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Rachel Bundang Answers:
Question: I was in Africa and saw a bunch of priests and parishioners dancing and the offertory procession went on for a much longer time. While beautiful it seemed to be much different than my experience of church in the US, Canada, and most of Europe and even Latin America. Can you tell me how these innovations arose there and what they might be expressing in the liturgy?
We often speak of the Church as universal and eternal, but it is also local and contextual. As the Church’s territory in the world has expanded over the centuries—through mission, colonization, and other kinds of expansion, whether for good or ill—she has sought to make the Gospel intelligible to the peoples she has encountered.
During Vatican II, Paul VI issued the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) in 1963, calling for reform of the liturgy through enculturation, the better to engage and promote Christian life. Sections 37-40 lay the groundwork for adapting the liturgy to local communities sensibly. So, for example, one big resulting change was having Masses said in the vernacular (the local language) rather than in Latin, which remains the official language of the Church.
What you’re talking about in the African church likely reflects an incorporation of native traditions into the expressions and celebrations of faith. Enculturation continues to be a topic of much discussion, especially in the churches of Africa and Asia: how do they make the faith and liturgy reflective of their own experience and culture and not just a straight, literal translation of the Church as it has developed in the West? It considers not just the language of the liturgy, but also other local practices and customs more broadly. It also acknowledges that conflicts between Church and culture will arise and need thoughtful, prayerful resolution that is true to both Gospel and community where possible.
[For current guidelines on liturgy, see the General Instruction to the Roman Missal (2003), http://www.usccb.org/liturgy/current/GIRM.pdf. ]
Dr Rachel Bundang holds a doctorate from Union Theological Seminary.