Door was opened to 'radical adaptations' in local liturgy

December 10, 2012

For more than 1,000 years, liturgical reform had meant an effort to establish uniformity in worship throughout the Catholic Church. At the Second Vatican Council, reform took a different direction – the quest for uniformity gave way to an allowance for the liturgy to respect the diversity of cultures around the world.

The Church had come to realize the disastrous error it had made in the evangelization of China and that if it was going to fulfill Christ's command to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28.19), it would have to take a different tack.

When missionaries, following the so-called discovery of the Americas, began to preach the Gospel in new lands, they typically had little compunction about imposing European culture as an integral part of the Gospel. The societies found by the explorers were viewed as primitive and the people as savages. From the viewpoint of the conquering culture, the people need to be both evangelized and civilized.

However, when the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci came to China in the late 16th century, he encountered a culture that was in no way primitive. The Chinese had a highly advanced culture and Ricci saw the necessity of adapting Church rituals and practices to local customs.

Ricci's approach was, for all purposes, accepted by Rome and, over the next century, the Church grew and began to flourish in China. By 1700, there were an estimated 200,000 Catholics in China.

An illustration depicting Fr. Matteo Ricci the 17th century Jesuit missionary, dressed in a traditional Chinese robe, hangs in the Beijing Centre for Chinese Studies in Beijing, China.


An illustration depicting Fr. Matteo Ricci the 17th century Jesuit missionary, dressed in a traditional Chinese robe, hangs in the Beijing Centre for Chinese Studies in Beijing, China.

In 1715, that all changed when Pope Clement XI issued an edict demanding that Chinese Catholics renounce the practice of venerating their ancestors as well as any association with the practices of Confucianism.


The effect was catastrophic. Within 25 years, Christianity had been banned in China, most Westerners expelled and cultural exchanges of science and technology between the West and China halted. Although Pope Pius XII lifted Pope Clement's edict in 1939, China's mistrust of the West and of the Catholic Church continues today.

Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (SC) opened the door to inculturation. It said that the unity required in worship was substantial, not formal. There needs to be room "for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions and peoples, especially in mission countries" (SC 38).

National or regional conferences of bishops were given the authority to oversee such inculturation, although adaptations would need approval from the Holy See. In some cultures, the constitution said, "an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed" (SC 40).

This openness to cultural adaptation combined with the move to celebrate the liturgy in local vernacular languages has been essential to the vast growth of the Church in Asia and especially Africa over the last 50 years.

Moreover, this process of inculturation should not be seen as merely a better marketing strategy by the Church. Rather, it is based on the recognition that any liturgical rite is imbued with cultural presuppositions. The Mass of the Latin or Roman rite, for example, came out of a Roman culture.


Moreover, this is not a bad thing. God comes to us as we are and incarnates himself in our society and in its traditions. The Filipino theologian Ascar Chupungco has written that the main reason for cultural adaptations of the liturgy is that the Church itself is "the prolongation in time and space of the incarnation of the Word of God."

In becoming human, the Word of God "bound himself to the history, culture, traditions and religions of his own people," Chupungco said. Further, since culture changes, so too over time should the liturgy.

To be sure, the liturgy is not infinitely malleable; it cannot be changed however one pleases. The individual priest has no authority to change it and even the recommendations of bishops' conferences are subject to Vatican approval to ensure that the liturgy remains substantially the same all over the world.


Indeed, this has been a significant point of controversy since the council: How much liturgical adaptation can occur without compromising the integrity of the Mass? Nevertheless, the principle has been established – "rigid uniformity" must be replaced by a respect for culturally based forms of worship.

(Information for this article was taken from Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium by Rita Ferrone and from Primary Sources of Liturgical Theology, edited by Dwight Vogel.)