The liturgy of a church is an integral element which serves to characterize not only that particular church, but also the entire Christian community it belongs to. The way the congregation worships reveals a lot about the kind of church they belong to. Ideally, the liturgy should also be authentic enough to also project the kind of church the Christian community wants to be.
The Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Sacramentum Caritatis, issued by the Vatican II, have both emphasized the need for inculturation. According to the Sacramentum Caritatis, the principle of inculturation however should always strive to uphold “the real needs of the church as she lives and celebrates the one mystery of Christ in a variety of cultural situations” (54). This call for inculturation has lead to a series of actions among the Asian Catholic communities in the US, with mixed reactions from Asians and non-Asians alike. For instance, an Asian parish has been alternately praised and criticized for inculcating the concept of the Asian lunar New Year by offering a mass in celebration of that Asian New Year. While this has been heralded by some for being a perfect example of liturgical inculturation, it has also been criticized by others for mixing pagan celebrations and ideas with Catholic teachings.
Yet the Sacrosanctum Concilium calls for the adaptation of the liturgy to local cultural patterns. It encourages liturgical inculturation but at the same time provides that the “substantial unity of the Roman rite” (38) be preserved. Likewise, the Sacramentum Caritatis has provided that liturgical inculturation be accomplished with a sense of balance “between the criteria and directives already issued”(54) by the Church and “always in accord with the Apostolic See” (54).
BACKGROUND ON THE STUDY
In trying to understand the impact of liturgical inculturation, I visited and attended a service in the St. Patrick Proto-Cathedral located in downtown San Jose, California. It is situated three blocks away from the City Hall and just a block away from San Jose State University (SJSU). St. Patrick Proto-Cathedral was named after the famous patron saint of Ireland, and was commissioned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Jose to specifically cater to the Vietnamese community living nearby.
For a long time, the proto-cathedral was a conventional territorial parish, serving the religious needs of the Catholic laity. In 2002, St. Patrick Proto-Cathedral was declared a national parish for the Vietnamese population. As such, the liturgical services are offered in Vietnamese, with Vietnamese priests leading the faithful.
In preparing for my visit to the St. Patrick Proto-Cathedral, I researched on Asian liturgy so that I will be able to evaluate whether the services offered in St. Patrick show signs of balancing Asian cultural values with traditional Catholic traditions. Based on my preliminary studies, I came to understand that Asian Catholicism revolved greatly around contemplation, mysticism, and a very deep-seated spiritual outlook on life. The Asian liturgical life has often been described as being profoundly mystical in its orientation. A development in a new liturgical awareness among the Asian Catholic communities has also resulted in deviations from the traditional Latin liturgy. These deviations will be discussed in detail alongside my observations of the service I witnessed in St. Patrick Proto-Cathedral.
The deviations from the Latin liturgy actually takes the form of three types of ecclesiastical domination which are otherwise clearly dramatized in the former, and have shown aspects of cultural inculturation in the Asian liturgy, as can be observed from the St. Patrick service. First of all, the Word of God, which is the central event of the liturgy, tends to get lost in the recital of long, complicated, and oftentimes old Latin maxims which people have difficulty in understanding. Second, the People of God, who are deemed as the co-priests with God, have been eclipsed by clerical performers who steal the show. Lastly, the intimate encounter with God, or the recognition of Jesus, through the breaking of the bread is hindered by outdated trappings of a Latin imperial past. The Asian church is thus tasked with the challenge of restoring these three features in a way that makes them relevant to their particular cultural community: the centrality of the Word of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and an intimacy with God. In adapting liturgical inculturation, there is thus a need to shift from a manipulative use of words to provide for a creative hearing of the Word of God. It encourages a shift from a clerical control of the liturgy to a discipleship of equals who are all animated by the Spirit of God. And finally, it requires a moving away from the traditions of a Latin imperial past to celebration of an intimacy with God, and recognition of Jesus, in ways and symbols more readily identifiable to the particular congregation.
THE ST. PATRICK SERVICE
These deviations are clearly apparent in St. Patrick’s. For starters, unlike the modern church that has people seating around the altar in a circular fashion, St. Patrick’s has rows facing the altar. Upon entrance, there is big statue of St. Patrick on the left, where some elderly Vietnamese people are praying fervently for supplication and mediation. The Blessed Sacrament is accessible for adoration to the faithful 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Inside, the faithful can find some semblance of peace from the toils of their existence, and find renewal of their faith and hope. The silence of the church walls is shattered by some Vietnamese praying out loud; because for the Vietnamese, praying out loud is part of their culture, especially when praying the rosary.
The centerpiece of the church is a statute of a crucified Jesus Christ, hung on the wall in the middle of the church. Red, flame-like stained glass windows (symbolic of the Holy Spirit) frame the sides of the cross. The presider chair is made of wood with seat covered by bright red velvet, reminisce of the thrones that Chinese kings once used. My suspicions were confirmed when I was told that the chair was actually designed by a priest who served in Taiwan for a number of years.
On the far right of the altar, one can see two large pictures. One of St. Joseph holding baby Jesus, and the second is a picture of Our Lady of La Vang. Our Lady of La Vang is widely respected and venerated by the Vietnamese community, even those from different religions. As the great mediatrix, this manifestation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is believed by the faithful to grant miracles to those who pray to her for favor. The history of Our Lady of La Vang points to the time during the Canh Thinh’s dynasty in the 18th century. In August 17, 1789, a law was passed that prohibited people from converting to Christianity. Those who became Christians were openly persecuted. Trying to escape persecution, there was a group of Christians that came to a hill named La Vang (middle of Vietnam). They hid there without bringing any supplies, and as a result, many Christians died due to lack of food, water, and medicine. One day The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to them, and she instructed them to pick the leaves around the area, boil it in water, and drink the infusion, which should cure their illnesses. The Christians followed Mother Mary’s instructions to the letter and most of them were cured. Over the course of their exile, Mary appeared to them many times to give them strength and courage to triumph over their situation. Since then, Our Lady of La Vang has been known for answering prayers, and many people of different faiths and denominations come to her as well.
I attended Sunday Eucharistic celebration for the youth. Since most young Vietnamese are proficient in English, the medium of the service is in English as well. Some older Vietnamese, most probably parents of the youth stand quietly at the back. They watch the service intently, but they do not actively participate, simply because most of them are not fluent in English. Majority of the youth are students of nearby San Jose State University. While a number of the participants are Vietnamese, the group is made up of students coming from diverse cultural backgrounds. In the group, you can also find Hispanics, Vietnamese, American, Chinese, and Filipino. Five minutes before the mass, the lights are dimmed and the people then know that it’s time to prepare for the mass. As the lights dim, a slide show with inspirational pictures, paintings, and poems about the Gospel are variably shown. The slide show’s purpose is to get the people’s attention, focus their thoughts after moments of socializing, and immerse themselves totally in God’s presence.
Aside from one Vietnamese and one Hispanic song, the rest of the songs during the mass were in English. When interviewed, the choir members said that they are learning to sing church songs in other languages, such as Filipino and Chinese. Most of choir members are Vietnamese, some are Hispanic and some are Caucasians.
The presider of the mass I observed was a fairly young priest in his thirties named Fr. Truyen Nguyen. Fr. Nguyen was trained to be a priest in the U.S. and attended college in the U.S. as well. As such, his sermons and homilies are not about distant lands and foreign cultures; he talks about situations that are closer to home, about things that his listeners can relate to. At that particular time I was observing, Fr. Nguyen’s homily was short because before his homily, Jennifer, a choir member testified her experiences with relating to the Gospel. One unique thing about this service is that the youth nominate each other or volunteer to share their thoughts about the Gospel, after which, the presider amplifies or expounds on the Gospel being talked about. Of course the testimony must be approved by the priest before hand.
A liturgical dance is performed during the gift offering. The dancers are taking formal dance classes at SJSU, so the performance is very professional and expressive. During the number, a variety of musical instruments were used, such as piano, mandolin, violin, cello, guitar, keyboard, drum, and a traditional Vietnamese musical instrument used for Vietnamese folk songs. The mass is very lively and engaging. Those who have particular roles in the mass do their parts with all of their hearts. The mass ends with on a high note, and the participants coming out of the service with renewed spirit to face the rest of the week.
Indeed, the spirit of the Sacrosanctum Concilium is very evident in St. Patrick. Among the many principles that St. Patrick embodies is the line in the Sacrosanctum Concilium which says that “The church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters that do not affect the faith or the good of the whole community. Rather, it respects and fosters the qualities and talents of the various races and nations.” (37) It teaches that liturgical celebrations consist of two parts—an immutable part instituted by Christ, and a second part composed of elements subject to change.
DEVIATIONS IN ST. PATRICK
The three deviations from traditional Latin liturgy are clearly apparent in St. Patrick’s. The centrality of the Word of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and an intimacy with God, are strengthened by the parish’s efforts in liturgical inculturation, specifically in these instances:
The Centrality of the Word of God
Although the medium of the service in St. Patrick’s was in English, some of the songs were sung in other languages (Vietnamese and Hispanic, in the case of the service I attended). Instead of a manipulative use of words, the service was conducted in straightforward English, and allowed for a creative hearing for the people, particularly through the use of the slide show of inspirational paintings, poems and pictures of the Gospel, and a liturgical dance during the gift offering. Related literature on Asian liturgy show that the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy has helped to lead the faithful to a better understanding of the Word of God. It may also result in a more responsive and shared participation in the celebration of the sacred mysteries during mass.
This is in sharp contrast to the Latin rite of the mass, where the Liturgy of the Word has commonly been reduced to becoming a mere introductory rite leading to a high-profile celebration of the Eucharist. Priests have failed to stress the equal importance of the Table of the Word with that of the Table of the Bread, by placing too much emphasis on the latter. Unfortunately, priests in many Asian countries are trained for the cultic role of performing the rite of breaking bread rather than being adequately trained in the prophetic ministry of sharing the Word of God.
The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit
Instead of letting the clerical members, or the presider in this case, take full control of the mass, the homily was actually shared by a member of the youth, who shared her testimony about the homily. This strongly evidences the church’s move towards adapting a discipleship of equals.
In the Asian Eucharist I observed, the members of the St. Patrick congregation share the responsibility of serving (not of controlling) the worshipping community. Here, the gifts of the Spirit (charismata) are for the common good (I Cor 12:7). In other words, the discipleship of equals shared among the St. Patrick faithful is for the building up of the Holy Spirit, and not for being abused as status symbols that designate ranks of power.
Strengthening Intimacy with God and Recognition of Jesus
Rather than being tied to imperial symbols of the immense Latin history of the Catholic Church, St. Patrick’s has allowed for the adaptation of symbols and creative expressions which aid in strengthening the congregation’s intimate relationship with God and in its recognition of Jesus. As mentioned, there is a large picture of Our Lady of La Vang alongside a picture of Jesus Christ. The presider chair also resembled the thrones of Chinese kings, rather than drawing from Latin traditions. In addition to these symbols, the choir also makes an effort to sing non-English songs. According to the choir, as interviewed, it takes some time for the choir to sing the Vietnamese and Spanish song properly because they first need to learn how to read the song correctly, and then understand the meaning of the song. This is important in being able to imbue the song with the proper emotion. They also believe that it can be annoying and distracting to churchgoers to hear a foreign song being sung with a horrible pronunciation. More importantly, a song that is sang with meaning helps the faithful feel God’s presence better.
The Asian Catholic community has a profoundly spiritual outlook in life, as earlier mentioned in this study, with much emphasis on the value of the Sacred in human life. By insisting on celebrating the Eucharist through a strict, rigid, and traditional Latin approach tends to overlook the deeply Asian values on worship and spirituality. The use of architecture, chant, and music, similar to that used in St. Patrick’s, are all reflective of the Asian approach to worship and spirituality.
St. Patrick is clear proof that the Catholic Church is willing and able to adapt to the changes of the world; that as long as the Church is anchored in the main precepts of the Catholic faith that gave it life, it can weather all the forces that threaten its very existence. The culture of the Catholic Church is that it has a culture of adaptability while staying true to the very essence of its faith.
In my observation of St. Patrick’s, I am reminded of the Latin saying, Legem Credendi Lex Statuat Supplicandi. In English it says that “The law of worship constitutes/founds/sets in place/establishes the law of belief.” Indeed the energy and dynamism that the church of St. Patrick exudes emanates from the young and vibrant leadership of its priests. Since the priests believe in the role of the youth to spread the Gospel and strengthen the church, there are programs that are exclusive for the youth, with the latter actively participating not just in the Christian community, but in the actual service of the mass itself. The mass integrates modern elements never before seen in a traditional Eucharistic service. It all boils down to how the people who worship in St. Patrick define their faith and how they live it. In St. Patrick’s case, they worship in a spirit of communion and celebration of their faith; and as they worship, so do they believe, so do they live.
Indeed any church has a special culture that is unique to itself. As Espin once said, “In my view, culture is, more fundamentally, the historically shared means and ways through which a people unveil themselves as human.” In St. Patrick, the faithful find the means to discover themselves, and in so doing, validate their own individual humanity together with the rest of the congregation.
Chupungco, Anscar J. (May 2006). Cultural Adaptation of the Liturgy. Wipf & Stock Publishers.
Espin, Orlando. (1993) A Multicultural Church? Theological Reflections from Below. William Cenkner, Ed. Paulist Press.
Jeung, Russell and Robert N. Bellah. (January 2007). Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches. Rutgers University Press.
Kavanagh, Aidan. (1984). On Liturgical Theology. The Liturgical Press.
Phan, Peter C. (April 2003). Christianity With an Asian Face: Asian American Theology in the Making. Orbis Books.
Phan, Peter C. (November 2003). In Our Own Tongues: Perspective from Asia on Mission and Inculturation. Orbis Books.
Sacrosanctum Concilium. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy – Second Vatican Council Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on December 4, 1963. Line 37. Retrieved on June 7, 2007. Retrieved from http://www.adoremus.org/SacrosanctumConcilium.html
 Chupungco, Anscar J. (May 2006). Cultural Adaptation of the Liturgy. Wipf & Stock Publishers.
 Phan, Peter C. (November 2006). In Our Own Tongues: Perspective from Asia on Mission and Inculturation. Orbis Books.
 Ibid.; Jeung, Russell and Robert N. Bellah. (January 2007). Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches. Rutgers University Press.
 Chupungco, 2006, supra note 1; Phan, Peter C. (April 2003). Christianity With an Asian Face: Asian American Theology in the Making. Orbis Books.
 Jeung & Bellah, 2007, supra note 3.
 Phan, 2003, supra note 2.
 Espin, Orlando. (1993) A Multicultural Church? Theological Reflections from Below. William Cenkner, Ed. Paulist Press, at 26.