From its earliest days, the church has struggled with how to adapt to and incorporate new cultures and new peoples whom the Spirit leads to the Catholic faith.
The first reading tells of St. Peter’s visit to the house of the Gentile, Cornelius. While Peter was at prayer, he had a vision of a large white sheet coming from heaven. On it were meats from all the earth’s animals, reptiles and birds. A voice told Peter to eat, but he objected. There was food that Jews were forbidden to eat. After three invitations and Peter’s refusal, the voice responded, “what God has made clean, you are not to call profane.” As Peter was trying to understand, people arrived and invited him to the house of Cornelius. As we hear in the reading, Peter found that the Holy Spirit had already been given to these Gentiles. His response was clear and spontaneous: “I see that God shows no partiality. In every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to God.”
This was discussed by the apostles at the Council of Jerusalem, described in Acts 15. After hearing about Peter’s dream and visit, the church decided that Gentiles did not have to first convert to Judaism. The Council required only that they avoid idolatry, unlawful marriage and the meat of strangled animals or blood.
Similar questions arose when missionaries baptized Germanic tribes, Slavic peoples, and Chinese and Japanese converts. In every age, the church evaluates what elements of a particular culture are compatible with Christian teaching and can be incorporated into worship.
A major impetus for inculturation came during the Second Vatican Council with its first document, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which affirms the essential unity of the Roman rite and also provides for adaptation. Over the past 40 years we’ve seen some adaptation in the Mass and other rites.
The most evident adaptation came in 1970 with the use of vernacular languages for Mass. The constitution also affirmed that the church has never chosen just one style of music or art. Whatever adaptations are made, however, must be in keeping with the sacred nature and purpose within the liturgy and follow the rules of the process.
In the General Instruction of the Roman Missal we find additional adaptations for Mass in the United States. The liturgical colors for the funeral Mass include black, purple and white. Settings for the responsorial psalm include metric versions and hymnody can replace the designated entrance and Communion chants. Our materials suitable for altars and sacred vessels differ from those of other countries.
At Mass, listen to the music and look at the liturgical environment. Think about the elements that are the same around the world and those unique to worship in our time and place. Give thanks that God (and the church) welcome and make space for all peoples in all places.
Sr. Rehrauer is the diocesan director of Evangelization, Living Justice and Worship.