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Semina Verbi or "Seeds of the Word" is a cultural project aimed at examining the ways in which the Christian Gospel or the Word of God has influenced the cultures of humankind.

Origins of the expression

Early Christian apologists

The expression goes back to Justin the Martyr and to Clement of Alexandria.

Saint Justin (100-165 AD) affirms in his Second Apology:

For I myself, when I discovered the wicked disguise which the evil spirits had thrown around the divine doctrines of the Christians, to turn aside others from joining them, laughed both at those who framed these falsehoods, and at the disguise itself and at popular opinion and I confess that I both boast and with all my strength strive to be found a Christian; not because the teachings of Plato are different from those of Christ, but because they are not in all respects similar, as neither are those of the others, Stoics, and poets, and historians. For each man spoke well in proportion to the share he had of the spermatic word, seeing what was related to it. But they who contradict themselves on the more important points appear not to have possessed the heavenly wisdom, and the knowledge which cannot be spoken against. Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians. For next to God, we worship and love the Word who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since also He became man for our sakes, that becoming a partaker of our sufferings, He might also bring us healing. For all the writers were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted word that was in them...
Second Apology, 13

And Saint Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) affirms in his Stromata:

For, like farmers who irrigate the land beforehand, so we also water with the liquid stream of Greek learning what in it is earthy; so that it may receive the spiritual seed cast into it, and may be capable of easily nourishing it. The Stromata will contain the truth mixed up in the dogmas of philosophy, or rather covered over and hidden, as the edible part of the nut in the shell. For, in my opinion, it is fitting that the seeds of truth be kept for the husbandmen of faith, and no others. I am not oblivious of what is babbled by some, who in their ignorance are frightened at every noise, and say that we ought to occupy ourselves with what is most necessary, and which contains the faith; and that we should pass over what is beyond and superfluous, which wears out and detains us to no purpose, in things which conduce nothing to the great end. Others think that philosophy was introduced into life by an evil influence, for the ruin of men, by an evil inventor. But I shall show, throughout the whole of these Stromata, that evil has an evil nature, and can never turn out the producer of anything that is good; indicating that philosophy is in a sense a work of Divine Providence.
Stromata, Book 1 Ch. 1

While Eusebius of Caesarea (260-339 AD), in his Praeparatio Evangelica, affirms that the Greeks were clearly influenced in their philosophy by the Hebrew Scriptures, thus affirming from another point of view that the best in human culture was influenced by the Word of God:

THE preceding Book, which is the tenth of the Evangelical Preparation, was intended to prove by no statements of my own, but by external testimonies, that as the Greeks had contributed no additional wisdom from their own resources, but only their force and elegance of language, and had borrowed all their philosophy from Barbarians, it was not improbable that they were also not unacquainted with the Hebrew Oracles, but had in part seized upon them also; seeing that they did not keep their hands clean from theft even of the literary efforts of their own countrymen...
Moreover in the same Book we learned by the comparison of dates that they were very young in age as well as in wisdom, and fell very far short of the ancient literature of the Hebrews.
Such were the contents of the preceding Book: but in this present one we hasten on at once to pay as it were a debt, I mean the promise which was given, and to exhibit the agreement of the Greek philosophers with the Hebrew Oracles in some if not in all their doctrinal theories.

(Eusebius of Caesarea, Praeparation Evangelica, Book XI)

Roots in the Gospel

Jesus Christ compared himself to a sower of seeds when he proclaimed the Parable of the Sower to the crowds of people listening to Him.

3 And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, 6 and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. 7 Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. 8 But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. 9 Whoever has ears ought to hear.” ... 18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart. 20 The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. 21 But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. 22 The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. 23 But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”

The Doctrine of the Seeds of the Word interpreted as truths of the Gospel being spread throughout human culture is also present in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. The Decree on Missionary Activity Ad Gentes affirms:

In order that they may be able to bear more fruitful witness to Christ, let [Christians] ... acknowledge themselves to be members of the group of men among whom they live; let them share in cultural and social life by the various undertakings and enterprises of human living; let them be familiar with their national and religious traditions; let them gladly and reverently lay bare the seeds of the Word which lie hidden among their fellows.
(Ad Gentes, Ch. II, art. 1, n. 11)

Similarly the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium states:

Whatever good or truth is found amongst [those men who have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God] is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.
(Lumen Gentium, n. 16)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as "a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life."
(CCC n. 843)

The Declaration on non Christian religions, Nostra Aetate, uses the simile of a ray of light to express the same concept:

From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense. ... The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.
(Nostra Aetate n. 2)

Dopo il Concilio, le metafore dei semina Verbi e della praeparatio evangelica sono state riprese dai Sommi Pontefici. Paolo VI, nell’Esortazione apostolica sull’evangelizzazione, afferma:

«[Le religioni non-cristiane] sono tutte cosparse di innumerevoli “germi del Verbo” e possono costituire una autentica “preparazione evangelica”, per riprendere una felice espressione del Concilio Vaticano II tratta da Eusebio di Cesarea» (Evangelii nuntiandi, n. 53).

Da parte sua, Giovanni Paolo II, nella sua prima enciclica, scrive:

«Giustamente i Padri della Chiesa vedevano nelle diverse religioni quasi altrettanti riflessi di un’unica verità come “germi del Verbo”, i quali testimoniano che, quantunque per diverse strade, è rivolta tuttavia in una unica direzione la piú profonda aspirazione dello spirito umano, quale si esprime nella ricerca di Dio ed insieme nella ricerca, mediante la tensione verso Dio, della piena dimensione dell’umanità, ossia del pieno senso della vita umana» (Redemptor hominis, n. 11).

Sembrerebbe dunque di trovarci dinanzi a una dottrina consolidata, oltretutto ben radicata nella tradizione, visto che le espressioni usate sono di origine patristica. L’immagine dei semina Verbi è tratta da san Giustino e da Clemente Alessandrino; il concetto di praeparatio evangelica invece, come ci ricordava Paolo VI, lo troviamo in Eusebio di Cesarea. Tutto vero. Il problema è: siamo sicuri che i Santi Padri, con tali espressioni, si riferissero alle religioni non-cristiane (che a quel tempo si identificavano con la religione pagana)? Faccio rispondere a questa domanda uno dei maggiori patrologi del XX secolo, Berthold Altaner (Patrologia, Marietti, 7ª ed., 1977). A proposito di Giustino, che parla dei “germi del Verbo” nelle sue Apologie, scrive:

«Con la sua teoria del λόγος σπερματικός [logos spermatikos] Giustino getta un ponte tra la filosofia antica e il Cristianesimo. In Cristo apparve, in tutta la sua pienezza, il Logos divino, ma ogni uomo possiede nella sua ragione un germe (σπέρμα) del Logos. Questa partecipazione al Logos, e conseguente disposizione a conoscere la Verità, fu in alcuni particolarmente grande; cosí nei Profeti del giudaismo e, fra i greci, in Eraclito e Socrate. Molti elementi della verità sono passati, cosí egli opina, nei poeti e nei filosofi greci dell’antica letteratura giudaica, poiché Mosè era ritenuto lo scrittore assolutamente piú antico. Di conseguenza i filosofi, in quanto vissero e insegnarono conformemente alle regole della ragione, furono dei Cristiani, in un certo senso, prima della venuta di Cristo. Tuttavia solo dopo questa venuta i Cristiani sono entrati in possesso della verità totale e sicura, priva di ogni errore. Il pensiero teologico di San Giustino è fortemente influenzato dalla filosofia stoica e platonica» (pp. 70-71).

Quanto a Eusebio, che compose un’opera dal titolo Praeparatio evangelica, Altaner scrive:

«La Praeparatio evangelica (Εὐαγγελικὴ προπαρασκευή), in 15 libri, composta tra il 312 e il 322, vuole dimostrare ai catecumeni e ai pagani, forse scossi dagli attacchi di Porfirio, come i Cristiani abbiano avuto ragione nel preferire il Giudaismo al paganesimo. La “Filosofia degli Ebrei” è superiore alla cosmogonia e alla mitologia dei pagani. I sapienti pagani, soprattutto Platone, hanno attinto dall’A.T.» (p. 223).

Come si può vedere, i Santi Padri non rinvengono alcun “germe del Verbo” nella religione pagana, né considerano questa una “preparazione al Vangelo”. Tali immagini vengono da loro applicate non alla religione, ma alla cultura del tempo, in particolare alla filosofia e alla poesia, le quali, secondo loro, avrebbero attinto a Mosè. I primi cristiani non hanno mai fatto proprio alcun elemento della religione pagana, mentre non si sono fatti scrupolo di adottare le categorie dell’ellenismo addirittura per esprimere la loro fede. La preoccupazione dei cristiani dei primi secoli non era il dialogo interreligioso, ma l’inculturazione del Vangelo.

Una conferma a questo, che è stato l’atteggiamento della Chiesa di tutti i tempi fino al Vaticano II, la troviamo in Padre Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). Solitamente il missionario gesuita viene proposto come antesignano dell’attuale dialogo interreligioso, vista la sua simpatia nei confronti del confucianesimo. Ma non si tiene conto che tale simpatia scaturiva proprio dalla «consape­volezza che nessun elemento vi era nel confucianesimo che potesse far pensare ad una religione … il confucianesimo, lungi dal presentarsi alla stregua di una religione, perseguiva lo scopo di dare una giusta e retta amministrazione al gover­no del paese» (Franco Di Giorgio). Al contrario, Padre Ricci non si fece scrupolo di criticare il taoismo e il buddismo, che considerava inconciliabili col cristianesimo.

Ci si potrebbe dunque chiedere se, su questo punto, il Concilio non rappresenti una rottura con la tradizione o, piuttosto, una sua legittima evoluzione. Non sta a me dare una risposta a questa domanda, che pure costituisce un problema di capitale importanza. L’unica cosa che posso dire è che non mi sembra corretto affermare, come fa Giovanni Paolo II nella Redemptor hominis, che «i Padri della Chiesa vedevano nelle diverse religioni quasi altrettanti riflessi di un’unica verità come “germi del Verbo”». Un Papa ha tutta l’autorità di interpretare la rivelazione, ma non ha autorità di stravolgere la storia.

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