ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
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.
Paragraph 37 is the tip of a very big iceberg involving the very nature of sacraments. The question reaches to the core of how a sacrament is to be celebrated and how much of its rite may be changed without changing the nature of the sacrament itself.
It can be safely asserted that the immediate references of para. 37 are the experiences of the Jesuit missionaries who launched energetic campaigns in the East and in the West after the Reformation. Growing up in New York State, I learned very early of the Jesuit missions in what is now the Empire State and Canada, particularly St. Isaac Jogues and his companions, who were martyred by the Iroquois Indians. Incidentally, their collective feast is this coming Thursday, October 19 with a major observance at their shrine in Auriesville, N.Y. There is rather good documentation of their work, but there is little or no evidence that the North American Jesuits incorporated any native religious rites into the Mass or other aspects of Catholic life. This was due in part to the violent and primitive circumstances of their setting.
However, the missions to the East were another story. Shortly after the Council of Trent (concluded 1565) an enterprising Jesuit named Matteo Ricci ventured into China. He is the first Christian missionary known to have mastered Chinese before arriving upon the scene, and he and his companions could converse with officials and academics. Ricci appreciated Chinese civilization and undertook to assist its thinkers in grasping Western culture. His linguistic and scientific skills enabled him to translate Euclid’s geometry into Chinese and Confusius’ wisdom into Latin.
Ricci made converts to Catholicism, but his theology and catechetics were adventuresome. He respected the philosophical and religious outlooks of the orient. Regarding Ricci and the Chinese, the Wikipedia entry captures his work well: “Chinese culture was strongly intertwined with Confucian values and therefore [Ricci] decided to use existing Chinese concepts to explain Christianity. He did not explain the Catholic faith as entirely foreign or new; instead, he said that the Chinese culture and people always believed in God and that Christianity is simply the completion of their faith. He borrowed an unusual Chinese term, Tiānzhǔ (天主, "Lord of Heaven") to describe the God of Abraham, despite the term's origin in traditional Chinese worship of Heaven.”
Two other missionary orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, complained that Ricci’s methods exceeded the boundaries of Catholic practice and worship, and the Jesuits were reported to Rome. Thus began “The Chinese Rites Controversy” within the Church that lasted for nearly a century. It is a long and complicated issue, and the Dominicans and Franciscans eventually sided with the Jesuits, but Clement XI in 1704 banned the use of the worship rites developed by the Jesuits.
In the twentieth century and down to the present, the issue of adaptation to local peoples has reemerged under the study of ecclesiology, or “the theology of the Church,” as inculturation. [Protestants use the term “contextual theology.”] Nearly all the popes since Leo XIII (d. 1903). Pope John Paul II took a generally more favorable stance toward Matteo Ricci’s original work. John Paul came to the papacy in 1978 with a cherished hope to reunite with the Eastern Orthodox Church; he understood, however, the cultural historical chasm between Istanbul and Rome.
During Vatican II itself, the daily Mass at St. Peter’s rotated among the various rites of the Catholic Church; there are around two dozen. It was a strong reminder that the “rigid uniformity” mentioned in para. 37 was not a reality in the Catholic world, and had not been since the earliest days of the Church. The theological issue remains, though, as the concluding sentences of the paragraph make references to possible “superstition and error” and the need to clarify what falls under the “true and authentic spirit” of the Church. Many of the recent Vatican investigations of theological works have involved issues of inculturation, the most noteworthy being the case of the American theologian Peter Phan and his writings on Asian-Christian relations. I have included a news story explaining his 2004 case here.
The matter of inculturation is not the preserve of only theologians. Pastors and parish personnel find themselves facing issues of inculturation on both practical and theological matters. In Central Florida, for example, the influx of Hispanic peoples and cultures has continued unabated since I arrived here in 1978. In my tenures as pastor I had to come to grips in my own mind with the established custom of the Quinceanera, the rite of passage of a 15-year-old girl into womanhood. In my parish here, the event was celebrated in a Catholic setting, often with the extravagance and the cost of a wedding. My theological instincts led me to reflect upon the relationship of the Quinceanera to the celebration of Confirmation, as there is overlap of meanings to a degree in terms of major religious experiences in the adolescent life cycle.
On a theological level, the Hispanic ministry staff of the parish was significantly influenced by the Latin American “Liberation Theology,” which interpreted Catholic life in terms of freedom from oppression. This created considerable parish and (especially) staff tension. It was not easy pastoring two cultures simultaneously, and I don’t see that problem resolving itself any time soon. [I am happy to say, though, that all the staff of 35 years ago has mellowed considerably, including me, and we are the best of friends today. In fact, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the parish last Sunday and relived “the good old days.”]
Paragraph 37 soothes the hard line taken by Clement XI of the eighteenth century, but makes clear that the matters of interfaith relations and inculturation are delicate matters, particularly regarding sacramental practice and catechetics.