“‘Indigenous liturgical adaptations” submitted to the Vatican for approval

Last March I posted about the proposal to “incorporate in the Catholic Eucharistic celebration indigenous Mayan rites” in Southern Mexico, centered around the Dioceses of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.  Now more details have been made public. The Mexican bishops’ conference have finished work on series of Indigenous liturgical adaptations for the celebration of the Eucharist for the “original peoples” of Mexico. During their 114th plenary assembly last April , the Mexican considered these adaptations and held a vote on them, where 103 of the 105 bishops voted to approve the adaptations.

ACI Prensa, the Spanish-language news partner of Catholic News Association (a service of EWTN News) Interviewed Cardinal Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel. Arizmendi is the emeritus bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas and coordinated the effort to prepare the proposed adaptations. CNA has published an English version of the story. Arizmendi has explained that “advancing the progress of inculturation of the Church in the native peoples and of taking responsibility for the celebration of Holy Mass with some elements of these cultures.”

 While earlier reports on the endeavor compared it to the Zaire Missal, the Cardinal explained that it’s not a question of creating a new Indigenous rite but of incorporating into the liturgy various ways of relating to God of these peoples and which express the same thing as the Roman rite, but in its cultural form.”

The adaptations were delivered to the Dicastery for Divine Worship in Rome where they are awaiting final approval. Arizmendi gave some details of the proposed adaptations that “can be incorporated into the Holy Mass without harming the eucharistic liturgy.” Three examples were mentioned.

The first of these is allowing a layman or laywoman to incense “the altar, the crucifix, the images, the offerings,” after the priest has blessed the incense.

The second is the appointment of a “senior layperson” would also be incorporated into the liturgical life of the community. This minister “is a man or woman who in the communities is entrusted with praying for the community; it’s a traditional position and is ordinarily called that by tradition and is chosen by the community, because they trust him or her.”

Finally, ritual dance would serve as a “Thanksgiving after Communion, [whereby] on some occasions, thanksgiving is performed with a ritual dance (light movements of the body), accompanied by instrumental music typical of the place.”


Cover art: Detail of the façade of la Iglesia de Santo Domingo in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas Mexico, from Wikimedia Commons

Book Review: When Church Stops Working

When Church Stops Working: A Future for Your Congregation
beyond More Money, Programs, and Innovation
By Andrew Root and Blair D. Bertrand

This a specially designed, shorter text, aimed at reaching ordinary people, clergy as well as lay, in serious reading and reflection on the local church, namely the parish. It distills a long, remarkable series of previous books by Andrew Root: Faith Formation in a Secular Age, The Pastor in a Secular Age, The Congregation in a Secular Age, The Church after Innovation, Churches after the Crisis of Decline,  Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2017, 2019, 2021, 2022, 2022. I too have tried to take on the situation of congregations in decline and shrinkage. The Church Has Left the Building: Faith, Parish and Ministry in the 21st Century, and Community as Church, Church as Community, Eugene OR: Cascade Publications, 2016, 2021.

In the Root-Bertrand volume of less than two hundred pages, many of the really fascinating earlier studies are omitted. I think for example, of what makes for the secular age in which we live. Charles Taylor’s massive study is the primary source. There is much that is transformed in the secular age. One example is that this is a time in which we cannot take anything beyond what is observable, measurable, verifiable as truth. Given the recent rise in “alternative facts” and the deniability of even documented statements by political operative, the complex character of our secular age goes without saying. This disenchantment of the world, reduction to the experience and feelings of the individual—an eclipse of community—all this is a huge challenge for communities of faith. Similarly, the corporate world presents strategies of growth, marketing methods that work for businesses of all kinds. So too, we have been told, for the church. If we are not constantly active in our congregations, if we are not consistently increasing membership and income, if we are not producing new and exciting programs, if we are not employing the efforts of megachurches in worship and member retention, then we are condemned to further shrinkage, closure, disappearance of congregations. Growth and change are the keywords of the church.

Root and now with his graduate school colleague Bertrand raise a very Barthian “NO” to all of this. Congregations need to again realize that the grace and power of God come from without, from beyond the church. Parishes need to stop their frantic busyness, for this is, in their view, a “killer cocktail,” busy people, busy church. Contrary to what secular culture seems to say—something Taylor himself was emphatic about—people of faith can indeed have a communal, public existence, something that has continues for more than two millennia despite all kinds of historical challenges. However, rather than reacting, struggling to find always newer ways of worshipping and reaching out, they need to be still, to wait on God, to learn again to resonate with each other, with the world in which they live, and most importantly, with God. The authors are calmly certain on that score, namely that God continues to speak to God’s people, through the scriptures, sacraments, their fellowship and learning, their ministry to their neighbors. Congregations need to learn again from the liturgy, the liturgical year, the scriptures, the feasts, that is, the tradition that has been passed down to them from apostolic times. They need not to try to recreate the primitive church, yet likewise they have to fight the urge, very much pressured upon them by consultants and specialists, to keep engineering newer and more attractive ways of being church.

Root and Bertrand are not at all interested in a how-to-do-it book, a manual for reviving a congregation, for ending shrinkage and decline. It may just be that our 21st century needs smaller, calmer and devoted congregations. People of God who know that waiting is one of the most biblical things they can do. What the authors propose is counterintuitive in the present, but absolutely right. They offer a couple of case studies of very different parishes—Queenston UCC and Prince of Peace Lutheran– and how these communities learned what might have appeared counter-intuitive. They call on Bonhoeffer, a potent source on community as church. They also at some length consult a major modern theologian who has been a special focus of my own study, the Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard, and I believe they bring readers the very best both of these have to offer, not to mention Karl Barth and Martin Luther King Jr. among others.

This admirably clear and succinct book can well be accessed by people in parishes, lay and clergy. As such it deserves a commensurately straightforward review and one which finds a great deal of wisdom of the best and most faithful kind. I have reviewed many of Root’s earlier publications in the same manner. Admittedly here and there I have found myself held up by some assumptions, one being that all Christians are Protestants. Granted the authors are and so they write, but well, not so all facing the challenge of being followers of Jesus today. I missed the centrality of the Eucharist, something fundamental and ecumenically so, in my biographical experience in churches East and West. This said, this is a solid and wise book and I hope it will be read and pondered.

Root, Andrew and Blair D. Bertrand. When Church Stops Working: A Future for Your Congregation beyond More Money, Programs, and Innovation. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2023. 176 pages. $21.99. ISBN: 9781587435782.

REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religion,
The City University of New York, Baruch College,
and has been a priest in the Western and Eastern Churches.
Community as Church, Church as Community
 (Cascade, 2021) is his most recent book.

May Day versus Labor Day

Today the General Roman Calendar celebrates St Joseph the Worker as an Optional Memorial. The observance is marked with more or less solemnity in different places. But I have always wondered why it is celebrated on May 1 in the United States.

Even though I am currently ministering in Ireland, the land of my birth, I hope that US readers will accept my reflection as a naturalized US citizen who had spent two thirds of my adult life in the US and as a presbyter ordained (and incardinated) in a US Archdiocese.

Simply put, I have always thought that the observance of St. Joseph the Worker would be better celebrated in the US on Labor Day.

Before Pius XII introduced this observance in 1955, May 1 had different emphases including Our Lady, St. Walpurga, as well as many other themes. However, since the late nineteenth century, May 1 has been observed as the International Workers’ Day. This civil observance had Marxist overtones in its origins, but today it is observed in most countries of the world. The Catholic liturgical observance is undoubtedly to counterbalance the Marxist origins of today’s International Workers’ Day.

However, May 1 it is not observed in the US and there is no need for a Christian counterbalance on that day. In the US, Labor Day has a similar function.  Therefore, I would propose that the US Church observe St. Joseph the Worker on Labor Day. Perhaps in certain parishes the May 1 modern liturgical observance is indeed popular (although I have never seen any evidence of it). But I would purpose that moving it to Labor Day would allow US Catholics to celebrate it better and would be a better opportunity for catechesis on the importance of work and the dignity and rights of workers.


Cover art: Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-1850) by John Everett Millais from Wikimedia.

Baptized in the Ecclesial Faith

Baptized in the Ecclesial Faith:
Notes on the Practice of Initiation in Catholic Austria

In the forty-day period before Easter, Christians are required to remember their Baptism and renew their lives. Thus they are heirs of baptismal candidates and penitents, who in early church times were accompanied by congregations in solidarity on the way to their reception or (having been excommunicated or otherwise separated) to their readmission into the church. After the normalization of the baptism of infants and later the Sacrament of Confession, the experience of ancient candidates and penitents was largely lost in the Western church.

New (Restored) Ways to Baptism
Almost 50 years ago, however, the liturgical reform initiated by the Second Vatican Council restored the catechumenate for adult baptismal candidates and school-age children. The renewed liturgical books thereafter offer a number of celebrations that structure, accompany, and support an independent person becoming a Christian. Like the Council Fathers, it seemed to the German-speaking bishops to be a “sign of the times” to at least supplement the dwindling family transmission of the faith with an initiation into the Christian faith appropriate for adults. Moreover, a considerable need for evangelization was recognized in the formerly communist eastern part of Germany. In traditionally Catholic Austria, there seemed to be no need for this (for the time being), but the numbers of (formal and legal) church resignations indicate more and more clearly the end of the popular church. Does this also mean the end of the baptism of infants and young children, which had been a matter of course since the fourth century? Only the Augustinian doctrine of the peccatum originale had made its triumphant advance possible and at the same time inscribed the fear of possibly unbaptized deceased children into the Catholic DNA. Have we followed these new (restored) paths to Baptism in this conciliar age?

A survey of pastors responsible for Baptism conducted throughout Austria in the summer of 2021 inquired whether the preparation of adults (and schoolchildren) for their incorporation has found its way into parish practice. This is not least in order to be prepared for church life in a changed social form. The memory of one’s own Baptism could be an important source for this, because Christian self-confidence is based on it; nowhere else can the transformation of humans into “new creation” be experienced in the flesh with comparable intensity and symbolic density.

It is not without reason that Baptism and the Eucharist are regarded as those sacramental celebrations without which there is no church. And yet many (in my homeland, the vast majority of) baptized people have no memory of their becoming Christian – so how are they to “commemorate” this event without any reference to experience?

Sobering Results
The results of the survey are sobering: in many places, due to lack of interest and opportunity, the question of the use of the renewed liturgical books and catechumenal celebrations does not even arise. In addition, there are deficits in the liturgical education of parish clergy and laity, as well as a need for improvement in the (structural) cooperation of those responsible. Only rarely do those responsible express regret about this; what someone doesn’t know won’t hurt – or even affect – them.

Despite declining numbers of Baptisms, infant Baptism is still a natural practice – whether for the sake of older relatives or “because it’s what we do” – without distinction as to whether parents are believers or agnostic believing or agnostic or whether parents who are less rather than more interested in church life bring their child to be baptized. To refuse or postpone a sacramental celebration with at least a minimal disposition is problematic under church law and frowned upon for pastoral reasons. After an obligatory baptismal interview with the pastor, the date of Baptism is arranged – preferably on Saturdays, Sundays or holidays – according to the wishes of many parents and pastors, and almost always outside of parish services. This is seen as an opportunity to respond to individual parental wishes and to show a family-friendly face of the church. Most church leaders also see a greater pastoral opportunity in the family celebration than in families being forced into a worshipping assembly unfamiliar to them on a random Sunday.

The Easter Vigil is the first choice for Baptism only in connection with the initiation of adolescents or adults; for younger unbaptized children of school age, the preparation time for the First Eucharist (usually at the age of 8) or its celebration is increasingly offered to mirror the baptismal preparation of older candidates.

In the rare case of an impending adolescent or adult Baptism, by far the most common celebration with parish participation is the admission to the catechumenate through the Rite of Election, followed by presentations, anointings, blessings, scrutinies, and the Ephphetha rite. However, local congregations only participate in the Rite of Election with the bishop in the case of asylum seekers or those entitled to asylum. The opportunity for mystagogical deepening of the experience with the newly baptized is almost never taken.

Celebrations that (can) take place within the framework of the usual parish Mass are much more frequent than those that would have to be scheduled separately in the parish calendar in terms of time or place. On the whole, interest is concentrated on the intensive period of preparation at its beginning and diminishes in the course of time. The initiation itself is then the climax and almost always the conclusion of the joint activity of the neophytes and their companions.

The focus of content during the catechumenate is mostly on knowledge of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, the most important church dogmas, and the church year. The liturgy, on the other hand, as the primary place of learning the faith, was mentioned only once in the survey responses, “so that the preparation of the (mostly foreign-language) catechumen can take place not only theoretically, but with all the senses.” Unfortunately, this fits in with the fact that in some places the various liturgical books are so little known (or unavailable) even to clergy that even a school child is baptized using the infant baptismal rite without this being noticed.

Lastly, pastors were asked for their assessment of whether and how the participation of baptized believers in the process of forming other Christian might affect their own baptismal awareness. Where this experience is lacking, a possible effect is judged skeptically and is also not missed; where, on the other hand, adult Baptisms can be witnessed, a positive influence that spiritually enriches all involved is evident.

Despite dedicated efforts at the diocesan level, the incorporation of adults is not an issue for Austria’s Catholics: it is considered a minority program, “for others,” meaning primarily migrants and asylum seekers. Even for those responsible (mostly lay people) who enthusiastically accompany people to Baptism, it is hardly considered in these circles to delay the baptism of a child. Do Christian parents see no added value in their children’s personal “yes” to the faith? Precisely because they consciously want to introduce them to Christian church life? Shouldn’t they have a special interest in allowing their children to remember and internalize their own, mature decision for the faith and its celebration?

One Baptism – Two Sacraments?
Admittedly, the incorporation of adolescents and adults into the church achieves no differing results in terms of church law and dogma than the baptism of young children: namely, the officially established membership in the church. This alone, however, does not make the newness of life visible.

Some differences between the two baptismal rites, on the other hand, are so serious as if they were two completely different sacraments: For whom is which path to Baptism open? On what terms does someone become a “new creation” (2 Cor 51:7; Gal 6:15)? Ontologically-essentially or existentially? Is the candidate for Baptism the subject or object of the celebration? Both models of incorporation into the church stand abruptly side by side and are applied in completely different life situations. Their partly common ritual repertoire is based on their own anthropological and theological premises, which are difficult to reconcile. Can personal faith be indispensable in one case and completely irrelevant in another? Can the same rites and symbols be meaningful and at the same time be applied to affected people who cannot grasp them? In particular, those sacramental observances that (should) constitute and give rise to Christian existence and church life?

The paradigmatic reception of a sacrament without constitutive participation of one’s own may have been plausible at one time, but “an ecclesial practice that attends only to validity damages the sacramental organism of the Church, because it reduces it to one of its essential aspects.”[1] The culture of sacramental celebration is still suffering from this today. But if “as an essential constituent, sacramental logic includes the free response, the acceptance of God’s gift, in a word: faith – however incipient that faith may be, especially in the case of Baptism,”[2] why is there no mention of this in the later statements of the International Theological Commission on (infant) Baptism? Rather, “it is emphasized that the faith in which we are baptized is the ecclesial faith” because “on this occasion, the parents act as representatives of the Church, which welcomes these children into her bosom.”[3]

Toward the Annual Celebration of Easter
“Lent is a preparation for the celebration of Easter. For the Lenten liturgy disposes both catechumens and the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery: catechumens, through the several stages of Christian initiation; the faithful, through reminders of their own baptism and through penitential practices.”[4]

The most intense baptismal memory remains connected with participation in the baptism of others. Every baptismal celebration therefore requires special care in dealing with the symbolic acts of language and signs and a corresponding not only catechetical but also mystagogical attention to the salvation events celebrated. In fact, the latter does not take place in the German-speaking world. There is some willingness to experience ‘foreign’ baptisms in the Catholic milieu there, but without any interest in consequences for the ‘domestic’ practice. The sensus fidei fidelium remains traditional and clearly states: children of Catholic parents should be baptized immediately. The possible inclusion of even newborn children in the catechumenate is not an attractive (because it’s too strenuous?) alternative. The argument often put forward in favor of early baptism, that unbaptized children do not come into contact with the Christian faith, is in any case not valid. By no means are all baptized children are brought up in the faith of the church or even learn about it. Conversely, Christian parents will exemplify their faith to their children and introduce them to it. Moreover, after their admission to the catechumenate, the Church has a special obligation to them, because they are joined “in a special way to it [cf. the Church …] which already cherishes them as its own” and “already grants them various prerogatives which are proper to Christians.”[5]

Instructive History?
The pronounced dichotomy of baptismal practice is admittedly not unprecedented. Already in late antiquity, the church in Palestine of the fourth and fifth centuries knew the demanding and elaborate cathedral baptismal ritual (which required an orderly ecclesiastical administration) and a strongly simplified baptismal ritual without detailed catechesis, which suited the rural, often nomadic majority population.[6] Situational variants are also found in the early medieval Roman sacramentaries: the full form integrated into the church year as an introduction to church and society under episcopal direction, as well as other shortened forms – for the sick and dying, for example – with a ritual reduced to what was necessary for salvation.[7]  For the baptism of infants, which were performed as a matter of course in parish churches throughout the year, the rites of catechumenate and incorporation had already grown together into a “monster of liturgy”[8] with no connection to life. Who experienced which ceremony depended on life circumstances or social position.

Contemporary baptismal practice fits easily into this historical finding: It, too, can be celebrated rite et recte in more than one way, validly and permissibly, according to the situation. Wouldn’t it therefore also make sense to have a more adequate rituality for the respective setting? In the case of infants and young children, it could be limited to the marking with the sign of the cross and the core action with the water (infusion or immersion), which vouches for the promise of salvation according to Rom 6:5. Symbols strung together additively, whose theological, Christological, pneumatological, anthropological, soteriological, and ecclesiological implications that cannot even be approximated at this stage of life are wasted in the child’s experience. These richer symbols and rituals might follow later at one or more occasions, according to the individual’s journey of faith. Don’t the promises associated with initiation of participation in the threefold office of Christ as king, priest, and prophet, in spiritual anointing and enlightenment, in being clothed with the paschal existence of the Risen One, deserve to be heard and accepted in the flesh? How else should baptism be “remembered”?

Important decisions in life require also otherwise in life more than the agreement of two dates. Taking time for this and granting time to each other shows the greatest possible respect for the freedom of faith and decision of others and recognizes their serious efforts to find their own vocation.

[1] International Theological Commission, The reciprocity between faith and sacraments in the sacramental economy, Nr. 66.

[2] Ibid., 67.

[3] Ibid., 91.

[4] General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, Nr. 27.

[5] Codex iuris canonici 1983, can. 206 §1+§ 2.

[6] See the Study by Juliette Day, Baptism in Early Byzantine Palestine 325–451, Cambridge 1999.

[7] Cf. Bruno Kleinheyer, “Die Feier der Taufe seit dem Frühmittelalter,” in: GDK 7,1 Sakramentliche Feiern I: Die Feiern der Eingliederung in die Kirche, Regensburg 1989, S. 96 –135.

[8] August Jilek, Eintauchen, Handauflegen, Brotbrechen: Eine Einführung in die Feiern von Taufe, Firmung und Erstkommunion, Regensburg 1996, S. 107.

Zaire Rite in Mexico

The Zaire Rite is a favorite of liturgists. It seems that everybody from Pope Benedict XVI to Pope Francis thinks it is a good idea and a valuable fruit of the Second Vatican Council and a good example of the liturgical renewal that it promoted.

However, the reality is that very few have personally participated in a celebration of this liturgy. The few examples that Pope Francis has presided in the Vatican or on his recent trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo are the closest that most of us have come to participating in a Eucharist celebrated according to this edition of the Roman Missal.

During the Amazonian Synod, the possibility of similar adaptations that could be used in the regions of the Amazon was proposed. Not many specifics have emerged yet from these proposals.  But this week several stories (here, here and here) have appeared from the Dioceses of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the South of Mexico. The news stories report that Cardinal Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, the emeritus bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, is coordinating an effort to provide something similar to the Zaire Rite that will “incorporate in the Catholic Eucharistic celebration indigenous Mayan rites, such as dance, music and the participation of women.”  This will be presented to the Mexican bishops’ Conference in April and then in May it is scheduled to be delivered to Rome by Bishop Víctor Sánchez, the head of the Mexican Bishops’ Pastoral liturgy commission.

Cardinal Arizmendi Esquivel’s interview took place at the end of a meeting in Chiapas that was also attended by Bishop Aurelio García Macías, undersecretary of the Dicastery for Divine Worship. The current bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Rodrigo Aguilar Martínez, was also in attendance and said how

Estamos trabajando en una reunión que es importante para la Diócesis, el país, la Iglesia de México y la Iglesia universal en cuanto a adaptaciones litúrgicas.

(We are working in this meeting on liturgical adaptations that are important for the Dioceses, the country, the Church in Mexico and the Universal Church).

Unfortunately, none of the news reports contain any specific details. PrayTell already reported in 2014 that Pope Francis authorized the celebration of the liturgy in Tzotzil and Tzeltal, two languages used in the State of Chiapas.  The incorporation of dance, song and the vernacular are nothing new.  Likewise, the “participation of women” is not something novel, particularly in light of Pope Francis’ opening of the Ministries of Lector, Acolyte and Catechist to women.

I know that not all readers on PrayTell agree with me (see here), but I don’t think that there is such a great need for inculturation that goes beyond the current liturgical books and norms (while I do acknowledge that not every attempt at the implementation of these reforms has been successful).  Basically everything that these recent reports focused on is already permitted.  The vernacular, local music, local art and architecture are all fully permitted and examples abound. Maybe I am a throwback to some Tridentine past, but I think that what is needed both in areas of traditional Catholic heritage and in regions where the Faith is more recent, is a proper implementation of the current Roman Rite. So much remains to be done in implementing the reform we already have and fostering a coherent ars celebrandi. But I do acknowledge that I am probably in the minority here and the presence of Bishop García Macías at the meeting is significant. Hopefully more will be revealed by the Mexican bishops in April or when they make their proposal to the Dicastery in May.  But in the meantime, readers can point out in the comments what they think and enlighten me as to what I am missing in the Inculturation area.


Cover art:San Andrés Xecul church, Guatemala, from Wikimedia Commons