Amen Corner: Orthodoxy’s Kryptonite

Previously published in Worship 97 (April 2023).

Orthodoxy’s Kryptonite:
False Neutrality and Complicity on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

By Nicholas Denysenko

The one year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has passed. Intelligence agencies warned us about the massing of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, but most of us were still surprised when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Predictions of Ukraine’s surrender and a swift end to the war were wrong. The global audience grimaced at images of Ukrainian citizens rushing into bomb shelters as Russian missiles destroyed hospitals, schools, and homes in addition to “military targets.”

Global leaders condemned the attack and imposed economic sanctions on Russia. The United States and NATO supplied Ukraine with weapons, intelligence, and training. Experts predicted that the weight of economic sanctions would force Russia to arrange a compromise with Ukraine. Instead, Russia doubled down. Not only did they relentlessly bomb cities and civilian targets, but Russian soldiers committed war crimes by executing civilians in cities like Bucha and Irpin, trying to conceal these evil acts in hastily arranged mass graves. (1) War crimes investigators have reported teenage soldiers raping and impregnating women old enough to be their mothers and girls as young as nine years old.

A reality check beckons us to acknowledge the cold geopolitical realities of Russia’s invasion. Multiple countries maintained a neutral stance on the war. Countries like Hungary, India, Israel, and China maintained neutrality and often admonished observers to consider “both” sides of the story before rushing to condemnation. Iran has recently created an alliance with Russia. It seems that Vladimir Putin is hoping that Western support for Ukraine will waver, and NATO will push Ukraine into an agreement favorable for Russia. Russian’s relentless attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure expose the hope that the cold winter will force Ukraine to submit.

No one will lament a lasting ceasefire in Ukraine. Many will bemoan the unnecessary violence, death, and trauma caused by Russia’s aggression and war crimes.

The experts have reflected at length on Putin’s motivations for waging this vicious war. Some say that NATO’s expansion and America’s support for democracy and Europeanization in Ukraine provoked Putin. (2) Others referred to his desire to monopolize the fossil fuels market by taking Ukraine’s natural resources in the East and forcing Europe to capitulate to Russian pricing without an immediate transition to clean energy. Numerous commentators claim that Putin’s ideological platform fueled the invasion, especially his firm belief that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus constitute one nation and people.

Religion has also fanned the flames of Russian violence. Ukrainians are quick to remind everyone else that Russia’s war on Ukraine started in 2014 with the seizure of Crimea and the arming and assisting of the Donbas separatists. Russia responded violently to the Maidan Revolution of Dignity that started in 2013 and continued through the ouster of Victor Yanukovich as president. The religious dimension of Russian violence was evident in the vitriol expressed toward Ukrainians as traitors among Russian Orthodox clergy and people, and the creation of a “Russian Orthodox army.” (3)

The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill (Gundaev), has justified the war from the pulpit. He went so far as to give the “Our Lady of Augustow” icon to the head of the Russian National Guard on the first Sunday of Lent 2022, to lead Russia to victory over the Ukrainian “Nazis.” Patriarch Kirill is also responsible for the Russkii Mir ideology that depicts Europe as a malevolent force of contemporary vices as opposed to the Russkii Mir—an Orthodox civilization based on the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russkii Mir ideology argues that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus are truly one people, descendants of a united medieval Rus’ originating in Kyiv. (4) This ideology echoes Putin’s July 2021 speech on the unity of Ukraine and Russia. The Russkii Mir is dangerous because it belongs to the larger ideological apparatus that defines Russia in neo-imperial terms, and therefore dismisses the legitimacy of Ukrainian and Belarusian sovereignty and distinctiveness.

Kirill’s activities in the Church have been aggressive. He defended Russia’s invasion as a necessary response to the alleged atrocities committed by Ukraine against the people of Donbas, parroting a popular accusation without a shred of evidence. He depicted Russian aggression in Manichean terms, as an image of a larger, metaphysical war of good versus evil. Kirill undermined Metropolitan Onufry, the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ukraine under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), by ignoring Onufry’s pleas for the Church’s intervention. When Onufry took a small step away from the Russian Church by organizing for May 27, 2022, a council that changed the statute of the UOC-MP, Kirill eventually responded by simply seizing two eparchies that had previously belonged to the UOC-MP. Kirill’s public actions have consistently justified the war and shifted blame to Ukraine and the West.

To be sure, many important Christian voices have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Church of England, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the World Council of Churches have implicated Russia. (5) Hundreds of individual members of the clergy and theologians have denounced the Russkii Mir ideology. The European Parliament placed sanctions on Patriarch Kirill. (6)

Pope Francis’s position has been inconsistent. On the one hand, he has clearly expressed his outrage over the war and his deep concern for refugees in his public actions. On the other hand, he has been too equivocal by suggesting that the West did indeed provoke Russia and by speaking of both “sides.” (7) There is one aggressor—Russia. And there is no defense or justification for the devastation, horror, violence, death, and trauma unleashed on the people of Ukraine.

In my estimation, as a lifelong, baptized, and anointed member of the Orthodox Church, and as a deacon with nearly twenty years of service, the greatest scandal is the refusal of the sister Orthodox Churches to hold Patriarch Kirill accountable for his contribution to the violence. Only a handful of Orthodox Church leaders have condemned Kirill for his complicity, especially the Churches of the Greek tradition. Too many Churches have either remained silent or have treaded carefully by expressing concern about the war without mentioning the patriarch.

My own Church, the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), is an apt example. The OCA’s Holy Synod issued a statement calling for an end to the Russian invasion and condemning the war while expressing support for Metropolitan Onufry and his church. (8) The OCA’s leader, Metropolitan Tikhon (Mollard), sent a letter to Patriarch Kirill asking him to intervene—though we do not know the precise details of the letter since it was delivered privately and never shared with the people of the Church led by the metropolitan.

The boldest action among Orthodox came from a cohort of clergy in the UOC-MP. More than four hundred priests signed a long letter addressed to the highest-ranking patriarchs of the Orthodox Churches to convene a tribunal that would assess the charge that Patriarch Kirill fanned the flames of war by promoting the dangerous Russkii Mir ideology. (9)

Parishes and clergy of the Russian church in Ukraine have protested Kirill’s complicity by refusing to commemorate him in the Liturgy. Metropolitan Onufry himself continues to commemorate Kirill, but he presides at Liturgy as if he was the primate of an autocephalous Church. An example of his liturgical expression of autocephaly is the intonation of the diptychs, the commemora- tions of all the primates of the autocephalous churches. This liturgical action demonstrates Onufry’s position—he appears poised to lead a de facto autocephalous church, even if it remains under Moscow’s jurisdiction de jure.

Most Orthodox Church leaders and synods have issued statements ranging from condemning Russian aggression to calling for peace and reconciliation on both sides. The appeal for peace is absurd; peace can be achieved only when all Russian forces leave Ukraine and respect Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Orthodox leaders and theologians have criticized the Roman Church for its steadfast defense of the papacy. The Orthodox claim that the Roman Church has invested too much power into the papacy and that the association of infallibility with the pope’s exercise of the extraordinary magisterium—rare as it is—leaves the Church with no avenue for correcting a false teaching or removing a dangerous pontiff, is, ironically, replicated in the Orthodox Church.

The sad irony is that Patriarch Kirill’s justification of Russia’s violent war on Ukraine has exposed Orthodoxy’s kryptonite. Orthodoxy’s pathetic response to the war reveals one urgent problem and one crisis.

The problem is that Orthodoxy also grants too much power to bishops, and especially to the archbishops, metropolitans, and patriarchs who preside over Church life. To date, the appeal of the four hundred priests for a tribunal to hold Patriarch Kirill has gone unheeded. It is highly unlikely that any such event will take place.

The Russian Orthodox Church exercises considerable influence in world Orthodoxy, especially over the Churches of Serbia, Antioch, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the OCA. None of these Churches have called Patriarch Kirill to accountability for his misdeeds. A special kind of power prevents Christian leaders from speaking prophetically when they are called to defend the vulnerable against violence and exploitation. The patriarch of the Russian Church possesses too much of this power, and there is no mechanism in place to call him to accountability. This is the problem the Orthodox response to the war reveals.

The response also reveals a crisis in Orthodoxy. The crisis is one of indifference. Orthodox readers might object to this assertion. After all, many Orthodox Churches have leaped into action by devoting themselves to humanitarian efforts. These initiatives are laudable. But it is not enough to concentrate spiritual energy solely on humanitarian aid. The Church has the resources to address the cause of the crisis.

A religious ideology that has come off the rails and contributed to the transition from the exercise of soft to hard power is immune to humanitarian aid. Church leaders need to speak prophetically, and one component of using the voice God has given is to come together to call Patriarch Kirill to accountability for his complicity in the violence Russia has inflicted upon Ukraine.

There are many excuses offered for the cautious approach. What good would it do to criticize Kirill publicly if Putin will simply remove and replace him with a yes-man? Condemning Kirill could incite reprisal—perhaps the Russian Church would annul the canonical status of autocephaly (independence) it has given to the Churches of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the OCA.

Holding Patriarch Kirill accountable for his bellicose activity could certainly have consequences for these Orthodox Churches. The Russian Church might alienate them, threaten to annul autocephaly, or sever communion. Each and every one of these consequences is worth retaining the gift of prophecy that God has given to Christians. As of this writing, most of the leaders of the world’s Orthodox Churches are refusing to exercise the prophetic ministry by ignoring appeals—many of them from within the Church—to hold Kirill accountable.

The loss resulting from burying the gift of prophecy is much worse than all the other consequences combined. It is akin to denying the call coming from the Lord himself, to deny ourselves, carry our crosses, and follow him. Those called to protect the needy are abandoning the vulnerable. Those called to be shepherds are taking cover and allowing the wolves to tear apart the flock.

The Orthodox Churches can recover the gift of prophecy so many of them have decided to bury, by the grace of God. The Church—the whole Church, all of Christ’s body, including the laity—has a lot of work to do to create mechanisms that limit the power borne by leaders and hold those who abuse their power to account.

For the time being, the refusal of Orthodox leaders to condemn Kirill for his actions is a terrible scandal that permits the Russian patriarch to use his office to justify an unjust and evil war. The people belonging to the Churches that refuse to speak out have no reason to have confidence in their leaders. If Church leaders cannot and will not speak out and act to defend and protect the vulnerable, the faithful have no reason to trust leaders with themselves, their resources, and their children.

The world now knows Orthodoxy’s kryptonite—a combination of exploitative power and indifference. May God heal that which is infirm in Orthodoxy through the prayers of the Ukrainian martyrs killed in Russia’s unholy war.

(1) Carlotta Gall, “Bucha’s Month of Terror,” New York Times, April 11, 2022,, accessed January 11, 2023.

(2) Isaac Chotiner, “Why John Mearsheimer Blames the U.S. for the Crisis in Ukraine,” New Yorker, March 1, 2022, -mearsheimer-blames-the-us-for-the-crisis-in-ukraine, accessed August 22, 2022.

(3) See Mikhail Suslov, “The Russian Orthodox Church and the Crisis in Ukraine,” in Churches in the Ukrainian Crisis, ed. Andrii Krawchuk and Thomas Bremer (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 133–62.

(4) For a more in-depth exploration of Russkii Mir, see David K. Goodin, “The Rise of the Third Rome: Russkii Mir and the Rebirth of Christendom,” Journal of the Council for Research on Religion 2, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2021): 71–88, https://creor-ejournal, accessed January 30, 2023.

(5) “Church of England General Synod Hears of Ukrainian Suffering as It Votes to Condemn Russian Invasion,” Anglican Ink blog, July 11, 2022, https://anglican .ink/2022/07/11/church-of-england-general-synod-hears-of-ukrainian-suffering-as-it -votes-to-condemn-russian-invasion/, accessed August 22, 2022.

(6) “A Declaration on the ‘Russian World’ (Russkii Mir) Teaching,” Public Orthodoxy blog, March 13, 2022, -world-russkii-mir-teaching/, accessed August 22, 2022.

(7) Luanna Muniz, “Pope Francis: Russian War in Ukraine Was ‘Perhaps Provoked,’” Politico, June 14, 2022, -ukraine-perhaps-provoked-or-unprevented/, accessed August 22, 2022.

(8) Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America, “Statement on Ukraine,” Orthodox Church in America website, /statement-on-ukraine, accessed August 22, 2022.

(9) “Open Appeal of the Priests of the UOC-MP to the Primates of Local Orthodox Churches,” Public Orthodoxy blog, April 26, 2022, /04/26/open-appeal-of-uoc-priests/, accessed August 22, 2022.

Amen Corner: A Different Checklist

Previously published in Worship 97 (January 2023).

A Different Checklist
By Genevieve Glen, OSB

We have probably all been there at one time or another, if only in our dreams: at the perfect liturgy. Not one movement out of place, not one word mangled, not one note sharpened or flattened ineptly. What a delight! Until we recognize that something is missing.

I recall one such event. It was an elaborate and beautiful “high” liturgy, the sanctuary overflowing with carefully trained ministers of various kinds, all carefully clad in solemn garb—all matching, of course. It unfolded with the solemn precision of a military exercise or a well-choreographed ballet. It was awesome and beautiful. All that was lacking to the performance was a standing ovation at the end, but that would have been drowned out in any case by the majestic organ recessional. A simple checklist would have assured those responsible that it had been the perfect celebration. Still . . . It was sometime later that it struck me what was missing: in all that stunning perfection, there was no sign of living, breathing, imperfect humanity anywhere. To the onlooker—there were no “participants” outside the sanctuary—it seemed a carefully scripted, carefully constructed ceremonial graveyard. Very reverent, a work of art, certainly well intended, but a field of dry bones nonetheless.

Quite a different memory takes me to Sundays at an ordinary parish liturgy. At the time I was deeply immersed in the academic study of liturgy and allied disciplines. A fellow student and I chose to leave our local comfort zone to participate in a parish Sunday liturgy in another suburb. I have forgotten why. The late morning Mass laid no claim to perfection. I doubt it occurred to anyone there that it should need to. The associate pastor was no textbook definition of an ideal presider. He tended to stumble and drop things. His homilies seemed at first to be simple. But gradually they engaged us, and deeply.

We couldn’t quite put a finger on why, until we realized that in every homily, it was only the language that was simple. Every Sunday, that preacher engaged deeply in a conversation between Scripture and reality about the interplay of darkness and light in everyday life, and he invited everyone else there to join in. He clearly knew the light and the darkness well himself. We later learned that, like many of my generation, he had joined the Marines right out of high school. Before he turned twenty, he was boots on the ground in the horror that was Vietnam. There he took part in person in the terrible wrestling match between guns, bombs, torture, and war on the one hand, and the gospel of Jesus Christ on the other. He could preach as he did, I realized, because of what he knew. He knew that the death and resurrection of Christ are not religious platitudes. He knew that they are real life at its core. And he knew— obviously not from his formal education—that they were the deepest reality of the liturgy we celebrated there on Sundays in the clean safety of a suburban parish long after the war had become an embarrassing memory. If he sometimes stammered and lost his place in the homily, he had earned the right.

As my friend and I went back to that parish Sunday after Sunday, we began to realize that he was not alone. The parishioners had accepted his invitation to join him silently in that weekly conversation, attentive eyes filled with understanding, unspoken thoughts clearly working over what he was saying. What he knew, they did too. They were ordinary hardworking people, many of them people of color, some with shoulders hunched and faces seamed by aging, illness, and worry, others struggling to manage squirming children while hiding smiles at a preschooler’s antics, some sitting alone and keeping a careful distance from their neighbors, others sneaking a peak at texts and checking the time. In other words, ordinary folk.

One Sunday a member of the choir put into song the story they all clearly shared in one way or another among themselves, with their presider, and with whoever else present who was listening. The man stood and sang in unforgettable solo: “There is a balm in Gilead . . .” He had clearly fought his own way to Gilead in search of healing, and he had found it there. And from what I read on the faces of the rest of the congregation, he was not speaking for himself alone any more than the homilist had been. They had all studied in the same school of life and learned there what the paschal story of Jesus Christ really means, because it was their story too. No careful choreography here, no flawless ceremonial, no perfection from which real humanity had been banished. Quite the contrary. And worshiping with them drew my friend and me deeply into the mystery of Christ dying and rising at the core of our own lives. No one was only an onlooker there unless they chose to be.

No one was only an onlooker there unless they chose to be.

These two experiences have set me to thinking about many things, but here
I would like to focus on what they taught me about the “doing” of liturgy. Over the years as writer, workshop leader, teacher, and seminary liturgy instructor, especially during the intense years of liturgical reform and renewal and their still-active trailers, I have paid a great deal of attention to the serious business of liturgical performance, as have many of you.

Performance is, of course, an essential dimension of liturgical celebration because liturgy is something we do. It can be described as communal prayer performed in the various languages of word, ritual, and music. It is communal because, ideally at least, everyone present plays a part, even if the part is not obvious. Sitting still attentively, praying silently as well as verbally, focusing attention on the core dimension of worship, the paschal event, are all modes of “performing” the communal act of worship as much as carrying gifts and lectoring are. They are just not the same type of performing as that of publicly identifiable ministers. To be sure, effective liturgical performance does require public words well chosen and well spoken or sung, actions both clearly expressive and inherently graceful, and music well selected, well played and/or well sung. Behind the scenes, we often disagree, of course, about the choices to be made for a particular celebration to live up to that ambiguous word “well.” But we tend to share a common drive to “do it right,” whatever “right” might mean in a particular community.

Church is, of course, a reality that lives and breathes and changes. In the period of post-conciliar liturgical reform and renewal that began in the mid-sixties and never quite seems to end, scholars have pursued study in a number of disciplines to help us understand how the various aspects of liturgical performance can be made more effective in serving the paschal life of the community. Among these disciplines are history (how did we get from there to here anyway?), language (tell me again what “performative language” is?), ritual (how high should that cross, that candle, that consecrated bread be raised?), sociology (how do groups integrate new and diverse populations?), biblical studies (what is the significance of all those stories of bread and water?). All these disciplines and more have played important roles in the development of liturgical performances in various settings. However valuable they are, though, they sometimes seem to miss the essential questions raised for me by the two celebrations I described at the beginning of this article. Perhaps that’s because they are questions so obvious we never think to ask them. We perform as best we can according to our lights—but to what end? And with what effect?

We perform as best we can according to our lights—but to what end?
And with what effect?

In the first celebration I described, the conscious end that seems to have driven all practical decisions was to give glory to a transcendent God—an admirable purpose indeed. I knew those responsible and knew them to be people commendably committed to it. The unintended effect, however, seemed to me as a member of the congregation to be separation and exclusion. Those who really counted were identified by their elaborate and beautiful uniforms. They ringed the altar in impenetrable ranks, barring entry to anyone who was not wearing the right kind of clothing. One felt there would be consequences if anyone was irreverent enough to try—which, of course, no one did. I’m afraid I could not help remembering the gospel story of the man cast out of the wedding feast because he was not wearing a wedding robe (Matthew 22:12). The general message to us outside the rails seemed to be: watch, be quiet, pray, but don’t touch! There were obviously many people in the congregation who complied in a very deep spirit of prayer and adoration, but since they were not invited to verbalize their prayer publicly, the ritual had the feel of solitary communication between individual worshipers and the Almighty. Focus was on the action in the sanctuary. Perhaps without anyone’s intending it, the ritual drew everyone’s attention to itself at the expense of awareness of one another as members of Christ’s Body.

In reflecting on that second liturgy, I realize I don’t remember anything unusual about the particular way Mass was celebrated there. The liturgy must have been as ordinary as the participants. Nothing done, except that one solo, drew any attention to itself at all. The preacher himself was an example.
What my friend and I learned about his experience of war did not come from him. He never mentioned it, or anything much about himself at all. Instead he adhered to St. Paul’s approach: “. . . we do not proclaim ourselves; we pro- claim Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:5). All the facets of the celebration seemed instead to draw everyone, with their ordinary everyday experiences, their joys and sorrows, their personal stories, into a single shared focus: the reality of Jesus Christ in his dying and rising. Somehow, what was said and done in readings, homily, song, and action connected that reality to the everyday lives of all those present and wove them together. I think, upon reflection, that the “somehow” was the dynamic power of God’s ever-transformative Spirit always at work fusing us into the living Body of Christ, inside the church and then in the world outside it. That is the dimension of performance that is under no one’s control but God’s and forces no one’s participation except those who choose it.

Even though we may know that, and know it from experience, those of us responsible do sometimes want to evaluate the individual elements of the performance to see what each contributed to or detracted from the desired outcome, the end and effect we hoped to achieve starting out. What is frustrating about this very businesslike approach is, of course, that the melding of the paschal mystery of Christ and our own lives through the liturgy is not something we can measure. We may, and often do, make a checklist of items after the event, hoping perhaps to be able to say: not one movement out of place, not one word mangled, not one note sharpened or flattened inaptly. But in so doing we will find no way of reaching beyond that desired perfection, or its absence, to assess the interaction between what we have done and what God has wrought in us through it.

Where do we see the evidence of paschal transformation wrought through the liturgical event?

A priest friend recently offered me a clue as to what to look for in answer to the real question: where do we see the evidence of paschal transformation wrought through the liturgical event? He told the story of taking Communion to an old lady confined to bed in a tenement. Family and friends had gathered with her. It was no ideal performance, this rite of sacramental Communion in a dark, crowded, malodorous room. Words were the minimal version prescribed by the rite, music was not possible, ritual actions were rather quick and cramped. My friend was momentarily dumbstruck, though, by one woman who came forward to receive: her face was seamed with hideous scars laid over facial bones that had all clearly been broken and had reknit haphazardly. She could barely speak even a clear “Amen.” But after she had received the sacrament, he said, her face was suddenly lit with a light from within that was so radiant that every disfigurement seemed to disappear from sight, at least for a moment. He saw, he said, death and resurrection.

That deeply moving story suggested to me that perhaps we ought not bother with checklists and evaluation meetings. They will tell us something of what we might want to know about the performance itself. Were the words said and sung correctly? Was the ritual well carried out? Was it all done right? Those responsible for that high liturgy would really have wanted to know. Those in that parish might have thought them interesting, but most probably they would not have thought they mattered much. They would have been right. They really are not the most important questions to ask. Perhaps instead of asking any questions at all, we should watch the people’s faces as the liturgical performance unfolds. In the end, that is the only evaluation that really matters.

Amen Corner: The Fijian Meal Tradition

Previously published in Worship 96 (October 2022).

The Fijian Meal Tradition:
An Invitation to Liturgical Inculturation
By Iosefo Lui and Carmel Pilcher

The Fijian Islands are world renowned for their friendliness and generous hospitality to visitors. The locals are extremely gracious to any newcomer, most especially when it comes to sharing food. If one is walking by a family sharing a picnic in a park inevitably someone in the group will call out with the greeting, “Come and eat.” Commensality is characteristic of many societies but is a special characteristic of Fiji and the neighboring Pacific Islands.

A formal meeting or a catch-up with a friend will always include food.
No Fijian ever comes empty-handed to a gathering, and their offerings will be bountiful. The customary “bring a plate” in Western society could more accurately be described as “bring many plates” in Fiji—soqo. When the host provides an overabundance of food the guest is expected to come back for “seconds.” The host will typically urge everyone to “have some more.”

Whether a family gathering or a ceremonial meal commemorating a special event, meal sharing always includes a formal element, spoken or unspoken. Food is shared and so is time. Fijians joke that they live in their own “Pacific time.” Spending hours preparing a meal is only eclipsed by the time that participants will take to enjoy both the food and each other. Thomas O’Loughlin tells us that “societies express and define themselves by their meal practices.”(1) If this is so then Fijian society can be described as exceptionally hospitable, generous, and respectful of all persons, friend or stranger alike.

Fijian commensality extends to their religious faith. Catholics come to celebrate Eucharist, not only on Sundays, but often on weekdays. Baptisms, funerals and anniversaries, weddings, birthdays, all are celebrated in the context of Eucharist and continue with a shared meal. Conscious of Pope Francis’s call to Indigenous peoples to inculturate the liturgy, (2) we ask the question: could aspects of Fijian cultural meals be incorporated into the church’s eucharistic tradition? (3)

Indigenous Fijians have a long and rich cultural tradition surrounding meals. In the villages locals gather to eat twice a day—in the morning before working in the fields, and for the more important meal in the evening, when every person in the household is present, including the head of the family and the elders. (4) Seniority and gender determine the sitting arrangements around the ibe ni kana—eating mat. Elders and heads of households sit at the head or upper end of the circle facing the main entrance of the house, then the sons, in order of seniority. The women and girls sit at the other end so that they can serve the meal, which is placed in the center of the circle. While the women eat last, it is expected that those served first ensure enough food is left for all to eat.

When a family sits around the eating mat for an evening meal on any given day the participation of the whole family and the sense of presence to each other symbolizes unity, respect, and care for each other. Traditional meal sharing ex- tends beyond the family. The women always prepare more food than is needed to accommodate extra guests. It is customary that the head of the household invites anyone who passes by during mealtime to join the meal. Moreover, leftovers symbolise sautu—prosperity. Each family belongs to a clan or village. Whatever an individual or individual household does, for good or for ill, affects the whole village. If the family is divided or there is insufficient food to feed guests, not only is the family found wanting, but the reputation of the village is also at stake.

Ceremonial meals such as a wedding feast, a birthday, or a funeral, follow the pattern of a family meal, but with additional elements. When all the participants are gathered on the mat, magiti—a ritual presentation of food that might also include mats, kerosene, or even the most highly prized gift of all, the tabua, whale’s tooth—are ritually presented. Accompanying the magiti is vosa—a formal speech given by the matanivanua—a special clan of orators who act as spokespersons for the chief of the village. It is their role to acknowledge the occasion in the context of vanua (5)—the deep interconnectedness that indigenous Fijians experience not only with the land, the sea, and each other but, by extension, with all of creation.

In Fijian society the matanivanua, the orator, whose craft is passed from generation to generation through instruction and imitation, gives vosa, voice, to a word that embodies and brings to consciousness the strength and power of the vanua. The vosa always follows the same pattern, a threefold structure. It begins with au vura saka—an acknowledgement of the chief and people— before the central message is communicated, and always concludes with the words:

“Au tekivuna tiko mai vuna, vagauna taka tiko, me yaco yani sovuna, me savurogo I lomani vale.”

“I end the message, beginning from the roots to the stem, to the shoots, may the message find a hearing in the house.”

The participants then proclaim with one voice: “Io”—“yes,” followed by cobo—three hollow claps. Then follows another speech, ulivi ni vosa, that acknowledges reception of the message. To that speech the gathering responds, “Mana eiii dina”—“Amen—let it be.” (6)

In ancient Fijian tradition, customary rituals always culminated in the sharing of a meal, whether the occasion called for gratitude, reconciliation, or healing. With every first harvest of the land or catch from the sea, a meal was prepared and ceremonially given to the chief or to the priest with gratitude to persons, the land, and the gods who continued to provide them with bounty from generation to generation. Today vosa is offered to soldiers and people before they leave their home shores for duties across the seas, depart for boarding school, or visit another island—vanua. It belongs to a father when he addresses a member of the household to redress a wrong done, or for appreciation for a task fulfilled, and to a village when vanua is broken by deliberate acts of harm toward persons or a group or the land itself. Fijians continue to ritualize their belief and hope through commensality, in the past to the creator gods and, with the advent of Christianity, to the God of Jesus, confident that the creator God would continue to nourish the land and sea for the livelihood of the people. (7)

So many elements of Fijian meal sharing are comparable to Jesus’ own meal sharing recorded in the Scriptures. The lavish nature of a Fijian meal recalls
the wedding feast of Cana, where Jesus provided an abundance of wine for
the guests when the wine supply ran low, thus avoiding shame for the hosts. Fijian women who serve with love and care identify with the Christ who washed the disciples’ feet at the final supper before his death. Those friendships forged by Jesus at meals, particularly with the outcast and those needing forgiveness, reflect Fijian hospitality that welcomes the stranger without questioning status or background. The Fijian gathering around an eating mat arranged hierarchically but structurally a circle where those served first are mindful of all concurs with Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:17-33) that at the Lord’s Supper all are welcome and are to behave as one body in Christ. Scholars re- mind us that the banquet stories, often put onto the lips of Jesus, anticipate the Parousia. This could also be said of the long Fijian tradition of meal sharing.

Christians gather with each other on Sunday to commemorate the Lord’s Supper. With the same care taken to prepare their own meals, Fijian Catholics take time to prepare for Sunday Eucharist. They decorate the sanctuary space with beautiful flowers and special cloths, usually the color of the liturgical season. They also reflect on the Word of God each week with their own family and local parish sector. Fijians ensure that the music to be sung is the best it can be by regular practice. For a special celebration the choir might gather for weeks to practice the hymns for several hours each evening. The glorious Pacifican singing not only binds the liturgy together but lifts it to a higher plane, so that it brings about a sense of the divine in the present.

But when it comes to the prayers of the Eucharist, it is simply assumed that these belong to the ordained priest who will make his own choices and prepare his homily, generally without any connection to the peoples’ insights from their own Bible study, or even to the intentions of the universal prayer. There seems a clear demarcation in the minds of those who participate in the Lord’s Supper between what the priest prepares and does, and what “belongs” to the assembly. This is such a contrast with the Fijian meal tradition where, although people take on different tasks, there is a sense that everyone works together, and when the celebration takes place, it is one meal where each relates to the other, bonded in friendship through the common food that is shared.

The gap between Fijian and church traditional meal sharing became clearer
in 2021, at the height of the COVID pandemic. Fiji was in lockdown for seven continuous months to overcome the quick spread of the delta virus.
This had a serious effect on the society’s meal-sharing tradition. Not only was any form of gathering forbidden by the government, but domestic meals were limited to the food that was available. Rather than food in abundance, Fijian families who were struck by sickness and unemployment found they did not even have sufficient food each day. Many started growing crops, while others had to rely on the generosity of others. Food packages were delivered to the poor in villages. Sadly, despite restrictions in movement many caught the virus, and too many people died. Because people were unable to physically gather, all meal sharing ceased and no traditional rites could be performed.

Faith leaders responded to the closure of places of worship by providing alternatives. Catholics were able to access televised and livestreamed Masses led by priests from their homes. The livestreaming and recordings of the Eucharist served a pastoral need, as is evident by the many Catholics who tuned in daily for the celebration of the Eucharist. The eucharistic celebration followed the usual format, but with only the ordained and whoever else might be physically resident in his home celebrating. Meanwhile families gathered in their homes, around their technological device that was often surrounded by religious images. They sang the hymns and prayed the responses, albeit remotely. At the time of the usual Communion procession to the table, a prayer desiring spiritual communion was recited while the presider ate and drank alone.

Issues about virtual Mass have been addressed by many liturgical scholars. Here we wish only to comment on the eucharistic meal tradition as under- stood by Fijian Catholics. With the restrictions brought about by the government’s response to the pandemic, Fijians were quick to realize that without physical presence it was not possible to share a ceremonial meal. By contrast, those same people did not question virtually celebrating the Eucharist—also a meal—only expressing disappointment that they could not partake in Communion.

The church teaches that each Sunday an assembly of priestly people gathers
to be fed and nourished, both at the table of the Word and the table of the Eucharist. Fijian worshipers did not seem to understand this clearly. Could including aspects of the rich heritage of Fijian meal sharing in eucharistic celebrations strengthen the Fijian consciousness to realize that the memorial meal is central to the celebration of the Eucharist?

Earlier we established that there are enough common elements between the two meal traditions to enter into a meaningful dialogue between the ancient cultural wisdom of Fijian commensality and the memorial meal of the Eucharist. So what might this look like?

Sitting on the floor is the Fijian gesture for respect. In village churches where most sit on mats during the celebration, the ritual meal of Eucharist would be visually strengthened if the presider and lector also sat on those same mats at low tables. Cloths that embellish the space, and vestments, could be tapa— traditionally made cloths with local earth-colored patterns—rather than the typical seasonally imported colored cloths of the Roman tradition.

The presentation of magiti is comparable to the bringing of gifts to the eucharistic table. While usually bread and wine and soli—monetary gifts—are presented, in addition, first fruits and other contributions including those ritually offered at a traditional ceremonial meal could be presented. They could be presented using the traditional gesture of outstretched hands and received in the usual Fijian manner—with the recipient clapping—cobo. It would help make the connection between the gifts brought to the table and the meal to be shared. Just as no Fijian considers eating alone, or from food prepared from another meal, so all share in communion with the body and blood of Christ’s sacrifice in communion at the table.

The presider, deacon, and lectors pray in God’s name and speak God’s Word. They are the matanivanua, the orators, at a celebration of the Eucharist in Fiji. (8) They too speak the vosa, giving voice to a word that embodies and brings to consciousness the strength and power of the vanua that connects all of creation in Christ, continuing the memory of the ancestors. Mindful of Pope Francis’s instruction that the homily is a dialogue (9) it would be possible to craft the homily with the threefold structure of the vosa of the matanivanua, the ulivi ni vosa, and the congregational responses, which would both make a direct connection with a Fijian ceremonial meal and also enhance conscious and active participation for the assembly. (10)

The traditional meal sharing reflects how indigenous Fijians (11) view their society, and what it should be. A critical reflection of traditional societal meal sharing, including the way ancient ceremony has been moderated and adjusted over time to suit current situations seems opportune. This study would make it possible to identify Fijian values that are also Christian and that continue to be affirmed both ritually and symbolically at meals. The eucharistic meal celebrates the paschal mystery, a memorial meal of Christ’s selfless love. A catechesis of the eucharistic celebration based on the gospel meal tradition could assist Catholics to realize what it is that they do when they gather around the table of Eucharist as Christ’s priestly people on the Lord’s Day.

Inculturating the liturgy is a challenge to us all, but when embraced fully it can bring about genuine participation that flows into right living. A re-evaluation of traditional meal sharing can serve to restore cultural values, just as a deliberate attempt to bring into the Christian liturgy elements of Fijian meal sharing might provide a conscious eucharistic celebration that ensures the community that what is celebrated as a memorial of Christ’s meal tradition flows into everyday life.


1) Thomas O’Loughlin, The Eucharist: Origins and Contemporary Understandings (London: T & T Clark, 2015), 86.

2) Pope Francis reminded the Amazonian church that “[t]he Second Vatican Council called for this effort to inculturate the liturgy amongst indigenous peoples.” Francis, Querida Amazonia 82, _exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20200202_querida -amazonia.html.

3) We are grateful for the valuable insights of Dr. Peter Loy Chong, the current archbishop of Suva, who both affirmed our conclusions and has already begun the process of implementing them.

4) Details concerning traditional Fijian meals are sourced from Asesela Ravuvu, The Fijian Way of Life: The Many Functions of Food (Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, USP, 1993).

5) For a Fijian understanding of vanua see Dr. Donato Kivi’s explanation in the previous essay in Worship: “The Pandemic Push for Inculturation,” Worship 96 (July 2022): 197.

6) We acknowledge Dr. Peter Loy Chong for this explanation and translation.

7) Ilaitia Tuwere, Vanua: Towards a Fijian Theology of Place (Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, USP, 2002), 173.

8) At a recent ordination in Suva, Archbishop Peter Loy Chong used the matanivanua as an analogy for the role of the deacon and a homilist.

9) Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 137, /apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii -gaudium.html.

10) Archbishop Peter Loy Chong is in the process of instructing his catechists to preach in the pattern of the matanivanua at a traditional meal when they lead services of Word and Communion in remote villages. Communicated by email: May 5, 2022.

11) While our discussion only focused on indigenous Fijians, Indo and Chinese Fijians (and others who call Fiji home) could bring their own traditional cultural values to enhance the liturgy.

Amen Corner: The Pandemic Push for Inculturation

The Pandemic Push for Inculturation
By Carmel Pilcher, RSJ

I recently completed a three-year term teaching liturgy at the Pacific Regional Seminary in Suva, Fiji. The seminary provides formation for the ministerial priesthood for students from many Pacific Island nations. Almost all the students are First Peoples whose strong cultural identities have long been nurtured by rituals marking life events. While the current COVID pandemic has challenged the ritual practices in many of our communities, it has particularly affected Indigenous peoples; it has also offered new opportunities, especially in the area of liturgical inculturation.

As a teacher of liturgy, I was delighted and privileged to encounter students for whom the language of ritual and symbol was part of the fabric of their lives.
I am indebted to all the students who taught me about their cultural ceremonies, particularly Eusenio Uatahousi, Saia Faingaa, SSCC, and Savea Ulavala, who directly contributed to this work. I am also grateful for the invaluable scholarly encouragement from Tongan academic, colleague, and friend,

Dr. Winston Halapua, Anglican archbishop emeritus, and Dr. Nathan Chase from St. Louis University, whom I introduced to one of my classes and who continues to fire their imaginations with ongoing conversation—talanoa—to find ways to inculturate the liturgy.

Although each culture celebrates life’s moments uniquely, the core of ceremony is always community—but not community as those of us who are not First Peoples understand it. Many Indigenous peoples, including Australian Aboriginals and Maoris live not only in relationship with each other but are deeply connected to their environment. Aboriginal Australians speak in English of “on country.” Fijians call it vanua. Fijian colleague, Dr. Donato Kivi, SM, explains:

Vanua is a concept held in high esteem among Fijians. Vanua literally means “land,” but it also means residents, natives or people of that particular land. It is often used in traditional functions to address groups of people from the same province, tribe, clan or family. For the ancient Fijians, addressing a particular vanua means the people, the land and everything that belongs, is related, grows and is tied in whatever way to that land. All come under the umbrella of the vanua—the trees, animals, rocks, grass, fish and birds. They are part and parcel of the vanua. For the ancient Fijians, the vanua is the people and the cosmos. (1)

Vanua, fanua, fonua, moana—each nation has its own term to describe this connection that includes shared beliefs and values, shelter, nourishment, and protection. Traditional ceremonies that celebrate vanua continue to be celebrated, at least in villages. Exploring this concept provided me with an obvious starting point for Pacificans to understand Christian sacramentality. So, we began our introductory sacraments course by exploring traditional ceremonies that celebrate vanua, marking each moment of the life journey, whether initiation, reconciliation, marriage, or burial rites. The students were happy to describe for all of us their different elaborate cultural ceremonies that lasted many days and were full of rich symbols and rituals, stories, song, and dance. But they wondered what their own ceremonies had to do with learning about the Catholic Church’s sacraments.

We then explored the Church’s rites—the Rites of Christian Initiation, Pastoral Care of the Sick and, although it is not an official church sacrament, the Order of Christian Funerals—all with their rich symbols and rites. These students come from cultures where their ceremonies were passed on from generation to generation by oral traditions. Students first experienced the meaning, which their parents and grandparents then explained.

In contrast the celebrations of the Church’s sacraments depend on the written word found in the official rites of the Church. The revised rites still have not been fully translated into the local languages of the Pacific due to a lack of trained liturgists. Nor have they been carefully studied. While there have been attempts at inculturation over the years, and some of these continue— for example, traditional dancing, and in Samoa, the reconciliation ritual of ifongu—these are usually celebrated only on special occasions. As the students became more familiar with the Church’s rites they started to make connections between the ceremonies of the village and those celebrated in church. They tentatively began to discuss ways their own traditional ceremonies could be linked with the sacraments, in other words, inculturated, rather than be celebrated in isolation from each other.

During my time at the seminary a young Tongan Marist student, Sosaia Vaka, died after a short illness. Sosaia was twenty-three years old. At the time of his death, Fiji had controlled the initial spread of COVID. International borders between Fiji and Tonga were closed. When Sosaia died in a strange land and in the absence of his family and community—his fonua—the Tongan students stepped into the breach. Instead of their usual role as seminarians—lotu (church)—they took on the role of the extended family—the fonua. This included deciding the length of time culturally appropriate to both honor the dead and support the mourners. The students had to be both lotu and fonua.

Traditional Tonga funeral rites are extremely complex. In Eusenio’s words: “The funeral is a time of gathering as well as a time of mourning. The mourning reflects the lost. This ‘lost’ causes the whole extended family of the deceased to gather but it also builds up the community (the fonua). The people come together because of the ‘lost’ one and their love for the family.” (2) Tonga, like Fiji, treats death as a communal event. It is more than mourning and loss. It is about building, sustaining, and strengthening relationships and ensuring that the dead person is provided with all the funeral rites to assure them a place with their ancestors.

Eusenio continues, appealing to his heritage:

We Tongans believe in the supernatural, that there was something or somebody beyond our reality but the understanding of the human mind cannot explain this, only the heart can. Our ancestors prayed to many known gods such as the god of the sky, the god of the land, the god of the dead and many others. But there were three major gods that were always the focus of their prayer. The first is Tangaloa who is the god of the sky. Tangaloa had a son (’Aho’eitu) with an earthly woman, Va’epopua. Second is Maui who is god of the earth, the one who pulled with all his might with a fishing hook a large piece of the land that was called Tongatapu. Last is Hikule’o who is the god of Pulotu. He is the god of death. Our ancestors prayed to these gods. So, Tongans already had the sense of religious experience that extended to an afterlife. In this way their ideas were very close to the Christian way of making meaning of life. (3)

In Tonga, many people prepare for and participate in a funeral. Clans, and the extended family—the fonua—take on particular roles the culture predetermines. Savea explained that every Tongan knows and respects the protocol that must be followed. Relatives of the deceased have certain roles. For example, the spokesman at the rites, who comes from one of the clans from the father’s line, knows he is permitted to speak at the funeral. Those related to the woman’s side or from the mother’s side of the deceased, take on a particular role and are regarded as superior and highly significant and so the funeral rites afford them the highest respect. When they came to bury Sosaia, the Tongan students filled these roles in the absence of designated people.

The morning after the burial of the deceased person ‘Oto’ota is performed.
The grieving family cleans the house of their fahu—the house of the father’s sister. The family all leave early in the morning while the fahu’s family is still asleep. They first clean outside the house, then they sprinkle local oil around the house, reflecting that in their culture they are of a lower position than their fahu. If the family is Christian, they will also sprinkle holy water outside the house to signify the presence of the God of Jesus, and to ward away evil spirits from the fahu’s family. Analyzing all this further is a task for another project.

Protocol dictates what is to be worn. A woven mat—a ta’ovala—that is part of their dress apparel distinguishes Tongans from other Islanders at official ceremonies including the church’s liturgical celebrations. Tongans wear the ta’ovala to show both respect and appreciation. The ta’ovala reveals the wearer’s status. The traditional ta’ovala for a funeral is a huge mat, but much coarser and undecorated, woven from the rougher side of the pandanus leaf. If the wearer is of an inferior rank to the deceased, they don an old, well-worn mat tied in such a way as to wrap around the upper body and veil the head. In Tonga, all these special mats are kept as precious heirlooms. Those who wear the old, torn, and long mat that covers their feet and head are the patetele, the lowest in status to the deceased. This symbolizes their humility to serve everyone who attends the funeral. At Sosaia’s funeral the Tongan seminarians dressed in the distinctively torn mats of the patetele, taking the role of service.

On each of the next six nights after Sosaia’s death the patetele gathered us and the wider Tongan community together to pray and to remember. Most nights they celebrated Eucharist for the dead in the Tongan language. The liturgies were livestreamed so that Sosaia’s parents, siblings, and extended family who, because of COVID travel restrictions, were unable to travel from Tonga or other countries to Fiji could participate, at least virtually. Special hymns were sung, and many stories told, but always in the context of a funeral Mass.

I wondered if Tongans had access to a Tongan translation of the whole Order of Christian Funerals or if only the funeral Mass and prayers of commendation are translated.

The seminarians prepared as many details as possible. They erected purple and black banners throughout the grounds and onto the road so that fellow Tongans who might be passing could easily identify the seminary as a place of mourning.

In all Pacific countries, the people who visit the bereaved and attend the funeral never come emptyhanded but take responsibility for each other as fonua. It is a time of strengthening bonds, as well as an opportunity for healing divisions in the community. Visitors bring an abundance of food, including live animals such as pigs, to prepare for the many participants at the daily meals. Depending on the duration of the period of mourning, as many as one hundred pigs as well as comparable amounts of other food are shared. Each evening in the immediate mourning period before Sosaia’s funeral liturgy and burial, the extended Tongan community in Suva prepared a meal that they shared with those who gathered. I wondered if the vigil elements of sharing words of remembrance and symbols could have been associated with these meals.

The night before the funeral Mass a final Eucharist for the dead was held.
The arrival of Sosaia’s body was accompanied by the lali, a hollowed-out tree trunk beaten with sticks in a slow rhythm, traditionally used to call the village together. Special mats—tapa (hand-decorated paper cloth)—shrouded the coffin, and the patetele guarded the casket throughout, from the funeral Mass until the final burial in Suva. In Fiji the tradition is for those present at the burial to stay until the burial is completed. During this time devotional prayers and hymns continue. Following the burial, the Tongan students and staff visited and prayed at Sosaia’s grave daily for thirty days, until the official mourning period was over.

Had Sosaia’s family been able to bring his body home to Tonga or travel to Suva, they would have observed full cultural burial rites. Instead, the Tongan seminary community stepped into the role of fonua and did what they could. They drew on their own experiences of both fonua and lotu. They admirably fulfilled a cultural obligation in the absence of immediate family members. They understood their cultural role—but what of their church role? The Order of Christian Funerals offers prayers and ritual from the time the person crosses the threshold between life and death until burial of the loved one—and offers prayers for anniversaries of death, for example the Fijian custom of gathering after one hundred nights to mark the end of the official mourning period.

I saw great opportunities over the extended period of mourning to include prayers for the dead from the Rites, and on occasion to pray the Office for the Dead. In a seminary setting it would have been a great opportunity to further establish dialogue between rich cultural and equally rich church rites, so that they could express more fully and bring together the gifts of both traditions.

The pandemic has changed not only the way we live but also the way we celebrate significant life events, whether births, anniversaries, sickness, or death. When the second wave of the pandemic struck Fiji the numbers of people seriously affected quickly grew and neither the health system nor funeral services could cope. So many Fijians and other Islanders died alone in make- shift hospitals. Mortuaries could not accommodate the increasing numbers of the dead. Strict curfews were put in place and movement was restricted except in exceptional circumstances. Gatherings that would normally have taken place were out of the question because all were confined to their homes and all places of worship were closed. For six months Fijians were forced to experience isolation—the very opposite of the strong and deep connections that characterize vanua.

During that time people could perform neither cultural nor religious ceremonies, except in their own homes. They would fulfill cultural traditions at a later time, perhaps after one hundred nights, which is the official mourning time in Fiji. Christians in the Pacific rely on priests, deacons, or catechists to lead the Church’s official liturgies; COVID restrictions prevented church leaders from bringing the oil of the sick or praying with the dying in their homes. Families did anoint their loved ones with traditional healing oils, but family members could have accompanied these anointings with suitable prayers from the Church’s rites for the sick. However, this was not possible because the faithful do not have access to, nor are they familiar enough with, the church’s rituals. Neither are they even aware of their ability as priestly people to lead and celebrate liturgy. In Fiji only some essential prayers from the sacramental rites were translated into Fijian language after the Second Vatican Council. Devotional prayers are often the only way for the faithful to nurture their faith when ordained ministers are unavailable. Qualified liturgists are needed to offer formation in this area.

This pandemic is inviting all of us to chart new waters. The Tongan students ensured that their brother Sosaia would be buried in a traditional Tongan way far from his homeland. Other Islanders have ensured local traditions continued when possible. While this provides its own challenges to Pacificans, what about the Church’s rituals?

The lack of trained liturgists is clearly an issue in the Pacific. Liturgical formation is needed. Catholics can only engage in full conscious and active participation in the liturgy if they first realize they share in Christ’s priestly work through their baptism. This means first understanding their baptismal priesthood and then realizing that they participate in the Church’s liturgy with the ordained. They need to be introduced to and formed in an understanding of the Church’s rites both by study and practice.

Each of the revised sacraments offers ways to engage the faithful in a journey of faith. Yes, we need to translate the rites into local languages. But beyond simply translating the rites, the pandemic offers Islanders an opportunity for dialogue between the rites and their already rich ceremonial local traditions. The Order of Baptism of Children could be celebrated at the time of the initiation rites that certain villages continue to practice. In cultures that have powerful ceremonies of reconciliation there are great opportunities to include parts of the church’s Rite of Reconciliation. The small Pacific nations, more than anywhere else on the planet, are experiencing the adverse effects of climate change. For liturgy to remain relevant in fragile Pacific Islands it will surely need to be embedded in the traditional ceremonies of the fanua/vanua/fonua. This raises another challenge that Fijian John Pickering offers: “The dynamic nature of culture also invites deeper reflection into how we as a people are open to cultural adaptation and change. While keeping the essence of cultural ritual practices, the form may have to change. The pandemic has taught us to adapt—a resilient factor for any culture that is assured of a place in a changing world.”(4)

  1. Martha Moore-Keish and James Farwell, eds., Handbook of Sacraments and Sacra- mentality (T & T Clark, forthcoming 2023).
  2. Eusenio Uatahousi, “The Tongan Values Engage with the Liturgy of the Eucharist,” unpublished paper submitted to the Pacific Regional Seminary July 4, 2021.
  3. Uatahousi, “Tongan Values.”
  4. Written comment from doctoral candidate John Pickering, February 4, 2022.

AMEN CORNER: A Clash of Languages

A Clash of Languages
By Genevieve Glen, OSB

This piece appeared in Worship 96 (April 2022).

Years of experience in liturgical development have led us to recognize that our worship is sometimes, sadly, a quiet battlefield. No shots are fired, no blood is shed, but our prayer sometimes limps from the struggle. In this article, however, I would like to set aside the usual antagonists: tradition vs. reform, conservatism vs. liberalism, inclusivity vs. exclusivity, and so on. Instead, I would like to look at a more subtle conflict: the language of our worship vs. the language of our worshipers.

In most of our worship traditions, text and action draw heavily upon the images and stories of Scripture for depth of meaning. Theological explanations aside, the experience of breaking and sharing bread would seem to be nothing more than a rather sparse lunch without its many roots in biblical tradition. Those roots include, for example, Israel’s desert experience (Exodus 16:9-31), the promised banquet on the mountaintop (Isaiah 25:6-9), and, of course, Jesus’ practice of feeding the hungry with bread that is more than bread (John 6:1-16, 22-34). A cup of wine would appear to be only a festal complement to a good meal without the images of a beloved vineyard and neglected ones (Isaiah 5:1-6; Psalm 80; John 15:5), the cup overflowing with promise or forcing the wicked into drunken staggering (Psalm 23:5; Isaiah 28:7-9), and the cup accepted in Gethsemane and swallowed by the dying Christ on the cross (Mark 14:36; John 19:29). Similarly, water, oil, fire, breath, the touch of hands would all seem noteworthy but hardly meaningful in a contemporary context without all the grounding images that inhabit the biblically formed religious imagination. The same point could be made about some of the rather cerebral texts provided by our liturgical books, texts sorely in need of the enhancement of image and story. Liturgy without them risks becoming shallow.

But what happens when all these rich, multi-layered images and eloquent gestures fall on minds and hearts hardened by the constant tramp of language that is pedestrian, utilitarian, and manipulative? The language of technical manuals, information reports, and news accounts can be, and is, very useful in its place. We need instructions as technology grows more and more complex and pervasive. We need information, though we now receive it in a constant flow that sometimes threatens to drown out all other activities of the mind. We need facts upon which to base important decisions, though today facts can be hard to come by without accompanying rhetoric intended to shape those decisions as information slips subtly into coercion. Resistance and mistrust then become significant modes of listening that we bring to church with us without realizing it. Jesus imagines for us the consequences of attempting to grow wheat for bread with seed that falls on the paths of mind and heart trodden hard by such treatment: the seed sits unsprouted until other circumstances snatch it away (e.g., Matthew 8:4, 19). Paul asks poignantly, “how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14). I would add, “how can they hear if they have been deafened to the subtler poetry of image and story of our worship by the constant hammering of this one-dimensional language?” And what we cannot hear, we do not live.

Is there anything we can do to remedy this deafness, or at least to lessen it?
At this point, further tinkering with texts and rubrics seems to serve no purpose. In some cases, it has merely watered powerfully evocative language down to conceptual statements of a theological depth that excites serious readers in an intellectual context but catches almost no one’s attention in a liturgical celebration. Those who appreciate the formative power of evocative writing have often leveled this criticism against the translation of the opening prayers of the eucharistic celebration in the current edition of the Roman Catholic sacramentary, as one example. On the other side of the issue, the worshipers them- selves, we might note that English and writing teachers have lamented for years the gradual disappearance of imaginative, multi-dimensional language from language curricula. Learning to read and write a sound technical manual has more commercial value than learning to read and write a lyric essay or a sonnet. Most of us are neither called upon nor professionally prepared to address this lacuna in the field of educational reform. Efforts have been made, and success- fully, in some types of liberal arts programs, but their beneficiaries may or may not be sitting in the pews at worship.

There is a third alternative. We human beings come equipped with a powerful intuitive skill that is largely unconscious. I would call it the “associative imagination.” It is a familiar phenomenon. Advertisers make constant use of it by pairing, for example, the newest car with beautiful pictures of the mountain scenery to which it can give vacationers access. Similarly, they entice us with the latest electronic communication device or software by showing timely photos of virtual chats among happy family members separated from one another—best sellers during COVID! When we think of rugged mountains or joyful family gatherings we suddenly, and without knowing why, find ourselves wondering about buying a new car or more advanced gadgetry. However, the associative imagination often has little place in the pragmatic tasks of communicating fact and instruction that consume so much of our waking time, so it can easily fade into the background of our lives. Reawakening it where it has dimmed seems to be a task crucial to bridging the gap between the language of worship and the language of worshipers—and thus the gap between the texts of worship and the personal spiritual lives of those who hear and speak them.

Within the worship setting, the task seems to fall primarily to preachers, hymn writers, and musicians. Take, for example, a snippet from an ancient text still said or sung by the congregation in every Roman Catholic eucharistic celebration: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts, / Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” The phrase “Lord God of hosts” will likely fall flat for congregants who have little acquaintance with the prophetic texts emphasizing God’s power. (And that might be just as well because the prophets’ “Lord God of hosts” is an angry, violent, and punitive figure more likely to inspire us to cower in our seats—or under them!—than offer praise-filled worship.) “Glory” is a rather abstract word, again vaguely associated with God through its use in the doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, but in human experience usually attached to the quest for fame, adulation, and power. Someone who is a “glory hound” is not attractive—so why should we find a God of glory, whatever that means, any more appealing?

Preachers and musicians attuned to the need for revivifying the associate imagination of worshipers can make available potential associations that turn these ancient words into a powerful invitation to abandon ho-hum boredom and take the plunge into genuine worship of the all-holy God. When Isaiah 6:1-6 is read at the liturgy, a preacher might note that the vision that launched Isaiah on his prophetic paths offers a dramatic background to the familiar liturgical acclamation. The prophet amplifies its simple words with the account of his experience of God’s presence: “I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” So it was the great seraphs who originally inspired the familiar words given to us to say or sing! In a Catholic setting the preacher might point out to the assembly that, depending on the texts chosen for the penitential rite, we have already claimed to be in communication right here and now with all the angelic and saintly inhabitants of heaven. The book of Revelation pictures “heaven” as a place of dramatic worship where one of the texts sung is none other than “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God almighty” (Revelation 4:8; cf. 4:1-11). Imagine: we hope to join the choir already knowing a version of the lyrics! And the God we will worship then, but also next Sunday, is the same God of “glory,” a word that evokes the God concealed and revealed in the burning bush, instructing Moses to take off his shoes because the ground where he stands is ground made “holy”—that word again!—by God’s presence (Exodus 3:1-6). But so is the ground on which we stand in church! Suddenly we recognize hints that our mundane worship might not be so mundane.

Appropriate hymnody can strengthen the power of the imagery. Reginald Heber’s classic “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty” sung to John B. Dykes’s powerful tune “Nicaea” is a case in point. It haunts my own memory still, from Sunday morning worship in the Presbyterian church I attended as a child, where choir and assembly singing in parts and accompanied by a gifted organist brought the imagery vividly to life. Long experience of singing the hymn as a Catholic in many other liturgical contexts has not lessened its impact on me. When liturgical and biblical texts interact in such strong music, how dare we consider prosaic the mutual presence of the all-holy God and us sinners still on the road?

The task of stirring and nurturing the associative imagination is not only a liturgical but also a pastoral task. It is often thankless because it may stretch worshipers beyond comfortable familiarity and demand imaginative participation that is far more than cerebral. It falls to those entrusted with the challenging work of adult faith formation. Many churches have excelled at supporting Bible study. Without familiarity with the biblical foundations for the language of worship, worshipers may have limited access to the associations preachers, hymn writers, and music planners are trying to evoke and strengthen. How- ever, more than study is needed, as biblical educators know. To move between study, prayer, and life, as well as between communal worship, personal prayer, and biblically-inspired living, we need strong formation in praying biblical texts outside as well as in liturgical celebrations. Thus, we build bridges between disparate compartments of Christian life.

One approach to that task is to encourage and, as needed, instruct worshipers in the ancient art of what is traditionally called lectio divina, meaning simply holy reading. It is a matter of slow reading, pausing when one seems to be invited to pause to reflect on whatever a word or phrase or passage summons to mind, turning reflection into conversation with the God whose word this is, perhaps moving into quiet presence—then starting all over again. It has been described as a prayer technique that is not a technique! The “steps” are really just a summary of what people actually did and still do rather than a set of directions. It was the most common type of personal prayer in the church for many centuries and has enjoyed a strong revival today in many circles.

Lectio divina thrives on the capacity of the associative imagination to make connections, sometimes where no obvious connection exists. As an example, consider the Easter season when the liturgy invites us to ponder the stories of Jesus’ resurrection. We might hear or read, “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint [the dead Jesus]. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb” (Mark 16:1-2). The associative imagination invites another line into play: “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2). Perhaps that one is joined by, “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). That becomes a call: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). The image grows richer with each association.

It also offers a bridge from our personal prayer back into the liturgy by inviting a connection with the paschal candle leading worshipers through darkness into light, like the column of fiery cloud in Israel’s desert story (e.g., Exodus 13:21). The paschal candle continues to burn at every Eucharist during the Easter season, potentially calling to mind these biblical stories and images. In the context of personal prayer, these stories and images challenge us to look for
the moments in our lives when light has broken through darkness and to ask how we can be light bearers in the dark places of the world around us. The next time we find ourselves at worship with the paschal candle burning before us, we may discover a new insight into our communion with one another as bearers of Christ our Light.

Patiently building bridges by strengthening the power of the associative is not a universal panacea, of course, nor is it always a success. Given the interiority of personal prayer, we have no way of measuring. But the work matters. Words, perhaps most vividly in images and stories but also in exhortations and explanations, create worlds, just as God’s word did in Genesis 1. As we take them into what the Bible calls “the heart,” we are putting them to work, whether we realize it or not. The biblical heart, which I like to call wisdom’s workshop, mixes them with our daily experience and hammers out over time our world- view, our values, and the behavior they inspire. Mere data gathering becomes a part of that, of course, because it is part of our experience. It is useful knowledge. But the associative imagination, with its store of images and stories, provides richer fare for shaping a deeper wisdom. Anything we can do to transcend the clash of languages and enable worshipers, ourselves included, to integrate the language of fact and instruction with the language of the imagination fans a flame. It is the fire set by the Spirit who drew people of every language together at Pentecost and transformed them into a force for making real within our worship and far beyond it Jesus’ prayer and ours: “Thy kingdom come!”