Culture Is the Way of the New Evangelization

Pope St. John Paul II’s goal of engaging culture in the New Evangelization was the building of a civilization of love as a source of freedom and truth.

Pope St. John Paul II statue
Pope St. John Paul II statue (photo: ddzphoto / Pixabay)

“Man lives a really human life thanks to culture…
Culture is a specific way of man’s ‘existing’ and ‘being’…
Culture is that through which man, as man, becomes more man.
(…) The nation exists ‘through’ culture and ‘for’ culture….”
—John Paul II

In his Memory and Identity, John Paul II revealed something particular about his frame of reference, namely his Polish identity: “I am the son of a nation which has lived the greatest experiences of history, which its neighbors have condemned to death several times, but which has survived and remained itself. It has kept its identity, and it has kept, in spite of partitions and foreign occupations, its national sovereignty, not by relaying on the resources of physical power but solely by relaying on its culture. This culture turned out, under the circumstances, to be more powerful than all other forces.”  

The particular background of the Holy Father’s life and his experiences from Poland taught him the universal importance of culture in human life and the role of culture in national life. 

The word culture comes from the Latin verb “colo, colere, cultum” and it means the cultivation of the land. It closest Greek meaning is the verb polein. From the very beginning, the Greek culture recognized man as developing within bonus artis, which distinguished him from the animals. 

John Paul II defined culture “as the specific way of human existence.” Man lives according to a culture which is specifically his. It determines the human and social character of human life. Culture understood in this sense distinguishes man from the rest of the beings in the world. In his speech at UNESCO on June 2, 1980, John Paul II invoked one of the principal Doctors of the Church: “The essential meaning of culture consists, according to the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, in the fact that it is a characteristic of human life as such. Man lives a really human life thanks to culture. Human life is culture in this sense too that, through it, man is distinguished and differentiated from everything that exists elsewhere in the visible world: man cannot do without culture.”

As John Paul II further affirmed: “Culture is that through which man as man, becomes more man, ‘is’ more, has more access to ‘being.’”

In his homily addressed to the young people of Gniezno on June 3, 1979, the Pope stated: “Culture is an expression of man, a confirmation of humanity. Man creates culture and through culture creates himself. He creates himself with the inward effort of the spirit, of thought, will and heart. At the same time he creates culture in communion with others. Culture is an expression of communication, of shared thought and collaboration by human beings. It is born of service of the common good and becomes an essential good of human communities.”

Culture became the way of the New Evangelization for the Holy Father. John Paul II understood the fundamental role of culture and placed it at the center of the Church’s efforts in the renewed missionary drive. “The Church of Christ strives to bring the Good News to every sector of humanity so as to be able to convert the consciences of human beings, both individually and collectively, and to fill with the light of the Gospel their works and understandings, their entire lives, and, indeed, the whole of the social environment in which they are engaged. In this way the Church carries out her mission of evangelizing also by advancing human culture.”

John Paul II’s goal of engaging culture in the New Evangelization was the building of a civilization of love as a source of freedom and truth. He described his idea for a civilization of love, as follows: “The Church respects all culture and imposes on no one her faith in Jesus Christ, but she invites all people of good will to promote a true civilization of love, founded on the evangelical values of brotherhood, justice and dignity for all.” These values have a universal appeal and involve all people to work for such civilization. 

In Evangelium Vitae, the Pope explained about constructing a new culture of life. “New, because it will be able to confront and solve today’s unprecedented problems an affecting human life; new, because it will be adopted with deeper and more dynamic conviction by all Christians; new, because it will be capable of bringing about a serious and courageous cultural dialogue among all parties. While the urgent need for such a cultural transformation is linked to the present historical situation, it is also rooted in the Church’s mission of evangelization. The purpose of the Gospel, in fact, is “to transform humanity from within and to make it new” (Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 18). 

At the same time, as the future of man and the world is threatened, St. John Paul II warned about the destructive nature of “the culture of death” which aggressively targets humanity in the world. In his 1995 Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), he warned about “the culture of death.” He stated that the culture of death …

“… is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency. Looking at the situation from this point of view, it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favored tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of ‘conspiracy against life’ is unleashed. This conspiracy involves not only individuals in their personal, family or group relationships, but goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and States.” 

Therefore, we must “convince ourselves of the priority of ethics over technology, of the primacy of the person over the things, of the superiority of spirit over matter.” The man of science will really help humanity if he keeps “the sense of man’s transcendence over the world and of God’s over man.” Now, more than ever, we must defend what is right. In this Christian fight to protect moral values, freedom, the truth and goodness of human nature, “faith can and must be a cultural force, one that is much powerful than any of the obstacles it faces.” 

From universal to particular the Polish pope admonished his countrymen to fight for the truth by defending their culture. John Paul II helped Poland “to rediscovered their God-given freedom and to work toward the renewal of culture in their homeland.” Poland is a perfect example how Christian culture, the uniqueness of the commitment of Polish people to God, and strong Polish Catholic Church can change the course of history in an unexpected way. 

Today, Christians acting together can “offer this of our new signs of hope, and work to ensure that justice and solidarity will increase and that a new culture of human life will be affirmed, for the building of an authentic civilization of truth and love.” 

May wisdom inspire us! May love guide us! May faith keeps us strong! The power of good is priceless and its fruits will be spreading on future generations all around the world: from universal to particular.