Querida Amazonia: still far to go

Most commentators were anxious to see Pope Francis’ answer to the request to ordain viri probati or to institute some form of female deaconate in his Post Synodal Exhortation Querida Amazonia. However, I imagine that some PrayTell readers were also interested to see what it would say about the inculturation of the liturgy. In number 73 the Holy Father reflects on how inculturation “elevates and fulfils,” but he also notes that while we should value that “indigenous mysticism” of the peoples of the Amazon, that Christianity also has something to offer them, namely “an increasingly personal relationship with a “Thou” who sustains our lives and wants to give them a meaning, a ‘Thou’ who knows us and loves us.” In number 74 he continues by reminding us that “a relationship with Jesus Christ, true God and true man, liberator and redeemer, is not inimical to the markedly cosmic worldview that characterizes the indigenous peoples, since he is also the Risen Lord who permeates all things.”

There are other points that could be brought out from the document.  However, I think that section on liturgy should be our primary focus:

The inculturation of the liturgy

  1. The inculturation of Christian spirituality in the cultures of the original peoples can benefit in a particular way from the sacraments, since they unite the divine and the cosmic, grace and creation. In the Amazon region, the sacraments should not be viewed in discontinuity with creation. They “are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life”. They are the fulfillment of creation, in which nature is elevated to become a locus and instrument of grace, enabling us “to embrace the world on a different plane”.
  2. In the Eucharist, God, “in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter”. The Eucharist “joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation”. For this reason, it can be a “motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation”. In this sense, “encountering God does not mean fleeing from this world or turning our back on nature”. It means that we can take up into the liturgy many elements proper to the experience of indigenous peoples in their contact with nature, and respect native forms of expression in song, dance, rituals, gestures and symbols. The Second Vatican Council called for this effort to inculturate the liturgy among indigenous peoples; over fifty years have passed and we still have far to go along these lines.
  3. On Sunday, “Christian spirituality incorporates the value of relaxation and festivity. [Nowadays] we tend to demean contemplative rest as something unproductive and unnecessary, but this is to do away with the very thing which is most important about work: its meaning. We are called to include in our work a dimension of receptivity and gratuity”. Aboriginal peoples are familiar with this gratuity and this healthy contemplative leisure. Our celebrations should help them experience this in the Sunday liturgy and encounter the light of God’s word and the Eucharist, which illumines our daily existence.
  4. The sacraments reveal and communicate the God who is close and who comes with mercy to heal and strengthen his children. Consequently, they should be accessible, especially for the poor, and must never be refused for financial reasons. Nor is there room, in the presence of the poor and forgotten of the Amazon region, for a discipline that excludes and turns people away, for in that way they end up being discarded by a Church that has become a toll-house. Rather, “in such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy”. For the Church, mercy can become a mere sentimental catchword unless it finds concrete expression in her pastoral outreach.

Perhaps the most significant line here is the assertion that fifty years after Vatican II “we still have far to go.” The pope cites Sacrosanctum Concilium, 37-40, 65, 77, 81 and says that “we can take up into the liturgy many elements proper to the experience of indigenous peoples in their contact with nature, and respect native forms of expression in song, dance, rituals, gestures and symbols.”

Regular readers may know that I am not the most avid proponent of intensive liturgical inculturation and that not everyone agrees with my hesitancy. However I still affirm that my reading of Pope Francis is that he, shares my hesitancy. Nonetheless, I think it is something that we need to continue to work and reflect on. In particular, I would wonder what those of us who have a certain expertise in liturgical issues (particularly on a theological level) and yet have no personal experience of the cultural, ecclesial and pastoral context of the Amazon can offer to those who are on the front lines there.


  1. Could we look to our history? Jesus’ Last Supper and the psalms he prayed were positioned centrally in a Jewish tradition. Yet these were radically inculturated from the very beginning. And indeed, five centuries after the Lord, liturgies were in Greek and Latin, and had borrowed elements from pagan secular culture such as architecture, and probably song and art as well. The Church, West and East were well-established with a host of theological greats.

    Fast forward to today and five centuries after the Gospel first arrived in the Third World, and I have many questions: Where is Jerome of Brazil, the Basil of Mexico, the Ambrose of the Philippines, the John Chrystostom of Colombia? Who is the Doctor of the Church raised up in Amazonia? If Augustine could write so eloquently of God in Latin, where is the written theological tradition in Tagalog, or Portuguese, or the Spanish language? Where are today’s rites, Mozarabic, Sarum, Ambrosian, Coptic, Greek, Gallican? Why are mission lands still missions and not patriarchates?

    If Pope Francis is hesitant (and I might agree with some of his reticence to steer to deep waters) maybe it’s because the Church has a far deeper problem: getting past the infantilizing indulgence of the post-Tridentine institution. A local church with viri probati and women deacons and dancing at Mass may still be chained to a ball in Rome.

    Still far to go? O yes, amen.

  2. In the early centuries Christian teachers had to confront advanced secular cultures that were often hostile to them, and of course co-religionaries who went to extremes. The geography and social history of the Roman empire also contributed to the excellence we celebrate today. Anyway, there have been numerous teachers in Amazonia, including Pedro Casaldaliga whom Francis quoted in his exhortation. It is only recently with Francis that they have been given the attention and support they deserve from the central authority. I agree with Neil that Francis is reluctant to rethink certain Latin rite traditions and offer them to Catholics there, though at the same time he places the seven sacraments at the center of church life. I see a sharp disconnect in the exhortation after paragraph 86, as if whoever wrote the next paragraphs paid little attention to the synod dynamic. But there is plenty of encouragement for the church of Amazonia to fashion their own responses to their needs.

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