The readings for this weekend rely heavily on the words “you shall.” Very precise rules are presented to the reader. When we celebrate the liturgy, we also enter into a ritual that has clearly defined rules. The Roman Missal, used at Mass, contains exact prayers that are to be used by the presider, as well as notation of what position his hands should be in or if a genuflection is required. Directions are given for the assembly as well, with indications of when people should sit, stand, kneel or respond.
These precise rules give our liturgy its universal character. Recently I attended Mass at a parish outside our diocese. The presider spoke English, but with such a strong native accent that I really could not make out the words, yet because of the universality of the liturgy, I knew what was being said and done throughout the Mass.
However, if we pay close attention, liturgies are not identical in every parish. Holy Mother, the church, while maintaining rules to protect the integrity of our liturgy, states in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 37 (Sacrosanctum Concilium, SC), “Even in the liturgy, the church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples.” Simply put, the church makes allowances for “local tradition.”
A local tradition might be a parish in Mississippi where singing is accompanied by hand clapping and body swaying; or a parish in Arizona where cedar and sweet grass are used for incense; one in Nairobi where the gifts are danced to the altar or one in northeast Wisconsin where there is the yearly polka Mass.
In some countries, the sign of peace is expressed by a deep bow to others and perhaps the most noticeable local custom is how people in each respective parish are moved to stations to receive the Eucharist. Pay attention in your parish to when a unique or creative thanksgiving after Communion is offered.
Local tradition finds its source in the rich liturgical tradition that is already there. A comparison could be made to a Christmas tree. The tradition of the Christmas tree has been handed down through the generations. We do not suddenly decide “Let’s cut down an apple tree this year, just to be innovative.” However, the decision to have Packer ornaments on the tree might be a consideration for those of us living in this area. Our local tradition would not be as well received or appropriate let’s say for Chicago Bear Jay Cutler’s Christmas tree.
In all instances, local enculturation must meet with the approval of the bishop, since he is entrusted with approving “legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples … provided the substantial unit of the Roman Rite is preserved” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 38). It is also important to remember that the liturgy is not the place to introduce cultural patterns which idolize the self or the local people at the expense of the wider church. In every instance we must remember that the resurrected Christ whom we worship, transcends and indeed is beyond, all cultures.
Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.