Saturday, July 09, 2016

Cardinal Sarah on the Incorporation of African Culture into the Church's Liturgy

Our worship is the strongest forming influence and driving force for the shaping of a culture. If we want a Christian culture, therefore, we should renew the liturgy, and then create forms of music, art, architecture and so on that are in harmony with right worship. Then these will influence the contemporary culture, because people will wish to see the beauty they know from church reflected in every aspect of their daily lives; and vice versa.

I wrote an article about music based upon this premise earlier this week and will do another, featuring the story of an English telephone box next week (if you’re puzzled by that, you’ll just have to read the article!)

In these discussions, many people wonder if this is a Eurocentric or perhaps Western debate. What about African or Asian culture? Should that supplant, perhaps, Gregorian chant and and polyphony as the foundational music forms in places where it is not part of the traditional culture?

I would say absolutely not. Chant and polyphony are above all Christian forms of music that happened to have their origins in a particular place and time in history, and so are identified with them. They are in harmony with liturgy of the Catholic, ie universal Church, and as such are universal art forms that appeal to people across cultures.

Now, here is Cardinal Robert Sarah, a Guinean, speaking on the subject. As many of you will know, he was speaking at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London this past week about his desire to see a more faithful implementation of Sacrosanctum Consilium in the Church’s liturgy. In regard to the place of secular cultural forms in the liturgy he said the following:
I am an African. Let me say clearly: the liturgy is not the place to promote my culture. Rather, it is the place where my culture is baptised, where my culture is taken up into the divine. Through the Church’s liturgy (which missionaries have carried throughout the world) God speaks to us, He changes us and enables us to partake in His divine life.
How might the liturgy “baptise” African culture? Here are my thoughts. Using music as the example to illustrate: draw in those aspects of African culture that are in harmony with the traditional and universally Christian forms. Without ever supplanting chant and polyphony as the exemplary musical forms of the liturgy, there should be new compositions that conform to all that is necessary to sacred music for the liturgy, but bear the mark of the music of that part of Africa. These new compositions will be timeless and universal in their appeal too, albeit with a traditional African twist.

These then become the unchanging and good aspects of African culture upon which Christianity can build so that it can be transformed into a Christian culture that speaks to Africans.Africa in not uniform culturally, so neither will these local variations be uniform.

Universality is not the same uniformity. These African compositions, if done well, will not only engage the local population, but might then enrich the music of the whole Church, for although originating in one part of the world, those universal aspects can potentially speak to all people.

And in case anyone doubts my point that chant should have pride of place in the liturgy, in the same address, Cardinal Sarah reiterated what Sacrosanctum Consilium says.
Please permit me to mention some other small ways which can also contribute to a more faithful implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium. One is that we must sing the liturgy, we must sing the liturgical texts, respecting the liturgical traditions of the Church and rejoicing in the treasury of sacred music that is ours, most especially that music proper to the Roman rite, Gregorian chant.

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