A little bit of history never hurts a person. We all have a history it is the story of how we came to be, who we are at this moment. Societies, cultures, nations also have histories. The Christian Church has a history as well.
The very early Christians were a tiny part of the population within the Roman Empire. For the first two centuries they came primarily from Jewish communities in the Empire. Their faith, their prayer practices and their religious customs were drawn from their Judaism. The scriptures on which they based their faith were the Jewish Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament.
Gradually, these early Christians began to develop their own practices and prayer life. As they did so, however, they continued to see themselves as based on their Jewish roots. The Old Testament remained theirs, even as they began to develop a Christian or what we would call our New Testament. Both these Scriptures remained sacred to the Christians – this is our Bible. Whether Old or New, the two are based on our Jewish origins.
These early Christian recognized that if they were disciples of Jesus, they were also evangelizers, sharers of the message of good news they had received. Jesus called them to “make disciples of all nations.” (Matt 28:19) As evangelizing communities of disciples they began to reach out sharing the good news with the non-Jewish population of the rest of the Empire, i.e. the gentiles. Theirs was a faith and a culture different from that of the Christians. And it was the dominant culture of the whole Roman Empire. If disciples were going to share their good news, they would have to do it in this dominant Greek and Roman culture of the time.
This need to evangelize in a new and different culture was an experience repeated over and over again through the history of the Christian community. For 2000 years this has been the challenge to the Christian Church. And beginning with the apostle Paul and those early Christian, the Church has sought to meet people where they are, in their culture.
In The Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis recognizes this character of openness in Catholic Christian evangelization. As we seek to share the good news, we seek to share it in a way that makes sense to the persons and cultures who receive it. As Francis puts it: “Each people in the course of its history develops its culture with legitimate autonomy [independence]…. The human person is always situated in a culture. God’s gift becomes flesh in the culture of those who receive it.” (Pope Francis. The Joy of the Gospel 115-16)
To share the good news with sensitivity and respect for the cultures we encounter is to be “catholic”, universal in view. In the words of Francis: “The history of the Church shows that Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression,… it will also reflect the different faces of the cultures and peoples in which it is received and takes root.” (Pope Francis The Joy of the Gospel 116) We are called to be evangelizing disciples, with an openness to share this gift in ways that respect and build on the cultures of the peoples who receive it. In doing so, we are truly catholic in our discipleship.