Toward Evangelization of Creators of the Christian Culture

Saint John Paul II, during his pontificate of nearly twenty-seven years, had two main streams of thought. They can be characterized as the preservation of the Christian heritage and the transformation of contemporary secular culture through the values of Christian culture. Working out the first stream, he corrected some aspects of the Christian heritage that had been distorted in the past, and rediscovered truths that had been neglected or forgotten. He clarified them in the new Catholic Catechism published in 1992. With regard to the other stream of his thought, his works and efforts were focused on culture and specifically on Christian culture in the context of evangelization.

John Paul’s pastoral mission around the globe gave him the opportunity to meet people in the context of their cultures. He actively participated in whatever culture he encountered. He understood the importance of culture to human life. Thus on May 15, 1982, John Paul established the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Underlining the truth that man is the subject of culture, with his creativity and moral aspects, John Paul delivered the following message to representatives of UNESCO, in the 1980s: “All of us present here meet on the ground of culture. We thereby meet around man in man. He is at once subject and architect of culture.”1

The above quotation of John Paul’s statement is very important because in today’s world, particularly in current secular cultures, there is a tendency to create an ideological separation of culture from man, its creator. Culture, in John Paul’s teachings, is a materialization of the human spirit and at the same time a spiritualization of matter. Because culture is the fruit of man’s spirit, as John Paul teaches, it can be a channel of truth, beauty, and goodness when created responsibly. He underlined that the divine perspective of culture constitutes its full meaning: “Culture must be open to transcendence. Without that relation, culture is fragmentary and not complete.2 In other words, our culture must on some level be designed to fulfill a spiritual purpose in order to be complete.

Christian culture has always existed within general culture without necessarily identifying with it. However, Christian culture has certainly driven general culture throughout various points in history. Church history provides a broad spectrum of the influence of Christian culture on the people of different historical periods and different fields, particularly through the labors of those who chose to live the monastic life. According to John Paul, Christian culture is “Christian heritage — material and spiritual . . . It is also every day’s lifestyle of Christian communities based on evangelical principles. Christian culture is created by the people such as the artist, writer, architect, thinker, etc.”3

John Paul was aware that any approach to a secular culture with the intent of “curing” it should be preceded by a comprehensive diagnosis. Therefore, he took into serious consideration the scientific achievements of many scholars, including the historians of culture from his own lifetime and those from the past, when forming opinions on the state of the world’s culture. One scholar whose work he examined was Christopher Dawson (1889–1970), the great historian of culture (with expertise in sociology and anthropology), who, as the Dawson commentator R. Jared Staudt explains, had perceived that current culture is “seriously jeopardized by interior frustration and even destruction.”4

However, Dawson observed that secularist culture is not devoid of religion. He devoted a great deal of effort to conducting research on Christian culture’s impact, not only in Europe, but also in America, and was convinced that the culture of each region indeed exists as a result of that region’s religious origins. He asserts that a culture that has lost its spiritual roots is a dying culture. Applying Dawson’s analysis to the current era, Glen Olsen observes that the United Stateshad been a Christian country, and a part of Western culture . . . In America in the 1990s, however, especially in the universities, this is often simply denied. Frequently systematic lying about or misrepresentation of the past is part of the agenda of ‘multiculturalism’ . . .”5

Despite different viewpoints on the Christian culture, whether from religious or secular perspectives, it is difficult to deny its influence on human life. It would suffice simply to look at the number of monumental cathedrals that have been built in different periods of history and at those that are still being built today. Museums have thousands of paintings inspired by Christian values; libraries have millions of copies of books written under Christian inspiration, and the Bible is the most reproduced book in the history of mankind. A similar situation exists in the realms of music, education, philosophy and ethics. The volume of Christian contributions to the humanities, let alone their quality, serves as evidence that Christianity has the power to shape the direction of individuals, nations, and the world as a whole.

In today’s world we see a large number of Catholic marriages that end in divorce, exits from the Church and from religious practices, and other consequences and manifestations of immorality. Some Christian writers are even starting to write about the collapse of Christian society, the collapse of Christian culture, the radical collapse of the Church, or the rise of a post-Christian culture. Perhaps by these dire expressions, the writers would like to wake up the world and open our eyes to the predominance of secularism in today’s society. We thank God that culture, and specifically the Christian culture, continues to exist despite its diminished lack of external expression, and that a majority of Christians and Catholics are still identifying themselves with the Christian heritage.

Those who are “lost,” mostly as a result of the secular culture and the enormous negative influence of the media via New Age anti-Christian values, may continue to have a great desire to return “home” in a spiritual sense. They dwell in doubt like the Prodigal Son, and like him, would be welcomed home warmly by the Father if only their doubt were overcome.

There is a joyful sign that the idea of the New Evangelization, developed by Pope John Paul II (introduced during his pastoral mission to Haiti on March 9, 1983), was fruitfully implemented by Pope Benedict XVI in the universal Church, as illustrated by the Church Synod on this topic in 2012. The concept of a New Evangelization is rooted in many churches and in the good works of many lay Catholics around the globe whose efforts are very important to its spread.

During a recent visit to the Mormon “Tabernacle” in Salt Lake City, I was very impressed by the advanced systems of communication through computers, music, pictures, and other modern technical devices present there. Visitors, even Catholics, were fascinated by the messages they found there, and interested in using the technology. To evangelize more successfully, the Catholic Church must now also utilize modern systems of media communication. Each parish could equip itself with the kind of technical support that exists at the Mormon Religious Center, with the aim of evangelizing modern Catholics, in particular our youth, at this urgent time of the New Evangelization.

Our Holy Father John Paul II, who wanted to rescue the modern world from the brink of moral disaster, understood the potential power of media communications to achieve this. He predicted that the confusing quantity of information, “mainly caused by the digital revolution, may soon render many people incapable of distinguishing good from evil.”6  Therefore, it is urgent for the Church to establish her presence in the digital world to help turn the tide of this influential medium towards spreading the good news of Christianity instead of blurring the distinction between good and evil.

The term “evangelization,” as Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. noted, was not used in the Catholic Church for many centuries, and only “appeared” in the middle of the twentieth century “partly through the influence of Protestant theologians such as Karl Barth.”7

The Church’s main task of sharing the Good News about Jesus has existed since the Apostles, but at that time was referred to exclusively by the terms “gospel” or “mission.” Even at the Second Vatican Council, the term “gospel” was used 157 times, whereas “evangelization” was only used 31 times. However, one of the documents of Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, which underlined the importance of evangelization in the current world, was deeply contemplated by some, particularly by Pope Saint Paul VI. In 1967, two years after the end of Vatican II, he renamed the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith the Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples.

It is noteworthy that Pope Paul VI was the first pope in the Church’s history to leave Italy to visit other countries outside Europe, including the U.S, visiting New York in 1965. The idea of sharing the Gospel with others led Paul VI to organize the Synod of Bishops on Evangelization in 1974. One year later, he also issued a very important document about evangelization, his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, which further pressed for evangelization as one of the primary missions of modern Christian culture.8

In promoting the program of the New Evangelization, John Paul had a desire that the faith of Catholics be renewed and manifested on both a vertical and a horizontal level through participation. He underlined in his book The Acting Person that participation in a social life is one of the fundamental factors in a person’s maturity. The term “participation” can be better understood by its opposite, “alienation.” People who have lived under Communism or other oppressive regimes suffer alienation in most cases because they suffer from a lack of personal freedom. However, as John Paul teaches, alienation can also occur in the free capitalistic countries in other ways. People can be alienated because of their materialism and consumerism, and neglect the development of their personalities. This type of alienation can occur on the international level between nations, in the workplace, or in other everyday circumstances of peoples’ lives.

Insensitivity to human suffering can be a sign of the involvement of both individuals and large communities in the structure of sin. As I explain in my study of the encyclicals of John Paul, the pontiff observes that “all forms of poverty are mutually interconnected because they are related to the so-called structures of sin. Personal sins, the consequences of original sin, contribute to the creation of whole structures characterized by moral depravation and social injustice.”9 Alienation allows structures of sin large enough to create this kind of human suffering, to perpetuate it, and to make it flourish. Good people and nations need to shake off the indifference that secular culture can promote and to participate in protecting vulnerable members of our global society.

In his 1969 book The Acting Person, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, made a further distinction between authentic and inauthentic attitudes in those who choose to participate in social life. Those whom he characterized as having an authentic attitude were defined by two characteristics: an attitude of solidarity and an attitude of righteous opposition. The attitude of solidarity is an attitude of commitment to community, while righteous opposition is an attitude of intolerance to actions or thoughts that would be detrimental to the community. On the other hand, those with inauthentic attitudes were defined by the characteristics of conformism and avoidance. Conformism is mindless imitation and complacency, and a form of alienation that is particularly related to consumerism and materialism. Avoidance is an attitude of retreat from difficult situations, a straightforward avoidance of participation.10

The social, or so-called horizontal, aspect of Christianity derives from John Paul’s social philosophy. He was convinced that each individual who authentically participates in a social life is able to understand both himself and the other person’s social life and problems better.

John Paul was aware that the pastoral postulates of the Second Vatican Council, from Gaudium et spes, were not sufficiently put into practice in life on the horizontal level of society and culture. He knew that a transformation of secular culture via the values of Christianity would only be possible when the Christian culture had become visible in the actions of its people in the earthly realm. As Dom Virgil Michel, O.S.B. (1890–1938) stated decades earlier, that kind of virtue could be achievable if the faithful were to identify themselves with their Savior in the Church’s liturgy, which was “for the early Christian a universal school of divine service, therefore also a school of discipline and instruction whose lessons will find expression in a growing christianization of human culture.”11

John Paul’s teachings clearly indicate that Catholics need to develop their faith on the horizontal level of society and culture through different communities, instead of confining themselves to the individualistic approach of “I and my God.” In many passages of John Paul’s teachings, and especially in his social encyclicals, he underlines the necessity of the practice of social justice. That issue, as Edward O’Boyle notes, occurs even in the context of a “social mortgage.” John Paul presented the metaphor of a social mortgage as a way of thinking about social responsibility.12

The Catholic social teachings that John Paul promoted, particularly in his social encyclicals, were directed to all Catholics and were to be practiced in community settings through participation with one another. As Reinhold Niebuhr observes, “The most perfect justice cannot be established if the moral imagination of the individual does not seek to comprehend the needs and interests of his fellows.”13

The Polish “revolution” without bloodshed was almost a direct result of John Paul’s teachings. It began in 1979, during his first visit to Poland, when he first appeared as Pope in Warsaw’s Victory Square. The change in secular culture that Poland experienced is only one illustration of how secular culture can be transformed by the values of Christian culture. However, we must be aware that at that time, a radical change occurred in the hearts of many Poles. Their individualistic style of life was transformed into a social one because they were deeply engaged in social events on both a personal and a national level. They were ready to sacrifice their hard work, and even their lives, for the common good of others. It was precisely the battle for a just wage for the workers at a shipyard in Gdansk, as well as for all other workers who were living in unjust conditions under communist rule (violently imposed upon Poland at the end of WWII), that turned the tide of the national culture. Upon hearing and witnessing Pope John Paul II’s homily in Warsaw on June 2, 1979, which included pointed criticism of the elements of Polish culture promoting social injustice, the crowd of over a million people (including me) knew what they needed to do to change their culture. Their unity both at the liturgical ceremony and afterward launched them into a new lifestyle on the horizontal level that eventually led to the establishment of the Solidarity Movement. From that time onward, the wings of Polish Christian culture were set free.

In challenging us to brighten our Christian culture, Saint John Paul II expects us to exhibit new behavior with maturity, responsibility, and a courageous style of life on the horizontal level. It is obvious that we also need to be in a close communion with Almighty God, on the vertical level, for as He taught us, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). John Paul stresses that creating Christian culture in life and in public actions begins with a proper understanding of the essence of internal and external freedom, which is directed towards the good. Culture is thus a mark of God’s image in us. It is a creative mark.

  1. Bernard J. O’Connor, Papal Diplomacy: John Paul II and the Culture of Peace (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2005), 292.
  2. Katarzyna Flader and Witold Kawecki, CSSR, Jan Paweł II: Człowiek kultury (John Paul II: Man of Culture) (Kraków: Dom Wydawniczy “Rafael,” 2008), 7.
  3. Wielka Encyklopedia Jana Pawła II (Great Encyclopedia of John Paul II) (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo “Edipresse,” 2005), vol. 4, p. 5.
  4. R. Jared Staudt, “’Religion and Culture’ and ‘Faith and the Renewal of Society’ in Christopher Dawson and Pope Benedict XVI,” Logos, vol. 16, no. 1 (Winter 2013), 42.
  5. Glen W. Olsen, “American Culture and Liberal Ideology in the Thought of Christopher Dawson,” Communio (vol. 22, no. 4 (Winter 1995), 715–716.
  6. Fr. Zbigniew Tyburski, The Encyclicals of John Paul II: Foundations of Catholic Faith and Morality (Ave Maria, Florida: Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2011), xvii.
  7. Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., Church and Society: The Laurence J. McGinley Lectures, 1988-2007 (New York: Fordham University Press. 2008), 147.
  8. Dulles, Church and Society, 89.
  9. See Tyburski, The Encyclicals, p. 65.
  10. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. The Acting Person, trans. Andrzej Potocki, Analecta Husserliana, vol. 10 (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1979), 341–347.
  11. Dom Virgil Michel, O.S.B., “Retrieving the Tradition: Christian culture,” Communio, vol. 39, no. 4 (Winter 2012), 687.
  12. Edward J. O’Boyle, “Blessed John Paul II on Social Mortgage: Origins, Questions, and Norms,” Logos, vol. 17, no. 2 (Spring 2014), 120–121.
  13. Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Conflict Between Individual and Social Morality,” in The Modern Theologians Reader, ed. David F. Ford, Mike Higton and Simeon Zahl (Chichester, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 119.
Fr. Zbigniew Tyburski, PhD About Fr. Zbigniew Tyburski, PhD

Fr. Zbigniew Tyburski, PhD, is a priest of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, and an adjunct professor of the Catholic Social Teachings of Blessed John Paul II, at Seton Hall University.


  1. As with so many subjects, it seems one must drill down to the absolute fundamentals. When we fail to contact the absolute foundation of faith and culture, I fear we easily wander. Indeed, I believe we’ve wandered and are now lost, an assertion bolstered by the present condition of the world.

    What is the basic of all basics? Our existence as spiritual beings, as souls. It is in our spiritual nature that we are “created in the image of God.” The opposite is considering man to be solely a biological being, a flesh body, a herd animal. The spiritual and materialistic premises clash in what emerges as culture.

    The premise one chooses with regard to “what man is” determines all other aspects of culture. The secular culture runs hot with the basic premise that man is a biological entity subject to biological determinism, a herd animal that needs to be controlled and managed. There is no free will, only the will of those who exert the greatest control over others.

    In contrast, Christian culture views man as an immaterial being, a soul with free will. A culture based on this premise looks quite different from the secular culture. In fact, one might claim there is no real culture when the spiritual nature of man is absent or disregarded. In my view, the view of “what man is” drives all other factors in a culture. If a person does not really, really believe or know that he is an immortal soul, he will be unable to affect the culture in a meaningful manner.

    That, in my view, is the problem today. Too many Christians actually believe they are flesh bodies and not immortal immaterial souls. (Though they may profess otherwise.) Lacking conviction where it matters most, they are unable to counter a secular culture that reduces man to the status of an animal. Thus, ultimately, the crisis of culture is a crisis of faith, a crisis of spiritual direction, a crisis in spiritual or mystical maturity.

    • Avatar Philothea says:

      Greg, thank you for addressing this important point in an organized, coherent way. It’s definitely true that by and large our culture today takes a very materialistic approach and looks at things, including human beings, from a solely physical/empirical perspective, and that this error also affects us within the Church. I wonder, though, if it isn’t overlooking the other side of the truth about man to say that we are only spiritual beings, not physical beings at all. God created us with bodies and souls; when He became one of us, He took on not just a human soul but human flesh and blood; and at the end of time, He has promised, our bodies will rise and be reunited with our souls forever.

      The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a profound commentary on this body-soul nature of human beings. It states first, “The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual” (362). It goes on in the next paragraph to say that, as you pointed out, “ ‘soul’ also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God’s image.” This special dignity of the soul, however, does not denigrate the body but raises it up: “The human body shares in the dignity of ‘the image of God’: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul” (364). Finally, the body and the soul are not merely two things attached to each other, but a single, unified being: “The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body … spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature” (365).

      Perhaps it’s because, as you so pointedly observed, postmodern, secularist culture has lost sight of the soul altogether that the body too tends to be treated with less dignity and respect. If the human being is not a sacred body-soul image of God, nothing indeed remains but a biological composite. All the greater responsibility for us Catholics to A) know the depths of truth in our Faith, B) live by it, and C) let it shine to the world with hearts full of charity.


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