The Catholic Church may be universal, but that doesn't mean it hasn't allowed for local flavor in the liturgical and parish life of its people.

From its very beginnings, the Church has followed a consistent pattern of inculturation -- the adaptation of Catholic liturgy and institutions to the culture, language and customs of an indigenous or local people -- in order for the Gospel to have deeper meaning within each group (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 854).

School Sister of Notre Dame Doris Mary Turek, multicultural specialist for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for the Liturgy, told Our Sunday Visitor that to provide a welcoming familiarity, some elements of practices of popular religiosity can be incorporated into the liturgy, while others may be incorporated into the parish life of the church. For example, a quinceanera, a blessing of a Hispanic girl on her 15th birthday, may be incorporated into the liturgy of the Mass. The traditional Hispanic celebration of All Souls' Day as el Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, on the other hand, might be added to parish life by establishing an ofrenda, or altar of remembrance, in the foyer of a church.

Unity amid diversity

The Catechism explains that "it is with, and through, their own human culture, assumed and transfigured by Christ, that the multitude of God's children has access to the Father, in order to glorify him in the one spirit" (No. 1204).

It also points out that while diversity can be a source of enrichment, it must not damage unity. Liturgical diversity must "express only fidelity to the common faith, to the sacramental signs that the Church has received from Christ, and to the hierarchical communion" (No. 1209). The authority to make adaptations to the liturgy belongs to the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and, within certain fixed limits, to episcopal conferences and diocesan bishops.

Certain cultural practices allowed in one place are not automatically transferred to another place, Sister Turek said. For example, in Japan, bowing is the acceptable form of showing reverence to the Eucharist, rather than genuflection. In China, incense sticks are used in place of the grains of incense used in other countries. A popular custom in Latin countries is the use of the lasso at weddings to symbolically tie the bride and groom together. A request to use this custom in the celebration of the Sacrament of Matrimony in Spanish in the United States is currently being considered in Rome.

"Each ethnic group retains religious practices and customs which have sustained the faith over long periods of time. The necessity for the evolution of such ritual forms is often due to the absence of clergy and the resultant need for devotions when it is just not possible to celebrate the liturgy. Such devotions form an integral part of the prayer life of the Catholic immigrants arriving on our shores," Sister Turek said. "A significant pastoral challenge is presented when devotions which have been approved by the bishops of one country may not be understood or appreciated by the pastors of the United States. Such an appreciation is an integral element in sustaining the faith of immigrant groups in the Church in our country."

Sister Turek added that while the identity of the Roman rite must be preserved in all liturgical celebrations, "some adaptations are required in order to allow each celebration to be in the voice of the Church, gathered in a given place, speaking a given language, and enriched by religious traditions particular to a given culture."

Examples of enrichment

Since 1978, the Tekakwitha Conference has stressed what it considers the most important inculturation symbol -- Native people themselves as the body of Christ. Native bishops, priests, sisters, deacons and laypeople have had a central role in the liturgies at each of the annual conferences. Native people have led the procession, sometimes in significant numbers, presided at some of the liturgies in their role as bishops, priests and deacons, have served the community as lectors, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, presented the gifts at the offertory and performed in Native choirs. This has never been to the exclusion or alienation of non-native participants but rather to present the Native Church as Native and to nurture Native leadership through the visible sign of Native leaders. Conference liturgies have consistently included members of a wide variety of tribal groups to symbolize the inclusiveness of the community.

Slavic immigrants enjoy the traditional devotions common to most Eastern European countries, especially during Lent and Holy Week. Although these are not within the Eucharistic liturgy, they are held at the parish church and enrich the parish community. The devotion, known as the lamentations, or Gorzkie zale przybywajcia, is composed of a series of ancient chants, taken from the Psalms, which retrace the passion and crucifixion of Christ. The devotion is most often preceded by Benediction and is chanted kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament. On Holy Saturday, brightly decorated baskets of symbolic food for the Easter meal are carried to church to be blessed by the priest.

When Msgr. Patrick McCormick was pastor of St. Mary Queen of the Apostles Church in Fresno, Calif., he asked representatives of the largest cultural groups to have an image of Our Lady made to represent their culture. The images were displayed to welcome all to the multicultural parish.

Growing in Christ

Inculturation has affected and enriched all parts of Catholic life. The ethnic origins of some parishes are reflected in the church building itself. Favorite devotions can add diversity to parish life. Even funeral customs can blend culture with faith. Some Native American nations in Alaska, Wisconsin, Michigan and Oklahoma built "Spirit Houses" of brightly decorated wood over the gravesites. House-shaped grave coverings are also seen in Catholic cemeteries in Louisiana. Throughout the Southwest, small roadside crosses can often be seen. These are an outgrowth of a traditional practice from Mexico known as the raising of the cross.

Sister Turek said: "The Church rejoices in the cultural genius of each group of Catholic immigrants arriving in our parishes. When these new parishioners find opportunities to pray in their own language with their own cultural expressions and in the words and rites of devotions familiar to them, the parish and the Church in the United States will continue to be enriched and all will grow in Christ."

Understanding inculturation

In the effort to promote appreciation of the devotional life of all peoples, a number of publications dealing with the subject can help pastors and liturgists in understanding and using popular piety and its relationship to the Sacred Liturgy:

  •  "Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines," Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Vatican City, December 2001
  •  "Varietates Legitimae: the Fourth Instruction on the Correct Application of the Constitution on the Liturgy," Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Vatican City, 1994.
  •  "Asian and Pacific Presence: Harmony in Faith," USCCB, December 2001 ( harmony.shtml)
  •  "Encuentro and Mission: A Renewed Pastoral Framework for Hispanic Ministry," USCCB, December 2002 (

Ann Ball is the author of "Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices" (OSV, $39.95). She writes from Texas.