In a June 1997 article in the Jesuit magazine America, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee expressed his concern with Pope John Paul's decision to allow limited use of the old Latin Tridentine Mass. One of Weakland's reasons for opposing this move was his belief that there should be only one ritual form of the Mass in the Western (Roman) rite of the Catholic Church.
Without entering the controversy over use of the Tridentine Mass, one might ask the question of whether the archbishop is too concerned to limit liturgical diversity. One contribution of the Second Vatican Council was that it encouraged greater diversity -- several Eucharistic prayers, instead of one, and a greater openness to local variation in the liturgy.
Indeed, in a visit to Weakland's own country to attend Catholic press meetings at about the same time his article appeared, I was struck by the differences in the liturgy there from what is typical in Western Canada.
There was, for example, much greater use of Latin in both the sung and spoken parts of the Mass than we Canadians are accustomed to. And there was much greater willingness to allow the choir to sing hymns and solos during which the congregation was clearly supposed to listen and not actively participate.
The point is not that this is good or bad, but that it is different. It is an approach to liturgy which, however beautiful, might not be generally well-received in Western Canada.
However, Western Canada is one of the few places in the world where there is a wide availability of two Catholic ritual traditions -- the Roman rite and the Ukrainian Byzantine rite. These two rites have managed to co-exist without the faithful being scandalized or led into confusion. If anything, the situation has enriched us.
To be sure, Vatican II noted that cultural adaptations in the liturgy are acceptable only if "the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved." But it did go on to add that "In some places and circumstances, however, an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed" (Constitution on the Liturgy, 38, 40).
And the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that great embodiment of the council's teaching, states that "The mystery celebrated in the liturgy is one, but the forms of its celebration are different. The mystery of Christ is so unfathomably rich that it cannot be exhausted by its expression in any single liturgical tradition" (no. 1200-1201).
It is this sort of thinking which has given rise, for example, to calls for greater adaptation of liturgical traditions to the cultures of Canada's First Nations. In more than 400 years of activity by white missionaries, the church has gone a long way toward adapting to aboriginal cultures. Many would say we need to go much further. Some have even suggested the establishment of a separate rite -- with its own disciplines, ritual forms and governing structures -- for aboriginal peoples.
The pull and tug between local churches which want to adapt to local needs and the Vatican which is concerned with preserving the unity and truth of the faith is one of the paramount features of church life today. The issue of inclusive language is another place where this tussle occurs. The Canadian and U.S. bishops have favored translations of the Mass and the Bible which avoid the use of male pronouns in references to all people. In North America, there is great sensitivity to the equality of men and women and many want to avoid language which might undermine that equality. (In many parts of the English-speaking world, this is simply not an issue.)
While the Vatican has accepted the principle of inclusive language, it has noted some places in the Old Testament where making the translation gender-free would obscure important references to the coming of the Son of God. Sorting out these cases has not been an easy matter.
The church has moved a long way from seeing classical European culture as normative and other cultures as being of lesser value. It now sees local culture as a place where the Gospel is incarnated, rather than annihilated.
Ultimately, of course, the goal is not to dress up the liturgy with cultural adornments -- it is to facilitate people's full, active and conscious participation in the liturgy. If cultural adaptations encourage that, while remaining faithful to the truths the church wants to express in her worship, they are a good thing.
But as the controversy over inclusive language has shown, not every claim for cultural adaptation ought to be accepted. The Gospel contains a prophetic element which will challenge aspects of every culture. In short, as the Catechism states, "It is fitting that liturgical celebration tends to express itself in the culture of the people where the church finds itself, though without being submissive to it" (no. 1207).
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