Despite my being on the front lines research on (ahem) “indigenous liturgies”, I have not been inspired to comment on the Amazon Synod or even, frankly, follow the news of it. That for a very simple reason. When it comes to inculturation, you have to do a massive amount of homework on each community and its history and language to do it right—or even just to comment on it intelligently.
And I really don’t know what the situation is in the Amazon. I have no knowledge of the peoples there or the history of its Catholic missions. But when I saw Fr. Zuhlsdorf mention a putative “Amazonian Rite” of the Mass, I felt compelled to address this idea with some general points and underlying principles that I’ve worked out from my own experience of American and Canadian inculturation.
First, do not let modernists and liberals anywhere near any liturgical books. Ever. Their motives are defective at best and insidious at worst, and by and large they have no idea what the heck they are doing. If given the chance, they will destroy indigenous Catholicism in the process of “saving” it.
I know that’s a strong assertion. But it’s not a strong assertion that I offer just because I’m some cranky, close-to-50 traditionalist with an axe to grind. It’s a strong position that I have, from 20 years of research in this specific area, slowly arrived at by studying how the 1960s liturgical reform was implemented.
I am probably going to upset many people with this next comment, and particularly some Native American Catholics who are emotionally invested n the current status quo. But not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have such intimate contact with the traditional sources. And since I have a duty to the larger Native community to tell the truth, I’m going to say it anyway.
Almost all of the “indigenous liturgies” of the post-Vatican II period are stereotyped, patronizing junk. What we see passed off as “Native American liturgy” in too many places is really just a mangled Modernistic parody of the Roman Rite, spiced up with a few token Indian stereotypes that could have been yoinked from the set of any cheesy 50s western: Plains-style headdresses, peace pipes, and Pendleton blankets.
I have nothing against any of those objects in their proper cultural context. But they shouldn’t be displayed as mere props to satiate the primivitist fetish that pretentious European liberals have toward my Native countrymen. They are authentic elements, yes, but garbled into an ignorant progressive’s opinion of what an “indigenous liturgy” should look like, rather than what an indigenous liturgy actually does look like.
For centuries, the Algonquian and Iroquoian tribes along the St. Lawrence had their own distinct uses of the Roman Rite: half-Latin, half-Native liturgies first shaped by missionary adaptation in the colonial period and then carefully preserved, transmitted, and even expanded until Vatican II. In some Native languages, these now-obsolete liturgies were called the “Native Masses” or “Indian Masses”.
It was the traditional Latin Mass that the Indians called that, mind you—not the Novus Ordo. And that should tell you which liturgy was actually best adapted to the sensus fidelium in these communities. But to the Modernists, these traditional Masses were apparently just outmoded “Tridentine” relics that stood in the way of their liturgical Utopia, like the old buildings of Rome must have seemed to the deranged emperor who dreamed of a glorious Neropolis.
As Christopher Vecsey points out in his books on Native Catholicism, when these Latin/Native liturgies were replaced with the English Novus Ordo Missae, many American Indian Catholics felt that they were being robbed of their culture. And, in fact, they were.
So while inculturation marched on after 1970, it had lost much of its ancestral connection to what went before, and everyone after that day who waxed rhapsodic about respecting indigenous tradition would have a glaring inconsistency at the heart of their argument—whether they knew it or not.
By and large, liberal-minded Catholics who proudly defended Native tradition did not bother to bury their noses in the Tsiatak Nihononwe to study Mohawk or Algonquin adaptations of the Terribilis and the Gaudeamus Introits and their use through the festal and penitential liturgical seasons. They didn’t squint through archaic Abenaki manuscripts in one hand, with Rale’s dictionary in the other. They didn’t ferret out and perform concerts of Native-language plainchant and polyphony. They didn’t promote or revive devotional wampum.
Instead they issued reports, as the USCCB did in Native American Catholics at the Millennium (2002), that continued to promote a garden-variety, Eurocentric Novus Ordo lightly flavored with generic eagle feathers, drums and tobacco.
This is the “indigenous liturgy” situation as it unfolded in North America, and this is why I am supremely wary of any priest, bishop, or even Pope who favors the liberal approach to inculturation. Liberals had 50 years to do a good job of inculturation, and they failed. If they were truly serious about the issue back in the 1960s, they would have worked to spread the centuries-old Indian Masses that were already in place—not completely gut them and start over.
Brazil may, for all I know, be a completely different story—but the voices in favor of an “Amazonian Rite” seem to be the same ideologically as the vandals who sacked the Canadian missions.
Let me make one thing clear. It is impossible—impossible—to create a new Rite. The Apostles and the Church Fathers who formulated the existing Rites—the Roman, Mozarabic, Ambrosian, Byzantine, Syriac, Coptic—are not around anymore, and there is no one left on earth with the authority to do the job. Oh sure, we have had scholars like Annibale Bugnini who gleefully assumed the task—but if you force your unwilling brain to stitch together the phrase “the Divine Liturgy of Annibale Bugnini”, you realize the inherent ridiculousness of what he did.
But that’s an exaggeration, you might reply…it was done under the authority and permission of Pope Paul VI. That is a much less offensive author, I admit, and not an improper one, even though there are strange stories how little he actually knew about it. But still, exactly what right does any modern Roman Pontiff have to completely gut and reorganize the Roman liturgy as if it was his personal property to dispose of, rather than a trusted possession he was tasked with preserving and protecting?
I can hear the objections now. Well there’s no solid evidence that the Apostles and Church Fathers wrote the liturgies ascribed to them. Ok let’s suppose that to be true. But the fact that people still called them by Apostolic and Patristic names indicates that the Catholic faithful naturally want their rituals authored by unquestionably holy saints, and sanctioned by immemorial tradition. If there is any doubt that Chrysostom or Basil authored the Byzantine liturgy, there is still no doubt that people down the centuries felt like these men should have been its authors. Why is that? Well, it’s obvious—because Sts. Chrysostom and Basil could be trusted to do the job right. If the highest and holiest prayer on earth can be written or extensively revised by anyone, we want the job done by the holiest and highest authorities.
I do not know who would be in charge of writing a putative Amazonian liturgy. It is possible that he would be a top-notch Amazonian scholar. But unless he is a holy man as well—someone of unimpeachable orthodoxy on the top rungs of the Ladder of Divine Ascent—I don’t give one fig for his scholarship. Scholars can be horribly wrong, and if they are not also saints you can never quite be sure of which side of the angelic hosts they are really serving when they are deciding on revisions. Saints might not always make their arguments as scholarly as we would like, they might not proceed on a ruthlessly logical basis, but since their whole ethos is oriented toward God you won’t ever be led astray by following their lead. As the Archbishop of Philadelphia has sagely observed—“the only true authentic inculturators are not theologians, or bishops, but the saints.” You know him—the Potawatomi bishop who has been pointedly denied the title of Cardinal. The wrong sort of indigenous person……apparently.
Anyone who does this job of liturgical inculturation has to understand their solemn responsibility not only to the community they are working for, but also the tradition they are purporting to work within. Ideally, such a person would review every stitch of historical evidence he could find on mission liturgies in the Amazon. Only when he has a firm grasp of the historical situation, can he then move accordingly. There are so many variables to consider—were there any previous Catholic missions? Do they have existing unique liturgical expressions? Do we have manuscript or printed evidence? Is this pagan practice theological or merely cultural? What precedents did the early missionaries set?
When Eugene Vetromile, missionary to the Abenaki, was asked by his bishop to change the traditional Abenaki baptismal formula, Vetromile declined “for the respect of that old formula”, that he had found “preserved among the Indians—made by their first missionaries, sanctioned by their successors, and which we do not feel prepared to alter.” We hardly hear such a natural reticence to mess with existing tradition anymore, so fixated have we become on novelty and alleged improvement—but it is as sound an instinct as the old Hippocratic oath: “first do no harm.”
I have admittedly gone into my research with a pre-conceived hypothesis on what an “Indian” Mass or an African-American Mass would look like. But I have been in both cases forced to re-orient my thinking, sometimes dramatically, by the primary source material I found. Each cultural group within the church has its own heritage, its own patrimony to draw from. And the responsible scholar will adapt to what he discovers without trying to push it in a direction it never wanted to go. For example, the Catholic Indians of Quebec had a unique Mass but no unique liturgical calendar. The Black Catholics of the United States had no unique Mass that I can find, but they did observe a unique liturgical calendar. It’s the actual customs of the community that matter—not whatever novelties we can dream up.
Let me offer, though, a small concession. I would have no theoretical problem if the Amazon would organically develop a new Use of the Roman Rite. Uses are just local variations of Rites. We’ve always had plenty of those around, and they are of comparatively late derivation. The Algonquian/Iroquoian ones appear around A.D. 1700. The Divine Worship Missal of the Ordinariates is an even more recent synthesis. And sometimes they don’t quite work out—like the neoGallican uses in France. With these we can afford to be slightly more adventurous and perhaps even experimental.
A new Rite, though, with a dramatically modified text and, perhaps, a whole new anaphora is a patently ridiculous and arrogant proposition. It was ridiculous and arrogant in 1970 and it still is in 2019, despite all the protestations to the contrary. It is an act of supreme hubris for any Catholic liturgist to falsely claim for themselves the gravitas of a Gregory, an Isidore, an Ambrose. It is an honor they have not earned.
The call for an Amazonian Rite at this point in history, I think we all sense, is nothing more than a liberal Catholic power play that does not, ultimately, have the good of the Amazonian Church in mind. Just hide your heresies behind a select group of easily manipulatable patsies (in the 60s it was gullible university students—now it’s poor Amazonians), and then use whatever permissions you gain to then run over the faithful Catholics in the pews with a liturgical bulldozer.
Liberal Catholics have done incalculable damage to true inculturation by infecting it with their Modernist poison. They were never the champions of indigenous people that they claimed to be—and now they have become incorrigible European imperialists with a pseudomonotheistic zeal to install giant idols of their false deity—that indolent Prussian atheist—in every culture on earth.
I leave with some parting advice for intelligent devout Catholics debating the goings-on in the Synod.
If you are not knowledgeable about Amazonian history and culture, it is not going to be productive attacking the idiocies of the synod on a specific cultural basis. I have heard a few arguments bandied about that are, well, silly—like the whole business about the feathered hats. I’m not sure how we attack “pagan clothing” when the priestly vestments of the Roman Rite are directly descended from garments worn in antiquity. And it will also be surprising news to 200 years of devout Iroquois Christians that the gustoweh is suddenly an affront to Almighty God.
Keep the argument on the larger theoretical level—not about the Amazon specifically, nor even about paganism, but more about the way that liberal Catholics are disingenuously using the Amazonians as a cover to smuggle in their own asinine theology. Europeans are your main enemies here—not Natives. Accuse them pointedly and directly of hegemony, cultural imperialism, and of exploitation of Native people to serve the political left. Find, cite, interview, and hand over your media megaphones to contrary indigenous voices such as Jonas Macuxí, recently interviewed by LifeSite News.
To defeat the smarmy liberal elite on this, we need to explode their entire raison d’etre—that their only goal is to welcome and help Native communities live in the Church. Show the world how what they are doing is accomplishing the exact opposite, and they, being rather cowardly and frankly addicted to worldly praise, will run away in bewilderment that anyone dared question their motives.
As for me, well, I’m not going to give this Synod much more attention; I have an Algonquin Introit to work through.
Originally published on my “Letters from Hoquessing” blog on the Blogger platform.