The Missal of Zaire and the Committee to Review Liturgiam Authenticam

When I wrote up some brief descriptions of the members of the commission to revise Liturgiam authenticam at Pray Tell, I overlooked a relevant fact concerning one of the participants. I would like to remedy that omission here.

Bishop Jean-Pierre Kwambamba Masi, auxiliary for the diocese of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is actually well placed to speak to issues of inculturation given the fact that Congo celebrates the liturgy according to the Roman Missal of Zaire.

The Missel Romain pour les Dioceses du Zaire was officially approved for liturgical use by the authorities in Rome in 1988, and was in use ad experimentum from 1973 to 1988. The development it represents actually goes back to a time before the Second Vatican Council. Nathan Chase offers a good overview here.

Initial efforts at the development of a Zairian form of the liturgy came about as missionaries attempted to integrate Catholicism with indigenous cultures in Africa. Zaire, a former colony of Belgium, had the benefit of Belgian missionaries who were influenced by the liturgical movement—in particular the Abbey of Mont-Cesar—who wished to foster active participation in the rites.

The ritual use of Zaire is a particular case, but it is also more than that. It is considered by some to be a model of inculturation for other churches in Africa. The prayers of this Missal differ markedly from those of the Missale Romanum, though it is officially deemed a fully authentic form of the Roman Rite. Thus, the experience of liturgy in Congo raises important questions about how the directives of Liturgiam authenticam can be brought into relationship with other developments in the post-Vatican II church.

I have no idea of the liturgical opinions of Bishop Kwambamba. He may believe the inculturation exemplified in Congo goes too far, or doesn’t go far enough, has much to teach the rest of the world, or really speaks only to Congo. Whatever the case, I am heartened by the fact that someone with actual, long-term, lived experience of this form of Catholic liturgy will be part of the discussion.

There are many liturgy videos from Congo on line. Many focus on processions at the entrance and at the offering. Here are some video clips of a Christmas Mass at one parish in Kinshasa. This one gives a glimpse of the Eucharistic Prayer, with its multiple acclamations, dancing, and bells. It is exuberant.


  1. Just out of curiosity, has the Vatican ever declared just how many languages the Liturgy should be translated into? The folks at Ethnologue are currently holding the number of living languages in the world at 7097 (as of 21 Feb 2017). Seems like some pretty long-term guaranteed employment for a lot of Vatican commissions and liturgists.

    1. @Sean Keeler:
      I don’t know the answer to your question, Sean. But it’s not the case that every living language is presumed to want or need its own liturgical books. Burkina Faso is an interesting example. It is home to 60 indigenous languages (out of a total of 69 languages spoken), but all legal and official business is in French, and so are their liturgical books (though presumably the preaching might be in any number of languages). It also has the lowest literacy rate in the world. A big push resulted in an increase of literacy from 12.8% in 1990 to 25.3% in 2008. I suspect the fact that this is a very oral culture is why it supports so many languages in the first place.

  2. Thanks, Rita. That’s what I was looking for. We have business relations in nearby Nigeria and they have much the same situation. Life would be much simpler if not for the Tower of Babel!

    1. Deacon Fritz, I doubt that any priest in the DRC is absolutely forbidden canonically to celebrate Mass according to the European French Missel Romain. Perhaps the episcopal conference has forbidden this, but currently the bishops of the DRC are involved in peace talks over the long term civil war. Missal choice is probably not on the menu right now. I strongly doubt that a priest who celebrates Mass in European French ritual and language would be censured.

      As an aside, I never understood why there are many different translations for hispanophone countries, but not francophone countries. Currently Quebecois must use a generic Parisian-standard translation. Quebec French has been heavily influenced syntactically and semantically by English (the two have lived side-by-side for so long). I don’t understand why it would be problematic if a proposed French-language Quebecois missal contained English (or French in English syntax) at some points in the ordinary. Inculturation is not only performative but also indicative of more subtle shades, such as linguistics.

  3. So very sad that Americans are not allowed to inculturate the Holy Spirit into Eucharistic celebrations…

  4. On a recent trip to India some of our business associates there clued me in to its polyglot nature: well over 100 languages spoken in that great country. Each of the associates we met with was from a different part of the country – Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai. Each of these enormous cities and surrounding districts has its own language. Consequently, every Indian person we met with speaks a minimum of three languages. They told me that the language changes every 50 kilometers or so. If one may say so, it seems that English has become the lingua franca in India.

    I relayed some of these amazing facts to my Uber driver on the jaunt back home from the airport. He was quite unimpressed, as his native Nigeria apparently has over 600 spoken languages (or so he informed me).

    I don’t know whether English is used for Catholic worship throughout India, but I know it is one of the member countries of ICEL. I do wonder whether there is anything redolent of colonialism in using English in India (and French in Burkina Faso). I’ve thought from time to time that Latin may be preferable, or at least useful more so than we typically do in the US, although perhaps Latin may also bespeak cultural imperialism of a sort. Or maybe that overcomplicates things.

  5. Perhaps a ‘colonial’ language that is widely used (and obviously maintained) was seen as a better choice in such circumstances than privileging a dominant one among the many local languages? But I think some bishops’ conferences chose that option– eg Swahili in Uganda?

    Latin has the ‘advantage’ of being no one’s mother tongue now. It could serve as a unifier if we let it, and it’s a flexible vehicle for cultural adaptation. Anyone else remember the Congolese setting of the Greek/Latin Mass Ordinary, Missa Luba?

  6. Liturgiam Authenticam 10-14 makes depressing reading. The strong implication is that there are human languages which are not to be used in the liturgy. The unwritten agenda lying behind these paragraphs seems to be, when you boil it down to its essentials, “If we can’t understand it here in Rome (for purposes of recognitio) then you can’t use it.”

    No one has yet really challenged the idea found here: that some people might be discouraged, or worse still forbidden, to pray or worship or celebrate Mass in their own tongue, as if it were somehow “not worthy”. Gelineau is on record as saying that any such idea is mind-blowingly awful.

    LA was almost exclusively about control. Inculturation is about the diametric opposite. And inculturation is where the Church is headed, or it will die. This is a much broader issue than the Congo. There are many parts of the First and Second Worlds where the rites have to a greater or lesser extent been inculturated. Mass in Hawaii is very different from Mass in Regensburg, or Aberdeen, or New York or Milan.

    The whole question of imposing a single translation for a linguistic group spread right across the world has never been seriously challenged either. That, too, runs counter to local inculturation.

    I don’t see that any revision or replacement of LA has any mileage unless it goes hand in hand with another document on inculturation that revises or replaces Varietates Legitimae, which was also thought to be a retrograde step when it appeared (you can imagine what Chupungco thought of it!).

  7. Paul, thanks for that reference to LA 10-14. It prompted me to go back and reread that section. The key concerns seem to be somewhat practical: that the language in question actually be used by people rather than be merely an object of “cultural interest”; that a language group have the resources to translate and celebrate in a given language, and that there be enough money to produce materials for worship; that the language have the “stability and breadth” to be a good candidate for liturgical translation; and that the language serve to unify the members of a nation.

    The meanings of, and motives for, this list of items isn’t crystal clear in every case (e.g. I can’t readily identify an example of a language that lacks the requisite “stability and breadth”), but by and large they seem to address genuine problems. In my view, this list of criteria can be given a benign interpretation. I also believe the factors I’ve enumerated here point to concerns that stand in tension with inculturation but deserve consideration. It may be that inculturation needs to be balanced with items like resource constraints or the value of national unity.

    For example: it’s been noted that, in the US, a single Spanish translation is widely used (I believe the Mexican Spanish translation), despite the fact that Spanish-speaking communities from many different nations are present in the US. That Spanish-language liturgical books are widely in use, seems to be a wonderful sign of inculturation in the US; that Mexican Spanish is more or less imposed on all Spanish-speaking communities regardless of their national origin may illustrate that inculturation is being balanced with some of these other considerations.

    1. @Jim Pauwels:

      Jim, thanks for the reply.

      As far as the single-translation issue goes, the real question is whether our liturgy should always have to be the object of compromise. The linguistic backgrounds, let alone the cultures, of, say, a taxi driver in Bangalore or Brooklyn and a trawlerman in Aberdeen are completely different. Is it reasonable, or even just, to expect them to try to pray in a language that feels unnatural?

      You mention the Mexican Spanish Missal translation. It’s in fact not the only one that is in use in the US (although the others are used only unofficially…) and the squabbles over whether the US should have to use the Castilian Spanish version have been acrimonious and endless. When I taught in the seminary in Camarillo, I soon discovered that the varieties of Spanish spoken from Argentina through Central America to Mexico are multiple and different, without even considering the Spanish spoken in Puerto Rico or Spain. Different parts of Mexico even have different “dialects” with differing vocabularies, not always mutually intelligible.

      It’s the same with the kind of Portugese spoken in Brazil, which is not absolutely identical to what is spoken in Portugal or Mozambique or Angola.

      Take a look at somewhere like Burkina_Faso, a single fairly small (1/7 the size of Mexico) African nation. There is an official administrative lingua franca which, however, I believe is not used liturgically by most Catholics who speak 66 other languages. In nearby Cameroon, there are two lingua francas, and 250 other languages. Most people are trilingual on a daily basis (the education system is bilingual, French and English)….

      I ask again: when will we allow people to pray to God in their own tongue?

  8. Paul – re: compromise: I really do think that, yes, liturgy *does* need to make compromises, not least around languages used. As I suspect all of us know who have worshiped in the US, it is more common than not these days that any given Sunday mass will bring together worshipers whose first languages are English, Spanish and other languages (in my own parish, we’d certainly need to add Polish to the list, and others). Our parish worships almost entirely in English, with an occasional communion song in Spanish. We also have an occasional sung prayer in Latin or Greek. All of this represents compromise to one extent or another.

    FWIW – at archdiocesan gatherings of Chicago deacon couples, I’ve tried to make the worship services substantially bilingual, to the extent of having the assembly chant psalms and canticles in Spanish. The pushback in our post-event surveys was pretty vociferous (“Just pray in English – those Spanish couples actually do know English”). FWIW, I found those comments pretty depressing, and personally I’m disappointed that worship at those events isn’t as bilingual as it was when I was more involved in the planning. The point I wish to make is that the way that prayer has evolved in this particular instance is the result of compromise. Not the compromise I’d have wished for; but my preferred program is just another sort of compromise. And those compromises are in service to a different principle: that the deacon couples of a single diocese should be able to come together occasionally to pray, even at the cost of setting aside their language preferences. Just as we ask our parishioners to come together, whatever their first language. In both instances, we’re balancing inculturation and unity.

  9. Hi, Jim

    I agree with you. I was just being devil’s advocate. All assemblies need to make compromises under the heading of ritual hospitality, and the more they do that and realize that it’s for the common good, the better the community feels and the better it prays.

    If I were to articulate the point I was really making, it would be this: the compromises that a community makes in order to worship as single celebrating body should be compromises that the community itself has arrived at through talking, discussion and collaboration. Compromises that are imposed on it from the outside may well be based on no knowledge whatsoever of the local situation (for local, read also diocesan, national, etc). We are fond of saying that a “one-size-fits-all” philosophy is not a good thing and doesn’t work, and yet we continually try to do this in the area of liturgy.

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