Liturgical Inculturation in the Amazon: Not So Fast

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).


“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.


  1. Fr. Neil – some thoughts:
    a) have you ever spent time in a third world *missionary* country ministering?
    b) would suggest reading some of the works of Rev. Anscar Chupungco, OSB –
    c) he posits two ways that acculturation can occur
    d) yes, there is always a tension and balance needs to be sought out
    But, would suggest that your example from Polish/Vietnam (piety?) is apples to oranges when considering the Amazon. Also, it feels like you are treating the liturgy more as a *museum* structure rather than a living/growing communal organism.

    1. Hi Bill
      I’m afraid I have not ministered in any third world missionary country, unless Bergen County Nj or the South Bronx counts!
      I have read Chupungco over the years.
      However, in the post I feel that we are running the danger of rushing into looking for a facile solution to deep pastoral problems by simply classifying everything that is in the culture as an example of “inculturated” Christianity. There is a need to select what is good in any culture and bring that into Christianity. There are no “noble savages” in the Amazon, Ballydehob, or anywhere else. Humanity as a whole is a mixture of good and evil. All of us need the grace of Christ to become better people, whether we are Irish or Amazonian!
      The Eucharist is far from a museum piece. It does need constant incarnation for every given liturgical assembly. But I think that we still need another few decades of using the current MRIII before another whole scale revision (I am in favour of minor editorial changes such as a 4th edition of the current Missal and a translation into regular English). Change and inculturation ought to develop slowly ( and dare I say “organically”). I believe that we need to spend more time in the Amazon and every where else actually celebrating the liturgy as it stands well. Then around mid-century we can take a detailed and balanced look the state of the liturgy.
      I’m afraid I take a long term vision of ecumenical councils. I personally think Vatican II will take a century to implement. After four centuries of little liturgical development we can’t expect to implement Vatican II’s liturgical reforms in a generation. Sure there are many other things that could be changed, and even that probably should be changed on the future. But today 50 years out from Vatican II so much still needs to be implemented in the current liturgical laws and ritual editions. We have plenty of items on the liturgical agenda, this is not the time to add more stuff to the docket.

  2. Agree – thank you and thought Chupungco basically describes what you say in his two criteria.

    My only point about ministering elsewhere is that in my experience that changed the way I looked and presided at liturgy. In teaching/formation direction with students from other cultures – the same experiences happened.

  3. I would disagree to a degree concerning your assessment of Varietates Legitimae, Neil. Yes, the instruction intended to put the brakes on. It took a very cautious view of inculturation, and was mostly devoted to emphasizing law, unity, and the obstacles rather than articulating the inspiration, benefits, or goals of such an endeavor. But it still allows for it, and at that period, this was significant. It points out the permissions currently existing in the liturgical books for adaptations by conferences of bishops. It talks about honoring local customs and popular piety. It talks about balancing the needs and gifts of various groups within a complex culture but not about forcing them into a single mold.

    To say that translation is the first measure does not mean it is the apex. It means it is the initial step. Perhaps we are reading that passage differently.

    A very important paragraph is #30, which invites consultation among learned experts and “wise people” elders in a community. This is an acknowledgement of a process that is a fully legitimate pathway today, not something which requires generations before it can be considered possible. There are also (I don’t recall the paragraph numbers) assumptions of the two levels spoken about in Sacrosanctum Concilium: an initial adaptation and a more profound inculturation.

    The document on the Amazonian Synod is simply using what’s there — perhaps to a fuller degree than has been dared in recent decades because of the “chill factor” from Rome under John Paul II and Benedict, but they are not alone. It’s happening in Oceania and Africa as well as in South America. I’ve seen the sacred buffalo dance at Mass with Indians from pueblos in the American West. It’s a stunning example of inculturation.

  4. It was really the fifth instruction, Liturgiam authenticam, which took aim at inculturation and tried to kill it in liturgical texts, a gambit sorely out of keeping with Sacrosanctum Concilium both in letter and in spirit, despite being billed as “the right interpretation” of SC.

    It is no accident that the eminent scholar, Fr. Ceasare Giraudo, in his article on Magnum principium in La Civilta Cattolica, hails Pope Francis’s motu proprio as a breakthrough of return to the sound notion of inculturation articulated at the Council.

  5. One more comment, about time and acceptance, and gradual change. It’s kind of a lie. The tendency we struggle with is not about gaining the wisdom of Solomon, it is simply a struggle with the will not to inculturate, even when there is something good in the culture in question.

    Here is a case in point. One of the most significant changes in culture that has been going on in the developed world strongly over the past century is the emergence of women’s right to speak in public assemblies. We are not only given the vote, but elected to public office, serve in the judiciary, lead nations. Tested. Proven. Not a whim. A good thing. Accepted in business, in the professions, education, media. We don’t gasp when a woman’s voice is heard. Yet women are prohibited from reading the gospel at the liturgy. Theological reasons are being invented to avoid the challenge of inculturation. Inculturation, it seems, is not for the developed world? But there, imho, we are wrong. The reason why the developed world is leaving the church is because it refuses to work with the culture. This is something more important culturally than adding a “unity candle” to the marriage rite.

  6. “I wonder how inculturated the Amazonian Evangelical liturgy is?” Though I have only experienced a grand total of two Evangelical Protestant services that may qualify – both in urban settings in Brazil – my experience there was that they took the surrounding/immediate culture seriously. This is to say that they weren’t attempting a folkloric preservation of customs from the Tupinambá peoples (the indigenous peoples of the Amazon delta, where I was), but used the dress, language, and musical modalities (which largely resembled what I also heard in Brazilian nightclubs) of the local peoples. In addition, there were many worship spaces in storefronts, with ministers and ministries that connected with the day-to-day lives of the local people.

    It’s coming up on three decades ago that I was present at a liturgy in Chicago’s Holy Name cathedral that included the adapted entrance from the Zairean Rite, in which a number of women in headdresses came down the aisle with brooms, sweeping the way clean for the entry of the tribal “chief” (who performed some admirable backflips), all of which preceded Cardinal Bernardin’s entrance. I know this was merely one brief snippet from a ritual adaptation that was done with great care, but I wondered if some of the values it preserved/enshrined were truly worthy of such treatment.

    1. Backflips. Cantors and choirs avoid virtuosi theatrics and still sing beautifully, and lectors try to proclaim with measured passion rather than mere recitation. IMHO, liturgical dancers should demonstrate that there is a difference in grace and gravity between a procession and a walk, and no more.

  7. This conversation reminds me of the conference I attended as a speaker at the Vatican in October 1998, one of only ten participants from across the world, and the only one from an English-speaking country. All the other participants were from various agencies connected with the Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica.

    The theme was papal celebrations for the Jubilee Year 2000, at which vast numbers from around the world were expected to participate. An intercultural dimension was obviously of interest, and we speakers began our presentations by examining principles of celebration with large polycultural assemblies, suggesting ways in which the Jubilee liturgies could welcome and engage those people more effectively. The Romans kicked back strongly. Their basic attitude was that the world should feel privileged to be allowed to take part in what we, the Romans, do.

    By the second day, we had begun to press harder. The Romans’ attitude changed. “Well, of course we’ve been doing all that sort of thing for years!” which was in fact totally untrue. They hadn’t!

    By the third day, it looked as if things might grow and change and develop. The conference ended and we returned home.

    The net result, alas, was that nothing at all changed, and what happens in Rome today is essentially exactly what was going on before, with one or two nods to the locals (e.g. a Responsorial Psalm in Italian) but nothing else that will engage the majority of pilgrims from around the world. The musical standards are higher these days, but the liturgy itself is still largely monolithic and comparatively inaccessible. I don’t detect any desire to change this status quo, although other bodies (e.g. the Pontifical Council for Culture) are more open in this regard.

    If the central body largely persists in ignoring the world outside, there’s not much hope of a shift in mindset. That’s why in some parts of the world people are just getting on and doing what they know makes pastoral and liturgical sense, while others in Europe and North America remain concerned with “liceity”.

  8. Some additional thoughts:
    – any analysis of Jungmann’s work on the Roman Rite can only conclude that liturgy in the western world has always gone through acculturation (so, why the rigidity and defensiveness today)
    – lex orandi, lex credendi – establishes the point that the people’s liturgy is what we celebrate (not some idealized museum piece from the Rome institution)
    – two examples come to mind:
    a) Chinese Rite Controversy……again, most historians would cite this as a failure of acculturation to the detriment of the local church and enshrining a negative result in terms of the church’s experience with acculturation going forward
    b) Virgin de Guadalupe and the works of Rev. Virgilio Elizondo – traces the history of the faith of the mestizos (acculturation) and provides a theological framework. This, despite the historical research of Rev. Stafford Poole, CM who concluded that the faith came from the people but that figures such as Juan Diego probably did not exist or were composites of the people’s faith journey. The theological and cultural meaning of the Virgin de Guadalupe is the point and acculturation runs through this
    Finally, IMO, find that in reaction to Roman rigidity, folks will strike out into *pieties* that local clergy, bishops, etc. will accept rather than doing the difficult work of acculturation. IMO, this leads to some problematic local liturgical expressions but cultural pressure needs to be addressed rather than diverted in inappropriate ways.

  9. Sorry – it did not come through but in reference to Virgilio Elizondo – citation:

    American Magnificat – Liturgical Press
    Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota
    8 The Development of the Liturgical Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe …. in Virgilio Elizondo, Allan Figueroa Deck, and Timothy Matovina, eds.


    An evangelical Christian. It is to say that the Word became flesh in Euro-Native America and began its unifying task—“that all may be one.” In Our Lady of Guadalupe, Christ became American. Yet because the gospel through Guadalupe was such a powerful force in the creation and formulation of the national consciousness and identity of the people as expressed, understood, and celebrated through their art, music, poetry, religious expression, preaching, political discourse, and cultural-religious expressions, its original meaning—that is, the original gospel of Jesus expressed in and through native Mexican terms—has become eclipsed. This has led some modern-day Christians— especially those whose Christianity is expressed through U.S. cultural terms—to see Guadalupe as pagan or as something opposed to the gospel. It is certainly true that just as the gospel was co-opted and domesticated by Constantine and subsequent “Christian” powers, so has Guadalupe been co-opted and domesticated by the powerful of Mexico, including the church. Yet neither the initial gospel nor the gospel expressed through Guadalupe has lost its original intent or force, a force that is being rediscovered as the poor, the marginated, and the rejected reclaim these foundational gospels as their chief weapons of liberation and as sources of lifestyles that are different from those engendered by ecclesial and social structures that have marginalized, oppressed, and dehumanized them

  10. “However, inculturation is a difficult process.”
    Just ask Jesus!
    What if we were to declare a moratorium on use of the word inculturation, and simply try substituting the word INCARNATION, considering that was the initial act of “divine inculturation” that got the whole ball rolling?

    1. Well, inculturation is used in a variety of official church documents at various levels, and I rather doubt that will be undone. I think it would be more helpful to keep thinking about inculturation precisely BECAUSE of our belief in the incarnation.

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