Friday, October 17, 2014

Liturgical Inculturation

In recent decades, worship has opened up to new forms, new language, and new technologies. The issue of Liturgy that will appear early in 2015 will focus on “Liturgy in a Digital Age.” To prepare to consider the ideas contributed for that issue, I thought it would be helpful to reach back into an essay published in Liturgy in April, 2014. In that essay, Mark Francis, CSV, reviews the relationship between worship and culture shaped by the scholarship of Anscar J. Chupungco.  
Drawing on the insights of the second Vatican Council that were in turn based on the sacramental theology of Eduard Schillebeeckx and Karl Rahner, Anscar saw the need to situate the sacramental economy of the church using Christ's incarnation in time and space as the starting point. It was the incarnation of Christ, carried on by the church as Christ's body located in myriad human cultures, that serves as the basis for both the identity and the diversity of the liturgy as the church's self-expression.
 . . . Anscar identified precedents that could guide future adaptation of the Roman Rite in both European and non-European cultures, thereby helping to interpret the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. In his reading of liturgical history, Anscar noted that there were two principal ways that the church (often unconsciously) adapted liturgy to culture: assimilation and substitution.
Anscar noted a number of ways assimilation has occurred in the history of the church. Two of them, most obvious are the introduction of Latin into worship and the use of pagan rituals. Francis specifically refers to the giving of milk and honey at the baptismal rite as an ancient practice that many worship leaders today may have heard about in liturgy studies but not recognize from its origins. Some worship leaders in our world today consider the symbolism of the milk and honey to be worthy of current Christian practice.  
This practice echoed pagan ritual practice and a domestic Roman ritual called the susceptio in which the paterfamilias, standing in the atrium of his home, would bend down to pick up a newly born infant placed at his feet and then give the infant a sip of milk and honey. This action was meant to solemnize the acceptance of the infant into the family. The drink of milk and honey, then, while likened by the Christian writers to the neophyte entrance into the “promised land,” also culturally echoes the entrance into the family of the church.  
In various ways, cultural practices were and are “assimilated” into Christian worship by being given “Christianized” meaning, allowing an intimate relationship to be expressed between the cultural practices and those of the faithful.

In some cases, the use of cultural practices amounts to “substitution” which Anscar claimed fills a “religious void.”  

According to Chupungco, inculturation takes place as a process of inserting cultural practices of varying kinds into local church worship. Inculturation occurs at differing levels of relevance to worship. Chupungco refers to three levels:

The first level of this process is simply “culture contact” between the local church and the Roman Rite.  . . .  A liturgical example he often gave . . . was that of the salubong at the start of the Easter Mass at dawn in the Philippines [which] takes place outside on the front steps of the church. A statute of the Blessed Mother and one of the risen Christ are carried in procession from different parts of the town and made “to meet” (which is what the word salubong means) on the front steps of the church. A veil that was placed on Mary's statue is lifted . . . and the hymn Regina Caeli is sung . . .  While dramatic, this rite really has nothing integrally to do with the celebration of the Mass that follows.

The transformation of the liturgy in Rome during the fourth century from Greek to Latin, with the adoption of a style of language that was influenced by both the pagan Roman sacrificial rites as well as by the stylized language and ceremonial of the Imperial court, would be an example of inculturation in the full sense of the word.

The introduction of a new liturgical ministry of anonciateur in the so-called Zaire Rite would be another. Before the arrival of the priest, this minister, acting as a forerunner of a chief, interacts with the assembly by preparing them for the priest's arrival, following an African cultural pattern called the palaver.

Churches can be bombarded with options for worship. Pastors, musicians, and all worship leaders are asked to fit many different needs into a single worship event. When choices need to be made, the work of scholars in liturgical inculturation can be of great help. 

Chupungco was highly involved in the development of the Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture (available at The statement proposes that worship is transcultural, contextual, counter-cultural, and cross-cultural. Worship includes elements that are beyond culture, reflects its locality in particulars, critiques the idolatries of culture, and attends to the breadth of the expressions of the whole body of Christ.

As you reflect on how new technologies, new ways of understanding and interpreting scripture and experience, and as you seek faithful ways to welcome new people, let Chupungco’s work and Mark Francis’s appreciative insights lead you.

Mark R. Francis, “The Future of Liturgical Inculturation and the Contribution of Anscar J. Chupungco, OSB,” Liturgy 29, no. 3 (15 April 2014): 3-10.

Mark Francis currently teaches liturgical inculturation at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of Sant’Anselmo in Rome.  

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