The process of liturgical inculturation could be compared to
preparing a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Preparations usually
do not begin with decisions about appetizers or salads, but
with the main course, turkey. The next decisions probably concern
stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy, then vegetables and
other side dishes. The starting point is the traditional food
handed down through generations.
The rites of the Church have also been handed down.
Those with responsibility for preparing liturgy must first consider
the primary structural and theological components
- word and sacrament, the shape and flow of the ritual,
the liturgical roles, and the liturgical seasons. The official ritual
books of the Church - the Sacramentary (or the Roman Missal),
the Lectionary, the sacramental rites, and the Liturgy of the
Hours - all contain these primary components. However,
those who prepare liturgy must understand how they operate
within the experience of worship. They must consider the community
identity and context in which these rites are celebrated,
and the cultural patterns of the community, "the typical mode
of thinking, speaking, and expressing oneself through rites,
symbols, and art forms" (Anscar Chupungco, Liturgical
Inculturation, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1992, p. 35).
Throughout the process of liturgical inculturation, we
start with what has already been handed down to us; liturgical
inculturation is not a call to creativity for the sake of creativity.
What we celebrate is nothing less than the Paschal Mystery,
made present in the Eucharist and encountered by all participants.
While we acknowledge our unity as one body of Christ,
this should not imply uniformity in all expressions. How, then,
do we balance the unity of the rites with the cultural expressions
of the local community?
One classic method of inculturation is dynamic equivalence
described by Anscar Chupungco. In it, an element of the
liturgy is replaced with something in the local culture that has
an equal meaning. Consider the sign of peace. In some East
Asian cultures, a bow may replace the handshake as a gesture for
this ritual moment. The external expression differs, but the
meaning of reconciliation before the shared the meal remains.
This method, however, poses challenges: Can a specific adaptation
actually capture the full dynamic of a cultural symbol? In
East Asia, for example, the bow could also mean respect (Mark
Francis, Shape a Circle Ever Wider. Chicago: Liturgy Training
Publications, 2000, pp. 65 - 66).
Another method of inculturation stems from an understanding
of organic progression where new texts or elements
that arise from the culture are inserted within the framework
of the rite. Primero Dios, by Mark Francis and Arturo J. Pérez-
Rodríguez, a good resource for Hispanic liturgical inculturation,
offers an example. The custom of la presentación del niño,
the rite of presenting a child, developed "from a desire to invoke
divine protection upon the vulnerable newborn and express
gratitude for a safe childbirth" (Primero Dios: Hispanic Liturgical
Resource, Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1997, p. 24).
Ritually, this involves a simple blessing, the Sign of the Cross
on the forehead of the child, and anointing with the oil of catechumens
on the chest (Primero Dios, p. 27).
The placement of this ritual within the liturgy shows an
understanding of organic progression. Francis and Pérez-
Rodríguez wisely place it after the homily following the pattern
consistent with the Book of Blessings and common in other rites
that are celebrated in the context of Eucharist, such as Baptism,
Matrimony, and the RCIA scrutinies. The inclusion of this ritual
grows organically from within the forms already existing
(Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #23). This does not mean
that we simply "attach" anything from a culture at any point
during the rites. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. When
those entrusted with this task have knowledge of the official
books and remain in touch with the cultural patterns of the
local community, then the navigation between the unitive components
and the cultural expressions maintains a healthy balance.
Liturgical adaptation of a more significant weight would
need the approval of the local bishop; the bishops, in turn, are
entrusted with "legitimate variations and adaptations to different
groups, regions, and peoples . . . provided the substantial
unit of the Roman Rite is preserved" (Constitution on the
Sacred Liturgy, #38). In the end, our encounter with the risen
Christ becomes a simultaneous encounter with our ecclesial
identity as Church.
© 2013 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
3949 South Racine Ave, Chicago IL 60609
is a Paulist priest and pastoral associate in San
Francisco. He is a liturgical composer, author, and doctoral candidate
in Asian Catholic ritual at the Graduate Theological Union in