There has been a lot of media comment on the preparatory document released by the Vatican this week in. Preparation for the October 6-27 Synod entitled “Amazonia, New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology.”
Most of the media attention has, unsurprisingly, focused on the inclusion of a proposal to ordain married men. However I was struck more by a different proposal, that of allowing a stronger inculturation in the liturgy.
Liturgical inculturation was severely limited in the 1994 document Varietates Legitimae: Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy. The Fourth Instruction for the Right Application of the Conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy.
The document was published without much fanfare and hasn’t received much attention in the last twenty five years, but it clearly attempted to limit inculturation in the Roman Rite. Varietates Legitimae proposes that vernacular translations are really the apex of legitimate inculturation in the Roman Rite. Number 53 of the document goes so far as to suggest that “the first significant measure of inculturation is the translation of liturgical books into the language of the people.” The rest of the document does not leave much room for other expressions of inculturation.
Today the theme of inculturation seems to be becoming more acceptable in the different offices of the Holy See. This week saw hit publication of the instrumentum laboris of the forthcoming synod.
This document has not been translated into English yet. But a translation of the relevant section. I have checked the translation against the Spanish (which I am presuming is the original).
Chapter III: THE CELEBRATION OF THE FAITH: AN ENCULTURED LITURGY
“Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness” (EG, 24)
124. Sacrosanctum Concilium (cf. 37-40, 65, 77, 81) proposes that the liturgy should be inculturated among the indigenous peoples. Cultural diversity assuredly does not threaten the unity of the Church but expresses its genuine catholicity and shows forth the “beauty of her varied face”(EG 116). That is why “we must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word, and different forms of beauty which are valued in different cultural settings…” (EG 167). Without this inculturation, the liturgy can be reduced to a “museum piece” or the “property of a select few” (EG 95).
125. The celebration of the faith must take place through inculturation so that it may be an expression of one’s own religious experience and of the bond of communion of the community that celebrates it. An inculturated liturgy will also be a sounding board for the struggles and aspirations of the communities and a transforming impulse towards a “land without evils.”
126. The following should be kept in mind:
a) A process of discernment is needed regarding the rites, symbols and styles of celebration of indigenous cultures in contact with nature, which need to be integrated into the liturgical and sacramental ritual. It is necessary to be attentive to grasp the true meaning of symbols that transcends the merely aesthetic and folkloric, especially in Christian initiation and marriage. It is suggested that the celebrations should be festive, with their own music and dances, using indigenous languages and clothing, in communion with nature and with the community. A liturgy that responds to their own culture so that it may be the source and summit of their Christian life (cf. SC 10) and linked to their struggles, sufferings and joys.
b) The sacraments must be a source of life and a remedy accessible to all (cf. EG 47), especially the poor (cf. EG 200). We are asked [it is necessary] to overcome the rigidity of a discipline that excludes and alienates, and practice pastoral sensitivity that accompanies and integrates (cf. AL 297, 312).
c) Communities find it difficult to celebrate the Eucharist frequently because of the lack of priests. “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist” and the Eucharist builds the Church. Therefore, instead of leaving the communities without the Eucharist, change is requested in the criteria for selecting and preparing ministers authorized to celebrate the Eucharist.
d) In accordance with a “sound ‘decentralization’” of the Church (cf. EG 16) the communities request that the Episcopal Conferences adapt the Eucharistic rite to their cultures.
e) The communities ask for a greater appreciation, accompaniment and promotion of the piety with which the poor and simple people express their faith through images, symbols, traditions, rites and other sacramentals. All this happens through community associations that organize various events such as prayers, pilgrimages, visits to shrines, processions and festivals celebrating the patron saint. This is evidence of a wisdom and spirituality that forms a real theological locus with great evangelizing potential (cf. EG 122-126).
This presentation is interesting and bears discussion. This isn’t the first time liturgical inculturation has been mentioned in the context of the Amazonian Synod. A few months ago some controversy broke out over the suggestion that the matter for the Eucharist be changed from bread to some locally sourced material in the Amazonian region (such as yuca) given the difficulty in obtaining bread, that fact that bread does not keep well in that climate and in order to have a matter that was more culturally sensitive. Unsurprisingly the Vatican Press Office soon denied these rumors.
But the need to discuss just what constitutes a valid expression of liturgical inculturation still remains. Obviously it can go further than simple translation or even the petition of the Chinese bishops at Vatican II to substitute black vestments for white in Masses for the dead, as white was the traditional Chinese color for mourning.
However, inculturation is a difficult process. It needs to be based on the local culture, which has been purified through contact with the Gospel, given that all cultures are a mix of good and bad elements and tendencies, and every culture benefits from contact with Christ. But it takes the Wisdom of Solomon to distinguish between the elements of rite that belong to the deposit of faith and which cannot be changed from those that can be changed. Not to mention deciding on when it is better to leave well enough alone and when it is more beneficial to leave things as they are. This is particularly the case when the millions of people in the Amazon region have already been exposed to the Christian Gospel for centuries.
It may be true that many people are leaving Catholicism for the various Evangelical groups. But I wonder how inculturated the Amazonian Evangelical liturgy is? One of the goals of the renewed liturgy of Vatican II was to provide a “sharper” liturgy that, once translated into the vernacular, would be accessible to a wide cross-section of humanity. With the addition of some elements of local music and preaching, the liturgy should “fit” most cultures. I am particularly aware of this at the moment, having returned to the U.S. for a few weeks, after living in Ireland for the last 6 years. The liturgies that I have attended in some parishes in Northern New Jersey, really seem very “American” in comparison to the Irish experience. This is the case, even though both the Irish and the U.S. liturgies were celebrated in full conformity with the rubrics. Indeed, on reflection, my experience is that when I attend a celebration in any given country, it is impossible not to notice the influence of the local culture.
Perhaps the most famous example of an inculturated liturgy is the Zairean Rite, with a specially adapted Roman Missal. However, while it might be fascinating from an academic point of view, I am not aware of any great move among other African regions to prepare similar local missals. Also I am not sure if encouraging such local inculturation would also encourage an unhealthy local emphasis in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite that is sometimes to be seen in the Extraordinary Form where liturgical devotees almost salivate at the possibility of attending a liturgy in the use of Braga, Lyons, or the Premonstrarian Order. In a few years time will Pray Tell be enthusiastically advertising opportunities to attend a celebration of Mass in the use of some small Amazonian tribe in a church in New York’s Little Italy?
It’s probably obvious at this stage of the post that I am against the Synod’s proposal. My reflections were partly fueled by a news article I read on Crux the same day that the instrumentum laboris was released. This article illustrated the dangers of inculturation in the adoption of the Polish popular devotion of Divine Mercy in Vietnam. The example is not a perfect parallel to the Amazonian situation. But hopefully it does show some of the dangers that must be taken into consideration during the debate on inculturation.