Inculturated Liturgy Challenges Preaching to Flower

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Inculturated Liturgy Challenges Preaching to Flower

by Bruce Barnabas Schultz, O.P

Associate Pastor, Our Lady of Lourdes, Atlanta, GA


Black Catholic worship as we know it today became possible in the mid-1960s when the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was issued by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).  The constitution opened worship to local languages and encouraged “inculturation” of the liturgy.  The first U.S. Mass in English featured a hymn, “God Is Love,” by Fr. Clarence Rufus Joseph Rivers, the first African American to be ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, who received a 10-minute ovation.  Fr. Rivers pioneered what he termed “Soulfull Worship” and soon was joined by other composers and choir directors to bring a new musical wind into Catholic rites.  These pathfinders showed how prayer in African American congregations could be both authentically Catholic and Black – by deftly blending traditional hymns and Gregorian chant with Spirituals, Gospel, and jazz as well as new compositions written expressly for Catholic worship.


The composer and liturgist Rawn Harbor quotes Fr. Rivers in Let It Shine!  The Emergence of African American Catholic Worship: “The other parts of the Mass need to be brought up to the relative level of excellence that we are beginning to achieve in our musical performance.” This 1978 observation called for preaching, proclamation and prayer to match the poetic power of the “soul-touching music”.  In his Let It Shine! essay, Harbor draws from Black Catholic liturgical thinkers in identifying 23 “performance values” to spur transformation of African American Catholic worship, including


·        The whole range of African American culture is brought to bear on the liturgy;

·        The Black experience is taken seriously, and Black culture, spirituality and religiosity are broadly defined;

·        Use of the wisdom, scholarship and expertise of Black Catholic theologians and pastoral leaders to develop a Black hermeneutic


The 8th performance value speaks directly to music:


The liturgical artistry and skills of the traditional Black Church are readily

utilized to fashion the varied components of a liturgical event – that is, it makes use of poetic and dialogical oratory; it incorporates a broad range of religious music (spirituals, hymns, anthems, gospel, metered music; it makes conscious appeals to the emotions and feelings of the assembly; it engenders a sense of enjoyment and psychosocial satisfaction among the assembly; it displays interactive familiarity between ministers and the rest of the assembly; and it strives toward good drama). [pp. 127-8]


Another scholar of African American Catholic liturgy, Fr. J-Glenn Murray, S.J., notes:

“What makes our worship uniquely Black is our indomitable and uncanny ability to ‘sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’! (Psalm 137:4)” [“The Liturgy of the Roman rite and African American Worship,” Lead Me, Guide Me:  The African American Catholic Hymnal, vol 1, 1987]


The African American Catholic “religious experience is shaped by African factors as well as by those on these shores,” according to Plenty Good Room: The Spirit and Truth of African American Catholic Worship (U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1991), whose principal author was Fr. Murray.  This unique blending mirrors the mélange present in African Diaspora culture in general and in a whole range of music – jazz, blues, gospel, mambo, and reggae, to name a few.  Robert Farris Thompson in his Flash of the Spirit:  African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy writes about a Black Atlantic performance style that has grown out of the collision of West African and Western Eurocentric musical patterns, a performance style “informed by the flash of the spirit of a certain people specially armed with improvisatory drive and brilliance.” Thompson explains:  “Since the Atlantic slave trade, ancient African organizing principles of song and dance have crossed the seas from the Old World to the New. There they took on new momentum, intermingling with each other and with New World or European styles of singing and dance.  Among those principles are


·        the dominance of a percussive performance style (attack and vital aliveness in sound and motion);

·        a propensity of multiple meter (competing meters sounding all at once);

·        overlapping call and response in singing (solo/chorus, voice/instrument – "interlock systems of performance);

·        inner pulse control (a "metronome sense", keeping a beat indelibly in mind as a rhythmic common denominator in a welter of different meters);

·        suspended accentuation patterning (offbeat phrasing of melodic and choreographic accents);

·        and, at a slightly different but equally recurrent level of exposition, songs and dances of social allusion (music which, however danceable and "swinging", remorselessly contrasts social imperfections against implied criteria for perfect living).”  [page xiii]


These very qualities, which Thompson identifies above, are present in the sacred song of African American Catholic worship.  Plenty Good Room notes:  “The ‘soul’ in African American liturgy calls forth a great deal of musical improvisation and creativity.  It also calls forth a greater sense of spontaneity.  The African American assembly is not a passive, silent, nonparticipating assembly.  It participates by responding with its own interjections and acclamations, with expressions of approval and encouragement.” 


The liturgy in Black Catholic congregations can be the rich flowering imagined by the liturgical pioneers.   “African Americans are heirs to the West African musical aesthetic of the call-and-response structure,” notes Plenty Good Room, “extensive melodic ornamentation (e.g., slides, slurs, bends, moans, shouts, wails, and so forth), complex rhythmic structures, and the integration of song and dance.”

The late Sr. Thea Bowman,  F.S.P.A., the godmother of inculturated African American liturgy who is being brought forth for the process of canonization,  notes in the introduction to Volume 1 of Lead Me, Guide Me that Sacred Song is


·        holistic:  challenging the full engagement of mind, imagination, memory, feeling, emotion, voice and body;

·        participatory:  inviting the worshipping community to join in contemplation, in celebration,  and in prayer;

·        real:  celebrating the immediate concrete reality of the worshipping community – grief or separation, struggle or oppression, determination or joy – bringing that reality to prayer within the community of believers;

·        spirit-filled:  energetic,  engrossing, intense; and

·        life-giving:  refreshing, encouraging, consoling, invigorating, sustaining.


Plenty Good Room also notes that “African American Catholic worship may be greatly enhanced by spirituals and gospel music, both of which are representations of this aesthetic.  But classical music; anthems; African Christian hymns; jazz; South American, African-Caribbean and Haitian music may also be used where appropriate.  It is not just the style of music that makes it African American, but the African American assembly that sings it and the people whose spirits are uplifted by it.”


          Just as the Negro spiritual proclaims –  "Plenty good room, plenty good room. ... Choose your seat and sit down." – Black Catholic worship is inclusive and welcoming of all styles of music.   The music in some African American Catholic parishes is so strong and vibrant, that it challenges the preacher and the presider to elevate their preparation and delivery of the spoken Word of God, drawing from the deep wells of the Black cultural experience, Scripture scholarship and Church tradition.  Gospel lyrics, lyric poetry and prose, memorable sermons and historic events – all have given me good ground for preaching recently.  For example, recently I’ve quoted from the preaching in the hush arbor by lay evangelist “Baby Suggs, Holy” in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the narrative poems “Judas Iscariot” and “Simon of Cyrene Speaks” by Countee Cullen, and the sermonic poems in James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones, in particular “The Creation.”  Father Clarence Rivers’ challenge to the liturgy in 1978, still holds today:


“the other parts of the Mass need to be brought up to the relative level of excellence that we are beginning to achieve in our musical performance.”


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Blessings on your preaching.

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