A Problem of Exculturation

Published May 30, 2024

The Catholic Thing

The Diocese of Broome covers the northern portion of the state of Western Australia. Massive and sparsely populated, the diocese is home to some 35,000 souls spread across an area a good bit larger than Texas. The Catholic population of the Diocese of Broome is smaller still: fewer than 14,000 Catholics arranged in nine parishes. According to the diocese, the average weekly Mass attendance for the entire diocese was 694 in 2016. In 2021 it was 592.

Broome, as it happens, is also home to a significant Aboriginal population. In 1973, the local bishop approved, ad experimentum, the use of a new liturgical rite known as the Missa Terra Spiritus Sancti (Mass of the Land of the Holy Spirit). According to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC), the rite is a “distinctive Mass that beautifully amalgamates Catholic tradition with Aboriginal culture, thereby creating a unique celebration of faith that has served the diocese for over five decades.”

While the Broome Diocese may have relatively few Catholics, according to NATSICC, there are more than 130,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics in the whole of Australia and they represent the Australian Church’s youngest and fastest-growing demographic.

Earlier this month, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference unanimously approved the rite for use in the Diocese of Broome and resolved to submit the rite to the Dicastery for Divine Worship in Rome for official recognition.

The Latin Church has a long tradition of what today might be called “liturgical diversity,” approving various rites and usages for particular peoples, places, or communities. In recent years, these have sometimes been approved for use in mission territories (such as the Amazonian rite currently under consideration by Rome) or local churches in non-Western cultures (such as one finds in the Diocese of Broome).

Sometimes, but not always. The beautiful Anglican Use is just a few decades old, though it draws deeply on English liturgical traditions that pre-date the Reformation. The Dominicans have their own rite, as do the Carthusians, Carmelites, and Cistercians. The Ambrosian Rite has been celebrated in Milan, with some modifications, since the late fourth century.

All of this is to say that the Church is well accustomed to adapting her liturgy to the places and cultures in which she finds herself. When this is done well – when the Incarnate Word is the “authentic paradigm of inculturation,” as Pope Benedict XVI insisted – the result is not syncretism but an embodiment of Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians to, “Test everything; retain what is good.”

In the years following the Second Vatican Council, the most obvious manifestation of liturgical inculturation in the West was the widespread introduction of the vernacular. But there were other manifestations.

In parts of the world where the Gospel is encountering established cultures for the first time, or where the encounter is only a few generations old, inculturation is not only inevitable, it’s necessary. And it seems to be paying spiritual dividends in those parts of the world where the Church has been growing most rapidly in recent decades, most notably sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. At its best, liturgical inculturation incorporates the worthiest elements of particular cultures into the Church’s life and worship.

So when the local Church in a remote part of Australia makes room in the liturgy for a traditional Aboriginal dance at the offertory, or fits the wording of certain responses in the Mass to the rhythms and cadences of the local language, or employs a didgeridoo and drums, the result may be very well suited to the pastoral and spiritual needs of the local Church.

But here’s a provocative thought. If healthy inculturation works in places like Broome, where the Church encounters a pre-existing and deeply rooted culture, what about those parts of the West in which the Roman Rite was the pre-existing and deeply rooted culture?

Think of how much of Western culture – its greatest art, architecture, music, and literature – takes the Roman Rite as a primary reference.

If the dramatic liturgical reforms of the post-Conciliar years made possible the liturgical inculturation which has been an evangelical boon in many non-Western cultures, in much of the West, it has had a very different effect.

While incorporating deeply ingrained traditions, history, and culture into the liturgy is encouraged as “healthy inculturation” in some parts of the Church, the same impulse to incorporate the deepest cultural and spiritual heritage of the Latin West into liturgy is treated very differently.

The result has been a sort of acute exculturation in the West, whereby the Church is left struggling to find something – anything – that might serve as a suitable replacement for the deepest roots of her own culture. As often as not, the replacements are sought by aping pop culture, which is more of an anti-culture, or in abstract experiments that spring from the mind of (I assume well-intentioned) liturgists, but have no connection to any identifiable people, place, or culture whatsoever.

All of this might be taken as a lament directed toward the restrictions on the Traditional Latin Mass that Traditionis custodes put in place. And it could be so applied. But the problem is at least as relevant for the large majority of Catholics who worship in the Ordinary Form.

How can the Church in the West accomplish, in the words of Pope Francis, the necessary “inculturation of faith and evangelization of culture,” without availing herself of the deepest roots of her own cultural and spiritual heritage? One need not desire a return to some mythical golden age, still less reject the reforms of the Council, in order to see the spiritual deracination that has accompanied these decades of exculturation.

I hope and pray that the Diocese of Broome reaps a great spiritual harvest from its celebration of the “Mass of the Land of the Holy Spirit.” And I hope and pray for a day when this post-Christian West will find the confidence to draw similarly on her own deep treasure trove of culture and tradition.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. White’s work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. He is the author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic (Liguori Publications, 2016).

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