What’s wrong with an Amazonian Rite? by Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, SVD 

What’s wrong with an Amazonian Rite?

The proposal of the Final Document of the Amazon Synod about how to develop an autochthonous liturgical rite by means of a committee reflects the modern Western, rationalistic, indeed functionalistic, approach to liturgy.

Pope Francis accepts a plant during the offertory as he celebrates the concluding Mass of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican Oct. 27, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In Querida Amazonia, Pope Frances noted that fifty years had passed since the Second Vatican Council had called for an effort to be made “to inculturate [sic] the liturgy among indigenous peoples”.1 He comments that “we still have far to go along these lines”, adding in a footnote (120): “During the Synod, there was a proposal to develop an “Amazonian rite”. This laconic reference to an Amazonian rite (note: lowercase “r” in Spanish and English) in footnote 120 has been compared to the “breakthrough” with regard to the admittance of remarried divorcees to Holy Communion, which, it is claimed, is implicit in footnote 351 of Amoris Laetitia.

In the opinion of the Spanish liberation theologian, Fr Víctor Codina SJ2 (writing in the Amazonian ecclesial network, REPAM), footnote 120’s implicit approval of an Amazonian Rite is a “breakthrough” in so far as it appears to be an approval for the creation of an Amazonian Rite, which would then allow for both married clergy and female ministers as proposed by the Final Document of the Synod of the Amazon (e.g. FD 111). 3

Is this the case?

In contrast with the term “rites” (meaning rituals), 4 the term “Rite” (with uppercase “R” in Spanish as in English) is used by Codina in the sense of a particular Church that has its own liturgical and theological tradition with its distinctive discipline and organization, such as those Easter Catholic Churches subject to the Oriental Code of Canon law; that law, of course, allows for married clergy. When the Pope mentions the Synod’s proposal to create an Amazonian rite in footnote 120, he uses the lowercase “r” (En el Sínodo surgió la propuesta de elaborar un “rito amazónico”). Pope Francis would seem to refer solely to the liturgy, which needs to be accommodated to the Amazonian cultures, and not to the creation of a particular Church along the lines of the Oriental Catholic Churches.

What, then, does the Final Document propose? It is, to say the least, somewhat ambivalent.

Under the subheading “A Rite for indigenous peoples”, the Final Document 116 states: “The Second Vatican Council created possibilities for liturgical pluralism ‘for legitimate variations and adaptations for different groups, regions, and peoples’ (SC 38).” This, of course, is true, but the Final Document omits the important proviso in the Conciliar text: “provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved.” In other words, the Council cannot be appealed to as advocating the creation of a new rite as found in the Oriental Catholic Churches. It allowed for modifications to the Latin Rite, enriching it, so as to it could resonate with the deeper aspirations of a people’s culture. 5 This could be interpreted, at best, as allowing an Amazonian rite to be developed that would perhaps have its parallels today in the Mozarabic, Ambrosian, or even Dominican (liturgical) rites.

However, the Final Document fudges the issue in paragraph 117, which allows someone like Fr Codina to claim that what is really being proposed is more than a liturgical adaption of the Roman rite but the formation of a particular Church organization. FD 117 draws attention to the fact that: “There are 23 different Rites in the Catholic Church, a clear sign of a tradition that from the first centuries has tried to inculturate [sic] the contents of the faith and its celebration through language that coheres as much as possible with the mystery it seeks to express. All these traditions have their origin in function of the Church’s mission: ” A quotation from CCC 1201 is used to support this claim.

What of this claim? To begin with, the number of Rites (23) is misleading (six would be more accurate) since the majority are but variations on the Byzantine Rite. Others are variations of the Alexandrian Rite while the rest include the East and West Syrian Rites. Indeed, though ultimately of Apostolic origin, these Oriental Rites can be traced back either to post-Constantinian Antioch or Alexandria (apart, perhaps, from the Armenian Rite which may be traced back to Saints Addai and Mari). What is striking is that all these Churches claim Saints as the originators of their specific liturgical traditions (e.g. the Divine Liturgies of St James, St Basil the Great, and St John Chrysostom), which in the course of centuries were (as was the case of the Western rites such as the Roman, Gallican, Mozarabic, or Celtic rites) organically developed, gradually enriched by theological reflection and native cultural developments.6 They were not the product of commissions made up of liturgical and other experts meeting around a large table, whose written text would be approved by a new regional “organism”7 to be set up ostensibly to coordinate the various dioceses of Amazonia).

Leaving aside the larger, and perhaps more significant, question as to the precise nature of the proposed regional “organism”,8 it seems to me that entrusting the creation of an Amazonian [liturgical] rite by means of a committee of experts is the fundamental flaw of the Final Document’s recommendation about an Amazonian rite or liturgical practice. 9

In a sense, the Final Document’s proposal about how to develop an autochthonous liturgical rite by means of a committee is but a logical conclusion of the main weakness of the Conciliar Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which, in turn, shaped its implementation after the Council, namely the modern Western, rationalistic, indeed functionalistic, approach to liturgy.10

A leading American liturgist, Fr Aidan Kavanagh, OSB, once confessed that, if liturgists had known of the nature (i.e. the inner dynamics) of ritual as discovered by Victor Turner in his pioneering study of ritual in Africa, then they would not have made the mistakes in the reform of the Liturgy after the Council. Kavanagh was responding to an article published in Worship (1976) by Victor Turner, founder of the post-structuralist study of ritual. In the article, Turner expressed his concern about the way the post-Vatican II liturgical reform was being carried out. Catholic by faith and an anthropologist by profession, he said that he “could hardly be unmoved by the many changes introduced into the Roman Rite after the Second Vatican Council”. He feared that, because of contemporary secularist tendencies the dynamics of authentic ritual were being lost. The same ritual dynamics, which he had discovered in his study of ritual of so-called primitive religions in Africa, Turner recognized were also characteristic of the so-called Tridentine Rite in its fullness. He attributed this to the rich and complex rubrics which had been formed, refined and perfected over thousands of years by what he called the Catholic genius.11

It is of note, furthermore, that adherents of all authentic pagan rites12 claim a quasi-divine origin for their rituals (as expressed in a myth or attributed to mythological ancestor).13 It is this sacred nature of the ritual that binds its practitioners to reenact the ceremony in strict adherence to the rituals handed down by their specific tradition. Sacred rites are, by that very definition, simply not at the disposal of those who conduct them or participate in them. One can hardly expect the natives of Amazonia to take any Christian liturgy seriously that is the result of experimentation14 or has been drawn up by a committee of experts, even if the experts are themselves natives of Amazonia. Such an approach offends against the basic principle of Christian liturgy, namely that is it “not made by man but is gifted by God.”15

When I was teaching in the major seminary of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands – whose indigenous peoples, for all their differences, bear some striking resemblances to those of the Amazon region – I experienced at first hand both the botched efforts of modern missionaries16 to “inculturate” the Latin Rite as well as some striking examples of how it was enriched by authentic inculturation. Leaving aside the danger of syncretism, which, incidentally, is rife not only in South America, Western missionaries often tend to be unaware of the deeper associations which elements of native rituals have (some very negative). For this reason alone, individual elements or symbols of a culture cannot be torn from their original ritual matrix and arbitrarily incorporated into the celebration of the sacraments without distorting both the original pagan rite and the Catholic liturgy into which they have been inserted. This I witnessed in the Regional Seminary of PNG and the Solomon Island, when I was professor there. One unfortunate example is etched into my memory. During the Easter Vigil, seminarians from New Britain used the smoke of burning coconut, simmering in a coconut shell, which had been cut in two to be opened at the consecration releasing the smoke as incense. This produced screams of horror from some women from that island, who happened to be in the congregation for the Easter ceremonies. They recognized the “sacred smoke” as part of the secret rituals that were reserved to men only. Women were strictly forbidden under dire threats to observe the rituals – and so they rushed screaming out of the chapel.

On the other hand, I attended the ordination to the priesthood of a former seminarian in a remote village on the island of Guadalcanal (Solomon Islands), which was an inspiring example of authentic inculturation. The young candidate for ordination arrived in his native attire – mostly precious shells and colorful plumage of exotic tropical birds – accompanied by his parents. At the entrance, they removed the plumage and clothed him in a white soutane, the initial symbol of passing over from one state of life to another. But, apart from the laying-on of hands in silence, the most electrifying part of the beautiful celebration was the singing of the Litany of the Saints, during which the ordinand lay stretched out face down before the altar. Afterwards I spoke with the choir-master, who had composed the music for the Mass, and told him how moved I was by the Litany. The music for the Litany of the Saints, he informed me, was inspired by that used in their local burial ceremony when the dead person, wrapped in white, was carried from where he died to the grave. (I gather that he was illiterate but had a developed an ear for music; he was evidently imbued with the sensus fidei.) The singing resonated with the faithful’s own primordial human experiences. From the heightened atmosphere in the church during the Litany, it was obvious that the profound existential significance of the ordination as a passing over from one state of life to another was sensed by all present. That is enculturated liturgy!

Joseph Ratzinger’s contribution (1964-1965) to the sub-commission charged with drafting the Council’s Decree on Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes) is worth recalling in this context. He wrote:

The cultural and religious values of the nations are not simply natural values which precede the Gospel and as such are simply added to it. Such an outlook ascribes to such values both too much and too little. In this world of ours, nature and the supernatural are never strictly separated but they penetrate each other. Because of this, all truly human values are marked both by a divine supernatural elevation and by human sin. They can never be simply added to the Gospel, but they serve the Gospel in accord with the law of the cross and resurrection. Pagan religion dies in Christian faith, but in the same faith human religion rises and offers to faith the forms in which faith then in different ways articulates itself.17

And in his address on the missions fifty years later to the students of the Urbaniana University (October 21st 2014), Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote specifically with regard to the Church’s mission to tribal religions:

The encounter with [Jesus Christ] is not the bursting-in of something extraneous that destroys their culture and history. It is, instead, the entrance into something greater, toward which they are on a journey. This is why the encounter is always, at the same time, purification and maturation. Moreover, the encounter is always reciprocal. Christ is waiting for their history, their wisdom, their vision of things.18

That theological vision based on purification and maturation is, it seems to me, urgently needed to counter the seriously misleading, functionalist approach to the primordial cultures and rites of the autochthonous natives of Amazonia (and, indeed, of the more remote parts of Africa) to be found in the Final Document of the Synod on the Amazon. Its approach is basically that of modern Western rationalism and so is as inherently alien to the ritual practices of the natives of Amazonia and elsewhere as it is to the authentic tradition of Catholic liturgy, a rediscovery of which Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI has greatly contributed.


1 He references SC 37-40, 65, 77, 81.

2 Born 1931, he studied under Karl Rahner SJ, and was Professor of Theology first in Barcelona (1965) and then in Bolivia (1982-2018).

3 Cf. “¿Un nuevo rito amazónico?” (March 6, 2020).

4 As used in QA 20 referring to the rituals of Amazonian peoples; see also Final Document 15, 52, 54.

5 This would be in line with that section of the Final Document, which proposes that: “We should give an authentically catholic response to the request of the Amazonian communities to adapt the liturgy by valuing the original worldview, traditions, symbols and rites that include transcendent, community and ecological dimensions” (FD 116).

6 See Pope Pius XII in Mediator Dei, 49-59. Perhaps the most striking example is the creation of the Gothic cathedrals which arose from the profound theological vision of the 12th century, as Otto von Simpson demonstrated in his classic: The Gothic Cathedrals: Origins of Gothic Architecture & the Medieval Concept of Order (Princeton: University Press, 1989³ expanded edition); the same could be said of the Baroque developed by the post-Tridentine Church in reaction to what the historian of art, Kenneth Clark, called the spiritualizing, anti-human (anti-body) tendencies of the Protestant Reformers.

7 “We propose the creation of a Bishops’ organism that […] would be a permanent and representative Bishops’ organism that promotes synodality in the Amazon region, connected with CELAM, with its own structure, in a simple organization and also connected with REPAM. So constituted, it can be the effective instrument in the territory of the Latin American and Caribbean Church for taking up many of the proposals that emerged in this Synod. It would be the nexus for developing Church and socio-environmental networks and initiatives at the continental and international levels” (FD 115).

8 Does it really mean a particular Church such the Eastern Catholic Churches? However, it is obvious that no Eastern Rite Church was ever created by a commission from tabula rasa such as proposed by FD 115. This again betrays the modern Western mentality characterized by functionalism.

9 “The new organism of the Church in the Amazon should establish a competent commission to study and discuss, according to the habits and customs of the ancestral peoples, the elaboration of an Amazonian rite that expresses the liturgical, theological, disciplinary and spiritual patrimony of the Amazon, with special reference to what Lumen Gentium affirms for the Oriental Churches (cf. LG 23)” (FD119). This paragraph is ambiguous. It could be interpreted to mean that the FD was advocating not just an indigenous Amazonian liturgy but a distinct organization (“the new organism”) in the sense of a quasi-autonomous Church, an Amazonian Rite like the Eastern Catholic Churches.

10 See, for example, FD 118 proposes that “that the process of inculturation of the faith … be expressed with the utmost coherence, in order that it may also be celebrated and lived in the languages proper to the Amazon’s peoples.” The stress on “coherence” and “languages” betray the post-Enlightenment concern for the intellectual apprehension of the ritual’s content – understanding participatio acutuosa in a rationalist sense – and not the ritual per se comprising of symbolic movements and ritualized gestures as well as a distinct language that expresses the numinous. FD 118 adds: “It is urgent to form committees for the translation of biblical and the preparation of liturgical texts in the different local languages, …”

11 These rubrics include the shape of the liturgical calendar, the major feasts, the seasons of fasts as well as the ritual shape of the individual rituals for each of the sacraments, including appropriate sacred music, art and architecture.

12 The term “pagan” is not to be understood in a pejorative sense but in the neutral sense of non-Christian – indeed as the humus out of which the Jewish and later Christian rituals were formed, cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Die sakramentale Begründung christlicher Existenz (Mettingen/Freising, 1966), reprinted in Joseph Ratzinger Gesammelte Schriften [=JRGS], edited by Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Vol. 11 (Freiburg-Basel-Wien, 2012), 200-5.

13 The same principle is found for the Old Testament rituals, as, for example, how the rituals for the sacred ordination of Aaron and his sons were carried out “as the Lord commissioned Moses” (Lev 8: 13, 17, 21, 29, 36). This was noted by Pius XII in his encyclical on liturgical renewal, Mediator Dei: “… when God institutes the Old Law, He makes provision besides for sacred rites, and determines in exact detail the rules to be observed by His people in rendering Him the worship He ordains” (16).

14 Cf. SC 40:2.

15 P. Anselem Günthör OSB, Papst Benedict XVI. zu den Problemen unserer Zeit (Kissleg: fe Mediumverlag, 2006), 50.

16 This in contrast with approach of earlier missionaries such the German Fr Alfons Schaefer SVD (1904-1958), who pioneered the missions in the Highlands of New Guinea in the 1930s. Faced with primitive tribes that had never been discovered before, his attitude to their rituals was inspired by the famous Letter of Pope St Gregory the Great to the Abbot Mellitus (ca 597), when the latter was about to join St Augustine of Canterbury’s mission to the Anglo-Saxon tribes. The Pope instructed the missionaries to transform the places of idol worship into churches and to retain what was human in the religious celebrations. Earlier than St Gregory, St Patrick adopted a similar approach to the Celtic pagan practices he was familiar with in Ireland, such as the Holy Wells and the transformation of the pagan sanctuary on the island in Lough Derg into a place of penitential pilgrimage, which is still attracting pilgrims down to this day; some of the rituals practiced there (and in other places of pilgrimage such Guadalupe) have been studied by Victor Turner; those ritual dynamics follow the same pattern as those to be found in primitive tribal rites.

17 The original German text is reproduced in JRGS,.7/1, 230-1; see Jaren Wicks’s English translation, “Six Texts by Prof. Joseph Ratzinger as peritus before and during Vatican Council II”, Gregorianum 89 (2008) 289.

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About Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, SVD  10 Articles
Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D. holds both a Ph.D. in Theology and is Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland. A former doctoral student under Joseph Ratzinger, Twomey is the author of several books, including The End of Irish Catholicism?Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age (A Theological Portrait), and Moral Theology after Humanae Vitae. In 2011, Benedict XVI awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal to Fr. Twomey for outstanding services rendered to the Church and to the Holy Father.

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