Liturgical Celebrations

What Every Catholic Ought to Know about Liturgical Inculturation

December 17, 2007

MARK R. FRANCIS

Cameroon dancersWhat is liturgical inculturation?

“Liturgical inculturation” refers to modifying the received traditions of worship to help people of a particular culture enter into the liturgy in a “full, conscious, and active” way. While “inculturation” may be a recently invented word, it reflects the legitimate desire of all Christians to pray using their own language, signs, and symbols that accurately reflect the faith of the Church. This desire is reflected in the history of Christian worship ever since the first generation of believers gathered in each others homes to hear the Word of God and celebrate the Eucharist. Unlike “enculturation,” which is a term from anthropology that describes an individual being raised in a given culture, “inculturation” is a process by which the Christian message and the liturgy is made comprehensible and relevant to believers in the context of their culture.

Aztec dancersWhy has liturgical inculturation as a concept entered into our consciousness only since Vatican II?

Prior to Vatican II Catholics often took pride in the fact that “wherever one went in the world, Mass was always celebrated the same way.” The Missal of Pius V (1570), mandated by the Council of Trent in an effort to rid the celebration of the Mass of medieval abuses, prescribed ceremonial directives (rubrics) for the Rite of Mass that were to be invariable. (It must be said, however, that while the core of the Mass celebrated by the priest and servers in Latin never varied—the celebration itself was often surrounded by distinctive cultural elements: music, processions, dances. The experience of the liturgy was very different from place to place depending on its cultural context.) Nevertheless, the rigid uniformity at the core of the liturgy since 1570 gave the impression that the celebration of the Mass and the sacraments had not historically evolved nor had been influenced by culture.

This situation changed dramatically with the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy ("CSL") of Vatican II (1963) [Español] [Français]. This document made several affirmations that altered what were the popularly held attitudes toward the liturgy by affirming that:

» The liturgy is composed of changeable as well as immutable elements (CSL 21);
» The Church did not want to impose a rigid uniformity of worship on all cultures (CSL 37);
» Provisions should be made for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples (CSL 38);
» The possibility of more radical cultural adaptation and creativity is possible (CSL 40).

Mariachi Liturgical inculturation as an ongoing part of the liturgy.

Even a brief look at the history of the liturgy reveals that the process of inculturation is nothing new. The early Church, drawing on Jewish traditions of domestic worship associated with meals, developed the core of the Eucharistic liturgy preceded by a pattern of scriptural readings and homily borrowed from the synagogue. With the growth and legalization of Christianity by the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the liturgy of the Church of Rome (that which was to become of the Roman Rite) underwent a striking process of inculturation:

» The language of liturgy shifted from Greek into a Latin largely influenced by the rhetoric and juridical precision of late classical period.

» The Eucharist, now celebrated in Basilicas—structures that originally served as Imperial audience halls or law courts—also took on elements borrowed from the imperial court and pagan Roman religion: processions, litanies, candles and prescribed dress (vestments).

» In the words of the great English historian of the liturgy, Edmund Bishop, the genius or characteristics of this classic Roman Rite were “simplicity, practicality, a great sobriety and self-control, gravity and dignity.”

Aztec drummersWhile there was a conscious attempt at maintaining what has been called “the genius of the Roman Rite” as the Church moved into the Germanic world of Northern Europe, cultural elements from the early medieval Franco-Germanic world were grafted onto the Roman core: a much more verbose and emotional style of prayer, the use of incense in the liturgy, blessings of objects to be used in worship, and even the blessing of weapons to be used in trials by ordeal. While the Roman Rite became the dominant rite in Medieval Western Europe and supplanted local rites in Gaul, the British Isles and Iberian Peninsula, particular cities, such as Salisbury in England, Lyon in France, as well as religious orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, developed their own variations on the Roman Rite.

In an effort to curb abuses in the 16th Century, the Council of Trent imposed a strict uniformity on the liturgy—especially on the celebration of the Mass. Since Vatican II, however, the way has been opened to responsible liturgical inculturation in the various cultures where the Church is present. The document issued in 1994 by the Congregation of Divine Worship, “Inculturation and the Roman Rite” (Varietates legitimae) describes the parameters that guide this process of inculturation. What Pope Paul VI said about evangelization is equally true when it comes to the liturgy. “[The liturgy]loses much of its force and effectiveness if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it is addressed, if it does not use their language, their signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask, and if it does not have an impact on their concrete life” (Evangelii nuntiandi 63) [Français] [Español]

Very Rev. Mark R. Francis, CSV, a well-known teacher, writer and speaker in the field of liturgy, currently lives in Rome where he serves as Superior General of the Clerics of St. Viator.  He is the author of: Shape a Circle Ever Wider: Liturgical Inculturation in the United States(Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2000) ISBN 978-1568542775; Multicultural Celebrations: A Guide/Celebraciones Multiculturales Una Guía (Washington, D.C.: Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, 2000) ASIN B006S01L0; and Liturgy in a Multicultural Community (American Essays in Liturgy Series)(Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) ISBN 978-0814620465.  He is also the co-author of other books, including Primero Dios: Hispanic Liturgical Resource(Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1997) ISBN 978-1568541426.

Photo credits: Mike Jensen & Johan van Parys, Minneapolis, MN

[Return to top]