In the past seven days, I’ve run into two very interesting statements regarding liturgical inculturation. The first came about a week ago, in an article titled “To Believe Deeply, To Search Constantly,” by Abbot John Klassen, OSB, published in Conversatio, a bulletin for alumns, friends and benefactors of Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary in Collegeville. Abbot John writes:

The central role liturgy plays in the life of our Church depends on inculturation as rituals and liturgical actions attune themselves to local conditions and situation. Inculturation without sufficient historical and theological awareness risks becoming a vehicle for the dominant culture rather than a window on the holy and transcendent. We benefit immensely from the skilled, ongoing probing of what liturgy means for the Church historically, pastorally, and theologically so that all the elements of liturgical practice work together.

The second statement, from Pope Benedict XVI’s ad limina address to the bishops of Northern Brazil, came on April 15, and was reported here by our friends on the New Liturgical Movement blog, and also here, on the blog of the Vatican Information Service. The VIS reports:

Benedict XVI emphasized that “if the figure of Christ does not emerge from the liturgy … it is not a Christian liturgy”. This is why, he added, “we find those who, in the name of enculturation, fall into syncretism, introducing rites taken from other religions or cultural particularities into the celebration of the Mass.”

The last lines in the papal statement are my point of concern, as much of what is done today even in the most direct and straightforward celebration of western-rite Christian liturgies (such as the use of liturgical vestments, genuflections . . . I won’t belabor the list), depends on the wholesale adoption of “cultural particularities into the celebration of the Mass.”

So I’ve had these two statements on the table before me, and at this point I’m just ruminating on both, trying to digest them together.

Any thoughts?


  1. In my previous parish which amalgamated with an all black parish in 1970, many of the older African Americans became Catholic through the Catholic school associated with their parish and the Tridentine Mass. When I arrived in the parish in 1991, there was no Mass with a Gospel Choir, so we began one. Many of the older blacks came to me and said one of the reasons they became Catholic was to get away from the more emotional aspects of their previous affiliation and experience a more “universal, bringing together of cultures” of the traditional Mass, i.e. music, etc.
    They felt the Gospel Mass was separating people in the parish rather than uniting, although many whites attended the Mass. As I get older, it does seem to me that the emphasis on enculturation does fragment the Catholic community in a time where unity amongst races and cultures at least at Mass should be the primary concern. I would prefer enculturation now in various “devotions” that supplement the Mass, not redesign it.

  2. I think that yes, there is indeed a problem, if it is not clear that Christ is the centre of the Liturgy.

    I have been to a number of ‘youth’ Masses of late, which seem to me to be (very good) performances. CCM music has been used – but the young do not seem to be joining in with the chants of the Mass (which are recited / replaced / paraphrased).

    I also went to a Latin Mass (New rite) some years ago, which again seemed to be a performance. The music was impeccable – but i’m not really sure if it had that much to do with Liturgy.

  3. Valid enculturation: Singing the text in a locally appropriate musical style.
    Invalid syncretism: Singing some other text because it’s “meaningful.”

    Valid: Dancing the procession in a culture where dancing a ceremonially normative.
    Invalid: Adding dancers to a procession in a culture where dancing is otherwise performance art.

    Valid: Adapting the liturgical vestments to the style of native ceremonial dress, while still retaining the basic shape and function of the Catholic original.
    Invalid: Abandoning liturgical dress altogether because someone might think it weird.

    Valid: Finding ways to express the outward form of the liturgy in a way that responds to the traditional native sense of sacredness and religiosity.
    Invalid: Adapting the liturgy to appeal to the local habit of secularism and irreverence.

    Valid: working with the people to find a sensible way forward.
    Invalid: Patronizingly changing things midstream because “that’s what those people like.”

  4. Is it valid to reduce the no. of NT readings from 71% to 17%?

    Is it valid to ‘ban’ altar girls and women readers and choristers?

    Is it valid to install altar rails, when we have been instructed that they have ‘no liturgical function’ (Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales).

    Is it valid to introduce non-traditional novelties such as communion on the tongue (kneeling), and the tabernacle on the altar?

    1. I would say it is quite valid to receive Holy Communion in the way that is normative for the Church.

    2. First of all, not everything in the liturgy is strictly “functional”, even if it was in its origin. (e.g. maniple, stole, corporal, etc.) Second, the altar rail does have functions, liturgical and spatial. I’d like to see the BCEW statement about altar rails.

      The reception of Communion on the tongue is a tradition several centuries old. Receiving while kneeling is also a centuries-old tradition. Have you read ‘Memoriale Domini’? Have you read ‘Eucharisticum Mysterium’ (esp. #34)?

      I’m glad we hear more of the O.T. & N.T. in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, but I wonder how well it “sticks” with the average Catholic after Mass…

      Whether women can/should have a role in the sanctuary during the liturgy is another matter entirely, possibly (probably here) a can-of-worms topic.

    1. It is invalid to introduce a language into the Mass that no one knows except if it is the language of the Latin Rite, which should then be taught to Latin Rite Catholics who are not so dumb as not to be able to learn their native liturgical tongue. And yes it is valid to allow Latin Rite Catholics to receive Holy Communion on their Latinized tongue or hand if they prefer. Altar railings are valid and kneeling quite legitimately valid for those so inclined. Everything old is new again including an ancient lectionary. Even exclusivity can be tolerated and valid if as with all worship of God, the fruit of it is proven by the lives of those who depart the liturgical space and enter the world to bring Christ’s transforming love to their vocation, avocation and everywhere else. It is invalid to live like a godless secularist when one is a Catholic.

    2. No Catholic would now deny the lawfulness and efficacy of a sacred rite celebrated in Latin.

      Should we ban the saying of ‘Kyrie, eleison’ too?

      It is completely valid to “introduce” (it never should have needed to be re-introduced…) Latin to the liturgy.

  5. There seems to be an idea that enculturation means adapting to the customs of the local community. But that is relativism. Each community has customs but not all customs are of the same value, not all expressions of the sacred in each community are are good as those of others. Some are better than others. And so there is a need to educatate, to inculturate as well as enculturate about what the best that human civilisation together with Mother Church has found to be in worshiping Our Lord Jesus Christ.

  6. You know, Ted, throwing out the label “relativism” is both inflammatory and intellectually lazy. “Adapting to the customs of the local community” could be done a hundred different ways – some of them good, others not so much. Has any advocate of inculturation ever said that all customs are of the same value? Of course not. Discussion of inculturation has been going on for some time now, with good nuance and sensitivity to the complexity of history and cultures to be found both in the magisterium’s documents and theologians’ discussions. I’m not sure you’re making a constructive contribution to the discussion here. Alongside the need to “educate” (done by those who already have it figured out??) is the need to discern – and that ain’t easy!

    1. Fr. Ruff;

      But what happens when the “culture” you are trying to adapt to is a widely secular or pop culture such as ours? Is there such a thing as legitimate inculturation of things which are themselves contrary to the nature of the liturgy?

      1. Jeffrey – the abuse crisis makes it difficult to claim the culture is “secular” and has nothing to offer the Church or its liturgy. Who brought abuse cases to light in the 80s and 90s and gave voice to victims – the secular media or the Catholic hierarchy? On just this one point, the media were on God’s side, not the hierarchy, even if the media had bad motives and inaccuracies in their reporting. A female Lutheran bishop in Germany recently picked up for DUI promptly admitted it, apologized, listened to others’ voices for a time, then resigned because she lacked moral credibility and would be a distraction to the Church’s mission. A recent poll in Germany of which leaders have moral credibility ranked the Lutheran bishop first. In last place, after politicians and investment bankers and many others, was Pope Benedict. I’m sure many of the polled Germans are “secular” or not churchgoing – but their moral compass seems to be working well.

  7. Not that Old Testament is a strict blueprint for us in the New Testament times, but did Israel “inculturate” its worship when aliens were circumcised and entered into the Mosaic-Davidic covenant family of God? A lot of what happened to Israel’s worship in the O.T. is syncretism (e.g. Northern Israel in 2 Kings 17:24ff).

    We should certainly be cautious in what cultural rites/customs we assume into Catholic worship.

    1. Jeffery, my scripture professor for Old Testament, Fr. John Kselman in the 1970’s warned about syncretism in Israel’s religion as they mingled with the pagans and Fr. Kselman said God was not pleased! And He showed us what God did to that unfaithful, paganizing people. I suspect there are parallels today that the Old Testament can teach us well. Fr. Raymond Brown’s contemporary at our seminary, Fr. Addison Wright, in the midst of our so-called liturgical renewal claimed that unhealthy biblical religion focused too much on how one worshiped and too little on what worship means and how we live our lives after worship. For 45 years we’ve preached Vatican II, ecclessiology, renovation of churches, change of language and laity doing liturgical ministries. Inculturation to make Mass meaningful was the apex of renewal. But lost in all of this was Jesus Christ, His transforming love and the call to holiness, not so much at worship but in life. But we were too distracted by the “god” of Vatican II to see that the “Baby” had been thrown out with the bathwater.

  8. Fr. Allan, I’m not entirely sure who the good guys and who the bad guys are in your story, whether you cite Fr. Wright as a model or a problem. In any case, I think that biblical worship has very much to do with our pure hearts, our concern for the poor, our work for justice/righteousness. Both the OT prophets and Our Lord say that anything else, no matter how ceremonially correct, is most unpleasing to God.
    The Pope has yet to speak to the Munich case, take responsibility, or apologize to Fr. Hullerman’s victims. This makes the Pope’s every word about liturgical renewal, in my mind, rather hollow and hypocritical. Maybe he’ll yet do the honorable thing. I hope so and I pray for it. Until then, he doesn’t have much moral credibility in the eyes of many people.
    Fr. Anthony

    1. Well I’m not sure how my comments referring to two of my most favorite scripture scholars and their “contemporary” exegisis of the situation in the Church of the ’70’s in reference to Old and New Testament concerns for healthy Biblical religion and worship led to a diatribe against the Holy Father. I would suggest that even if what you say is true, that it is no worse than what St. Peter did to our Lord by claiming he would never deny him and then doing so three time no less. This Sunday’s Gospel is about the sweet divine mercies our Crucified and Risen Lord shows St. Peter when He asks him “do you love” me, three times and tells him three times to feed his sheep/lambs. I’m disinclined to judge the Pope against the so-called renewal of the 60’s which he himself disavowed rather quickly after the student uprisings. Let’s give him credit for that at least, but every bishop shuffled priests about in that period, we know that already and it has been admitted. And so a sinner pope is not to be obeyed when he speaks the truth nonetheless? All of us priests might as well all hang up our “frocks” then!

    2. Isn’t a broken clock still correct twice a day (at least an analog one –before iPhones)? So, even if the Pope made mistakes in the past, and I want to see real evidence, how does that rule out the truth is what he is saying about other topics?

  9. We are not without legitimate guidance from CDWDS on the topic of inculturation. In 1994 they issued Varietates Legitimae, which provides steps for the various steps of inculturation in the Roman Rite. I recently picked up a handy book, The Forgotten Instruction, which basically charts the course of inculturation in the Roman Rite from CSL up to Varitates Legitimae. It is interesting to see the evolution of the approach the Vatican takes to the concept and process of inculturation.

  10. I had hoped this conversation wouldn’t go in the direction of the scandal du jour. But since it has…

    Let me offer an analogy from my own locus ecclesiasticus: The Anglican Communion (which has its own set of analogous problems) is made up of 44 regional and national member churches, each with its own hierarchy. Many share the same liturgy, but many also have their own liturgies, more or less inculturated variants on the same western ordo, and all stemming from one or another of the British Books of Common Prayer. The national and regional churches are in communion with one another, the focus of communion being the ancient see of Canterbury. When something goes wrong in one or another of the churches, it’s that church’s problem to solve — Canterbury and the others can recommend, cajole, threaten, etc., but can’t intervene. Likewise, the member churches aren’t free to determine one anothers’ liturgies.

    Now, as I see it, in the present sex abuse/hierarchy oversight scandal, it seems as if Rome wants the various dioceses and national bishops’ conferences to step up and let the buck stop there — at the diocesan or national level. All well and good: a communion of administratively independent churches, with their unity focused in the Roman See and its pontiff, taking responsibility for its ministers and (when applicable) their misbehaviors.

    But when it comes to liturgy, it seems as if Rome wishes to determine and dictate the degree to which any one of those same dioceses or national bishops’ conferences will engage in inculturation (read: the shaping of liturgy and its language for the local church). It’s a pyramidal model, with the top being top-dog, and everything flowing down hill.

    Liturgical scholars — myself, Fr. Anthony, and plenty of others — look at this situation and find it all rather bewildering. If the top-down model is going to be claimed for liturgy, then it needs to be claimed for ethics/moral behavior; or, vice-versa. Either let the churches take responsibility for their liturgies and the misdemeanors of their priests, or determine the liturgy for the whole communion, and take the heat when something goes grievously wrong.

    After all, when one member is sick, isn’t the whole body sick as well?

    1. Cody there has been a top down model of operation in the Catholic Church for centuries and Vatican II is a prime example of it, as well as its implementation. This has never been set aside to this day. Because of the many languages worldwide, Rome did not micro-manage the translations immediately following the council but did rely upon different language groups to translate. Rome also allowed various hermeneutics for those translations. Such a massive shift to multiple languages needed subsidiarity. But every subsequent “consultative” groups from international to local parishes are always “advisory”. They can’t usurp the ultimate authority of the Pope, or the local bishop or the parish pastor–that’s the way it is to this very day. I listen to my pastoral council and usually follow their recommendations, but I can for good reason go another route–canonically. Subsidiarity has its limits as does centralized authority. In both liturgy and management of priests a strong combination of both are needed and the lack of both creates rampant abuse of both liturgy and victims of clergy sexual abuse. They are related!

      1. In terms of subsidiarity, I’ve reprinted an article by the late Cardinal Franz Konig on my blog. He was a progressive and the article is long:

        Then I wrote my own editorial on subsidiarity as it pertains to the sex abuse scandal. I think both articles give insight into what is happening today in terms of going back to a centralized approach in liturgy and clergy management to be implemented on the local and lowest level:

  11. I am not sure I would be so quick to equate the content of the liturgy and the handling of the abuse scandal.

    But that being said it is curious that Rome is taking such direct involvement in the preparation of the Roman Rite in English, especially since it hasn’t except in the past 15 years or so. I would be curious to know if Rome was doing the same for the other major liturgical languages of the Church, Spanish, German, Italian, and French for example?

    1. I’m not equating the abuse/oversight scandal with the regulation of the liturgy; rather, I’m suggesting that it is cognitively dissonant for a church to adopt two different ecclesiological models for two different situations when one should suffice for both — and especially when in both cases the model adopted seems to serve the interests of the privileged hierarchy while alienating the laity.

    2. My friends tell me that the French bishops are tearing their hair out because of the way Rome is behaving over the question of liturgical language, and that the Germans and Italians are also having problems. Indeed, the French bishops had hoped that the US bishops would follow Trautman in standing firm against a philosophy of translation which they see as completely defective, thus giving them leverage in doing likewise.

      1. Very insightful Paul. So the English world isn’t alone. A heavy hand is being applied across the board. And we can trace the all back to Cardinal Mendina-Estevez.

  12. Not just Cardinal Medina, alas.

    Reiner Kaczynski, who was the German at the CDW until Medina had him replaced, witnessed a meeting between Medina and Ratzinger back in (I think) 1991 at which the two of them made a pact to undo what they saw as the evil results of Vatican II once they were in a position to do so. It is well documented, and makes one very suspicious of the events of the past 15 years.

    1. Was the albino monk also present? In all seriousness, what exactly has “gone against Vatican II”?

      1. Christopher, you obviously haven’t been reading the right German-language journals. I’m away from my office for several days (think volcanic ash) and so won’t be able to look up the sources. At least one other reader of this list has access to the same documentation, so perhaps he will fill you in.

      2. This is an interesting question. V2 wanted chant preserved and the Ordinary in Latin known by the faithful. But it also clearly assigned approval of vernacular texts to episcopal conferences, not the Holy See. I’m not sure many people can claim to support the whole program consistently, if you want to go by what the text literally says.

      3. Fr. Ruff, I suppose a big matter of contention is: are Vatican II’s texts (or any Church texts) meant to be taken literally? Is Sacro. Concil. a “compromise” document (as some here would frame it) meant to be surpassed once the formality of its voting and promulgation were out of the way? Or is it an attainable ideal and livable programme for the Church’s liturgical life?

        The Apostolic See commandeering the translation efforts is not, as Bp. Trautman incorrectly described it, a matter of doctrine, but of ecclesiastical law. Do SC 22.1, 22.2, and 36.3 really preclude the Apostolic See from operating how it is, regarding the English translation?

        And, historically, it seems like Pope Paul VI was not opposed to going beyond/against Sacro. Concil., as evidenced by his audiences on Nov. 19 & 26 of 1969. So if that’s legitimate, why isn’t it legitimate for the Apostolic See to flex some liturgical muscle in this matter?

      4. Jeffrey – consistency is the point. You can’t have it both ways, and cite SC 36, 54, etc. for the mind of the fathers on Latin chant, and then say that legal approval of vernacular texts need not happen according to the mind of the fathers. From your post I can’t tell whether you favor going beyond SC on some points, following the letter of SC on every point, or following the letter of SC only on those points where you agree with it.

  13. Fr Ruff:
    If the Holy Father speaks of the danger of syncretism, perhaps the subtle theologians you speak about are failing to set the boundary of when inculturation becomes a two-way street into syncretism. Granting that there is actually a boundary between the two, both assume that Catholic liturgies are improved by them. However, in adopting customs and practices of the prevailing culture, such improvement is relative only to that prevailing culture. That makes the Mass un-catholic (i.e. un-universal). Compare the EF Mass that is universal wherever and whenever it is celebrated.
    The early Christians (following the Hebrews) were very careful to avoid pagan customs and practices, even to the point of banning music in the liturgy and muse-ic schools. Yet today we hear at Masses youth style rock, Broadway style sentimentalism, etc, ungodly music in origin and sensibilites. Only the best that civilsation has produced through the ages for God’s glory should be allowed in the Mass.

    1. Ted, I really do want a good dialogue, but I can’t follow what you’re saying. I see no antecedent to which “the two” and “both” might refer. “Both” of what are improved by what “them”? Your writing doesn’t make sense to me.
      Do you hold that the EF was universal and not influenced by prevailing culture? This doesn’t hold water historically. Think of Mozart orchestral Masses in Vienna, Romantic organ solo Masses in Paris, pure chant at Solesmes, all happening at the beginning of the 20th century in different cultural settings.

  14. Fr Ruff said:
    “This makes the Pope’s every word about liturgical renewal, in my mind, rather hollow and hypocritical.”

    Perhaps you would care to remember your philosophy 101 class: ad hominem aguments are logical fallacies. What the Holy Father may or may not have done with regards to the abuse issue has no bearing whatsoever on what he says concerning the liturgy and other matters.

    1. Dear Ted – “hypocritical” is a moral category, not a logical one. A position could be perfectly defensible on grounds of logic and still be hypocritical. Having said that, I think my statement was ill-considered and driven by my frustration at the handling of the crisis.

    2. Why really annoys me about this whole thing is that it is the priests and bishops of today taking the blame for something that, for the vast majority happened decades ago. Many of these blogs would have you think that bishops ordained in the last decade were responsible for what happened over the last 50. Many of these blogs will also throw out easily the names Law, John Paul II and Benedict XVI but conveniently leave out names like Weakland, John XXIII, Paul VI,etc. (examples of bishops in power when the majority of the abuses were occurring). Examples like that lead to me see a underlying agenda…

      1. Fr. Christopher – I think not. For one thing, John Paul II on your list is not the pope of today anymore! I say, let’s have honesty about the whole thing — I don’t care if the prelate was “liberal” or “conservative” or anything else. The problem is systemic and affects most everyone in the structure, past and present. But obviously only those now in power have present responsibility to tackle the situation and open up the records. Hence it is they who are on the hotseat.

  15. Fr Ruff:
    I do not know what others think, but I find the 1000 character ceiling on these comments quite limiting. In trying to answer your comments, I found my last sentence cut off, so, not wanting to give the impression of hogging the platform, I just went back and shorted things on the edit screen, which led to the ambiguities.

    Mr Pinvan:
    Yes, thank you, that is exactly what I meant. Those that introduce syncretism/inculturation think they are improving the Mass. If they are improving the Mass it would seem to be only for the local context.

    Time is the usual test of what is artistically great. The great works of human civilisation tend to survive through time. Not everyone is a good artist. Call that elitism if you wish, but I say the Mass is not about what the local people like to hear or see, but about how the Mystical Body can fulfill the first and more important of the two great commandments: to adore God. God deserves only the Best.

  16. This whole discussion, and many other like discussions in other places, seems to me to be about ‘how to restuff everything back into Pandora’s box’ — a classically useless effort. This seems especially true of those who self-identify as ‘reform of the reformers’ of the Liturgy from post Vatican II. Truly the Church needs time, maybe a century or two to ‘digest’ what has happened and to still be faithful to the Tradition. Small ‘t’ traditions are by definition variable and time-defined — and it does seem that the ‘reforms’ of Vatican II did understand that and try to keep the ‘T’radition and submit the ‘t’raditions to a serious rethink– for the Roman Rite. It is just as much a re-envisioning as the application of the printing press to the Roman Rite after Trent. And done for similar reasons, since the means of communication have radically changed — starting with the microphone, radio, TV, the computer, etc.

  17. Mr. Krasnicki,
    I wholeheartedly agree with the first three sentences of your last paragraph @ #42. Just as wholeheartedly I disagree with the rest of it. Mass is a local people’s celebration of the Eucharist – their thanksgiving. As such, it should be their very best effort, but it should be, must be, THEIR best, because it’s THEIR worship. That means that it will look and sound different in South Africa than it does in Sao Paulo or Detroit or Seoul, and it may not fit someone else’s definition of ‘great art’. So what? Is a parent offended by the lack of refined artistic technique in a child’s drawing, or delighted by the child’s effort to please? “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord’ doesn’t stipulate the particular type of noise, either.

    One of my great fears in all of what’s going on is that the Powers That Are will redefine ‘unity’ to mean ‘uniformity’. Since God created us in all our diversity and found it good, why should all of our worship be exactly…

    1. No, not your fault. The annoying problem is with the bulletin board itself. If someone replies to a post further up, all subsequent posts are automatically renumbered.

      The facility to have an indented reply to someone has both good and bad points. Good that you can (as I have now learned) prevent someone from intervening in the middle of a multi-post argument and destroying your thread by simply replying to yourself instead of posting a chain of new posts. Bad in that you can’t always see what others have said without going through the whole thread to look at new replies, because they are not displayed in chronological sequence. Bad because of the renumbering thing already mentioned.

      1. Paul,
        Thank you for explaining. I frequent a board that doesn’t number posts, but does thread them, and the display is indented, so the problem we have here doesn’t exist. One just has to be careful where you reply from.

      2. I have been trying to follow the comments via RSS. That has the convenience of showing me new posts which I have not read, but lists them chronologically and therefore out of context. It’s 6 of one, half-dozen of the other.

  18. Altar rails:

    ‘… there is no liturgical requirement for altar rails in churches’

    – from Consecrated for worship’ – Paragraph 218

    – BCEW

      1. And the BCEW is good for England and Wales only. Other bishops may decree something else.

  19. They may well – but in my opinion, altar rails are as useless and irrelevant as the EF Mass, Latin, and expensive fancy vestments.

    1. Dom. Ruff, I think John’s comment is completely inappropriate on this blog and should be removed immediately. Calling the E.F. Mass “useless and irrelevant” is absolutely absurd and inflammatory. And calling Latin “useless and irrelevant” is ignorant, unless Mr. Quinn can provide an educated rebuttal of Bl. Pope John XXIII’s “Veterum Sapientia”, among other defenses of Latin given by the Church over the centuries.

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