BIA Benedict XVI Institute for Africa
Father Denis

Father Denis Tameh
Mamfre Diocese

The Christian God and Culture in Africa – Part 5

Fortunately or unfortunately, most of Africa was evangelized by Latin rite missionaries. Which means that the way we worship God in the celebration of Mass and the sacraments is typically Roman, western or Latin.

The church Catholic is made up of 21 sui iuris churches with 7 major rites (Roman, Byzantine, Alexandrian, Syriac, Armenian, Maronite and Chaldean). Of these rites the Alexandrian is the only African rite used in the Coptic and Ethiopian churches. The rites develop within particular cultures and reflect the cultural outlook of the people and their approach to the divine. The Chaldean rite and all the churches sui iuris that use it, is steeped in Babylonian culture which is modern day Iraq; the Byzantine rite and all the churches sui iuris using it, is steeped in Hellenic and byzantine culture, the Alexandrian rite steeped in Coptic culture which is Egyptian and Ethiopian. These various churches sui iuris and their rites reflect the way they worship, it encompasses all the essential elements of their existence and various stages in life from birth, adulthood, marriage, sickness and death.

Having been evangelized by Latin rite missionaries, most of Africa then knows no other form of worship than the Roman rite. A truly beautiful rite. The African had to learn the order and solemnity which characterized this rite with its sublime solemn and soul-searching Latin chants, its powerful sense of order, aesthetics and awe. As to whether this solemnity struck a harmonious chord with the outgoing and gay African soul is a question still to be answered. The African was taught how to sing these chants. In the strict sense of the Roman rite, the drum which is the African instrument of worship par excellence has no place. There is no dancing within mass for dance has never been associated with Worship in the European culture. People could dance and sing vernacular songs outside of a mass. Vatican II came and changed all that. It encouraged the use of vernacular, of dancing and drums (Sacrosanctum Concilium). Dancing in the Roman world has never been a form of worship, it rather had negative undertones. The 13th century Dominican Etienne de Bourbon, a famous preacher said the devil is the inventor of all dances. Another preacher Jacques de Vitry described dancing as ‘a circle in the middle of which stands the devil and where everybody goes leftwards because everybody tends toward eternal death.’ This was a very commonly held notion in Christian Europe and so we can understand the frown on dancing in the Latin rite. But in Africa this is different. Dance is part and parcel of worship; It is the way he expresses himself in times of sorrow and joy. Dancing is something very religious in the African setting, rituals are often accompanied by dancing.

It will come as a surprise to many that the changes of Vatican II were not received by all with the same enthusiasm. Even in Africa there were many who wanted the status quo to remain. The reaction to these changes in Cameroon were particularly interesting. The Cameroon Panorama of September 1971 did a very good job in recording the reactions of Cameroonian Catholics to these changes. I will just mention a few of those reactions. Michael Kintang of Clerk’s quarter Buea was in favor of the Latin mass; Tanyi Lucas Alembong of Government Grammar School Mamfe reacted vehemently against the use of the Latin Mass; Cardinal Tumi then a student priest in Fribourg gave a very mitigated view; Joe Fointein of the Divisional office Fundong showed himself a diehard supporter of the Latin Mass. For the details of these interesting reactions the above edition will be a good read.

After Vatican II, there has been an accelerated rate of liturgical inculturation. The drums, the balafons and xylophones, beautiful vernacular music suitable for worship, good liturgical dancing, ornamented vestments with the African symbols like peace plants, calabashes and gongs which have a deep theological meaning. But more still has to be done for the African to feel that this faith is not foreign to him. The priest with his chasuble, stole, cope beautiful as it may be, looks to a typical African like an oriental misfit; all he wears is Roman, his golden chalice, ciborium and pattern are luxuries to the African and not things which he culturally attributes to worship. He looks at that altar and all he sees there is exotic, there is no horn, no calabash, no earthen ware pots, typical vessels of sacrifice. Then he hears these beautiful Gregorian chants, sees the beautifully clad priest but still he is bored. It may seem that I am presenting a very glamorous and standard view of African culture and worship. But I do acknowledge that today, many Africans are not even aware of their cultural baggage or modes of worship. He grows up a hybrid of two worlds, the secular world and his African world. But I have to establish a bar which Africans can relate to and that is why I speak of these traditional African elements and cultural artifacts of worship. In that way even, those who have never used them or known them will still see how African and authentic they are.

Rather than trying to continually enculturate the Roman rite, more energy and devotion should be placed in developing an authentically African rite taking into consideration the common denominator of African cultures. In this way we have a rite that is faithful to the teachings of the church and the structure of the Mass with all the elements of the celebration of the sacraments with a typically African tint to it. If we continue to enculturate the Latin rite as we are doing, we are going to end up alienating more people from the faith because the result will be a caricature of a liturgy which is not authentically Roman nor African. We need to keep on ‘experimenting’ as with the Zairian rite or the Yaoundé experiment, learning, perfecting and allowing for organic integral growth not because we want a sort of emancipation from the rest of the church but because we want the faith to truly take root in the fertile soils of the African church and help the faithful have a more real encounter with the person of Christ. That should always be the fruit of every attempt to worship, to enculturate. If the aim is simply to engage in a cultural experiment, it is bound to fail but if the aim is to bring Christ to the people, the church will never stand in our way.
This is not a walk in the park type of experiment. It takes time as was the case with the development of Roman rite and the other rites.

It is also important to issue a clarion call, or sound the warning gong so that we may realize that this is not an easy process but one that requires a constant theology on the knees. It should not simply be the fruit of intellectual work but of prayer because the aim is to draw souls to Christ. The challenges will be enormous.