On Fr. Neil O’Donaghue’s “Liturgical Inculturation in the Amazon: Not So Fast”

by Fr. Mark Francis, CSV

In reading this article I was struck by what seems to be a problematic presupposition that the Roman Rite is not a Western European cultural product and that it almost automatically adapts itself to all local cultures. This leads the author to question the proposal of the instrumentum laboris for more profound inculturation of the liturgy in Amazonia.

In speaking about liturgical inculturation, it is important to note that the structure, signs and symbols of our current liturgical practice renewed by Vatican II was inspired by classic 6th century Roman basilican worship that valued “noble simplicity.” This “noble simplicity” was aptly described by the liturgical historian Edmund Bishop and featured in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, especially article 34.  Given the Constitutions’ “magna charta” of inculturation found in articles 37-40, this style of worship, shorn of medieval accretions, was to be a kind of terminus a quo (the beginning point) for further adaptation/ inculturation of the liturgy around the world—especially in non-Western cultures like those of the Amazon.

Despite the fact that, as O’Donaghue has pointed out, “millions of people in the Amazon region have already been exposed to the Christian Gospel for centuries” it is questionable that these same people have been actively involved in shaping their particular way of celebrating the faith in the official liturgy of the Church. The Tridentine Rite forbade local variations, so until the aftermath of Vatican II, the interior of the rite itself was impervious to local culture. 

Because the official liturgy could not express itself in the idioms of the people, popular religious practice naturally arose alongside the official liturgical forms brought by the European missionaries. It is for that reason that the instrumentum laboris speaks respectfully of popular religion as having a role to play in helping those who Pope Francis has referred to as “el pueblo santo y fiel” (God’s holy and faithful people) to shape the liturgy to enable it to speak more eloquently. “The (local Amazonian) 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” (126 c).

It is here that we get at the heart of the issue: Who should decide whether or not there is a need for further inculturation? Fr. O’Donaghue seems to presuppose that any concession for inculturation should come from the side of the universal Church. The instrumentum laboris, along with Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium and Magnum Principium, proposes a valid decentralization that enables the voice of the local church to be heard, whether in the establishment of criteria for choosing priests or the manner of celebrating the liturgy. It is not those of us belonging to European and North American cultures to have the final word whether or not inculturation is needed in non-Western cultures. The varied and rich contributions of the many cultures of Amazonia should finally be allowed to be reflected in their appropriation of the Roman Rite—to their benefit and that of the entire global church. 

Viatorian Fr. Mark Francis is president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago since 2013. He is a specialist in the relationship between liturgy and culture. He served three years in Bogotá as chaplain and formation director at the Colegio San Viator. From 2000 to 2012 he served as international superior of the Viatorians in Rome.


  1. Thank you, excellent points.

    BTW, hope you enjoy working with your new CTU vice president, Richard Benson, CM, effective tomorrow.

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