Liturgy, Asian Style

Eastern Christians are suspicious of the new
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Mass at Myongdong Cathedral in Seoul, South Korea (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

 

[This article first appeared in the April 2nd, 1965 issue of Commonweal]

While the intellectuals in Europe are speculating whether or not it will be possible some day for Japanese Christians to celebrate the Eucharist using rice and sake rather than bread and wine, in Japan itself, as in the rest of Asia, the real liturgical problems are much more prosaic. Adaptation is a wonderful ideal, but you first have to know what it is that you are adapting. If there were intelligent and active participation in the liturgy that now exists some real work on adaptation could begin.

But the Word of God is heard as little in the Churches of Asia as in the West. Dialogue between sanctuary and nave is about as uncommon there as here, and communal singing of the people's parts in the liturgy needs restoring at both ends of the globe. It is in these areas that the real spade-work needs to be done, and it is not all that different when you are on the other end of the Pacific Ocean. In both places the Church must take her liturgy as it is and do her best to restore what is meaningful in it.

But why, it may be asked, must the young churches of Asia be forced to undergo this slow, painful process? Why should our brothers in the East be shackled with what, after all, are the traditions of the West? Why not throw out the old Roman liturgy that no one understands and start over with a radically new and adapted one? How nice it would be if the mission in Asia were of unencumbered experimentation, if we could avoid there all the mistakes that weigh against renewal in the West. We should not have to fight against traditions and old habits, against Latin and novenas and all the inertia implied in the complaint: "They're changing our religion."

Imagine the chance to take an unspoiled pagan, initiate him from the very start through meaningful rites and biblically-founded catechesis into the true nature of Christianity, baptize him into a young and enthusiastic Christian community vibrating with new life, centered around the Sunday altar and capable of bearing witness to the incarnate Christ through forms thoroughly adapted to the psychology of the Orient. Why impose Latinisms and constipated Roman gestures and vernacularized Gregorian chant? What we want is a thoroughly Japanese liturgy, a Chinese liturgy, an Indian liturgy, some reformers are demanding.

Problems in Adaptation

But this is not facing the facts. Christianity has been in the East for a long time. The Spanish and the Portuguese brought the piety of the sixteenth century there with them, its art and its architecture, and, yes, its superstitions. And it was a very easy thing, and, in the eyes of some, an enlightened mission-method, to substitute the rosary for prayer beads and the saints for lesser manifestations of Buddha and vigil lights for joss-sticks and the nine first Fridays for "their special days and months and seasons and years."

The nucleus of a Christian community exists nearly everywhere. These Asian Christians may be aliens to their own culture, marginals with a ghetto mentality, but they are the chosen race, the "remnant." To turn our backs on them is the answer to nothing. And if the only effective apostolate is that of like to like, that of the indigenous layman, we have to take this indigenous layman as he is. He is very often a man to whom Christianity is the one solid thing in a world of upheaval, the one unchanging hope in the midst of poverty, insecurity and social unrest. He has chosen Christianity and painfully sacrificed many of his ancestors' traditions because to him the name Peter has come to mean Rock. He is not looking for what is modem, nor for what is ancient, but for what is timeless. And often enough he has encountered eternity through the rosary, through a cheap image of the Sacred Heart, or in the tinkling of the bell at a silent Low Mass.

Sometimes this kind of Christianity is a case of pure alienation. Often enough, however, we have a man deeply in love with his country and his people and convinced that only Christ can save civilization. But he has little time for subtle distinctions about what is essential and what is ephemeral in Christianity. It was post-Reformation Catholicism that he embraced and there lurks in his subconscious the silent fear that if you remove that adjective, the noun might disappear as well.

Asian Christians are suspicious of the liturgical apostolate because it is something new, and because it is usually pushed by beardless young foreign priests who never knew persecution, are uncommonly friendly with Buddhists and Protestants, and are a bit naive in their willingness to adapt to Christian worship elements from other religions that retain strong connotations of superstition or eroticism for the people themselves. An Indian bishop related rather triumphantly, "I took one of those modem pictures of Christ in Indian dress and put it in the front of my Church for a whole day. The people came up to it, looked and shook their heads." Time and again you get the refrain:

"The people don't like it," from disappointed young missioners, from reassured old missioners, and from the Europe-trained indigenous clergy. And they are right. The people don't like it - at first anyway. Of course that is not a valid criterion, and many people realize this. But the modem missionary is trained to avoid imposing his ideas imperiously, and he would like the changes to come from the local clergy. And these local clergy in turn reflect the conservatism of the people and are often more enamored of things Roman than the missionaries are. For all these reasons the fact of having a conciliar document such as the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from the Second Vatican Council is even more important in Asia than in Europe and America. We now have clear directives from the central authority of the Church. The response will come very slowly, but it will come. Proposals for use of the vernacular were sent to Rome by nearly all the national episcopal conferences, within months of the Constitution's promulgation.

The bishops of Korea have already erected qualified and effective commissions on catechetics and the liturgy. Sessions and study-weeks for the priests have begun. Taiwan and Hong Kong have acted similarly. The Bishops of Japan made a first step in the direction of adaptation by eliminating genuflections in favor of the more traditional bow and doing away with the thoroughly European custom of kissing a bishop's ring. In themselves these are rather piddling things that common sense should perhaps have called for four hundred years ago (the first Japanese ritual did, as a matter of fact, leave out the joining of hands at marriage because it did not correspond to their customs) but they are significant signs of a new trend.

Renewal in the Far East does have elements in its favor. The silent Mass is almost unknown in the Churches of Asia. The early missioners composed prayers which paraphrase, or at least allude to, the different parts of the Mass and a catechist usually leads the congregation in these prayers in approximate synchronization with the priest's progress at the altar. The old Chinese Prayer-Book, composed in the seventeenth century and still used in many places, was perhaps the source of this tradition. A recent critical study of this book by Father Paul Brunner of the East Asian Pastoral Institute has pointed out some of its shortcomings. It was adapted to a certain moralizing tendency of the Chinese, but it was not adapted to the true nature of the Mass and its biblical foundations. Many errors can be committed in the name of adaptation.

When the celebrant arrives at the altar to begin Mass in many of the older Churches of Hong Kong or Taiwan, Japan or Korea, a high-pitched male voice from somewhere in the crowd begins a monotonous chant that is taken up by all and carried on, with only short pauses, right through the Canon to the end. It sounds like active participation; it is really more like two forms of worship, a private Latin Mass and a community vernacular devotion service being carried on simultaneously. Had it not been for Communion and the Leonine prayers all these years, there would have been no exchange between altar and people at all. Nevertheless, the people are accustomed to something more than the total silence of the Irish tradition.

Liturgical Music

A critical area in the whole question of liturgical adaptation is that of liturgical music. In places like Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines, modern American jazz and classical European music are in full vogue. Consequently, many are hesitant about adapting, for liturgical usage, native musical forms which the younger generation has almost entirely repudiated. Here we have a typical dilemma for the missionary. Must we impose upon a struggling, foreign-staffed Church the duty of preserving through its liturgy the musical heritage of a nation that is itself enthusiastic for nothing but the foreigner's very own type of music?

Ideally one might say that the Church will do a great service to the nation and to civilization by preserving the musical riches of the past for the day when all the pro-Western fads die down and the people return to their own traditions. But there are so many more pressing tasks, and so many rootless young people who want modernity or nothing. What does the true spirit of adaptation call for in this case?

Even in the face of such a dilemma, something better could be given to the Asian Church than what it has had up till now. The Mass of the Angels, "Nearer my God to Thee," and even "Daily Daily sing to Mary" can be heard today in Korean or Chinese or Tagalog. The problem here lies with the liturgical life of the home countries that staff the Asian Churches. If such is all that the foreign missioner himself knows or likes, you can hardly expect him to recognize a better native melody when he hears it. There are legitimate reasons why the Church cannot just shed its European culture overnight. But there is less excuse for importing the products of our most degenerate periods. It is no accident, I think, that the first Japanese Mass was composed by a Swiss priest with a German-sounding name. It takes a cultivated man to appreciate someone else's culture. (One might add that candidates for the foreign missions are not going to be helped very much in this regard by the new English liturgy. Gregorian chant is objectively a better preparation for "cultural transfer" than Father Clarence River's Mass.)

Ultimately, of course, the liturgical music of Japan must be composed by Japanese, but the indigenous composer must receive the foreigner's enlightened encouragement. This work has already begun and results can be seen in certain new compositions. Except for South-Eastern India, however, where a whole repertoire of Tamil church music is available, the musical situation is poor by any cultural standards.

The problem of church architecture is just as complicated. Thirty years ago, you were very avant garde if you built your church in the style of a Buddhist or Shinto temple. But the people never liked it much. Nowadays the trend of those who have enough money is toward International-Modern- and the Christians are still not over-enthusiastic about this. In any case, the average American missioner (and this may come as a surprise to some) usually does not have as much money as, say, his German confrere, to build a big modern church.

I think this is a blessing in disguise. When the American does have money for extras the result is often a disaster. Usually he is reduced to constructing a simple rectangle out of cement-block made on the premises, and covering it with a corrugated iron roof. He has to be honest about it and this is his saving grace.

The trouble is that simplicity is not very popular. Plain churches don't have much "face." When a Mary-knoller in Korea built a plain cinder-block church and asked his people what they thought, they conceded "It's nice," and then added "but not as nice as Chang Ho Wun." Chang Ho Wun is a cathedral in the wilderness built by a French missioner at the turn of the century. His ideal of a Church must have consisted in a cross between Lourdes and Sacrè Coeur de Montmartre. The people's liking for it is symptomatic. For the triumphalism of the Second Empire has rubbed off on Catholicism in Korea just as it has on the whole Church. It is easy to condemn it. The only Christian answer, however, is to live with it, and through love of the people and through patient education, to transform it.

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