Father, In the CT (30.7.00) you say “God loves variety.” This is clearly true, not only from the number of species of beetles but also from the huge number of shapes and sizes, colours and cultures of mankind. How then can we understand that God requires all mankind to worship Him in the same way? For 400 years the Mass was identical throughout the world. Now there are slight variations in that the words are in the vernacular but fundamentally the Mass is the same act of worship worldwide

            Bread and wine are essential elements, but in some parts of the world they are unknown. The Masai live on milk and meat: the Eskimos (Inuit) lived on fish and blubber until the Hudson Bay Company built a supermarket. It would seem sensible for all the various cultures to devise their own forms of worship. That would coincide with God’s love of variety but it is contrary to Catholic teaching. I admire the Catholic missionaries and understand the value of teaching Christian virtues to people who lack them. But I find it hard to understand the sense of imposing uniformity of worship, including the use of the all-important bread and wine where it is otherwise unknown . . “


            This is a thoughtful question which raises various issues: what is essential to Christianity, what is merely cultural accretion? What is the relationship between Catholicism and non-Christian religions?  How far can the Mass and the sacramental rites be inculturated, adapted and enriched with the prevailing local culture?

Firstly it is important to distinguish between solemn public liturgy, above all the Mass, and private devotion, where it is a case of each to his own, providing there is nothing contrary to faith or morals. “Leiturgia” in the Greek means “public service, public work.”

Privately one may express one’s love of God through painting, carving statues, singing, playing musical instruments, writing meditations or holy stories, through dance or adoration or charismatic prayer or silent contemplation or jumping up and down on mountain tops. Each to his own.  But public worship, especially the Mass, expresses the universality of the Church. It is the gathering of the community, not merely of individuals. Therefore it requires a commonly accepted rubric of prayer and praise of God. Furthermore, the Mass is not primarily our prayer, but Jesus’ prayer and sacrifice to the eternal Father on our behalf|: its basic form of Scripture readings plus the Eucharistic liturgy has been handed down by the Church and is not negotiable.

Sadly in the Latin rite we have few services other than Mass. Thus we make the mistake of identifying worship with the Mass alone. It is indeed the highest form of worship in which we are called to participate. In the Mass we are joined most fully to Christ and receive His Body and Blood. But there are many other forms and styles of worship which give honour and glory to God – private devotions both traditional (Stations, Rosary, Exposition, Ignatian Gospel meditation, Novenas, Processions) and modern (Taize chant, liturgical dance, prayer groups, healing services . . )

            As regards Catholic missionaries, they not go out just to “teach Christian virtues to those who lack them.” They go to bring the Good News, the truth about what the Eternal God has done for humanity. They go to tell of God the Son who was murdered on the cross, who took away the sins of the world and conquered our last enemy, death. They go to bring not just knowledge of virtue, which pagan races may already have to a remarkable extent (cf. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Buddha and Confucius), but forgiveness of sins and eternal joy.

            Judaeo-Christianity is not just one alternative among many world religions. It is the unique, true and guaranteed path to union with God for eternity. Good people in other religions may be saved, but if they are, it will be only through Christ, not through Mohammed or Buddha or Krishna.

The Holy Sacraments are the primary means God has instituted to give us the spiritual strength to climb the narrow path to heaven. They may be celebrated in different languages, in different cultures, but it must be the same seven, God-given Sacraments that are celebrated.

            The assertion that “for 400 years the Mass was identical throughout the world” is incorrect and betrays a common post-Tridentinist mentality. Throughout most of the Latin rite the Mass was identical – but Trent did not suppress rites more than 200 years old: the Ambrosian rite in Milan, the Mozarabic rite in Toledo, the Dominican rites remained in operation. Once last century, Rome offered to restore the Sarum Rite to England, but our bishops declined the offer, just as they recently refused to allow an “Anglican rite” for convert Anglican parishes.

            Besides the Latin rite, the universal Church has fifteen Eastern rites in full communion with Rome. Although less numerous, these are all of ancient or apostolic origin. Ignorance about them, and a tendency to view them as primitive or schismatic has led to gross injustices.

In southern Italy many Greek-rite Catholic parishes (remember that Calabria and Sicily had large Greek minorities until well into the Middle Ages) were forced by violence into the Latin rite. Churches were burnt and congregations threatened with death until they converted. “See how these Catholics love one another!” The same happened in Ukraine and Belarus in the seventeenth century, when the RC Poles forced Catholic Uniates and Orthodox to renounce their ancient rites and accept Latinization.

            So the Mass was never in Latin throughout the world. The Catholic Copts used Coptic and Arabic, the Maronites used Syriac and Arabic. The Armenian Catholics used Armenian, the Slavs used Church Slavonic, the Romanian Uniates used Romanian, the Italo-Albanians used Albanian, the Melchites used Old Greek and Arabic, and the Syro-Malabar and Syro Malankarese Catholics of India use Malayalam. Not quite so uniform a picture as we mistakenly suppose.

            Moreover, when Fr Matteo Ricci (d.1610) began the evangelisation of China and founded 300 churches, the Mass and Sacraments were celebrated in Chinese (what did Latin mean to them?). The Jesuit missionaries permitted an adaptation of the ancient Chinese rites of honouring one’s ancestors and paying homage to Confucius. They argued that there was nothing harmful in these traditional customs, so long as they were properly understood. One should not place unnecessary barriers in the path of converts to the Faith.

            A century later a Spanish Dominican denounced the Chinese rites at Rome. A bitter conflict between the religious orders ensued. In 1693 a new hardline Vicar Apostolic condemned the Jesuit innovations and enforced Latin Tridentine Catholicism. The Chinese Emperor retaliated by forbidding the preaching of Christianity and in 1724 expelled all missionaries. Fr Ricci’s work lay in ashes.

            If the Church had had Vatican II’s insights on inculturation at that time, the evangelisation of the largest country on earth might now be 300 years further advanced. Perhaps we should see the Roman rite as offering a basic template for the Sacred Liturgy. Each culture then adapts this, adding it own music, hymns, rituals and actions, provided that they do not offend the basic spirit of the rite.

            As to the use of wheaten bread and fermented fruit of the grape in the Eucharist, this goes back to Christ’s instruction: “Do this in memory of me.” The Mass is an anamnesis of the Last Supper, that is, a re-enactment which makes present the reality celebrated. Elsewhere in the Gospel Jesus says: “I am the living bread come down from heaven.” “I am the true vine.” Nowhere does he say “I am the fish of life” still less “I am the rice paddy” or “I am the mead.”

            Since the Eucharist is the most important Reality on Planet Earth, it is essential that we enact it according to Christ’s expressed will. The Church has never allowed rice-wine or rye-bread or any other substitutes. The consecration of bread and wine by a male priest, using Jesus’ exact words, is necessary to connect us to the historical incarnate Son of God. If we used potatoes and beer, or rice and saki, or indeed fish and blubber, it might be a nice “agape-meal”, but it would not be the Mass.

            In the Middle Ages the need for altar wine stimulated both viticulture and trade. Monasteries took a leading role in this. Scandinavia and Scotland were wholly Catholic. Wine was fetched from Germany and France to these harsh northern climes. Ecclesial communion necessitated economic communion!

            There is always a tension between local culture and universal Faith, between what is peripheral and what is essential. That is a consequence of being a living Church, not a fossilised institution. May it be a creative and a fruitful tension.


N.B. Fr Marsden is on occasion willing to answer readers’ questions in this column. Please contact either via the CT offices or by e-mail: fmarsden@stjosephs43.freeserve.co.uk