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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis is praising an inculturated African Mass rite as a model for a proposed Amazonian indigenous rite even though the African eucharistic liturgy incorporates the pagan custom of "invocation of ancestors."
"The Zairean rite suggests a promising way also for the possible elaboration of an Amazonian rite," writes Francis in his preface for a new book titled Pope Francis and the Roman Missal of the Dioceses of Zaire: A Promising Rite for Other Cultures.
The Zairean Mass, sometimes called the "Congolese Mass," is "until now the only inculturated rite of the Latin Church approved after the Second Vatican Council," claims Vatican News — although the Vatican also approved "Twelve Points of Adaptation" for a Hinduized "Indian rite Mass" in 1969.
Commending the Zairean rite for its cultural vibrancy and spirituality, Pope Francis says that the liturgical inculturation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is an invitation for enhancing the different gifts of the Holy Spirit, thus enriching humanity.
"Animated by religious songs with an African rhythm, the sound of drums and other musical instruments constitute real progress in the rooting of the Christian message in the Congolese soul. It is a joyful celebration. It is a true place of encounter with Jesus," observes Francis.
The pontiff insists that liturgical inculturation in Africa and the Amazon is possible "without upsetting the nature of the Roman Missal, to guarantee continuity with the ancient and universal tradition of the Church."
Francis' commendation of the Zairean Mass comes a year after the pontiff celebrated a special Mass for Rome-based Congolese Catholics in St. Peter's Basilica using the Zairean rite.
Liturgists, however, are disturbed by pagan elements in the Zaire Mass, especially the rite of the "Invocation of the Ancestors of Upright Heart (invocation ancêtres au coeur droi)," together with the saints in the opening rites of the Holy Mass — particularly as the congregation may even invoke their pagan ancestors.
In comments to Church Militant, Dr. Joseph Shaw, editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration explained the biblical, theological and liturgical "absurdity" of incorporating the invocation of ancestors into the liturgy.
"The saints of the Old Testament do not provide a precedent for the invocation of pagan ancestors in the Church's liturgy," Shaw argued. "They were saved by their faith in Christ; since Christ's Passion, we can be saved by baptism."
"Those who fall into neither category we must leave to God's mercy. To invoke them in the liturgy is inappropriate in the extreme," observed Shaw, an Oxford academic and chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales.
"The Church does not even allow us to have a public Mass celebrated for the repose of their souls, but here we are leap-frogging the possibility of their salvation to suppose that their merits justify their invocation in the liturgy. This is absurd," he asserted.
This isn't something specific to Zaire or the developing world. We all have non-Christian ancestors, friends and even family members. It is at once a matter of great sensitivity and importance. The worst thing we can do for them is to obscure the connection between explicit faith in Christ and salvation. The Church has long dealt with the issue with caution and tact. This is not the moment to include half-baked theological speculations in the liturgy.
But Congolese Cdl. Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya defended the "invocation of the ancestors" as calling upon "only those who have lived in an exemplary way, promoting unity and harmony of the group, inspiring respect for the elderly, loyalty to traditional customs."
"For this reason, they are regarded as the true protectors and intermediaries between God and the living, between the earthly world and the hereafter," argued Pasinya, insisting that "the saints are not only the canonized, they are all our dead. And so, in the Body of Christ is accomplished what the cult of the ancestors implied."
"The link with the ancestors does not constitute a closure in particularism. On the contrary, it inspires openness, hospitality and attention to the foreigner," Pasinya, archbishop of Kinshasa, explained. "So reverence to ancestors cannot be considered as an obstacle to the reception of the gospel message, but on the contrary can be seen as a preparation and a base for its acceptance."
Commenting on his experience of preaching in African contexts, French-speaking theologian and cultural commentator Fr. Athanasius St. Michel told Church Militant that the inculturation of "ancestor invocation" was especially problematic in a context where some Africans were already inclined towards ancestral religions.
The distinguishing factor between ancestor worship and the communion of saints is holiness and incorporation into Christ. Great care must be taken between these two relationships with the dead. One is benign and the other malign. Without this, one is faced with a pagan spirituality often involving elements of fear, magic and control.
Other inculturated features of the Zairean rite include the placement of the penitential rite just before the sign of peace and preparation of gifts, the use of dance, all male servers carrying spears, the priest vested in robes of a tribal priest, and a "herald" calling the assembly to worship corresponding to a servant announcing the arrival of a chief.
Revisionists demanding an Amazonian rite during the controversial 2019 Amazon Synod were disappointed when Pope Francis' post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia (Beloved Amazon) agreed to incorporate into the "liturgy many elements proper to the experience of indigenous peoples" but fell short of approving an Amazonian rite for the Holy Eucharist — a proposal mooted during synodal discussions.