To what extent and how should the celebrational forms of the Liturgy adapt to the culture(s) in which it is celebrated? Beginning with article 37, Sacrosanctum Concilium opens a door to liturgical development that has borne great fruit in the last fifty years, but has also proved quite controversial. Pray Tell readers may wish to engage the foundational norms for this process in Roman Catholicism.
Vatican website translation:
D) Norms for adapting the Liturgy to the culture and traditions of peoples
37. Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.
D) Normae ad aptationem ingenio et traditionibus populorum perficiendam
37. Ecclesia, in iis quae fidem aut bonum totius communitatis non tangunt, rigidam unius tenoris formam ne in Liturgia quidem imponere cupit; quinimmo, variarum gentium populorumque animi ornamenta ac dotes colit et provehit; quidquid vero in populorum moribus indissolubili vinculo superstitionibus erroribusque non adstipulatur, benevole perpendit ac, si potest, sartum tectumque servat, immo quandoque in ipsam Liturgiam admittit, dummodo cum rationibus veri et authentici spiritus liturgici congruat.
Slavishly literal translation:
D) Norms for accomplishing adaptation to the mode of thinking and traditions of peoples
37. The Church, in those things which do not touch upon the faith or good of the entire community, in no way wishes to impose on the Liturgy a rigid form of single uninterrupted course; rather, it cherishes and promotes the adornments and endowments of spirit of various races and peoples; in fact whatever is not necessarily connected in the accepted behaviors of peoples by an indissoluble bond to superstitions and errors, it benevolently considers, and, if possible, preserves in good order, by all means when she admits it into the Liturgy itself, as long as according to reason it would positively connect with the true and authentic liturgical spirit.
Having concluded its considerations of general norms, norms drawn from the hierarchical and communal nature of the liturgy, and norms drawn from the teaching and pastoral character of the liturgy, the Council Fathers now turn their attention to what will later be called “liturgical inculturation.” Following the pattern we have seen above, article 37 sets out the rationale for adapting the Liturgy to the genius and traditions of various human groups, while articles 38-40 present the practical norms arising from this rationale.
First, the document states that the Church has no desire to impose a single rigid form of liturgical celebration on its members in those elements which do not concern the faith and good of the entire community. This is probably best shown by the continued existence of multiple liturgical rites within Roman Catholicism. All of the rites celebrate the Eucharist, but the details of their liturgical structure may vary greatly. (For example, to Westerners who claim that the consecration of Eucharistic offerings MUST take place by a priest reciting the words of Jesus over them, it may come as a shock to discover that the Church accepts the Anaphora of the Holy Apostles Addai and Mari of the Chaldean Church as genuinely consecratory, although these words are lacking: a Eucharistic Prayer is necessary, but the recitation of these words is not necessary, in terms of the faith and good of the entire community.) Pray Tell readers might want to discuss how one determines those things which so concern the “faith and good of the entire community” that they must be maintained in the Church’s liturgical worship.
Second, the document states that the Church, far from being a European or First World colonial power, seeks to promote the cultural achievements of all peoples. It thus indicates a fundamental openness to the variety of human cultures, presuming that God is at work in all of them. The history of Christian missionary activity may challenge this assertion, but it does indicate what the Council Fathers saw as the ideal for the Church’s missionary activity fifty years ago. It would be interesting to see how this assertion develops in the Council’s later teaching in documents such as the decree on the missionary activity of the Church, Ad Gentes.
Third, it recognizes that there may be some aspects of the cultures the Church encounters that need to be challenged and changed in the light of the Gospel, elements that are “indissolubly linked to superstitions and errors.” Perhaps wisely the Council Fathers do not list what such aspects are. Pray Tell readers might wish to explore what elements of their own cultures they might identify as inimical to the Gospel.
Finally, it states that some elements of native cultures may be incorporated into the Liturgy, as long as they correlate to its “true and authentic spirit.” I would offer as a possible example the burning of sweetgrass or sage in some Native American Catholic services as a replacement for the burning of incense. Pray Tell readers may wish to discuss how to discern when a proposed addition to the Liturgy does or does not correspond to its true and authentic spirit.