Vatican Inculturation Document Sets Limits on Amazonian Rite Proposal

In 1994, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued Varietates Legitimae as a way to properly understand liturgical inculturation.

Amazonian people in native dress participated in the opening procession of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region from St. Peter's Basilica to the Synod Hall Oct. 7.
Amazonian people in native dress participated in the opening procession of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region from St. Peter's Basilica to the Synod Hall Oct. 7. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

The current Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region has gained international attention for proposals made in the name of greater inculturation in the Amazon Basin, including pastoral concerns that touch on the liturgy, such as allowing married men (viri probati) in the region to be ordained priests and laywomen in the region to be ordained deaconesses.

But another recent proposal at the synod invoking the need for greater inculturation has a more direct bearing on the liturgy: the call for a new ad experimentum (“as an experiment”) Amazonian rite of the Mass.

In 1994, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW) issued Varietates Legitimae (Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy) as a way to properly understand liturgical inculturation.

Whether this proposal for a new Amazonian rite is taken up after the synod or not, the Church provides in this important document — which turns 25 this year — an understanding of how inculturation relates to the liturgy that ought to serve as a prudential guide in the synod, where any discussion of the liturgy as a means of inculturation may raise more questions than it answers.


Liturgical Inculturation

Varietates Legitimae notes that through the liturgy the Church seeks to present a clear expression of the faith to various cultures while also readily adopting and adapting aspects of those cultures that are not opposed to the faith or to the common good. 

“On the one hand the penetration of the Gospel into a given sociocultural milieu ‘gives inner fruitfulness to the spiritual qualities and gifts proper to each people …, strengthens these qualities, perfects them and restores them in Christ,’” the document states. “On the other hand, the Church assimilates these values, when they are compatible with the Gospel, ‘to deepen understanding of Christ’s message and give it more effective expression in the liturgy and in the many different aspects of the life of the community of believers.’ This double movement in the work of inculturation thus expresses one of the component elements of the mystery of the incarnation” (VL, 4).

The document acknowledges that liturgical inculturation “constitutes one of the aspects of the inculturation of the Gospel, which calls for true integration in the life of faith of each people of the permanent values of a culture, rather than their transient expressions. It must, then, be in full solidarity with a much greater action, a unified pastoral strategy which takes account of the human situation.”

Thus, the proposal of a new Amazonian rite must be understood within the larger pastoral context of inculturation that the Church addresses in such documents as John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer) and Pope Francis’ 2014 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). Yet the true value of Varietates Legitimae is found in what it has to say about the liturgy, said Denis McNamara, architectural historian and executive director of Benedictine College’s newly formed Center for Beauty and Culture in Atchison, Kansas.

“Although there are some pastoral practicalities in it,” he told the Register, “Varietates Legitimae is about liturgical inculturation as an instruction on Sacrosanctum Concilium,” the Second Vatican Council’s keynote document on the liturgy, which called for greater use of the vernacular in the liturgy, “and it’s not primarily about evangelizing and solving practical pastoral problems like married clergy or a shortage of priests.”


Liturgy in the Amazon

Because of its limited scope, Varietates Legitimae may not be as well-known as John Paul II’s or Pope Francis’ documents on inculturation (in fact, it does not appear among the CDW documents published at the Vatican website). But of all the Church’s documents on inculturation, the 1994 instruction speaks most directly to how this process can and should involve the liturgy, said Father Neil Xavier O’Donoghue.

A priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, and theologian at the Pontifical University at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland, Father O’Donoghue noted in a June post at the “Pray Tell” blog that, in fact, Varietates Legitimae presents the ideal model for liturgical inculturation.

Varietates Legitimae proposes that vernacular translations are really the apex of legitimate inculturation in the Roman Rite,” he writes. “No. 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.”

In addition, he writes, “inculturation is a difficult process,” especially as it touches on the people of the Amazon and “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.”

Besides helping to address the inherent difficulties of inculturation, according to Christopher Carstens, editor of the liturgical periodical Adoremus Bulletin, Varietates Legitimae can help clarify current misunderstandings regarding liturgical inculturation.

“Inculturation debates oftentimes appear one-sided,” he told the Register, noting that in Varietates Legitimae, “the Church speaks of inculturation as a ‘double movement.’… Not only does the Church and her expression of the truth move toward the secular culture, but that secular culture is expected to change and inculturate its own elements to that of the Church.”

“This ‘two-way street’ is patterned on the incarnation: God became man so that man could become God, as St. Athanasius put it,” Carstens added. “Many discussions about inculturation seem to focus strictly on how the Church can change her rites to better accommodate a particular people, but too infrequently on how that people can change to become living members of the Church, sharing in the fullness of her life and worship. God didn’t become man, and that was the end of the story. Rather, the endgame is man moving more deeply into the heart of God.”

Historically speaking, the Church has from the beginning recognized the need for inculturation, McNamara said, and Varietates Legitimae shows that such a need is present throughout mankind’s encounter in prayer with the one true God.

“When you read Varietates Legitimae, you read about how God had to figure out how to talk to the Jews, and the Jews had to figure out how to talk to the Greeks, and the Greeks had to figure out how to talk to the Romans, and so on,” he said. “So inculturation as we understand it now has been an element of Christianity from the beginning, even you might say, at Pentecost, where people from many nations heard their own language spoken” in Acts 2:6.


New Amazonian Rite?

According to Father O’Donoghue, there’s no question that the Church has the right to create a rite that may better serve the Amazonian people, but the means by which the Church can achieve this goal are more complex than at first might appear.

“We are a Church based on communion with the successor of Peter, and the successor of Peter is allowed to establish a new rite if he sees it necessary,” he told the Register. “The question isn’t whether we can do it — but, rather, is it a good idea to do it? Sure, the pope can do this; there are many things the pope can do, but just because he can do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea or the best thing to do right now.”

There have been such ad experimentum liturgies in the past, but according to Father O’Donoghue, they were created as a form of the Roman Rite, pointing in particular to the 1988 CDW-approved Missal for the Zaire Usage of the Roman Rite.

Promulgated by the CDW on April 30, 1988, the Zaire Use, as it is commonly called, incorporates elements of sub-Saharan African culture into the Roman Rite. The missal is still used today, primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) and is, according to Congolese Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, in a 2016 essay on the rite, “a fundamental point of reference for the inculturation of the other sacraments.”

“Theologically speaking, a rite can’t be created ex nihilo [out of nothing] because it has to have the matter and form,” Father O’Donoghue said. “Even the missal for the Zaire Usage of the Roman Rite is a derivation of the Roman Rite.”

In addition, he said, any new Amazonian rite would also have to conform itself to the larger context of inculturation according to the criteria that John Paul II stated in Redemptoris Missio: “compatibility with the Gospel and communion with the universal Church” (RM, 54).

 “As I said in my ‘Pray Tell’ post,” Father O’Donoghue added, “given that we have inculturation through the vernacular, which is a huge means of inculturation, and given that sacred music is another area where a culture often shows itself, what more do we need in the Amazon that would be true inculturation, one that would give it a compatibility with the Gospel and communion with the universal Church?”

At the same time, Father O’Donoghue said, there are some liturgical ways in which the Church can accommodate the Amazonian culture.

“I think it would be much easier to make some adaptions to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite,” he told the Register. “I’m not an expert in Amazonian culture, but in a number of news reports, they’re talking about some sort of blessing with water for the Amazonians during Mass. We already have a blessing and sprinkling rite in the Roman Rite. We have the possibility of blessing with water at the beginning of Mass, particularly during the Easter season and particularly during those Sundays of Easter. If this rite of sprinkling was somehow to be strengthened in the Amazonian Church, and given more prominence, that could be an easily achievable form of liturgical inculturation in the Amazon region.”


What Happens Next?

Father O’Donoghue would not speculate on whether Pope Francis would accept or reject the proposal for a new Amazonian Rite, but he did note that whatever happens rests squarely on the decisions that the Pope makes after the synod. 

“If after the synod, the Holy Father decides that he wants a certain liturgical change and inserts a request for a new Amazonian rite into a post-synodal exhortation, the Pope would probably either specify that he is creating a new commission to do this, or entrust it to the [CDW] and ask them to work on it. When this new rite was created, then he would have to approve it.”

But this decision would most likely require consulting Varietates Legitimae, Father O’Donoghue added.  

“If the Holy Father did call for a new inculturated Amazonian rite, no matter who was doing it, Varietates Legitimae would have to be obligatory reading,” he said. “Varietates Legitimae is the Church’s last extended magisterial treatment on liturgical inculturation. So if you’re going to do some serious work on liturgical inculturation, you have to give this document serious consideration.”

Register correspondent Joseph O’Brien writes from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.

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