Monday, 28 November 2011

Inculturation......"but not as we know it Jim!"

The "inculturation" word has been bandied around quite a bit recently, including a few times on this blog when I posted on the issue of an 'African Mass'.

But what, precisely, do we mean when we use the word?

Do we mean an acceptance of a degree of local culture that is not, ordinarily, strictly in line with Catholic teaching?

 Morris Men - would they be an acceptable
part of the liturgy?

I am thinking here of the Chinese example when, allowances were made by the 17th century Jesuit missionaries, for the Chinese practice of  veneration of relics of ancestors to be incorporated into the faith.

Soon afterwards, this bending of  beliefs was rescinded by Rome and, ever since then, it has gone to and fro, mainly in accord with how the Pope at the time viewed such a practice.

This example is a sensitive one; many western Catholics have keepsakes of parents and grandparents tucked away somewhere.
Does the problem begin to materialise if you build a shrine in the corner of the sitting room and put locks of Grandmama's hair within?

Or, is it more a liturgical may pray for the soul of your ancestor but not get involved, to any degree, in worshipping the mortal remains (naturally).

It is quite a leap from this sort of debate to then describe the congregation doing an African (or Chinese for that matter) dance during Holy Mass as being part of the 'inculturation' process.

Is it right to permit deviations in the liturgy according to local custom or culture? "Yes, yes, of course!" (I can see the comments in the combox now) but I believe that this form of inculturation is wrong, for the following reasons.

The Mass is the Mass is the Mass (here he goes again you say). It should be the same Mass whether you attend in Amsterdam or Honolulu, apart from the obvious change in languages. But, of course, it's not.
A couple of years ago I wandered into an Amsterdam Church during an OF Mass and my expectations as to what I would witness were not at all disappointed inasmuch that it was all terribly informal and (apparently) ad libby.
The priest ignored the altar and carried out all of his duties, at a green baize card table centre stage.
I had no idea of where we were in the Mass and then, a few days later I repeated the exercise in Istanbul and was similarly confounded, or, is it kebabbed?

At this stage I have to mention the Latin Mass in its Extraordinary Form but, I'll keep it brief as we all know the points regarding its universality.

Some people obviously believe that it is asking too much of a Ugandan Swahili speaker to contort their tongue and their inclinations  in accepting the quiet, soulful delivery that is an integral part of the Extraordinary Form of Mass.

Patronising? Almost certainly.

For years Africans, Indonesians, Brazilians and even English men and women accepted the Mass in Latin and without question. Why now must we bend so that we have a Mass in Erse or Urdu? And, even worse, why should we have to accept limbo dancers or weird liturgical perversions in the process?

This inculteration business carries its own form of inverted political correctness with it.
They ( 'they' being those who like the concept) apparently approve of it only when it involves native peoples performing folk dances up the aisles and across the sanctuary.

They do not seem to have thought this through. If it's acceptable for black Zimbabweans to do it - why not white English Morris men or, (Heaven forfend), The Michael Flatley River Dance Club from Ballydehob to go a leppin' and a stampin' across all and sundry.

It is tempting to go further with the analogies but, for all of your sakes, I shall hold it there.

My point really is that inculturation (if that is what it must be called) is OK up to a point.
That point is perhaps best illustrated by the Missa Luba recordings that hark back to the 1960s.

The first was an African rendering of the Tridentine Latin Mass sung (mainly in Latin) by a Congolese choir, they coped with the Latin easily enough, as did five year old boys - I was one.

 If you have not heard it before, listen and see if you believe that it is acceptable.

And there it ends. No dancing, no non Christian rituals, no hats on the menfolk, no animal sacrifices at the Offertory.....just an African people worshipping God using their style of music...better still had it all been in Latin!

That's my take on inculturation for you!


  1. I remember learning as a child that the Latin mass was the same all over the world. That was in a time when most people did not travel all over the world. It seemed odd that as travel opportunities expanded and people were all over the world the Latin was replaced by the vernacular.

  2. The Missa Luba IS all in Latin - apart from the Kyrie. The Sanctus is particularly good.
    Inculturation can work well where there is a real culture. Unfortunately we in the west hardly have any culture to speak of now outside of a market driven mass media.

  3. Patricius - yes, agreed, that's why I said 'mainly in Latin' :)

    I am sure you remember the film 'If' also in connection with the Sanctus.