Bishop Bhai Articles

Accommodation, Acculturation, Inculturation
Leobard D’Souza, D.D.
Archbishop Emeritus of Nagpur, India


All of these terms are from cultural anthropology. Since Vatican Council II, they have been used increasingly in reference to liturgy. The first two in particular are the way in which liturgy may be adapted to local needs. Accommodation means making adjustments which do not take the culture of the people into account. An example of this would be when it became possible for communicants to take the Eucharist into their own hands rather than to be given it. There are Indian dioceses which accepted the western custom of placing the Eucharist into the left hand of the communicant and having them use their right hand to put it into their mouths. This practise flies in the face of much of Asian culture in terms of using the right hand for eating but the left hand for toilet purposes.

Acculturation is in a sense a half way measure between accommodation and inculturation. It takes the indigenous culture seriously but in fact defers in its final interpretations to Roman culture and usage. In the acculturation process the rather somber and formal Roman canons may be recharged with language that is more affective. This was the major effort made in 1969 by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India which canons were not adopted by the lack of one vote.

Attempts at acculturation were present in the early church. After fear of all that was pagan, no matter how noble those practises were, eventually things like the kissing of a sacred object to indicate respect began to appear in worship. Pagan feasts like the Saturnalia (Christmas) and the goddess of fertility Estre (Easter), came to be adapted into Christian worship.

Matteo Ricci and Roberto de Nobili, Italian Jesuits, both tried in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to effect the acculturation of worship in China and India. Although both had initial approval of their efforts by the popes, their efforts were subsequently villified. In particular, de Nobili felt that asking converts in India to accept western religious customs, rather than missionaries adapting to the local customs was detrimental to the whole mission process.

At Vatican Council II the guidelines for liturgical renewal were that anything not intrinsically evil, and anything not blatantly superstitious could be used if it is in accord with the spirit of the liturgy.

What then of inculturation? Inculturation is the process by which an individual learns the culture of his or her group. The person experiences it, observes it, and is taught it. This is a process that comes from within the culture involved. When this process is applied to the liturgical scene, it means that local customs and rituals are given Christian meaning. It is fair to say that inculturation places more faith in the native culture itself than does accommodation or acculturation.

In the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, (Cf. Nota 58) it is clear that all missionary endeavour is to take place from within all the cultures of humankind. In 1975, Pope Paul VI, confirmed this approach in Evangelii Nuntiandi. But where are we now, in terms of the recommendations of these documents. Despite the fact that both call for the national conferences of bishops to make decisions concerning inculturation, assisted by liturgical experts, Rome is once again reserving to itself the final word on what is acceptable inculturation. When the Bishops’ Conferences of the United States and Canada said that inclusive language is a must in their cultures, both were told that only verbatim translations of scripture and approved canons are acceptable. Not even transliterations are finding favour with Rome. Where does this leave the bishops in terms of their knowledge of their own cultures? Karl Rahner is reported to have said at the end of Vatican Council II, that, “The rites question has only just begun.” It would seem that he was prophetic. Peter is reported as confirming in Acts 10 that God shows no partiality in terms of the nations. Any nation that fills God’s desire for justice and mercy is acceptable in God’s Eyes. It would seem that several members of the curial offices have yet to achieve that particular Petrine understanding.

Where does this leave us in India? Noble efforts have been made in this country beginning with the work of the late Father Amalorpavadass at the National Biblical, Catechetical, and Liturgical Centre in Bangalore. His successors and their colleagues have continued to work toward an authentic inculturation of the liturgy, indeed of all of the Christian message into Indian life. Artists like Jyoti Sahi and his associate Lucy, along with Sr. Clare, SMMI, are doing outstanding work in incorporating Indian art into liturgical art. The Pauline ministries are active in this inculturation as well. And this is to name just a few. But there is still such a long way to go. Despite the “love fest” that the recent synod on the role of bishops is being called, there are many who know that inculturation is not being taken seriously and are making every effort to be sure that the indigenous persons of each area are being taken seriously. NBCLC itself knows that much of what it has been promoting by way of inculturated liturgies speaks more of brahmin practises than those of adivasis. If we are promoting proclamation and liturgy from within cultures, can we live them out and be authentically Indian? And does this not mean that we must learn from and with those whom we serve if we ourselves are not sons and daughters of the soil?

Let me share with you just a few things which I have incorporated into my ministry with and to peoples in Thana and Peti Chua in an attempt to make my time with them mutually worthwhile. On Palm Sunday we begin our procession at the entrance to the village and all walk together to the church. On Holy Thursday twelve people wash each others’ feet. I wash my driver’s feet and vice versa. An aged childless husband and wife wash each others’ feet. A young husband and wife who have just had their first child, was each others’ feet, and so on, as the occasion warrants. On Holy Saturday when I move among the homes and bless them, we chant the litany of the saints during that and we include the saints’ names of the members of the household as we proceed from location to location. I will not go into more details since those who are alumni of St. Charles and have attended my pastoral ministry workshop for deacons will have experienced much of my own present and ongoing attempts at inculturation.

We need courage and wisdom if Catholicism is to be truly inculturated into India in all facets of our spiritual lives. It is not a work for the faint-hearted. And we do not need people at any level telling those of us who would worship with our religious neighbours that they are idolaters of some sort or another. We need poets and musicians and artists and dancers who come from within their own diverse cultures and celebrate the Spirt of God alive and well within it. And above all, we need people who will resist a neo-colonial spiritualty of any kind or sort. So let it be.

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