Gifts from other cultures can enrich our traditions

Q. In your June column you wrote about some of your ideas about liturgy “in the spirit of Vatican II.” I would particularly like to hear your thoughts on being “open to cultural adaptation.”

A. It’s important — and not just in places like Africa or Asia, but right here in the United States.

The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy included some “Norms for Adapting the Liturgy to the Culture and Traditions of Peoples” in articles 37-40.

This document allowed “legitimate variations and adaptation to different groups, regions, and peoples, especially in mission lands, provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved” (no. 38).

Such variability was unknown in the Roman Mass during the four centuries after the Council of Trent, but here the church was opening her liturgy to the “genius and talents of the various races and peoples” (no. 37).

We saw and heard and felt such adaptation during Pope Francis’ apostolic journey to Rio for World Youth Day, where the liturgical music was marked by the enthusiastic spirit and samba rhythms of Brazilian culture.

Applying to us locally

Maybe the exuberant gestures (for example, the dance-like swaying back and forth and waving arms) and sheer excitement seemed a bit unusual or excessive to some, but clearly “the people’s religious songs” that were encouraged in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy helped those diverse pilgrims gathered in Rio to praise the God of all the earth. And this is how it should be.

But what about closer to home? What about “polka Masses” that are so popular in various parts of our diocese?

These were discussed in The Visitor some years ago. They aren’t my favorites, but then I think about this statement in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: “The people’s religious songs are to be encouraged with care so that in sacred devotions as well as during services of the liturgy itself, in keeping with rubrical norms and requirements, the faithful may raise their voices in song” (no. 118).

If “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” (in German or English) fits this description, how about religious songs set to polka melodies?

Can such songs help people to worship God better? Apparently they can, as some worshippers have told me.

Or what about joining hands for singing or saying the Lord’s Prayer at the Eucharist? Some people like to do this, while others (including some liturgists) hate it.

But whether you like it or not, might it not be an adaptation-in-the-making, one that might be officially permitted (but not required) in the future?

Liturgical history is full of examples of practices that people liked eventually becoming part of the Roman liturgy: like carrying branches in procession on Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord or venerating the wood of the cross on Good Friday.

Visitors to Jerusalem in the early Christian centuries took part in these rituals there and then got their bishops back home to include them in their liturgy. Monks traveling to other monasteries would hear prayers and sing texts that they would bring back for use in their own monasteries.

All of this is testimony to the strong desire in ages past for borrowing liturgical elements and making them fit where they didn’t originally belong.

Open to adaptation 

Today the church struggles to open its liturgy to cultural adaptation in the spirit of Vatican II while trying to preserve what is most distinctive and revered in the Roman rite, for example, its restraint and directness.

We need a kind of adaptation that puts us in contact with our liturgical roots (hence our need to preserve some Gregorian chant and Latin motets even in our parishes), while never losing sight of aspects of our culture that can enhance our present celebrations.

Cultural adaptation means shaping the liturgical ingredients of texts and songs and rituals from many different peoples, times and places into creative mixtures, right in our own parish, where newly arrived immigrants are joining long-time parishioners.

But someone may ask: “Why should I have to sing religious songs from Africa or hear the Scriptures readings in Spanish at Mass?”

I like to remember what essayist Michel de Montaigne said in the 16th century: “Nothing human is foreign to me.” Blessed are those who carefully shape the outward forms and inner spirit of our liturgy in a way that is respectful of our past and open to our future.

Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015. Father Michael enjoys giving workshops and presentations on liturgical topics to parish groups. Reach him at the email or postal addresses listed here.