Question and Answer Guide to Liturgical Inculturation
Nov 15, 2001

Question and Answer Guide to Liturgical Inculturation

Online Edition – Vol. VII, No. 8: November 2001

Varietates LegitimaeInculturation and the Roman Liturgy, the Fourth Instruction for the Correct Application of the Conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy (Nos. 37-40), issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on March 29, 1994.

“Since the theological principles relating to questions of faith and inculturation have still to be examined in depth,” say the introductory remarks to Varietates Legitimae, the congregation set out directives “to help bishops and episcopal conferences” to implement adaptations that may be needed and to re-examine those that have already been made.

Following are some common questions about liturgical “inculturation,” with answers gleaned from the document itself. The responses are direct quotes unless in italics, including internal quotes that are footnoted in the original, though the footnotes have been omitted here. —Editor

What is liturgical “inculturation”?

[T]he Magisterium of the Church has used the term “inculturation” to define more precisely “the incarnation of the Gospel in autonomous cultures and at the same time the introduction of these cultures into the life of the Church”. Inculturation signifies “an intimate transformation of the authentic cultural values by their integration into Christianity and the implementation of Christianity into different human cultures”. (§4)

As particular Churches, especially the young Churches, deepen their understanding of the liturgical heritage they have received from the Roman Church that gave them birth, they will be able in turn to find in their own cultural heritage appropriate forms that can be integrated into the Roman Rite, where this is judged useful and necessary. (§33)

What are the three characteristics of the Church distinguishing it from every other gathering or community?

1. [The Church] is not gathered together by a human decision, but is called by God in the Holy Spirit and responds in faith to His gratuitous call.

2. [B]ecause she is catholic … the Church is called to gather all peoples, to speak all languages, to penetrate all cultures.

3. Finally, the Church is a pilgrim on the earth, far from the Lord. She bears the marks of the present time in the sacraments and in her institutions as she waits in hope for the coming of Jesus Christ. (§22)

How are particular Churches united to the universal Church?

The Church of Christ is made present and signified … by the particular Churches … [thus] every particular Church must be united with the universal Church not only in belief and sacramentals, but also those practices received throughout the Church as part of the uninterrupted Apostolic tradition. (§26)

What are some examples of these universal Church practices?

This includes, for example, daily prayer, sanctification of Sunday and the rhythm of the week, the celebration of Easter and the unfolding of the mystery of Christ throughout the liturgical year, the practice of penance and fasting [and the seven sacraments]. (§26)

What is the nature of the Liturgy?

The Liturgy “is, in fact the privileged place where Christians meet God and the one whom He has sent, Jesus Christ”. (§21)

Christian worship finds its most fundamental expression when every Sunday, throughout the whole world, Christians gather around the altar under the leadership of the priest, celebrate the Eucharist, listen to the Word of God and recall the death and resurrection of Christ, while awaiting His coming in glory. (§24)

Who acts in the Liturgy?

The Liturgy “is at once the action of Christ the Priest and the action of the Church which is His Body, because in order to accomplish His work of glorifying God and sanctifying mankind, achieved through visible signs, He always associates with Himself the Church, which, through Him and the Holy Spirit, gives the Father the worship which is pleasing to Him”. (§21)

To what extent does the Church have authority over the Liturgy?

In virtue of her pastoral authority, the Church can make dispositions to provide for the good of the faithful, according to circumstances, times and places. But she has no power over the things that are directly related to the will of Christ and that constitute the unchangeable part of the Liturgy. To break the link that the sacraments have with Christ, who instituted them … would no longer be to inculturate them, but to empty them of their substance. (§25)

Why does the Church legislate liturgical practices?

In the Liturgy the faith of the Church is expressed in a symbolic and communitarian form [this requires] a legislative framework for the organization of worship, the preparation of texts and the celebration of rites. [The legislative precepts are necessary] to ensure orthodoxy of worship, not only to avoid errors, but to pass on the faith in its integrity. The “rule of prayer” must correspond to the “rule of belief” (lex orandi, lex credendi). (§27)

Who legislates the Liturgy?

However deep inculturation may go, the liturgy cannot do without legislation and vigilance on the part of those who have received this responsibility in the Church: the Apostolic See and, according to the prescriptions of the law, the episcopal conference for its territory and the bishop for his diocese. (§27)

What are the different situations faced by particular Churches today that need to be addressed?

1. There are in the first place those countries that do not have a Christian tradition or where the Gospel has been proclaimed in modern times by missionaries who brought the Roman Rite with them. (§6)

2. [Other countries have] a long standing Western Christian tradition, where the culture has already been penetrated for a long time by faith and the liturgy expressed in the Roman Rite.

3. [I]n some countries, several cultures coexist, especially as a result of immigration. (§7)

4. [Other countries] are marked by indifference to or uninterest in religion. (§8)

What is the goal of inculturation?

The goal which should guide the inculturation of the Roman rite is that laid down by the Second Vatican Council as the basis of the restoration of the Liturgy: “Both texts and rites should be drawn up that they express more clearly the holy things they signify and so that the Christian people, as far as possible, may be able to understand them with ease and to take part in the celebration fully and actively and as befits a community”. (SC 14-19)

Rites also need `to be adapted to the capacity of the faithful and that there should not be a need for numerous explanations for them to be understood’. (SC 21) However, the nature of the Liturgy always has to be borne in mind, as also the biblical and traditional character of its structure and the particular way in which it is expressed. (§35)

Where might inculturation be most extensive?

“[T]he possibility of more profound adaptations” (inculturation) is envisaged “especially in mission countries”. (§52)

What is the first step in inculturation of the faith?

The missionary tradition of the Church has always sought to evangelize people in their own language. The translation of the Bible, or at least of the biblical texts used in the Liturgy, is the first step in the process of inculturation of the Liturgy. (§28)

The first significant measure of inculturation is the translation of liturgical books into the language of the people. The completion of translations and their revision, where necessary, should be effected according to the directives given by the Holy See on this subject. (§53)

How are the liturgical books to be “inculturated”?

[Observing the Holy See’s directives on translation]: Different literary genres are to be respected, and the content of texts of the Latin typical edition is to be preserved, at the same time the translations must be understandable to participants, suitable for proclamation and singing with appropriate responses and acclamations by the congregation. (§53)

What are the characteristics of liturgical language?

All peoples, even the most primitive, have a religious language which is suitable for expressing prayer, but liturgical language has its own special characteristics: it is deeply impregnated by the Bible; certain words in current Latin use (memoria, sacramentum) took on a new meaning in the Christian faith. Certain Christian expressions can be transmitted from one language to another as, for example, ecclesia, evangelium, baptisma, eucharistia. (§53)

Are translations related to liturgical action?

[T]ranslators must be attentive to the relationship between the text and liturgical action, aware of the needs of oral communication and sensitive to the literary qualities of the living language of the people. (§53)

What about newly created texts for liturgy?

The qualities needed for liturgical translations are also required in the case of new compositions, when they are envisaged. (§53)

Does inculturation mean that the Roman Rite must be changed?

For the celebration of the Eucharist, the Roman Missal must remain “a sign and instrument of unity” of the Roman rite in different languages. (§54)

The liturgical formation of the faithful and clergy ought to help them understand the meaning of the texts and the rites given in the present liturgical books. Often this will mean that elements which come from the tradition of the Roman rite do not have to be changed or suppressed. (§33)

What are the general principles governing the inculturation of the Roman Rite?

In the planning and execution of the inculturation of the Roman Rite, the following points should be kept in mind: 1. the goal of inculturation; 2. the substantial unity of the Roman Rite; 3. the competent authority. (§34)

Generally, what elements may be included in liturgical adaptations or inculturation?

Liturgical inculturation should try to satisfy the needs of traditional culture, and at the same time account for the needs of those affected by an urban and industrial culture. (§30) These include elements borrowed from the social and religious rites of a people, and that form a living part of their culture, will enrich their understanding of liturgical actions, without producing negative effects on faith and piety. (§32)

What negative elements of a culture should not be incorporated into the liturgy?

[L]iturgical inculturation [should not be] marked, even in appearances, by religious syncretism. (§47) Fidelity to traditional [cultural] usages must be accompanied by purification and, if necessary, a break with the past. (§48) In every case it is necessary to avoid any ambiguity. Obviously, the Christian Liturgy cannot accept magic rites, superstition, spiritism, vengeance or rites with a sexual connotation. (§48) Inculturation should not be used for political ends. (cf. §49)

How is the unity of the Roman Rite expressed?

[T]he substantial unity of the Roman Rite is currently expressed in the typical editions of the liturgical books published by the authority of the Supreme Pontiff, and in the liturgical books approved by the Episcopal Conferences for their areas and confirmed by the Apostolic See. (§36)

The work of inculturation does not foresee the creation of new families of Rites; inculturation responds to the needs of a particular culture and leads to adaptations that still remain part of the Roman Rite. (§36)

Who is authorized to approve liturgical adaptations?

Adaptations of the Roman rite depends completely on the authority of the Church. This authority belongs to the Apostolic See, which exercises it through the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; it also belongs, within the limits fixed by law, to episcopal conferences, and to the diocesan Bishop. “No other person, not even a priest, may on his own initiative add, remove or change anything in the liturgy”. (SC 22) (§37)

Who has the responsibility to prepare for an inculturation of the Liturgy?

[The] episcopal conferences should call upon people who are competent both in the liturgical tradition of the Roman rite and in the appreciation of local cultural values. Preliminary studies of a historical, anthropological, exegetical and theological character are necessary. But these need to be examined in the light of the pastoral experience of the local clergy, especially those born in the country. [§30]

Can bishops’ conferences change the books?

When an episcopal conference prepares its own edition of liturgical books, it decides about the translations and also the adaptations which are envisaged by the law. The acts of the conference …[are] sent to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments…..

After the recognitio [approval, permission] by the Apostolic See has been received according to the law, the episcopal conference promulgates the decree and determines the date when the new text comes into force. (§62) (cf. § 63-69)

What kind of norms might a conference of bishops establish concerning liturgical adaptation?

“[E]ach conference of bishops may lay down for its own territory norms suited to the traditions and character of peoples, regions and different communities”. The same applies also to the gestures and postures of the faithful, the ways in which the altar and the Book of the Gospels are venerated, the texts of opening chants, the chant at the preparation of the gifts and at the communion, the rite of peace, conditions regulating Communion under both kinds, the materials for the construction of the altar and liturgical furnishings, the material and form of sacred vessels, liturgical vestments and the manner of distributing Communion. (§54)

Beyond the Mass, which rites can be adapted?

For the other sacraments and for sacramentals, the Latin typical edition of each ritual indicates the adaptations which pertain to the episcopal conferences or to individual bishops in particular circumstances. (§55) Depending upon circumstances, these include the rites of Christian initiation, marriage, funerals, the blessings of persons, places or things, the liturgical calendar and the Liturgy of the Hours. (cf. §55 through 61)

May priests initiate some liturgical adaptations for pastoral reasons?

“No other person, not even if he is a priest, may on his own initiative add, remove, or change anything in the Liturgy”. [SC 22] (§37)

Even in those cases where the rubrics allow for options, prudence and discretion are always called for in order to avoid the breaking up of the local Church into little “churches” closed in upon themselves. (§37, fn. 82)

How should the needed changes be implemented?

[C]hanges need to be gradual, and adequate explanation given in order to avoid the danger of rejection or simply an artificial grafting on to previous forms. According to Vatican II, “[i]nnovations should be made when the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing”. (SC 23, quoted in §46)

What are some of liturgical actions that might be adapted?

Elements that may be open to adaptation include language, music and singing, gesture and posture, art and images, and popular devotions. (See §38-45)

[Liturgical language] must always express, along with the truths of the faith, the grandeur and holiness of the mysteries which are being celebrated. (§39)

Music and singing ….have pride of place in the liturgy….[A] text which is sung is more deeply engraved in the memory than when it is read, which means that it is necessary to be demanding about the biblical and liturgical inspiration and the literary quality of texts meant to be sung. (§40)

The liturgy is an action, and so gesture and posture are especially important. [Gestures] express the attitude of humanity before God…. Gestures and postures that belong to the essential rites of the Sacraments and that are required for validity must be preserved just as they have been approved or determined by the supreme authority of the Church. The gestures and postures of the celebrating priest must express his special function: he presides over the assembly in the person of Christ. The gestures and postures of the congregation are signs of its unity and express its active participation and foster the spiritual attitude of the participants. (§41)

Can dance ever have a place in the liturgy?

Among some peoples, singing is instinctively accompanied by hand-clapping, rhythmic swaying and dance movements on the part of the participants. Such forms of external expression can have a place in the liturgical actions of these peoples, on condition that they are always the expression of true communal prayer of adoration, praise, offering and supplication, and not simply a performance. (§42)

Father Jerry Pokorsky

Father Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. Father Pokorsky also serves as a director and treasurer of Human Life International.