Liturgical inculturation in an anti-culture

Par l'abbé Jean-Marie Perrot

Français, italiano

The acceleration of cultural and social evolutions in Western countries raises with more precision a nagging question since the reform of the liturgy: the question of its inculturation, whether desired or even requested by the Vatican II Council.

The impossible inculturation in a mutating culture

There has been many attempts, starting before the Council. For example, in the framing work of the Catholic Action Movements, before the Second World War and, particularly, after the War when we saw the organization of processions of gifts, where the fruit of the earth and work of human hands were presented with the bread and wine which would make the matter of the Eucharistic sacrifice. If anyone then puts into question the opportunity to present these things as “associated” matter to the sacrifice when they are rather fruits of it, fruits of a christian life working in creation and society, the least we could say is that, notwithstanding the solution to the raised liturgical and theological objection, the approach has definitely fallen short. The only things that remain are children’s drawings or, in the “masses pro populo”, dances and fruits that are quite exotic for a European. We are relatively far from an ambitious incarnation of the liturgy in modern life, of its inculturation… But had we pursued this sort of things, what would such a procession bring, after the automation of labor, the deindustrialization, tertiarization and presently its uberization. Would this today represent “the fruit of the earth and work of human hand”? The labor market has profoundly changed, and is still changing, making illusory the idea that a symbolism could be drawn out from it and be able to last.

The way of speaking has also changed and particularly morals, since it plays quite an influence over it. At the risk of upsetting some readers, let us mention this assembly of giggling teenagers, looking into each other’s eyes, mocking the priest while listening to his sermon on the “virgin”… Going more in depth and particularly institutionally, the feminist speech has led to the integration in the liturgical language of formulas which, if they are yet more clear, are less elegant and carry a heavy rhetoric where in the Latin world finesse and concision used to be praised: “brothers and sisters… woman and men…”, etc. These two examples show the limitations that the celebration in the vernacular can run into, because in these words, it is interpreted inevitably and immediately in the light of the language as it is spoken hic et nunc. Of course, one can find solutions to the difficulties, go from periphrasis and heavy semantic to explanatory circumlocutions. Yet, isn’t the process endless, and isn’t it operated to the detriment of a liturgical language which has been the honor of the Latin Church? This liturgical language is dying; the only thing left is the everyday language that a certain pastoral requires, since “everyone must be able to understand…

The impossible inculturation in a society being deconstructed

Modern and postmodern societies are thus out of step, increasingly, in relation to faith and to its liturgical expression. Is this assessment enough, satisfactory? In order to better manifest the inculturation of the liturgy shouldn’t we ask ourselves if our societies are simply capable to be the place of an inculturation?

Let’s take for example something simple like kneeling and communion on the tongue. They were replaced by standing up and by communion in the hand: such is the demeanor of the modern man, the adult Christian.

After that, who doesn’t see the relation with the disappearance of adoration? To better understand the issue let’s look at recent interventions from the Pope: Francis, in the apostolic exhortation Desiderio desideravi, denounced a sense of the sacred that would be foreign to the Christian mystery, one that would lead to error. To this, he opposed not a banal profane but the Incarnation and the Real Presence and, for the believer, amazement as in the eucharistic exclamation of saint Francis of Assisi which he quoted: “Let the whole of mankind tremble, the whole world shake and the heavens exult, when Christ, the Son of the living God, is present on the altar, in the hands of the priest. O admirable heights and sublime lowliness! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! …humble yourselves as well, that you may be exalted by Him.”

As soon as, if we concede voluntarily that the homage of the vassal before the feudal lord is no longer something of the day, then one can only hold that – getting support from all authorities possible, up to the one just mentioned – adoration is consubstantial to the worship of the Church. It was expressed – and it still does – outwardly, by kneeling which also may express  penance. In a society that accomplishes the deconstruction of all authorities, even dying ones or those evanescent, in what reality or current demeanor, in what sentiment commonly known and acknowledged today could we sink in, “inculturate” adoration, humility, amazement of the faithful when “the Lord of the Universe, God and Son of God humiliate themselves down to the point of hiding, for our salvation, under a semblance of a little piece of bread”? (Francis of Assisi)

In fact, next to unsuccessful tries, there is a dimension in our society in which the reformed liturgy easily made itself a part, through inspiration: the democratic mentality. The participation of the faithful as mentioned in the Council, but understood in an outward and sensible modality, has indeed found there a model: sincere or commended conviviality (“festive” masses), multiplication of intervention and participants, sharing in small groups instead of the homely, adaptation in the closest way possible to the audience and its supposed expectations… Maybe the failure everywhere else explains why this inculturation is so significant. the other aspects of worship – and the most important ones – struggle with a “cultural” reality which does not do well with encounter, is not able, and even eventually opposes it in its principles. This unilateralism even forces and diverts the public prayer of the Church: often – the popes have not stopped denouncing, without much success -, in such assemblies, the self-celebration of the community in competition with creativity and emotivity, the ceremony no longer has much to do with worshiping, with the liturgy, since there is no longer a rite, nor is there an orientation towards God.

The impossible inculturation of a deconstructed liturgy

Many are the priests and faithful who object to the democratization of worship. Frequently, if not always, they then turned directly to the vetus ordo, or indistinctly towards uses and customs that precede the reform so to fill in the gap and the lack of precision of the novus ordo. The movement towards the modern world and the inculturation is then slowed down or stopped, depending on how much is borrowed from the former uses. This fact leads to a subsidiary question to our overall issue: inculturation, sure… but what do we want to inculturate exactly? Which liturgy?

If we admit the possibility of inculturation – in principle we couldn’t not consider it – it implies the encounter of two organisms, in some ways living and complex, fruits of a slow elaboration and in part mysterious, of doctrines and rules, of uses and practices, of symbols and morals, etc. (a Forest of symbols, as in the title of a book written by Father Barthe); a slow encounter there too, made of adjustments and reciprocal transformation, that custom will adopt or reject, the authority allow or sanction. On both sides, health and vigor is what is needed.

But, as plans were being made for a reform of the liturgy, when the Council asked that there be a distinction made between essential intangible elements and those elements that could actually be changed, it quickly translated, very quickly indeed, into a disarticulation of the old Roman Rite, getting rid of the ceremonies (the virtues which commended them without expression nor ceremonial support), simplifying others, adding new ones, whether they be dragged out from antic times or created all together. A new set was made with the plurality of choice held as a principle: the New Ordo. A title we wonder it rightly deserves, in comparison to what the old Ordo offered.

Let’s shed a light on this actually: we have already talked about adoration and humility; let us mention two other virtues essential to worship. It is Devotion and Reverence: the absence of precise rubrics in the new ordo regarding the actions of the priest at mass leaves these two virtues without tangible support and with consequences in the way of the celebration that are easily noticeable. Not that these virtues were absolutely attached to such or such gesture or a particular moment (it would be a form of rubricism to say so) but through these indications, in his soul, the priest’s attention was encouraged and his elevation sustained. This applies to the servers and the assembly of the faithful as well. If nothing is said of why, when and how, why do this? Will we not in the end only do what we feel like doing? This would be hardly satisfying.

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Following this rapid analysis, the wager of inculturation seems rather an adventurous one, not only on the part of a culture which is one no longer but, also, on the part of an incomplete and flowing rite.

Father Jean-Marie Perrot