Pope Francis: The Zaire Rite, a Model for the Amazon

Today Crux news is reporting that in Pope Francis’ preface to a new collection of essays titled Pope Francis and the Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire: A Promising Rite for Other Cultures [English trans.], the pope called the Zairean Rite a “promising model” for the proposed Amazonian Rite and liturgical inculturation more broadly.

This is huge news! Especially since at times the pope himself has appeared to cast some doubt on Querida Amazonia’s call for the creation of a new liturgical Rite in the Amazon.

That the pope has become very interested in the Zaire Rite should be no surprise. In fact, the Rite was celebrated by the pope at St. Peter’s Basilica one year ago today!

As someone who has studied the Western Non-Roman Rites as well as the Zaire Rite and its formation in detail, I know that the Zaire Rite is a good example of liturgical inculturation. Sadly, it also remains pretty much the only model, at least with regard to the Eucharist.

As Fr. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue recently noted in an earlier post on the proposed Amazonian Rite, the process of liturgical inculturation is – rightfully – a slow one. In fact, the Zaire Rite is in some ways unfinished. It represents the inculturation of one, albeit important, part of the Christian ritual and sacramental system – the Eucharist – but it has largely left untouched the other rites and sacraments. Furthermore, its reception and celebration, I have been told, has not been uniform in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with some areas preferring to use the “typical” form of the Roman Rite.

Attempts at liturgical inculturation after Vatican II, including that of the Zaire Rite, also reveal a reticence on the part of Roman authorities to allow for modest, let alone farther-reaching, forms of liturgical inculturation. One need only point here to Varietates legitimae (1994). It seems that a Eurocentrism at best, or a sort of liturgical imperialism at worst, has long guided the process of liturgical inculturation in Rome, even after Vatican II. The title of the Zaire Rite can serve as a helpful example of this. As Nwaka Chris Egbulem has noted:

On April 30, 1988…the Congregation for Divine Worship gave the formal approval of the Zairean rite of the Eucharist with the official title ‘Missel Romain pour les Dioceses du Zaire’ (Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire). The Zairean church did not propose this title, nor is the title well accepted in Zaire. The title was suggested and forced on the Zairean church by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.[1]

What is needed today, and what bishops from the Amazon to Africa to Asia appear to be asking for, is a policy toward liturgical inculturation that is informed by postcolonial theory and indued with a spirit of liberation. Pope Francis’ actions appear to point to the movement of such a spirit in the halls of the Vatican.

The Zaire Rite should absolutely be considered a prophetic model for liturgical inculturation. It is perhaps one of the best liturgical gifts given to the Church after Vatican II. But what it also shows is that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and beyond the vision of the council has only been partially fulfilled.

[1] Nwaka Egbulem, The Power of Africentric Celebrations: Inspirations from the Zairean Liturgy (New York: A Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), 47.

13 comments

  1. I was able to experience the Zaire rite one time at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago – I believe it was a liturgy for the beginning of Black History Month. What has remained with me through the ensuing 25 or so years is the opening rite. Four women in what I presume was native dress came up the center aisle with brooms, making motions as though they were sweeping; they were followed by a ritual “chief” who entered via a series of backward handsprings; the Roman rite ministers entered after him.

    Later on, one of the other singers (all of us white, as I recall) remarked that maybe at the coming Sunday liturgies they could have four women dressed as 50s housewives come up the aisle with silent vacuum cleaners, followed by a businessman in a suit carrying a briefcase. One of the big struggles of inculturation, it seems, is to determine what aspects of a “culture” really should be preserved – the Zaire entrance, as I experienced it that one time, seemed unnecessarily and overtly sexist to me. On the other hand, why should my male/Western/Eurocentric sensibilities be what critiqued it?

    On August 11 I posted “Unfamiliar Fishes” on this blog, which raised some of these same issues, only in the context of Hawai’ian culture encountering Western Christianity and society. It would seem that local cultures (once it’s determined what “local” and “culture” mean) should be largely self-determinative as to what is retained in their expressions of the Roman rite, and to what degree indigenous spiritual/religious expression is utilized. But the issues will remain as to what to do when those local cultural/religious expressions may out and out contradict Christianity and/or are unsuited to adapting (I think it was the Maori language that had no word for “lamb”). Inculturation, cultural adaptation, and cultural appropriation are pretty much the whole history of the spread of Christianity, for good or ill. No doubt the Spirit will continue to guide our way forward.

  2. Thanks Nathan,
    I’m glad to see your post and I would like to read the book.
    However, at the risk of sounding like the Grinch, I would just caution that we have to actually see what Pope Francis does.
    Vatican News also reports:
    “‘The Zairean Rite suggests a promising way also for the possible elaboration of an Amazonian Rite,’ said Pope Francis. He was optimistic that this could be done ‘without upsetting the nature of the Roman Missal, to guarantee continuity with the ancient and universal tradition of the Church.'”
    https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2020-12/pope-francis-zairean-rite-preface-book-amazon.html
    Pope Francis may well approve a new missal, like the Zaire Rite, or it may be much more modest. The question is exactly how could a new Rite or Use be prepared “without upsetting the nature of the Roman Missal”?
    With Pope Francis and inculturation, the devil is in the details!

    1. I totally agree…I think we should not count our chickens until they hatch! I imagine that it will unfortunately be something more modest than the Zaire Rite.

  3. Since The Zaire rite/use was formally approved we have seen Pope Bendict relax the official attitude considerably with both Summorum pontificum and Anglicanorum coetibus. DW:the Missal rearranges the penitential elements of the Mass consideraby.

  4. Nathan, did you watch the video of that Mass in the Vatican a year ago according to the Zaire rite? I did and it seemed to me they omitted a lot of the things which they could have done. Most important of all, there was no communal dancing, only small groups of designated dancers. When I have seen videos of that liturgy in Africa, in contrast, the dancing is general, and I believe this is significant. The music was inculturated, but the main thing that was ritually different was the placement of the sign of peace. I am writing this from memory and it’s now a while ago, but it left me with a lot of questions about whether they modified it for the Vatican, what Pope Francis actually knows about it, and whether it is evolving.

    1. Rita, I watched portions of it, but I have not had the chance to watch it all the way through thoroughly. It has also been a while for me as well. I did notice that were were some changes. But from what I have heard, this would not be uncommon even in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I wish we could have a window into how the liturgy was actually planned, as you note. From what I have seen, any liturgy – especially of the non-Roman variety – celebrated in St. Peter’s basilica always undergoes some “local adaptation,” if you will, to the basilica. But I wonder why certain choices were made, and I think you are right to ask how much does Pope Francis actually know. So, your point is totally well taken, thank you!

  5. I agree with both Rita’s and Anthony’s points.

    Rita is right about the importance of dance in the Zaire rite. But I would point out that this is a non-textual basis for inculturation. It makes a big difference but there is no change to the texts of the Missal (as music does). So it could be that the adaptation that the non-expert would notice most about this rite is in neither the prayer texts or rubrics!

    Anthony’s point is also very well taken. While we ought to look at the Zaire rite, we should also look at the Divine Worship set of new liturgical books. They are not everyone’s cup of tea (and the same could be said about the Zaire rite). Personally I find the Tudor language style to be artificial. But it is an interesting fusion of elements from the current Paul VI Roman Missal, the John XXIII (preconciliar) Roman Missal, various Anglican/Episcopalian prayer texts (both from the BCP and other sources) as well as some new material.

    Those working in the Amazon don’t have a BCP tradition, but it would do them no harm to look at the Ordinariates’ Missal, as well as the Zaire Missal to see some different options.

    1. I recently stumbled upon an interesting quote by Anscar Chupungco, where he actually talks about the impact that Summorum Pontificum could have for inculturated liturgies. He writes about it:

      take note of a door the Apostolic Letter has opened. It established two forms of the Rome Rite, one ordinary and another extraordinary. I would like to consider this a basis for the Holy See to declare inculturated forms of liturgy as ‘other extraordinary’ forms of the Roman Mass along with the Tridentine rite. (Chupungco, “What, Then, Is Liturgy?,” 19–20.)

      I have recently argued elsewhere that Anglicanorum Coetibus likely opens the door even wider. So, I think this can lead to some interesting conversations in liturgy moving forward.

    1. CTS produces both an altar missal and this photoreduced copy.
      https://www.ctsbooks.org/product/ordinariate-study-missal/

      A comparable Daily Office has just been published in a North American version, and an English/Australian version will follow (that from CTS as well) very shortly. I gather that is a Cranmer style Matins+ Evensong but with the lesser hours superadded. Two versions because US Anglicans had modified BCP over a couple of centuries.

  6. CTS produces both an altar missal and this photoreduced copy.
    https://www.ctsbooks.org/product/ordinariate-study-missal/

    A comparable Daily Office has just been published in a North American version, and an English/Australian version will follow (that from CTS as well) very shortly. I gather that is a Cranmer style Matins+ Evensong but with the lesser hours superadded. Two versions because US Anglicans had modified BCP over a couple of centuries.

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