The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which was the first teaching issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1963, established the goal of adaptation in the very first paragraph:
The sacred Council has set out to impart an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more closely to the needs of our age those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call all mankind into the Church’s fold. Accordingly it sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy.Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1
Try to imagine the bishops of 1963 who wrote that. They were predominantly from European or Western cultures and had spent their entire lives worshiping in a rite that had not changed for 400 years. But among their ranks were bishops from regions where Christianity was expanding rapidly: Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The bishops knew that if they wanted “to impart an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful,” they would have to find ways to translate the rites into the cultures in which they are celebrated.
Dialogue and adaptation
Pope Paul VI, who promulgated the constitution, would later write:
Evangelization loses much of its force and effectiveness if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it is addressed, if it does not use their language, their signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask, and if it does not have an impact on their concrete life.On Evangelization in the Modern World, 1975
When the impact of the church’s teaching on adaptation eventually filtered down to local parishes, the shock was enormous. Most Catholics at that time envisioned the church as something like a fortress that stood as a bulwark against outside culture. The call for adaptation seemed like a radical shift from tradition.
But, in fact, the 400 years of holding the liturgical fort was the outlier. Most of the church’s history has been characterized by adaptation and dialogue with the many cultures in which we find ourselves.
“Most of the church’s history has been characterized by adaptation and dialogue with the many cultures in which we find ourselves.”
Going forth to meet the world
One significant example is the development of the catechumenate. Elements of a catechumenal initiation process were in place in the church as early as the third century. However, after the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 313, the church began to grow exponentially across the Roman Empire. The churches of Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and more all had to find ways to use the language, signs, and symbols of the many, many people of diverse cultures who began to respond to Jesus’s invitation to enter the way of faith.
We find ourselves in a similar but amplified situation today as we are challenged to announce the gospel to a variety of cultures that neither the early church nor perhaps even the church of 1963 could have imagined. It is crucial that we find ways to celebrate the rites that are “within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 34).
As liturgist and theologian Anscar Chupungco, OSB, wrote “the refusal to adapt amounts to a denial of the universality of salvation” (Cultural Adaptation, 87).
How have you made adaptations in your parish? How has the community benefited from them? Share your thoughts in the comments below.