When Sacrosanctum Concilium was released in 1963, attention was immediately drawn to its call for the active participation of the laity in the sacred liturgy. It was the first constitution released from the Second Vatican Council, and much of its content grew from the vast research of the previous century, collectively known as the Liturgical Movement. But running parallel to the academic study of liturgical participation was the question of adaptation of the liturgy to the cultures outside of Europe. Missions in Asia and Africa were showing great promise, and both Pius XII and John XXIII wrote positively of welcoming the genius of cultures to which Christianity had been recently introduced.
This trend eventually solidified into what the Church now calls inculturation, embodied today by the Instruction Varietates Legitimae, released 25 years ago. But to better understand how a concern for the liturgy and a concern for missionary work dovetailed into inculturation, and how the principles of inculturation discussed in this 1994 document have since informed the Church’s actions in both its liturgy and cultural engagement, it is important to look back at how this vital concept first developed.
Origins and Development
In his 1951 encyclical Evangelii Praecones, Pius XII noted that missionaries do not “transplant European civilization and culture, and no other, to foreign soil” (60). Eight years later, John XXIII released Princeps Pastorum, making the bold claim that the Church “does not identify with any one culture, not even with European and Western civilization” (19). By contrast, he said, the Church recognizes “anything that redounds to the honor of the human mind and heart, whether or not it originates in parts of the world washed by the Mediterranean Sea” (19). Both popes referred to the lessons learned in mission lands around the time that they were writing, noting that genuine acceptance of the faith came when people understood that the Christian revelation does not come as a colonializing imposition, but as something which transforms and enlivens their existing culture.
So when Sacrosanctum Concilium included three short paragraphs entitled “Norms for Adapting the Liturgy to the Culture and Traditions of Peoples,” the Council fathers simply gave an extremely brief summary of the previous popes’ writings. Specifically, Vatican II noted that “even in the liturgy,” the Church does not wish to impose a rigid uniformity, but instead respects and fosters the genius and talents of various peoples. As long as they were not “indissolubly bound up” with superstition and error, cultural traits of peoples could be preserved intact and even introduced to the liturgy itself, “so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit” (37). The directives given by the Council asked that in the future revision of the liturgical books, provisions be made for legitimate variations, that is, varietates legitimae, especially in mission lands, provided that the “substantial unity of the Roman Rite is preserved” (38).
Following the Council, a new area of theological development flowered around the concept of “inculturation” as something more than “adaptation,” as the Council called it. Diverse scholars from around the world began to define the term and develop inculturation’s theological rationale. Among the pioneers in this effort included Filipino Benedictine monk Anscar Chapungco, English missionary priest Aylward Shorter, and the Dutch Jesuit Ary Roest Crollius, who edited the Inculturation Working Papers produced by the Centre “Cultures and Religions” at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. Even the noted theological luminary Karl Rahner mused on the possibilities that inculturation could bring to the Church’s newly realized global status. Perhaps the greatest proponent of inculturation was none other than Pope John Paul II.
When commenting on the progress attained twenty-five years after Sacrosanctum Concilium, this pope saw ahead “the considerable task of continuing to implant the Liturgy in certain cultures, welcoming from them those expressions which are compatible with aspects of the true and authentic spirit of the Liturgy” (VQA, 16). In the same year, 1988, the International Theological Commission released Faith and Inculturation, which chronicled much of the official work on the topic, including that of the ordinary synods of 1974 and 1977 (3).
“Only Correct Procedure”
As is often the case with new ideas in the Church, broad principles regarding inculturation were laid out by the Council, then assessed by academic study and experimentation decades later. By 1994, at the request of Pope John Paul II, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued Varietates Legitimae, the fourth instruction on the right application of Sacrosanctum Concilium, specifically intended to establish norms which would provide “the only correct procedure” going forward on matters of inculturation (3).
While this may sound restrictive at first blush, the instruction was in no way dismissive of the importance of inculturation. It quoted many of John Paul’s positive comments, but also recognized that Sacrosanctum Concilium’s few broad principles needed new attention “in light of experience” (2). As with other similar instructions, it provided clarifications, definitions, and normative principles: “The norms for the adaptation of the liturgy to the temperament and conditions of different peoples, which were given in Articles 37-40 of the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium are here defined; certain principles expressed in general terms in those articles are explained more precisely; the directives are set out in a more appropriate way and the order to be followed is clearly set out…” (3).
Varietates Legitimae confesses the need for such clarification, admitting that “the theological principles relating to questions of faith and inculturation have still to be examined in depth” (3). Since Vatican II provided for the possibility of “more profound” adaption of the liturgy where pastorally necessary in certain cultures, Varietates Legitimae was intended to “make arrangements for putting it into effect in accordance with the law” (3). Indeed, the question of lawfulness remains at the heart of the instruction, as the title suggests: “legitimate” come from lex, the Latin word for law.
Defining The Word
Interestingly, the Council documents themselves never used the word “inculturation.” As late as 1979 Pope John Paul II called it a “neologism”— that is, a new term added to the language slowly coming into common use. By 1994, Varietates Legitimae was ready to define the word more precisely as “the incarnation of the Gospel in autonomous cultures and at the same time the introduction of these cultures into the life of the Church” (4). It further explained that genuine inculturation signifies “an intimate transformation of [a peoples’] authentic cultural values by their integrations into Christianity…” (4). Properly speaking, then, inculturation involves the bringing of Christianity to a previously non-Christian culture, recognizably successful when the culture is animated and perfected by faith in Christ.
In common parlance, “inculturation” is a term often used for mere external adaptations, such as the use of familiar language, decorations, and songs for recently-arrived immigrant groups. But the full definition remains quite clear because it operates much like the Incarnation: it brings Christ’s revelation to transform a culture and bring it to God through the Church. The hope, then, is when Christianity is recognizable through the language and cultural signs of a people, it will take root and flower according to that culture’s particular genius. People then see Christianity as their very own and not as a transient encounter, perhaps one brought by a colonizing foreign power; for such people, the results are genuine, lasting evangelization.
This process of inculturation includes the sacred liturgy, which the instruction says “must not be foreign to any country, people or individual,” while at the same time it must maintain “its identity through fidelity to the tradition which comes from the Lord.” Herein lies the crux of the matter in liturgical inculturation: how to make the Church’s liturgy both local and universal, that is, both inculturated and in unity with the Roman Rite.
Liturgy Given by Christ
Varietates Legitimae makes it clear that the Church desires and welcomes proper inculturation. However, in the pattern typical to Church documents, it commends what is good and cautions against exaggerations, all evaluated according to the nature of the Church and her liturgy. And so it begins its specific treatment of the principles for inculturation by addressing the nature of the liturgy itself. It reminds the reader of many of the prominent theological insights of Sacrosanctum Concilium: the liturgy is at once the action of Christ and his body; its goal is the glorification of God and the sanctification of his people; it is achieved through visible signs; and it is “not gathered by human decision, but is called by God in the Holy Spirit” (21-22). It notes that because the Church is Catholic, that is, universal, “it overcomes the barriers which divide humanity (22), yet cautions that no matter what local changes are made, the liturgy “is always the celebration of the paschal mystery of Christ” and the Church is always nourished on the word of God in the Old and New Testaments (23-24).
So follows the balancing act which lawful variety requires. Since the Eucharist and the other sacraments were “given by Christ to his Church,” the instruction says, the Church “has the duty to transmit them carefully and faithfully to every generation” (25). Even as the Church of Christ is “made present and signified in a given place and in a given time” by local churches, those churches have to be “united with the universal Church not only in belief and sacramentals, but also in those practices received through the Church as part of the uninterrupted apostolic tradition” (26). This explains the need for what it calls the “preceptive character” of liturgical legislation to “ensure the orthodoxy of worship,” not only to avoid error, but more importantly, to “pass on the faith in its integrity” (27).
After its introduction, Varietates Legitimae states clearly that the same concepts that justify the revision of the rites for active participation in paragraph 21 of Sacrosanctum Concilium also apply to inculturation: “texts and rites should be so 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 rites fully, actively and as befits a community” (35). While this quote most often applies to the revision of the liturgical books within established Catholic cultures, the application to newly evangelized peoples grows from the same principle. Both are intended to encounter and draw grace from the liturgy.
One of the instruction’s most straightforward clarifications grows from the Council’s request that the substantial unity of the Roman Rite be preserved. Varietates Legitimae not only recalls this directive, but also gives an explanation: “this unity is currently expressed in the typical editions of liturgical books, published by authority of the supreme pontiff and in the liturgical books approved by the episcopal conferences for their areas” (36). This clarification followed years of discussion by some who claimed inculturation was frequently inadequate for cultures not familiar with Roman conventions, and therefore entirely new rites were necessary. Following the Council’s norms, Varietates Legitimae answers this claim, stating that “the work of inculturation does not foresee the introduction of new families of rites” (36).
In its final section, the document briefly addresses a series of particular questions in relation to inculturation, beginning with language. Without going into specific detail in matters of translation, it reminds the reader that the purpose of liturgical language is to “announce the good news of salvation and express the Church’s prayer to the Lord” (39). But more is necessary than legible texts; the direction is given that liturgical language expresses the “grandeur and holiness of the mysteries” being celebrated. So it follows that the “content of the texts of the Latin typical edition” of the missal is to be preserved, even as it respects the “religious language suitable for expressing prayer” that all peoples have (54). A gentle reminder is given that liturgical language has specific requirements beyond general religious speech: it is “impregnated by the Bible,” and maintains the use of Latin words such as sacramentum and memoria.
Closely following upon language are music, gesture, and dance, each touched upon quite briefly. Music, it says, expresses the “soul of the people” and is to be promoted especially in the singing of liturgical texts themselves. Citing Sacrosanctum Concilium, the instruction notes that in mission lands music is often quite developed and can be “adapted according to their native genius” (40, citing SC, 119). In the typical “two step” method of instructional documents, after positive instruction comes the caution: musical forms must “accord with the dignity of the place of worship and truly contribute to the uplifting of the faithful” (40, citing SC, 129).
Similar things are said of liturgical posture. First it is mentioned as important, noting that each culture understands bodily postures differently. Then the cautionary reminder: these postures must “express the attitude of humanity before God” and ought, if possible, to have a relationship to “the gestures and postures of the Bible” (41). Lastly, dance is addressed in a similar manner. “Among some peoples,” it notes, “singing is instinctively accompanied by hand clapping, rhythmic swaying and dance movements.” This “external expression” can have a place in liturgical prayer, but the caution again is given: dance is admitted to the liturgy on the condition that it is “always the expression of true communal prayer of adoration, praise, offering and supplication, and not simply a performance” (42).
Quarter of a Century
Varietates Legitimae turns 25 years old this year, and it has held up as a guide for the inculturation of the liturgy largely because its foundational theology accords deeply with the principles laid down in Sacrosanctum Concilium. By definition, inculturation requires innovation, as did the liturgical revisions after the Council. Varietates Legitimae clearly states that the same principles that apply to modification of the rites also apply to inculturation: “innovations should only 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” (46, citing SC, 23).
Just as the revision of the Missal of 1962 did not create a new rite, so decisions regarding inculturation “do not envisage a transformation of the Roman rite, but are made within the context of the Roman rite” (63). In that sense, studying the principles of proper inculturation is enlightening to any student of the liturgy; diversity of liturgical expression within the unity of the Roman rite is meant to preserve the unity of the Church and protect the “integrity of the faith transmitted to the saints for all time” (70).
Norms for adapting the Liturgy to the culture and traditions of peoples
From the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
37. Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.
38. Provisions shall also be made, when revising the liturgical books, for legitimate variations 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.
39. Within the limits set by the typical editions of the liturgical books, it shall be for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to specify adaptations, especially in the case of the administration of the sacraments, the sacramentals, processions, liturgical language, sacred music, and the arts, but according to the fundamental norms laid down in this Constitution.
40. In some places and circumstances, however, an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed, and this entails greater difficulties. Wherefore:
1) The competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, must, in this matter, carefully and prudently consider which elements from the traditions and culture of individual peoples might appropriately be admitted into divine worship. Adaptations which are judged to be useful or necessary should then be submitted to the Apostolic See, by whose consent they may be introduced.
2) To ensure that adaptations may be made with all the circumspection which they demand, the Apostolic See will grant power to this same territorial ecclesiastical authority to permit and to direct, as the case requires, the necessary preliminary experiments over a determined period of time among certain groups suited for the purpose.
3) Because liturgical laws often involve special difficulties with respect to adaptation, particularly in mission lands, men who are experts in these matters must be employed to formulate them.
 For more on the history of the term inculturation, see Doyle, Dennis M., “The Concept of Inculturation in Roman Catholicism: A Theological Consideration” (2012). Religious Studies Faculty Publications. Paper 102. http://ecommons.udayton.edu/rel_fac_pub/102, footnotes 12, 13.
 John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendi (1979), 53.
 Varietates Legitimae here cites yet another document by Pope John Paul II, namely the 1985 encyclical Slavorum Apostoli and his January 17, 1987 address to the Pontifical Council for Culture plenary assembly.
Dr. Denis McNamara is Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, and cohost of the award-winning podcast, “The Liturgy Guys.”