle of the river's ford: the traditional cultural models are going through a crisis but the new models have still not been made. It is a moment of crisis but also of growth. There is widespread difficulty but, at the same time, a historical opportunity to forge a new humanity with shared universal values in respect for the cultural diversities of every human group.

It is in this sense that we have to take Paul VI's words already spoken in the 1960s: “The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time, just as it was of other times” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, No. 20, 1975). In fact, “all human activity takes place within a culture and interacts with culture” (Centesimus Annus, No. 51, 1991). If the Gospel does not penetrate into the depths of the culture, man will never be capable of believing with all his humanity. This is why Paul VI's description of evangelization activity in Evangelii Nuntiandi continues to be valid: “What matters is to evangelize man's culture and cultures (not in a purely decorative way, as it were, by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to their very roots), in the wide and rich sense which these terms have in Gaudium et spes, [50] always taking the person as one's starting-point and always coming back to the relationships of people among themselves and with God” (No. 20).

This is why culture is indicated as the vast areopagus for the Church's mission (Rmi, No. 37 & c). 

3.      Cultural Identities and Education

The cultural element with its identities and differences constitutes a crucial point for young people's growth in the sense that the fact that they are different from others can take on weight and meaning first of all for themselves and for building their identity.

To carry out correct intercultural educational processes, first a critical and ongoing re-elaboration process is needed to appropriate the signs of the culture on which one's roots are built.

Reflection on cultural identity in a fluid society marked by great phenomena is not new. It puts the traditional concepts of culture and education up for question and thus changes their formation processes.

Therefore, the close network of multiethnic, multicultural and multireligious societies that has been set up in today's world is a process that urges us to develop a new way of carrying out education and formation, even if from the viewpoint of subjective processes it is hard for the logic of the monoculture to disappear.

Just think of the return to the great tensions regarding identity, the nostalgia for belonging, for one's country and local culture, which is making reciprocal tolerance and coexistence more and more difficult between peoples who are from the same cultural area but marked by different traditions, values and customs. There is a need for dialogue and pluralism that open up to otherness and thus to the riches of diversity. This calls for intercultural educational processes that will favor the recognition and re-appropriation of each one's culture in order to be able to interact with other cultures.

3.1 The globalization process has brought about the standardization of culture by stifling particularities and penalizing diversities, putting personal and cultural identities in crisis and creating inferiority/superiority complexes among the cultures.  We are before a change that has set a profound crisis in motion in the way of thinking of self and one's identity, in the way of perceiving and living reality, to the point that it changes almost radically the paradigms that underpin culture and the cultures. In a context of a culture of globalization, the cultural identities of persons and institutions have lost their solidity and continuity in the complex, globalized society. They have to be invented continuously, and they are interchangeable according to the circumstances or the environment where one lives. While this way of conceiving and creating one's identity is fascinating on the one hand, on the other it is problematic.

This situation has put the question of individual and collective identities at the center of education, the relations between men and women from different cultures, the ability to live together in reciprocal respect for each one's freedom as well as the question of handling violence and conflicts and the balance of power between individuals, groups and institutions. But above all it has put the traditional concepts of identity in crisis to the point that the question of cultural identity, both individual and collective, has now become one of the most urgent and most complex questions to be solved.

Therefore, a process of re-elaboration and re-definition needs to be set in motion today to be carried out within one's cultural context and models until the appropriation of the same and their reinterpretation. 

4. But what are its necessary reference points?

As a missionary and the Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, I call upon the Gospel, which is God's saving energy for those who believe.  I will borrow the title and theme from the pastoral guidelines of the Italian Bishops' Conference: Educating to the Good Life of the Gospel.

As we have seen, our era is building a new universal anthropology and new particular anthropologies. Christians are called to get into these dynamics and they cannot miss this historic appointment which will mark the future of humanity.

It is urgent to educate the new generations and the intelligentsia of the nations, especially where new cultural cultural models are being forged, to the civilization of love which Christ commanded to us in the proclamation of the Kingdom.  Even if we do not like the term, education must be able to form people to build an alternative society and many times a counterculture to the one in force.

In this process there are two fundamental elements: 1. A culture of the Gospel open to all the cultures; 2. An inculturated evangelical culture.

4.1 The Culture of the Gospel

The Gospel has not lost any of its edge, fascination, attraction or validity.  On the contrary, today more than in the past it can be the content, path and methodology of education.

There are some fundamental principles that make up the substance of the educational content.

Man must be affirmed for himself in his dignity, his inviolable human rights, and his freedom to present himself, but never as a means, always as an end.

Why? Against all the positivist and immanent anthropologies, man is conceived of as the living image of the Living God who creates him and constitutes him in his unrepeatable individuality, which is the human person. He is essentially open to transcendence. It is on this fundamental reality that humanization, the goal of humanity's educational process, unfolds and develops.

Christ, the Incarnate Word in time, is the foundation of this reality of the human being.  Indeed, every man is destined to be congruent with the image of the Son.  He, as the image of the perfect man, places himself not only as an exemplary model but also as the Teacher. He is the Rabbi who teaches with authority.

What did he teach?  What is the new culture for the new humanity of which He has become the model?

The culture which He inserted at the roots of humanity is the culture of love, fraternity, universal solidarity and the unity of all peoples.

The proclamation of the Kingdom of God announced by Jesus in the Discourse on the Mount is God's highest, most noble and purest message to humanity. When put into the roots of culture and the cultures, it has the potentiality to create the universal culture of love.

It is a human but transcendent culture whose origin and perennial source is God's Universal Fatherhood whereby all the men and women of all times and places are sons and daughters of the one same Father and truly brothers and sisters. In fact, we are God's offspring (Aratus, cited by St. Paul in the discourse to the areopagus of Athens).

We are not creatures thrown into the nothingness of existence without guidelines, or into the void, as Nietzsche claimed. We are children of a Father who knows each one of us individually, who does not abandon us, who loves us as his children and in whom we put our complete trust as children do with their father.

Share what you are and what you have with the weakest, the abandoned and the marginalized because they belong to your family. To each one according to his needs.  It is a culture of universal solidarity, justice and love.

It is a culture of non-violence, which calls for responding to evil with good, with forgiveness, in view of universal reconciliation, and to lead humankind to unity.  This goal is not possible without the practice of forgiveness and love of one's enemies.

It is a culture of peace which must be the product of justice, which does not tolerate any oppression, discrimination or exploitation.

This is the culture of the Gospel.  First of all it is necessary “to educate to the Good Life of the Gospel”. This is the title and content which the Italian Bishops' Conference chose for “The Pastoral Guidelines of the Italian Church for the decade 2010-2020”.


This culture has the characteristic of universality because in addition to being it is an all-inclusive anthropological view. In the mystery of the Incarnate Word it reveals and realizes the complete personal and social humanization of every person and of humanity. It erases all the ethnic, racial, cultural and religious barriers. It is the common language and the reality inherent in the human being because it reveals and affirms the profound identity of every human person, of each one of the billions of people conceived beneath the heart of his mother, as Blessed John Paul II said in his first Encyclical Letter Redemptor Hominis:

Accordingly, what is in question here is man in all his truth, in his full magnitude. We are not dealing with the "abstract" man, but the real, "concrete", "historical" man. We are dealing with "each" man, for each one is included in the mystery of the Redemption and with each one Christ has united himself for ever through this mystery...man in his unique unrepeatable human reality...Man as "willed" by God, as "chosen" by him from eternity and called, destined for grace and glory-this is "each" man, "the most concrete" man, "the most real"; this is man in all the fullness of the mystery in which he has become a sharer in Jesus Christ, the mystery in which each one of the four thousand million human beings living on our planet has become a sharer from the moment he is conceived beneath the heart of his mother.  (RH, No. 13).

For it is Christ who reveals and is the foundation of every man's profound identity and dignity, with every man, the concrete man who belongs to a people, to a tribe, who practices a religion, who adopts a culture, with whom he has almost united himself.

This enables us to talk about a universal, alternative culture, or to say it in positive terms, a culture which in adopting the human cultural models, sublimates them, goes beyond them and makes them meet for a reciprocal fecundation. This enables communication, encounter between the different human worlds in which civil human life is made concrete.


5. Need for an inculturated educational process

At the same time, however, it expresses the need for this universal culture to be incarnated by taking on the specificity, the dimensions, the characteristics and the sensitivities of the environment of the human groups. Only in this way it can constitute the identity of the person and of a people. Only with an incarnated culture the educational process can be effective. The human person achieves his fullness when he is inserted into the cultural heritage of his community. This allows every man to not be an isolated individual but a person in communion with his fellow men, a member of a community built on the permanent foundations that we call cultural roots. But culture is not a static reality. Always in movement towards becoming, it constitutes in its infinite diversity the atmosphere, the environment in which every man is born, develops and dies.  It enriches the one that is born before it is enriched by him. This means that the culture of a given community is the place of interaction where men exercise a reciprocal influence on each other and thus contribute to their common humanization.

Culture is characterized therefore in relation to man taken in the geographic, historic, anthropological and scientific context. So we have different cultures which are the multiform expressions of man who is their author and promoter.

John Paul II noted: “All human activity takes place within a culture and interacts with culture...The way in which he is involved in building his own future depends on the understanding he has of himself and of his own destiny. It is on this level that the Church's specific and decisive contribution to true culture is to be found” (Centesimus Annus, No. 51).

Education has to contribute to assimilating in a convincing and consistent way the specific cultural models and at times by reconciling citizens and the faithful to their own culture so that they will not run the risk of living their lives in a schizophrenic or disoriented way with an obscured or problematic identity.  Openness, encounter, and interaction with the other cultures, but not arrangements or juxtapositions that would make the educational process itself and the assimilation of the Gospel difficult.


6. Conclusion

I think I can conclude this brief intervention with the words the Supreme Pontiff, Benedict XVI, addressed to the participants in the international meeting for the promotion of the new evangelization:

Today’s world needs people who proclaim and testify that it is Christ who teaches the art of living, the way of true happiness, because he himself is the path of life; people who first of all keep their own gaze fixed on Jesus, the Son of God: the word of proclamation must always be immersed in an intense relationship with him, in an intense life of prayer” (Benedict XVI, Address to the Participants in the International Conference for Promoting the New Evangelization, October 15, 2011).

Today Christians are called to insert themselves into the vast process of religious, cultural and civil transformations which humanity is going through.  We are called to evangelize the immense areopagus that is culture, to contribute to the education of humanity in view of the new phase and the path of its completion.  This is the Church's mission.

The task to be witnesses and heralds of the culture of the Gospel for the construction of the city of God is entrusted principally to the new generations of students. Many challenges are presented to you and to the whole Church today, and among them there is the urgent and necessary priority challenge of education, formation. The Church has a dream: new men for a new world evangelized by the Gospel.

The Church also recognizes that culture and the Gospel need to be combined where the Gospel is capable of preserving, purifying and exalting the inherent and inherited values of each culture and opening every people to the common path to  humanity's full realization. This task, this mission, is entrusted to you in particular. This supposes, as Benedict XVI says, that we will be the first ones to put ourselves in the school of the Rabbi who teaches with authority in order for us to be teachers and witnesses tomorrow.