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Vatican Inculturation Document Sets Limits on Liturgical Inculturation in the Amazon

The 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.

On October 15, however, Bishop Eugenio Coter, apostolic vicar of Pando, Bolivia, clarified in a press conference that the synod is asking “for an inculturated liturgy and not a new rite altogether,” according to a CNA report.

As a way to properly understand how to inculturate the liturgy, in 1994, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW) issued Varietates Legitimae (Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy). This important document—which turns 25 this year—also 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.

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” (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 liturgical inculturation in the Amazon 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).

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.”

While the proposal of a new Amazonian rite is off the table at the Amazonian synod, the October 15 CNA report noted that Bishop Coter proposed that a commission be created to examine liturgical inculturation in the Amazon, which may consider translations of the Mass into local languages, and a proposal by Bishop Rafael Alfonso Escudero of the prelature of Moyobamba in Peru, to integrate “ornamental” symbols and rituals that “do not impact what is essential” to the Mass.

According to Father O’Donoghue, there are some ways in which the Church can accommodate such symbols and rituals in the liturgy.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Whatever happens regarding these proposals for liturgical inculturation, any decision would most likely require consulting Varietates Legitimae.

Varietates Legitimae is the Church’s last extended magisterial treatment on liturgical inculturation,” Father O’Donoghue said. “So if you’re going to do some serious work on liturgical inculturation, you have to give this document serious consideration.”

Editor’s Note: On October 26, Edward Pentin reported for the National Catholic Register on the Vatican’s working translation of a final synodal document included a paragraph on the liturgy in the Amazon. Despite Bishop Coter’s October15 clarification that the synod was only looking for ways to better inculturate the Roman Rite, this paragraph calls for a new Amazonian Rite:

“119. The new organism of the Church in the Amazon must constitute a competent commission to study and dialogue, according to the customs and customs of the ancestral peoples, the elaboration of an Amazonian rite that expresses the liturgical, theological, disciplinary and spiritual patrimony of the Amazon, with special reference to what Lumen Gentium affirms for the Oriental Churches (cf. LG 23). This would add to the rites already present in the Church, enriching the work of evangelization, the capacity to express the faith in a proper culture, and the sense of decentralization and collegiality that the catholicity of the Church can express. It could also study and propose how to enrich ecclesial rites with the way in which these peoples care for their territory and relate to its waters.”

Pentin’s report also indicated that Pope Francis could issue a post-synodal apostolic exhortation as early as next spring.

Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O’Brien lives on a homestead with his wife Cecilia and their nine children in rural southwestern Wisconsin. He is Managing Editor of Adoremus Bulletin, a correspondent for the Catholic Business journal, and poetry editor and cocktail reviewer for The San Diego Reader. He has a BA (1995) and MA (2004) in English from University of Dallas, Irving, TX.