Step into the Peranakan Mass Sambot Kepala Taon Baru celebrated at Midnight of Lunar New Year and one may feel like a misplaced poinsettia pot amidst the gaily embroidered peonies of the Nonya sarong kebayas, and the festively intricate phoenixes on the Baba baju lok chuan. However, the resplendent cultural outfits are not the only markers of cultural identity that one would notice.
The Mass is celebrated in the Baba Malay patois, and the readings, and the hymns reflect the use of the local parlance – a mixture of Malay, Chinese dialects, and English. In the middle of the Sanctuary, a traditional Peranakan altar known as the Tok Semayang is set up to honour God our Father and the Maker of Mankind. One’s eyes are immediately drawn to the Tok Semayang, a fixture of Peranakan tradition that seems incongruous to the settings of the Western Church architecture. This altar, traditionally used as a customary device to honour one’s heritage and ancestry retains much of the furnishings that mark it as Peranakan. The Tok Semayang has two tall red candles flanking each side and sitting aloof in ostentatious and ornate Chinese brass candelabras. A chanab, a Peranakan table covering adorned with symbols auspicious to the Peranakan culture is the pivotal centrepiece to the Tok Semayang and is laden with symbolic fruits such as Mandarin Oranges, symbolising gold and prosperity, pomelos which sound like the Chinese word for “rejuvenation” or “youth”, sugarcane symbolising sweetness, and bananas, an allusion to the concept of abundance (Catholic.sg, n.d.).
Attending the Peranakan Mass could be highly confusing to many, leaving us with more questions than we have answers for. Nonetheless, the Peranakan Mass, could be said to be an exemplar triumph post-Vatican II for the Church’s process of Inculturation. At its heart is the aim to evangelise to the older Peranakan generations, and this it has done successfully. The Tok Semayang is a cultural symbol that may strike someone as odd, yet it remains an interesting specimen for the examination of inculturation. Before a Peranakan’s conversion to Catholicism, the Tok Semayang was used to venerate the Taoist Jade Emperor and would have its key moments during important temple festivities and pivotal milestones of rites of passage celebrated in the Peranakan home. The Peranakans would spell out their prayers and wishes through the offerings that were displayed on the table. When the Peranakans converted to Christianity, this practice was inculturated into the Catholic Faith they professed. Instead of the Taoist idols, the Tok Semayang was now dedicated to God our Father, and instead of joss sticks used to venerate Taoist deities, only the fruit offerings symbolising the First Fruits and aspirations of the Peranakans were left on the table (Catholic.sg, n.d.b).
For the Church, inculturation refers to the incarnation of the Gospel in cultures that are independent, and that which simultaneously introduces the rich facets of these cultures into the life and every day of the Church. The processes of inculturation involves “an intimate transformation of the authentic cultural values by their integration into Christianity and the implantation of Christianity into different human cultures.” (Pope John Paul II, 1991, 300). While cultures may have existed autonomously of the Church, the Church needs to embark on a dialogic process to evangelise these cultures. Cultures in the truths that they teach play positive roles in the expression and the extension of the Christian Faith. Nevertheless, the implantation of the Gospel, requires an uprooting of the existing – a conversion of attitudes and dispositions, and a renewal and amendment of customs, and the flourishing of the new Culture that is found in Christ. Cultures thus need the purification and the restoration that is only garnered through Christ. The evangelisation of cultures takes on a paramount urgency, as Christ came not only for the chosen people, but for all of humanity. (International Theological Commission, 1988).
The process of inculturation should not be confused with the dangerous view of syncretism – the amalgamation, merging, and fusing of different beliefs, mythologies, deities, and various schools of thought, so as to bring about a semblance of unity. The danger that interfaith and inter-religious dialogue faces, is that these conversations may slip into syncretism. For example, some Catholics see no issue of having Jesus and Buddha sharing the same home altar, and there are cases of Catholics who adopt these other practices alongside the Catholic Faith, such as wearing Buddhist prayer beads and charms from Hinduism. Religious syncretism in the Catholic Faith goes against the First commandment.
The Amazon Synod held in 2019 raised some eyebrows and a number of controversial responses to a people already confused by inculturation. Several statues depicting a woman with a child in the womb, became the centrepieces to various ceremonies that were part of the Amazon synod. The populace was baffled by the imagery and came up with several postulations – Were these indigenous representations of the Virgin Mary? Were these a meaningful symbol of fertility and life to the indigenous Amazonians? Some conservative Catholic clergy, historians, and intellects considered these symbols to be representative of Pachamama, a pagan fertility idol worshipped by the people in the Andean region of South America. Pope Francis, the Holy Father, was harangued and reviled for allowing apparently such idolatrous and pagan practices to occur on the grounds of the Vatican, with two men taking matters into their own hands and tossing these images into the Tiber River (Fernandes, 2019). A petition of signatures, Contra Recentia Sacrilegia (Protest against Pope Francis’s Sacrilegious Acts) was raised online by an undisclosed group of far-right and traditionalist Catholics. The list of signatories in fact contained very few theologians, and fewer people with expertise of the cultures and religions in South America, or who even ventured to learn more about the issue (Clooney, 2020)
The Vatican officials stepped in to clarify that these were simply indigenous craft items that were carved by the indigenous people, and its purpose to serve as a cultural exhibition of the craftsmanship of the indigenous people, while playing a nod to the heritage of the Amazonian Catholics. While these images, may had had pagan origins, they were not given divine worship.
It may be worthwhile to revisit the pre-synodal documents and the final documents of the Synod. The preparatory document states:
Jesus offers life to the full (cf Jn 10:10), a life full of God, a salvific life (zōē), which begins with creation and manifests itself from the start in the most elementary dimension of life (bios). In the Amazon, it is reflected in its abundant bio-diversity and cultures. That is to say, a full and integral life, a life that sings, a song to life, like the songs of rivers. It is a life that dances and that represents divinity and our relationship with it. “Our pastoral service,” as the Bishops affirmed in Aparecida, is a service “to the full life of indigenous peoples [that] requires proclaiming Jesus Christ and the Good News of the Kingdom of God, denouncing sinful situations, structures of death, violence and internal and external injustices, and fostering intercultural, interreligious and ecumenical dialogue” (DAp 95). Such announcing and denouncing we discern in the light of Jesus Christ the Living One (Rev 1:18), “the fullness of all revelation” (DV 2). (n. 39) (General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, 2020, 11)
The Creator Spirit who fills the universe (Wis 7:1) is the one that has nurtured the spirituality of these peoples for centuries, even before the proclamation of the Gospel, and moves them to accept it from within their own cultures and traditions. This proclamation must take into account the “seeds of the Word” present in them. It also recognizes that the seed has already grown and borne fruit in many of them. It presupposes respectful listening that does not impose formulations of faith expressed with other cultural referents that do not respond to their lived reality. On the contrary, listen to “the voice of Christ speaking through the entire People of God” (EC 5). (General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, 2020, 120)
It is necessary to grasp what the Spirit of the Lord has taught these peoples throughout the centuries: faith in the God Father-Mother Creator; communion and harmony with the earth; solidarity with one’s companions; striving for “good living”; the wisdom of civilizations going back thousands of years that the elderly possess and which influences health, life together, education, cultivation of the land, the living relationship with nature and “Mother Earth”, the capacities of resistance and resiliency of women in particular, rites and religious expressions, relationships with ancestors, the contemplative attitude, the sense of gratuity, celebration and festivity, and the sacred meaning of the territory (General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, 2020, 121)
The inculturation of faith is not a top-down process or an external imposition, but a mutual enrichment of cultures in dialogue (interculturality). The active subjects of inculturation are the indigenous peoples themselves. As Pope Francis has affirmed, “Grace supposes culture” (EG 115) (General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, 2020, 122)
The notion of inculturation is not something new and has in fact been practised since the early days of the Church. St Paul in Athens for example, sees a space dedicated “To an Unknown God”, and brings in inculturation in his preaching:
“You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious.
For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.
The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything.
He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’
Since therefore we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the divinity is like an image fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination.” (Acts 17:22-29)
Since its beginning, the Church has been active in bringing the Gospel message to people via the means of inculturation. The Roman Pantheon for example, was built in 125 A.D. by the Roman emperor Publius Aelius Hadrianus, and was meant to house the many deities of Rome (CNN Style, 2020). In the year 609 A.D. the Pantheon was given to the Catholic Church by the Emperor Phocas, the Byzantine Emperor of the East. Under the purview of Pope Boniface IV, the pagan statues were removed and destroyed, while the exterior was retained and the Pantheon was consecrated as a Church (Zachrich, n.d.).
However, Inculturation is not a mere taking of another culture, and reframing it in Catholic terms. Elements of pagan culture that are introduced, accepted and assimilated without purification and discernment, could lead to confusion, idolatry, and detrimental effects. On the other extreme, is the utter and complete rejection of any culture that does not belong to the Catholic Faith. This is something that happened erroneously when the first Jesuit missionaries made headway in China, only to have their evangelical efforts thwarted by overzealous Dominican and Franciscan missionaries, who ironically being more conservative in their outlook of how a mission should look like back in the day, petitioned the pope to denounce the efforts of Matteo Ricci S.J.. Fr. Glen Fernandes writes for instance of how “…one cannot simply ‘adopt’ the Hindu goddess Kali as a representation or avatar of the Blessed virgin Mary; on the other hand, understanding Indian concepts of motherhood and femininity may be a valuable way to engage in dialogue and evangelisation with our Hindu brethren.” (Fernandes, 2019, para. 10).
Perhaps the points proposed in the Final Document of the Amazonian Synod may be good starting points for our own encounter and dialogue with the peoples of other faiths and religions in and around our region.
In the incarnation Christ did not grasp his prerogative as God and became man in a particular culture in order to identify himself with all humanity. Inculturation is both the incarnation of the Gospel in indigenous cultures (“what is not assumed is not redeemed”, Saint Irenaeus, cf. Puebla 400) and the introduction of these cultures into the life of the Church. In this process, the indigenous peoples are protagonists, accompanied by their pastors and pastoral agents.(General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, 2020b, 51)
So-called Indiantheology, theology with an Amazonian face, and popular piety are already riches of the indigenous world, its culture and spirituality. When the missionary and pastoral agent brings the word of the Gospel of Jesus, there is a personal identification with the culture, and an encounter takes place from which are born witnessing, service, proclamation and the learning of languages. The indigenous world enriches the intercultural encounter with its myths, narrative, rites, songs, dance and spiritual expressions. Puebla already recognizes that “cultures are not empty ground, devoid of authentic values. The evangelization of the Church is not a process of destruction, but of consolidation and strengthening of these values; a contribution to the growth of the ‘seeds of the Word’” (DP 401, cf. GS 57) present in various cultures (General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, 2020b, 54).
We are all invited to approach the Amazon peoples on an equal footing, respecting their history, their cultures, their style of ‘good living’ (cf. Pope Francis, Opening of the Works of the Special Assembly,7.10.2019). Colonialism is the imposition of some people’s ways of life on others, whether economically, culturally or religiously. We reject a colonial style of evangelization. Proclaiming the Good News of Jesus implies recognizing the seeds of the Word already present in cultures. The evangelization that we propose today for the Amazon is the inculturated proclamation that generates intercultural processes, processes that promote the life of the Church with an Amazonian face and identity. (General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, 2020b, 55).
Culture is a very important component of the human lived experience. It shapes us and it propels us in ways unimaginable. The challenge is to have an authentic, non-judgemental dialogue with Culture and to undergo a careful discernment about the things that need to be retained, the things that need to be removed completely, and the things that need to be purified and reframed. Inculturation provides this space where Christ can be brought in via the ways that the indigenous people are used to worshiping. A possible question to ask is, in a culture that worships through dance, for example, can the Liturgy incorporate that and bring Christ through that? We cannot however, adopt an attitude of colonialisation and superiority, but must negotiate dignified and respectful ways to engage in this conversation.
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
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