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Excerpt from Varietates Legitimae:
On the Process of Inculturation Throughout the History of Salvation

By the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments

 Editor’s note: Varietates Legitimae, the Instruction on “Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy,” was issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on January 25, 1994. The document bears the subtitle, “Fourth Instruction for the Right Application of the Conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy” (Liturgicam Authenticam is the fifth such instruction, the last to date). In particular, Varietates Legitimae expands upon Sacrosanctum Concilium’s general norms on adapting the liturgy to various cultures. Paragraph 38 of the Constitution states, “Provisions shall also be made, when revising the liturgical books, for legitimate variations [legitimis varietatibus] and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples, especially in mission lands, provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved; and this should be borne in mind when drawing up the rites and devising rubrics.” Varietates Legitimae elaborates upon the Council’s general norms and provides detailed instructions for applying these principles in the future. In the section that follows, Varietates Legitimae describes the process of inculturation as it has occurred throughout the economy of salvation. The entire document is available at Varietates Legitimae: Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy.


9. Light is shed upon the problems being posed about the inculturation of the Roman rite in the history of salvation. The process of inculturation was a process which developed in many ways.

The people of Israel throughout its history preserved the certain knowledge that it was the chosen people of God, the witness of his action and love in the midst of the nations. It took from neighboring peoples certain forms of worship, but its faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob subjected these borrowings to profound modifications, principally changes of significance but also often changes in the form, as it incorporated these elements into its religious practice in order to celebrate the memory of God’s wonderful deeds in its history.

The encounter between the Jewish world and Greek wisdom gave rise to a new form of inculturation: the translation of the Bible into Greek introduced the word of God into a world that had been closed to it and caused, under divine inspiration, an enrichment of the Scriptures.

10. “The law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms” (cf. Luke 24:27 and 44) was a preparation for the coming of the Son of God upon earth. The Old Testament, comprising the life and culture of the people of Israel, is also the history of salvation.

On coming to the earth the Son of God, “born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4), associated himself with social and cultural conditions of the people of the alliance, with whom he lived and prayed.[22] In becoming a man he became a member of a people, a country and an epoch “and in a certain way, he thereby united himself to the whole human race.”[23] For “we are all one in Christ, and the common nature of our humanity takes life in him. It is for this that he was called the ‘new Adam.’”[24]

Christ, who wanted to share our human condition (cf. Hebrews 2:14), died for all in order to gather into unity the scattered children of God (cf. John 11:52). By his death he wanted to break down the wall of separation between mankind, to make Israel and the nations one people. By the power of his resurrection he drew all people to himself and created out of them a single new man (cf. Ephesians 2: 14-16; John 12:32). In him a new world has been born (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:16-17), and everyone can become a new creature. In him, darkness has given place to light, promise became reality and all the religious aspirations of humanity found their fulfillment. By the offering that he made of his body, once for all (cf. Hebrews 10: 10), Christ Jesus brought about the fullness of worship in spirit and in truth in the renewal which he wished for his disciples (cf. John 4:23-24).

12. “In Christ…the fullness of divine worship has come to us.”[25] In him we have the high priest, taken from among men (cf. Hebrews 5:15; 10: 19-21), put to death in the flesh but brought to life in the spirit (cf. 1 Peter 3:18). As Christ and Lord, he has made out of the new people “a kingdom of priests for God his Father” (cf. Revelation 1:6; 5:9 10).[26] But before inaugurating by the shedding of his blood the paschal mystery,[27] which constitutes the essential element of Christian worship,[28] Christ wanted to institute the eucharist, the memorial of his death and resurrection, until he comes again. Here is to be found the fundamental principle of Christian liturgy and the kernel of its ritual expression.

13. At the moment of his going to his Father, the risen Christ assures his disciples of his presence and sends them to proclaim the Gospel to the whole of creation, to make disciples of all nations and baptize them (cf. Matthew 28:15; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8). On the day of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit created a new community within the human race, uniting all in spite of the differences of language, which were a sign of division (cf. Acts 2:1-11). Henceforth the wonders of God will be made known to people of every language and culture (cf. Acts 10:44-48). Those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb and united in fraternal communion (cf. Acts 2:42) are called from “every tribe, language, people and nation” (cf. Revelation 5:9)

14. Faith in Christ offers to all nations the possibility of being beneficiaries of the promise and of sharing in the heritage of the people of the covenant (cf. Ephesians 3:6), without renouncing their culture. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, following the example of St. Peter (cf. Acts 10), St. Paul opened the doors of the Church, not keeping the Gospel within the restrictions of the Mosaic law but keeping what he himself had received of the tradition which came from the Lord (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23). Thus, from the beginning, the Church did not demand of converts who were uncircumcised “anything beyond what was necessary” according to the decision of the apostolic assembly of Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15:28).

15. In gathering together to break the bread on the first day of the week, which became the day of the Lord (cf. Acts 20:7; Revelation 1: 10), the first Christian communities followed the command of Jesus who, in the context of the memorial of the Jewish pasch, instituted the memorial of his passion. In continuity with the unique history of salvation, they spontaneously took the forms and texts of Jewish worship and adapted them to express the radical newness of Christian worship.[29] Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, discernment was exercised between what could be kept and what was to be discarded of the Jewish heritage of worship.

16. The spread of the Gospel in the world gave rise to other types of ritual in the Churches coming from the gentiles, under the influence of different cultural traditions. Under the constant guidance of the Holy Spirit, discernment was exercised to distinguish those elements coming from “pagan” cultures which were incompatible with Christianity from those which could be accepted in harmony with apostolic tradition and in fidelity to the Gospel of salvation.

17. The creation and the development of the forms of Christian celebration developed gradually according to local conditions in the great cultural areas where the good news was proclaimed. Thus were born distinct liturgical families of the Churches of the West and of the East. Their rich patrimony preserves faithfully the Christian tradition in its fullness.[30] The Church of the West has sometimes drawn elements of its liturgy from the patrimony of the liturgical families of the East.[31] The Church of Rome adopted in its liturgy the living language of the people, first Greek and then Latin, and, like other Latin Churches, accepted into its worship important events of social life and gave them a Christian significance. During the course of the centuries, the Roman rite has known how to integrate texts, chants, gestures and rites from various sources[32] and to adapt itself in local cultures in mission territories,[33] even if at certain periods a desire for liturgical uniformity obscured this fact.

18. In our own time, the Second Vatican Council recalled that the Church “fosters and assumes the ability, resources and customs of each people. In assuming them, the Church purifies, strengthens and ennobles them…. Whatever good lies latent in the religious practices and cultures of diverse peoples, it is not only saved from destruction but it is also cleansed, raised up and made perfect unto the glory of God, the confounding of the devil, and the happiness of mankind.”[34] So the liturgy of the Church must not be foreign to any country, people or individual, and at the same time it should transcend the particularity of race and nation. It must be capable of expressing itself in every human culture, all the while maintaining its identity through fidelity to the tradition which comes to it from the Lord.[35]

19. The liturgy, like the Gospel, must respect cultures, but at the same time invite them to purify and sanctify themselves.

In adhering to Christ by faith, the Jews remained faithful to the Old Testament, which led to Jesus, the Messiah of Israel; they knew that he had fulfilled the Mosaic alliance, as the mediator of the new and eternal covenant, sealed in his blood on the cross. They knew that, by his one perfect sacrifice, he is the authentic high priest and the definitive temple (cf. Hebrews 6-10), and the prescriptions of circumcision (cf. Galatians 5: 1-6), the Sabbath (cf. Matthew 12:8 and similar),[36] and the sacrifices of the temple (cf. Hebrews 10) became of only relative significance.

In a more radical way Christians coming from paganism had to renounce idols, myths, superstitions (cf. Acts 19: 18-19; 1 Corinthians 10: 14-22; 2: 20-22; 1 John 5:21) when they adhered to Christ.

But whatever their ethnic or cultural origin, Christians have to recognize the promise, the prophecy and the history of their salvation in the history of Israel. They must accept as the word of God the books of the Old Testament as well as those of the New.[37] They welcome the sacramental signs, which can only be understood fully in the context of Holy Scripture and the life of the Church.[38]

20.  The challenge which faced the first Christians, whether they came from the chosen people or from a pagan background, was to reconcile the renunciations demanded by faith in Christ with fidelity to the culture and traditions of the people to which they belonged.

And so it will be for Christians of all times, as the words of St. Paul affirm: “We proclaim Christ crucified, scandal for the Jews, foolishness for the pagans” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

The discernment exercised during the course of the Church’s history remains necessary, so that through the liturgy the work of salvation accomplished by Christ may continue faithfully in the Church by the power of the Spirit in different countries and times and in different human cultures.


[22] Cf. Vatican Council II, Ad Gentes, 10.

[23] Gaudium et Spes, 22.

[24] St. Cyril of Alexandria, In Ioannem, I 14: Patrologia Graeca, 73, 162C.

[25] Sacrosanctum Concilium, 5.

[26] Cf. Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, 10.

[27] Cf. Roman Missal, Fifth Weekday of the Passion of the Lord, 5: Prayer One: “…per suum cruorem instituit paschale mysterium.

[28] Cf. Paul VI, apostolic letter Mysterii Paschalis, Feb. 14, 1969: AAS 61 (1969), 222-226.

[29] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1096.

[30] Cf. ibid., 1200-1203.

[31] Cf. Vatican Council II, Unitatis Redintegratio, 14-15.

[32] Texts: cf. the sources of the prayers, the prefaces and the eucharistic prayers of the Roman Missal; chants: for example the antiphons for Jan. 1, baptism of the Lord; Sept. 8, the Improperia of Good Friday, the hymns of the Liturgy of the Hours; gestures: for example the sprinkling of holy water, use of incense, genuflection, hands joined; rites: for example Palm Sunday procession, the adoration of the cross on Good Friday, the rogations.

[33] Cf. in the past St. Gregory the Great, Letter to Mellitus: Reg. XI, 59: CCL 140A, 961-962; John VIII, bull Industriae Tuae, June 26, 880: Patrologia Latina, 126, 904; Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, Instruction to the Apostolic Vicars of China and Indochina (1654): Collectanea S.C. de Propaganda Fide, I 1 Rome, 1907, No. 135; instruction Plane Compertum, Dec. 8, 1939: AAS 32 (1940), 2426.

[34] Lumen Gentium, 17 also 13.

[35] Cf. Catechesi Tradendae, 52-53; Redemptoris Missio, 53-54; Catechism of the Catholic Church 1204-1206.

[36] Cf., also St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Magnesians, 9: Funk 1, 199: “We have seen how former adherents of the ancient customs have since attained to a new hope; so that they have given up keeping the sabbath, and now order their lives by the Lord’s day instead.”

[37] Cf. Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum, 14-16; Ordo Lectionum Missae ed. typica altera Praenotanda, 5: “It is the same mystery of Christ that the Church announces when she proclaims the Old and New Testament in the celebration of the liturgy. The New Testament is, indeed, hidden in the Old and, in the New the Old is revealed. Because Christ is the center and fullness of all Scripture, as also of the whole liturgical celebration”; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 120-123, 128- 130, 1093-1095.

[38] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1093-1096.

The Editors