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Vatican policies, inculturation dominate Jesuit talks on liturgy


Renewal of common prayer and worship inside the Catholic church’s flagship religious order was one theme that percolated through a first-of-its-kind Jesuit conference on liturgy in Rome June 17-22.

Another was strong criticism of recent Vatican liturgical policy.

Speakers from different parts of the globe, including North America, India and the Philippines, branded recent Roman moves as insufficiently respectful of cultural pluralism.

The laments were not restricted to Jesuits. Both Fr. Peter Phan, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and Viatorian Fr. Mark Francis, superior of his order, advocated greater “inculturation,” meaning allowing worship to be shaped by the local cultures in which it is celebrated. Under this logic, how Catholics celebrate the Mass in Nigeria may differ significantly from how it unfolds in Nebraska.

The Vatican’s chief concern in recent years, on the other hand, has been protecting the “substantial unity of the Roman rite,” meaning that even though the Mass is celebrated in different languages, it should look, sound and feel relatively uniform. Catholic liturgy, as Vatican officials understand it, initiates people into the culture of the church, and too much adaptation robs it of this power.

Phan criticized the approach as “motivated by an excessive desire for control” that “does not respect the autonomy of the local churches.”

Not everyone, however, joined the chorus.

Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, another non-Jesuit, applauded the inculturation triggered by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), but also granted that the Vatican has reason to worry about a “shadow side.”

If Catholic worship before the council suffered from exaggerated “discipline and obedience,” Danneels said, today in the rush to develop ever more creative liturgies, the “sense of mystery” may get lost.

Francis, however, bluntly argued that the Vatican is not merely correcting abuses but actually reversing course.

“The Congregation for Divine Worship,” he said, “has unilaterally repudiated the liturgical assumptions that guided the first wave of reform” after Vatican II.

Phan said that Filipino Catholic liturgist Fr. Anscar J. Chupungo, a Benedictine, and the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences offer a more satisfying vision of inculturation. For both, Phan said, translation of the Mass into local languages is one step toward completely new rituals that may even draw upon the texts and practices of other religions.

Simply transposing the Roman Mass, Phan said, “will be regarded, and rightly so, in an age deeply suspicious of power play, as an unjustified imposition of a particular culture with its patterns and institutions onto another.”

Yet Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, considered by many to be the church’s greatest living expert on Eastern liturgies, reminded the conference that over the centuries the church has not passively accepted whatever cultures had to offer.

“In the move from Greek to Latin, the early church did not adopt cultured pagan Latin, but the common Latin of the people at the time,” Taft said. “They also rejected pagan cultic terms and even temples, choosing the basilica as a better reflection of the worshipping community.”

In that sense, Taft implied, the Vatican is correct to insist that “inculturation” is not a one-way street.

Nevertheless, at the end of the weeklong session, much frustration with Roman policy remained. Doris Donnelly, who heads the Cardinal Suenens Institute at John Carroll University in Cleveland, summed up the sentiment.

“I heard a request,” she said, “for a more responsive and responsible Congregation for Divine Worship.”

In terms of internal Jesuit issues, the strongest challenge came from Taft, who challenged his confreres to share daily liturgy in common -- a practice foreign to the Jesuits’ more freewheeling, individualistic approach.

“A community that does not pray together regularly cannot claim to be Christian,” Taft said, throwing down a gauntlet.

Despite the Jesuits’ reputation as overachievers in almost every field of endeavor, liturgy has long been an Achilles’ heel. The order’s founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, wanted Jesuits to be free to pursue their missions anytime and anyplace, hence he never imposed a common Mass or daily prayer. The result, in the eyes of many observers, is that some Jesuits are inattentive to the finer points of Catholic ritual.

A classic joke makes the point: “A good Jesuit liturgy is one in which no one gets hurt.”

Taft insisted the time has come to adopt at least a daily Eucharist, as well as morning and evening prayer, in common. He argued that St. Ignatius failed to impart a sound liturgical vision in part because in the 16th century the public rites of the Catholic church tended to be overly ritualistic and unspiritual. After Vatican II, Taft said, the perspective on liturgy is different.

Some 120 Jesuits and 15 collaborators from 43 countries participated in the Rome conference.

In the end, the conference asked the Jesuit general, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, to write a letter about liturgy to the world’s Jesuits, stressing the need for better formation of young members. In closing remarks, Kolvenbach said he would appoint a few conference participants to help him with the project.

Kolvenbach then professed mock surprise at the request.

“I am pleased to see,” he quipped, “that there are still Jesuits who believe in the efficiency of a letter from the general.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002