Monday, April 15, 2024
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Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)

"From the rising of the sun to its setting, praised be the name of Yahweh. Supreme over the nations is Yahweh, supreme over the heavens his glory. Who is like Yahweh our God? His throne is set on high, but he stoops to look down on heaven and earth. " (Psalm 113:3-6 (NB. The emphasis is mine).

Vatican Council II ecclesiology of the 'Church-as-Communion' and of autonomy and communion in the local Churches renders obsolete the continued use of the medieval expression of 'a Church that breathes only with its two lungs, West and East', as is often said. Moreover, in the same vein, the African renewed ecclesiology of the 'Church-as-Family-of-God' privileges the Vatican II ecclesiology of the Church-as-Communion - the Church 'with multiplicity of lungs', beyond the traditional 'East and West European lungs', or way of being Church, as hitherto said.

This is why the Eucharistic Prayer III of the Catholic Church, reproduces the same idea in Psalm 113 cited above, as follows:

"You are indeed Holy, O Lord, and all you have created rightly gives you praise, for through your Son our Lord Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, you give life to all things and make them holy, and you never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name." - (Eucharistic Prayer III (Emphasis is mine.)

Unfortunately, while the African scholarship and translations in African languages of the Eucharistic Prayer III remains faithful to the original text which says, "From the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may made to your name", the Western European scholarship and modern languages have continued to retain the old expression, which says, "From East to West a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name." Though one may argue that by this they are referring to the 'East' as the geographical place where the sun rises and the 'West' as where the sun sets. But what of the North and South, does the sun not rise and set there too? And are we to presume that only in the East and West is where God is worshipped properly and pure sacrifice offered to him? Where do we locate what the people of God from the Northern and Southern parts of the earth that do not fall within that medieval European perimeter do in their worship and relationship with God revealed in Jesus Christ?

This is the crux of the matter. It is one of the reasons why theologians from the young Churches of the Southern continents are not comfortable with the continued use of that old expression of 'a Church which breathes with only two lungs, namely, East and West.' Because, in that category, the attention is only focused on the old categories which see the Church only from the perspectives of the Western and Eastern European Christians and history. Christians of the young Churches of the Southern continents and their history are left out of the equation, and regarded as irrelevant.

The Novelty of the African Ecclesiology of Church-as-Family

The contention here is that it is the dream of the local Churches in Africa, that in no distant future, when all the local Churches of the universal Church-Family will assemble around the Chair of Peter as the centre of communion, each one of them with its own traditions and disciplines, liturgy and theology, arising from their various cultural contexts and rooted in the common faith in Jesus Christ and his Gospel, the African Church too will be among them, adorned with her own traditions. And together with all the local Churches of the six continents, in a rich symphony of languages and songs, of colours and liturgical vestures, and of bodily gestures, will render honour and praise to God the Father through Christ and in the Holy Spirit. And when that time arrives, it is hoped, the Church will no longer be breathing with two lungs, East and West, as it is often said, but with multiplicity of lungs, because the Churches of Asia, Africa and Latin America will also have made their own contributions to the development of the common Christian patrimony.

In his encyclical on Commitment to Ecumenism Ut Unum Sint (25 May 1995), Pope John Paul II said, in reference to the urgent need for communion between Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, that "the Church must breathe with her two lungs! (n.54). In other words, the use of that expression, 'Church that breathes with two lungs, East and West', in that context, refers to the importance of promoting ecumenical dialogue between the West and Eastern Churches, or rather between the Churches of the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Latin) Rites.

a) Promoting Communion and Autonomy among the Churches

In addition to addressing the internal problem within the African society, caused by exaggerated ethnocentrism, the difficulties in achieving a true nationhood or statehood in post-colonial Africa countries, the "Church-Family" ecclesiology has also the purpose of clarifying matters as regards the type of relationship that should exist between the African local Churches and the universal Church. This touches the problem of autonomy and communion or rather of unity in diversity. Here also, one is confronted with the issue of present dependency status of the African Churches and countries. Naturally, the older and richer members of the "Church-Family" have the obligation to assist the younger ones. The younger ones have also the obligation to utilize creditably, the assistance been received from the older and richer members of the "Church-Family" - as one of the means of developing potentials for maturity and greater self-reliance. In this regard, the "Church-Family" implies that the relationship between the Church in Africa and the sister-Churches in the Northern Hemisphere should be a healthy one.

In a typical family, no one carries himself or herself as a superior or master over the other. None is also regarded as an inferior, either. All the members of the family are equal and share in all rights, privileges, sorrows and joys of the family. But as the younger one grows and tries to find his feet on earth, he or she is encouraged and offered help where necessary by the elder one. The assistance so received is not done from the perspective of paternalism or dependence syndrome. Neither is it from the wrong notion of helping those "savages" from the poor continent of Africa. Rather it is in appreciation and admiration of the growth found in the life of the younger member of the family. The young one grows in admiration and not in sympathy. He grows well when he is offered hope and not demoralization.

Furthermore, this implies that the "Church-Family" model touches the issue of the recognition of signs of growth or development into maturity found in the African Churches. This refers specifically to the on-going efforts on inculturation. The efforts indicate that at least primary evangelization has been done in this area and that African Christians have begun to advance the cause of the mission of the Church in their land. In other words, the efforts in the young Churches of Africa are fruits of the initial evangelization and founding of the local Churches done by the pioneer missionaries in Africa. The efforts are equally ways of building on what these pioneer missionaries had initiated. Thus, the work of the missionaries and the present efforts of the African Christians (theologians) are one and the same work of evangelization with equal absolute aim.

Consequently, considering all the above factors, the African Bishops, following the orientations given by Vatican II, wish that the unity in diversity or rather ecclesial communion be interpreted dynamically, so that their young Churches could inculturate the Gospel in their cultures and develop new forms of Christian living, worship, and thought that are relevant to their people. (Note: For more on the Vatican II's teaching on diversity in matters of Christian living, discipline, liturgy, and theological expressions - within the unity of faith; see, LG 13; AG 22; OE 2-4; UR 14-17, etc.)

In fact, this is one of the principal motives behind the African Bishops' choice of the model of the Church-as-Family of God. In the opinion of the Bishops, what is needed at the moment is a dynamic approach to inculturation - courage and good will to enable the structures of communion to function properly, as they should; that is, with certain amount of autonomy, responsibility and trust. I am thinking particularly of the African theologians working with courage and good will, but in communion with their Bishops so that the fruits that will flow from their efforts may enrich the common patrimony of the Church. (See Synod of Bishops, Special Assembly for Africa (1994), Message 56.)

Furthermore, I am thinking also of the African Episcopal Conferences, the Regional Associations of Episcopal Conferences, and SECAM itself, functioning in constant dialogue with the Holy See and the other local Churches. There is no doubt that these organs of communion should enable the African local Churches not only to remain faithful to the common faith in their work of inculturation, but also to communicate to the other particular Churches outside Africa and to the whole Church their own experiences of God's grace operating in their particular socio-cultural contexts.

This is one of the principal ways these Churches will be enabled to enter into a relationship of enriching communion, of giving and receiving, within the universal "Church-Family". However, all these must be carried out with the understanding that everyone is working for the good of the Church and for the authentic expression and living of the Christian faith. Moreover, they should be pursued above all, with the understanding that the Holy Spirit is actively present in all, and is leading all gradually to greater knowledge of the mystery of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

b) Implications for Liturgical Inculturation in Africa

As is often said, successful liturgical inculturation process makes the Christian liturgical celebration a cultural experience. In the words of Elochukwu E. Uzukwu, "as a public worship, liturgy is like a barometer which measures the maturation of the Christian faith in the local Church, because the particular character of a Church is made manifest in its cult." As Peter Schineller puts it, "if a liturgical worship is to be genuine, it must reflect the faith experience of the community which celebrates it. They must express their faith and their struggles for fullness of life, for justice, and their living of the Kingdom vision. A people addressed by the Gospel must respond with an act of faith which should be reflected in their prayer and worship." Hence, the axiom, lex orandi lex credendi: the law of praying is the law of belief. This faith response is made in the cultural reality of the people, since culture is an integral part of the self-realization of every people (cf. Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes (GS), n. 53).

The foregoing remarks imply that we must recognize the cultural factor in liturgy, and accept its immediate consequence of diversity and communion (cf. Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Liturgy Sacrosantum Concilium (SC), nos. 37-40), since there are numerous cultures in the world. No single liturgy, venerable and ancient as it may be, could respond adequately to the religious needs of all peoples. It follows therefore that each cultural area should develop its own liturgies (forms of liturgical celebrations), according to its own genius, while maintaining communion with the universal Church. It is against this background, that liturgical worship, especially, since Vatican Council II, is considered one of the most privileged areas of inculturation in Africa. This is also the perspective from which the African theologians and the Bishops have offered their reflections for liturgical inculturation in the continent.

Again, here it suffices, and for good purposes, to note that the expression "African (inculturation) liturgy" as it is used here is wider than the Eucharistic celebration. It covers all the liturgical, theological, and disciplinary patterns and expressions found in the celebration of all the sacraments or rather liturgical life of the Church. Likewise, is the term "rite", which sometimes are used to refer to the emergent forms of liturgical celebration in Africa. It is always good to use the term in its rightful theological sense, that is, in the sense in which the Roman (Latin) Rite, for example, is distinguished from the Eastern Rite (Orthodox), to show their differences in doctrines and sacramental disciplines. The emergent African local forms of liturgical celebrations in the Catholic Church are within the Roman (Latin) Rite. In other words, they require the approval of the Holy See.

Consequently, African forms of liturgical celebration is still in making. But since the Eucharist is the focal point of the Church's life, and with the officially approved Zairean (Congolese) Mass), an advanced stage has been achieved in the area of Eucharistic celebration.

Stages in Liturgical Inculturation in Africa Since Vatican II

We can identify three major stages in the liturgical reforms introduced by the Vatican Council II, and how those stages were developed in the African Churches. All these reforms are intended to help the faithful to understand their liturgical celebrations with ease and to "take part in them fully, actively, and as a community" (SC 1-3; 21).

The first stage was to be the revision and translation of established texts into local languages (cf. SC 36). In the African Churches, this spurred not only the use of African languages for liturgical celebrations, but also the adoption of local liturgical hymnody accompanied by drums, gongs and other native instruments, hand clapping, rhythmical swaying, and dancing, and the increasing visibility of local art and architecture (e.g., vestments made of African textile, sacred images and paintings, etc.). However, there is no doubt that these elements have started to demarcate liturgical life in the African region.

The second stage was to consist of variations and adaptations of already established rites according to the needs of local Churches, particularly in the so-called mission territories. In this regard, the Council recommends that suitable "elements of initiation rites ... already in use among some peoples" could be incorporated into the Christian ritual for initiation, provided the conditions given in SC 37-40 (such as the preserving of "the substantial unity of the Roman rite" (SC 38) were respected (SC 65). The Episcopal Conferences were to initiate such adaptations (SC 22; 39).

Finally, the third stage in the Vatican Council II's liturgical reforms called for a more "radical adaptation (inculturation) of the liturgy" which, though not stated explicitly, might involve a radical modification of, or even going beyond, the established Roman Rite of liturgical celebrations. This includes the creation of a new form of liturgical celebration of the Mass for a particular region. Thus, this stage was to begin after a careful study of the liturgical traditions of the Church and the religio-cultural traditions of the people concerned. It was also to be carried out in dialogue between the Holy See and the Episcopal Conferences concerned, so as to establish the necessary guidelines for the process (SC 40).

Accordingly, the local Churches around the world are now availed of the new opportunities offered for liturgical reforms. The local Churches in Africa also responded positively, since it could be said that the reform led to the birth of the Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire (Congo) as noted already, and the other experimentations in the same direction in various parts of Africa. To this must be added the on-going liturgical creativity or rather efforts (mainly on theological level), at the various higher ecclesiastical institutes in Africa and among the African theologians themselves and pastors.

Put together, since Vatican Council II, two stages could be distinguished in liturgical reforms in Africa. The first was the translation of Roman liturgical texts. This stage had already begun before Vatican Council II, as some rituals, prayers and hymns were translated into African languages by some missionaries. Those efforts were to be followed by the translation of the Mass text into local languages. The second stage is the present era which began when the initial liturgical adaptations were criticized for having evolved within the framework of the theology of adaptation. In other words, they merely juxtaposed the Roman-Judeo-Christian worldview and the African religious worldview, without actually providing space for mutual interpenetration, transformation and enrichment.

The quest for liturgical inculturation in Africa as we know it today springs from this awareness. This stage calls for rigorous research into Christian theology and liturgical traditions, African anthropology and religion, so as to develop liturgies that are authentic expressions of both the Christian faith and the African spirit of prayer and worship. This explains why many African local Churches have not reached this stage of liturgical inculturation. In fact, a good number are still grappling with the problems of translation, due to factors such as lack of trained personnel and material resources. Other local Churches have made some progress, particularly in the composition of local forms of Eucharistic celebration.


In promoting liturgical inculturation, and the ecclesiology of the Church-as-Family, and of autonomy and communion in their local Churches, African Bishops and theologians are inspired by the mystery of the Incarnation. That is, by the mystery of the Incarnation in which humanity becomes the medium of God's self-communication as salvation. And by the understanding of the Christian sacraments as prolongation and re-enactment of the saving actions of Christ in space and time. The composers of this Mass wish to bring together both Christian and African elements in the liturgy, so as to enable African Christians to worship authentically and to encounter God through their cultural medium. It also aims to help the African faithful to overcome the dichotomy which they experience between Christian life and African religious life. To achieve this aim, they restructured the Roman Mass according to the traditional assembly of their African people in that context, characterized by two major elements: active participation in the word and in the sharing in the meal of communion.

All these demonstrate why the Church in Africa privileges its renewed ecclesiology of the 'Church-as-Family-of-God', a Church with multiplicity of lungs, beyond the traditional 'Western and Eastern European Church that breathes with only 'two lungs', East and West, as is often said. The Church in Africa believes that the universal Church needs also to breathe with the 'African lung' of the Church, just as the Church also needs to breathe with the Asian and Latin American lungs of the Church, beyond the traditional Western and Eastern European lungs of the Church.

Only then, will the Church manifest, in theory and practice, the Vatican II ecclesiology of the Church-as-Communion, and of autonomy and communion in the Churches. This in turn will broaden and quicken the desired ecumenical dialogue and collaboration among all the Christian Confessions across the board or rather, the Churches of Christ on earth, including the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Church of the West in Europe and beyond.