Friday, May 21, 2010

Thinking about Inculturation

A recent post on the NLM showed some fine historical examples of inculturation. It was good to be reminded of the Church's long-standing concern for inculturation, especially in the mission field, because there is perhaps a tendency to think that inculturation is a novelty. For, although the terminology is recent, the actual act of inculturation, or whatever one might wish to call it, is far older, and I would argue, of the essence in liturgical studies. Moreover, lest we think it only pertains to exotic missionary lands, in a broader sense, the entire world is 'missionary' territory.

So, the Congregation for Divine Worship & Discipline of the Sacraments, in its 1994 document on inculturation, Varietate Legitimæ, traces the origin of inculturation to nothing less than the Incarnation of Our Lord. And so, Redemptoris Missio, defines it thus: "By inculturation, the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community." The Vatican II decree Ad Gentes said that “the incarnation of Christ [is] the pattern of encounter between the Church and culture”. The analogy being drawn here seems to be that in the hypostatic union of Jesus Christ, we have a pattern for inculturation, which is conceived of as a 'union' of divine and human elements. So, Chupungco comments that "the liturgy is not merely adapted; it is, as it were, hypostatically united with the traditions and culture of the local Church. In short, it is incarnated". In so far as the Liturgy is a cultural artefact, then, it seems that inculturation is inevitable.

However, we are not to adopt a Docetic understanding of inculturation, so that the Liturgy - Roman or otherwise - simply puts on the appearance of a local culture. Rather, as the above CDW citation says, there is a mutual enrichment between the Church and her rites, and the local culture and its expression. This dynamic is theologically rooted once more in the Incarnation. Hence, the CDW document says: "This double movement in the work of inculturation thus expresses one of the component elements of the mystery of the incarnation". The difficulty of this task, of course, is in discerning what can be incorporated without compromising the integrity of the Gospel, and the Church's established liturgical and cultural traditions. What, then, is of the essence in a certain rite, and what isn't? Which external forms may be changed? If the forms are changed, will we still recognize the essence? In the previous post, the missionary priest dressed in the robes of a Chinese scholar is an excellent point from which to begin our discussion.

I raise these questions because the issue of inculturation, and the vision of it offered by the Church is by no means easily understood or put into practice. However, it seems to me that much of the tension that arises in liturgical discussions today are rooted in these issues and how we understand them.

Historically, the Roman rite iself is the fruit of inculturation. Indeed, Chupungco argues that "no historical model typifies inculturation better than the classical Roman liturgy”. The CDW document similarly points to the development of the Church's various rites as examples of inculturation. "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". So, what does it mean to celebrate the Roman rite today? Is the Latin language, or Roman vestments of the essence or the form of the Roman rite?

Many of these are complex questions, but I think a consideration of them is vital for any 'new liturgical movement'. As such, this post is an invitation for further discussion and reflection on the issues involved.

In part, the questions above are inspired by László Dobszay's 'The Restoration and Organic Development of the Roman Rite', and what he says will, I hope, stimulate our thoughts and also give them some foundation. Firstly he warns against equating the Roman rite with the Tridentine Missal or its later recensions. "The Tridentine rite is not identical with the Roman Rite; it is rather less than the greater whole, since the Roman Rite includes also the liturgy of the Roman basilicas, as well as the particular usages of the medieval episcopal sees and religious orders." Then, he goes on to say that "When we discuss the contemporary liturgical order, we must distinguish between the universal features of the Roman Rite, stable in time and place, on the one hand, and accretions or additions, on the other. It is not possible to speak with the same veneration and concern, for example, of the prayers at the foot of the altar when compared with the Canon of the Mass... The Roman Rite lived in an abundant richness of Rites or Uses up to the sixteenth century, but for the last 400 years its liturgical life (apart from some religious orders) has been practically reduced to just one (Tridentine) form. In the meanwhile, however, the entire secular and ecclesiastical environment has undergone significant changes". This situation speaks to the heart of inculturation because it is about responding to change and to a new environment or culture.

I would like to leave the reader with two more stimuli for thought and discussion. Firstly, a spiritual reflection from Pope John Paul II. He says that "the process of the Church's insertion into peoples’ cultures is a lengthy one. It is not a matter of purely external adaptation, for inculturation 'means the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures'". As such, it is a work of grace, akin to the individual Christian's growth in virtue as he is transformed by grace so that Christ truly lives in him. And grace, as we know, does not destroy but elevates our human nature. So too, human culture, can be transformed and elevated by its contact with the Gospel. Secondly, some practical examples of inculturated art from a talented Filipino artist called Ryan Carreon. The stained glass image above is one of 33 windows by him in Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines.

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