Popular Religion, the Liturgy, and the Cult of the Dead

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2005 »Volume 42 2005 Number 1 2 »Popular Religion The Liturgy And The Cult Of The Dead

By Peter C. Phan

Peter Phan is Ignacio Ellacuria Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, Washington, DC. He received his STD from the Pontificia Universitas Salesiana, Rome and his PhD from the University of London. He has authored several books and contributed numerous articles to theological journals. A prolific writer, he recently wrote In Our Own Tongues: Perspectives from Asia on Mission and Inculturation and Christianity with an Asian Face: Asian American Theology in the Making. Both are published by Orbis Books.

A couple of years ago the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a directory on popular piety and the liturgy.1 The publication of this document, irrespective of the merit of its contents, marks a significant shift in the Church’s evaluation of what the Directory calls "popular piety." As is generally recognized, there was at Vatican II little discussion of popular piety as such. Rather the Council’s concern was with what it called pia exercitia, that is, devotional practices. These, it declares, are to be highly recommended, "provided they conform to the laws and norms of the church." Moreover, "such devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it, and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them."2

In the immediate post-Vatican II era, as the liturgical reform went into full swing, popular religion suffered a serious decline. All its four forms, as classified by Domenico Sartore, were affected: first, devotions to Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints in the forms of pilgrimages, patronal feasts, processions, popular devotions, and novenas; second, the rites related to the liturgical year; third, traditional practices in conjunction with the celebrations of the sacraments and other Christian rites such as funerals; and fourth, institutions and religious objects connected with various forms of popular religiosity (Chupungco, 102 summarizing Sartore 1989:232-33). Due to the pressing need to educate and form the people of God for liturgical celebrations by means of new texts and rites, so that they may "understand them [liturgical celebrations] with ease and take part in them fully, actively, and as a community (SC, 21)," little attention was given to the role of popular devotions. "Popular" was often derided as unsophisticated, superstitious, emotional, individualistic, reactionary, and even anti-liturgical.

In recent decades, however, there has been, to judge from the avalanche of published literature, an intense interest in what is called "popular piety," "popular religiosity," "popular religion," "folk religion," "common religion," or more narrowly, "popular Catholicism."3 Whereas popular religion—popular understood not in the sense of being fashionable or in vogue but in the sense of originating from and being practiced largely by the common people, as opposed to being codified, approved, and propagated by the religious leaders—has always been present in human history, the widespread interest in and the scholarly study of this religious phenomenon are of recent vintage in the West. In the wake of cultural anthropology, sociology, psychology, and other sciences in the humanities, theology has of late taken up a sustained investigation of popular religion and with it, of popular culture.4

This plethora of theological literature on popular religion is both cause and effect of a noticeable resurgence of popular religion not only among the churches of the Third World (Parker 1996), but also among Christians of the First World.5 One of the contributing factors to this come-back is the widespread dissatisfaction with the classical form of Vatican II’s reformed rites characterized by Roman sobrietas, brevitas, simplicitas, and linearrationality which do not respond to the people’s need for emotional and total involvement in liturgical celebrations.6 This need is met by popular religion with its emphasis on spontaneity, festivity, joyfulness, and community.7

The stubborn persistence of devotional practices and the failure of certain liturgical reforms sparked a new interest among theologians and liturgists in the nature and function of popular religion. For example, among Latin American theologians, there has been a shift from an elitist and Marxist view of popular religion as Catholicism deformed by superstition and as the opiate of the masses, and hence an obstacle to liberation (represented by Juan Luis Segundo) to the view that popular religion as a mass phenomenon is an indispensable and powerful force for the liberation of the people, and hence something to be promoted (represented by Juan Carlos Scannone).8 Hispanic/Latino theologians too have made significant contributions to the understanding of popular religion, and more specifically, popular Catholicism. In a very helpful essay, James L. Empereur has surveyed the contributions of two prominent Latino theologians, namely, Orlando Espín and Roberto Goizueto, to the theme of popular devotion as the privileged locus theologicus and as the embodiment of the aesthetic dimension of the Christian faith.9

As a contribution to the theology of popular religion and liturgical inculturation, this essay first presents the Directory by summarizing its main contents. Next, by way of example, it will discuss the Directory’s treatment of one of the pious practices that has profound implications for Asian Catholics, namely, the cult of the dead. Finally, some suggestions will be made as to how popular religion should be viewed from the Asian perspective.10

Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy

With over 250 pages, the Directory is a lengthy document by Roman standards. It is to be noted that it is called a "directory" with the subtitle of "Principles and Guidelines." Its purpose is not doctrinal but pastoral, namely, "to offer guidelines and, where necessary, to prevent abuses or deviations" (4). Its addressees are primarily bishops and their immediate collaborators, that is, "episcopal vicars, priests, deacons, and especially the rectors of sanctuaries" (5). It is also important to note that the theme is "popular piety and the liturgy." The conjunction "and" is operative here. The Directory intends to treat neither popular piety nor the liturgy in themselves but rather their mutual relationship.11

The Directory is divided into two parts, corresponding to its two foci, principles and guidelines, with a helpful Introduction. The Directory begins by noting the ambiguous status of popular piety during the post-conciliar era and the need to retrieve its important contribution to the Christian life. It quotes Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Vicesimus Quintus Annus (1988) in which the pope raised the question of the role of popular piety and its relationship to the liturgy. According to the pope, "The pious exercises of the Christian people and other forms of devotion can be accepted and recommended provided that they do not become substitutes for the liturgy or integrated into the liturgical celebrations. An authentic pastoral promotion of the liturgy will know how to build on the riches of popular piety, purify them and direct them towards the liturgy as an offering of the people." This is, in a nutshell, the theology that informs the Directory’s guidelines.

The Directory is aware of the lack of a uniform terminology for the subject under discussion and attempts to determine, somewhat arbitrarily, how expressions should be used. "Pious exercises" refer to "public or private expressions of Christian piety which, although not part of the liturgy, are considered to be in harmony with the spirit, norms, and rhythms of the liturgy... (and) always refer to public divine revelation and to an ecclesial background" (7). "Devotions" refer to "external practices" of the faithful toward the Divine Persons, Mary, and the saints (8). "Popular piety" designates "those diverse cultic expressions of a private or community nature which ... are inspired predominantly not by the Sacred Liturgy but by forms deriving from a particular nation or people or from their culture" (9). "Popular religiosity" refers to the "religious dimension in the hearts of people, nations, and their collective expressions... (and) does not always necessarily refer to Christian revelation" (10). The Directory goes on to describe what it calls "the language of popular piety," that is, its various expressions: gestures, texts and formulae, song and music, sacred images, sacred places, and sacred times (14-20).

Most importantly, the Directory enumerates the theological principles that should govern the practice of popular piety, in particular its relationship to the liturgy. First, the liturgy enjoys preeminence over all other forms of prayer, including popular piety, because it is necessary, whereas others are optional (11). Secondly, though optional, popular piety should be highly appreciated (12). Thirdly, while valuable, popular piety must be renewed and, when necessary, corrected according to biblical, liturgical, ecumenical, and anthropological principles (12). Fourthly, popular piety, though distinct from the liturgy, must be harmonized with it (13). Fifthly, in this harmonization, "formulae proper to pious exercises should not be commingled with the liturgical actions"; "a superimposing of pious and devotional practices on the liturgy ... must be avoided"; "precedence must always be given to Sunday, Solemnities, and to the liturgical seasons and days"; "attempts to impose forms of ‘liturgical celebrations’ on them (pious practices) are always to be avoided" (13).

Part One of the Directory, entitled "Emerging Trends: History, Magisterium and Theology," devotes three chapters to the three themes mentioned in the title. Chapter One gives a bird’s-eye view of the history of the development of popular piety and its relationship to the liturgy. Chapter Two summarizes the official teaching of the Church on popular devotion, its value, its deviations, and the way it must be harmonized with the liturgy. Chapter Three enunciates the theological—trinitarian, ecclesiological, and biblical—principles for an evaluation and renewal of popular piety and its inculturation.

Part Two, entitled "Guidelines for the Harmonization of Popular Piety with the Liturgy," is the longer and more practical part of the Directory. The most lengthy and detailed is Chapter Four, on the liturgical year and popular piety, which goes through the liturgical year, from Advent to the end of the Ordinary Time, and correlates pious practices with the liturgical seasons and feasts. The remaining four chapters deal with the veneration of Mary, cult of the saints, suffrage for the dead, and shrines and pilgrimages respectively.

All in all, the Directory is a timely and helpful document. It rightly retrieves the important role of popular piety, long neglected in the West, for Christian life. It reintroduces many pious practices, most of which are unknown to Catholics of the post-Vatican II era. Most importantly, it lays down the theological principles governing the practice of popular piety and its relationship to the liturgy, which is its overriding concern. On the other hand, it is these five principles, above as enunciated, that, when applied strictly and indiscriminately, causes pastoral difficulties and lessens the effectiveness of pious practices for both individuals and communities. A close analysis of what the Directory says about what it terms "Suffrage for the Dead" (Chapter Seven) will illustrate both its strengths and weaknesses.

Suffrage for the Dead: An Evaluation

Chapter Seven of the Directory can be divided into three parts: the first provides general theological principles for the cult of the dead, the second discusses liturgical practices in honor of the dead, and the third presents the memorial for the dead in popular piety.

Theological Principles for the Suffrage for the Dead

The Resurrection of the Dead

The Directory insists that the Christian faith in the resurrection of the dead is the context in which to understand the meaning of death and the suffrage for the dead. It acknowledges that death can be seen both as a natural "end of earthly life" and as "the wages for sin" (249). As either, death is an existential enigma, says the Directory, recalling the teaching of Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes): "It is in regard to death that the human condition is most shrouded in doubt" (18).

However, according to the Directory, in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection and of God’s promise to raise the dead, the curse of death has been transformed into a blessing: "Death is the passage to the fullness of true life" and "The death of a Christian is an event of grace, having as it does, a positive value and significance in Christ and through Christ" (249). That is why, the Directory notes, paradoxically the Church calls the Christian’s day of death his or her dies natalis (birthday). The Christian has already died "in Christ"—sacramentally—in baptism, and physical death seals that "dying with Christ" and "consummates it by incorporating them fully and definitively into Christ the Redeemer" (250).

In an important statement which has extensive ramifications for the cult of the dead, the Directory affirms that eternal life is possible for those who are not Christians: "The Church’s prayer of suffrage for the souls of the faithful departed implores eternal life not only for the disciples of Christ who have died in his peace, but for the dead whose faith is known to God" (250).12

The Meaning of Suffrage for the Dead

The Directory defines suffrage for the dead as "an urgent supplication of God to have mercy on the souls of the dead, to purify them by the fire of His charity, and to bring them to His kingdom of light and life" (251). It links the practice of suffrage for the dead to the doctrine of purgatory which professes that "no one ... can be received into God’s friendship and intimacy without having been purified of the consequences of personal sin" (251). The Directory also connects it with the doctrine of the communion of saints insofar as the living members of the church help the souls of the departed achieve their final purification through their suffrage which consists primarily "in the celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist, and in other pious exercises, such as prayers for the dead, alms deeds, works of mercy, and the application of indulgences to the souls of the faithful departed" (251).

Liturgical Celebrations for the Dead

Christian Funerals (Exequies)

The Directory presents the rite of Christian funerals as composed of three parts. First, prayer vigil, during which the Christian community gathers to pray for the deceased, listens to the Scripture, comforts the bereaved, and expresses solidarity with those in sorrow. Second, the celebration of the funeral Mass, which is "the true Christian refrigerium for the deceased" (252). The Directory cautions that the homily should avoid "any form of funerary eulogy" (252). Third, the rite of committal, the funeral cortege, and burial. The Directory urges that "every stage of the rite of exequies should be conducted with the greatest dignity and religious sensibility," with the utmost respect for the body of the deceased; decorous and ostentation-free funeral furnishings; and a proper use of the cross, the paschal candle, the holy water, and incense (253).

With regard to the disposal of the corpse, the Directory expresses a strong preference for burial in the ground since this recalls the earth from which humans come and to which they return and the burial of Christ himself (254). Nevertheless, it notes that cremation is permissible, provided that "such choice was not motivated by anything contrary to the Christian doctrine."13 It also exhorts that the ashes be buried and not kept in the home.

Other Suffrages

Other liturgical celebrations for the dead include the offering of Mass on the third, seventh, and thirtieth day following their deaths as well as on their anniversaries. The Directory also mentions November 2, All Souls Day, on which "the Church incessantly offers the holy sacrifice of the Mass for the souls of all the faithful departed and prays the Liturgy of the Hours for them" (255). Suffrage for the dead is done every day during the celebration of the Mass and at Vespers. The Directory appropriately reminds those who have made offerings for Mass intention that the Church prays for all the faithful departed, "so as to avoid possessive or particular ideas that related the Mass only to one’s ‘own’ dead" (255).

Memorial of the Dead in Popular Piety

The Directory prefaces its discussion of the memorial of the dead in popular piety with its oft-repeated caveat about maintaining a proper relationship between the liturgy and popular devotion, "both in its doctrinal aspect and in harmonizing the liturgical actions and pious exercises" (256).

Doctrinal Principles

According to the Directory, the popular cult of the dead must be inspired by the following seven doctrines of the Christian faith: 1. The paschal meaning of death, that is, death as participation in Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism; 2. The immortality of the soul; 3. The communion of saints; 4. The resurrection of the body; 5. The glorious coming of Christ; 6. Eternal retribution; and 7. Eternal life (257).

In light of these doctrines, the Directory insists that care must be taken that practices of the cult of the dead is not "contrary to the Gospel" and not be seen as "pagan residues" (257). Consequently, the following five dangers should be avoided: divination, interpretation of dreams related to the dead, belief in reincarnation, denial of the immortality of the soul and separation of death from the resurrection, and "the application of spatio-temporal categories to the dead" (258).14

Pious Practices for the Dead

After some warnings about the widespread contemporary phenomenon of "hiding death and its signs," especially in cities (259), the Directory ends the chapter with an enumeration of various pious practices of suffrage for the dead: novena for the dead in preparation for All Souls Day and the octave prolonging it; visits to the cemetery ["which should be seen as deriving from the bonds existing between the living and the dead and not from any form of obligation, non-fulfillment of which involves a superstitious fear"] (260); membership in confraternities whose activities include burying the dead, praying for the dead, and support for their families; suffrage for dead by means of almsgiving, works of mercy, fasting, applying indulgences, and recitation of prayers, especially the De profundis [Out of the depths, Ps 51] and the Requiem aeternam[Eternal Rest] (260).

Critical Reflections

As has been mentioned above, the Directory’s guidelines for the suffrage for the dead are prefaced by a presentation on the theological meaning of death and the liturgy of funerals. Curiously, for a document purportedly concerned with popular devotion, Directory devotes the lion’s share of its attention to the theology of death and the liturgical celebration of funerals and comparatively little on the practices of popular piety toward the dead. Anyone looking for a full and detailed treatment of this latter theme will be sorely disappointed.

As will be argued below, the Directory’s narrow focus on suffrage for the dead, while concentrating on what the Church does for the dead, neglects many aspects of the cult in honor of the dead. The latter aspect, as the history of the so-called Chinese Rites Controversy has amply demonstrated, is a culturally important and theologically challenging part of the popular piety toward the dead. A few reflections, then, on the strengths and weaknesses of this chapter are in order. In the process, indications will be given as to how the Directory’s treatment of popular piety toward the dead can be expanded and enriched.

Suffrage for the Dead and the Paschal Mystery

The Directory helpfully recalls the intimate connection between the death of a Christian and the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Such connection is strongly affirmed by the 1969 Order of Christian Funerals (Ordo exequiarum)15 and is succinctly expressed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "The Christian meaning of death is revealed in the light of the Paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ in whom resides our only hope" (1680).16 This notion of death as the last "Passover" of the Christian into the eternal life inaugurated by Christ, participation into which is already realized—albeit not yet fully—in the sacramental celebrations, in particular baptism and Eucharist, overcomes the partial and mutually antithetical understanding of death as either the natural end of biological life or the penalty of sin, which the Directory mentions (249). This emphasis on the paschal character of Christian death is a welcome corrective to the theology underlying the Tridentine Rituale Romanum of 1614 which is heavily clerical in structure and penitentiary in nature. In the Tridentine ritual, the primary celebrant of the funeral is not the laity but the priest who is seen as endowed with the power not only to forgive sins but also to intercede efficaciously for the remission of the punishments on behalf of the deceased.

This paschal note also retrieves the theology underlying the liturgical celebration of funerals in the early church in which the certainty of the salvation wrought by Christ and faith in the resurrection animate expressions of hope, joy, and communion rather than pains, sadness, and despair (Ntedika 1971). It also puts in proper perspective other themes regarding death widespread since the Middle Ages such as the final and dramatic struggle with the devil in the moment of agony, the survival of the soul separated from the body, the localization of the soul in the "bosom of Abraham" and in "heaven," the need for "refrigerium," and the forgiveness of sin and the salvation of the soul in the other world.

Another positive contribution of the Directory is its reminder that suffrage for the dead is not done only by means of the offering of the Eucharist, prayers, and the application of indulgences for the dead but also by support for the bereaved, almsgiving, and works of mercy (251, 260). In this way the social and charity dimension is fostered in the cult of the dead which often runs the risk of selfish concern for the dead members of one’s family and a one-sided emphasis on the beyond.

Suffrage for the Dead or Cult in Honor of the Ancestors?

It has been pointed out above that the scope of the Directory’s treatment of popular piety toward the dead is unduly narrowed by the rubric of suffrage for the dead. To be sure, the various pious practices mentioned by the Directory in no. 260 (e.g., novena, octave, visit to the cemetery, application of indulgences, etc.) are part of what people do for the dead but they do not broach one essential aspect of popular piety toward the dead, namely, the cult in honor of the dead, in particular, the ancestors.

This omission is a highly unfortunate lacuna since it is precisely the cult of ancestors that has been the greatest obstacle for conversion to Christianity in those Asian countries influenced by the Confucian tradition as well as in African countries with a strong tradition of ancestor worship. The absence of a treatment of the cult of ancestors is no doubt a result of the Directory’s almost exclusive focus on Western pious practices for the dead. Tellingly, the Directory, when alluding to the customs and usages connected with the "cult of the dead," places the expression in quotation marks and goes on warning that "great caution must be used in examining and evaluating these customs. Care should be taken to ensure that they cannot be interpreted as pagan residues" (257).

Furthermore, in terms of the relationship between the liturgy and popular devotion, the Christian reception of the cult of ancestors in Africa and Asia offers the most instructive examples of how these two forms of worship can be fruitfully integrated into each other. Regrettably, the Directory fails to take advantage of existing liturgical adaptations to achieve its main objective, namely, to "harmonize" popular piety and the liturgy without falling into the doctrinal pitfalls it repeatedly warns against (258).

This is not the place either to recount the vicissitudes of the Chinese Rites Controversy17 or to present the African theology of Christ as the Proto-Ancestor.18 Rather my intention is briefly to illustrate by way of one example, namely, the cult of ancestors in the Rite Zaïrois, how popular piety toward the dead goes far beyond the Directory’s category of suffrage for the dead and, more importantly, how it can enrich the liturgy itself. Whether the introduction of the cult of worship into the Eucharist belongs to the category of garden-variety "legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions and peoples" (SC, 38) or that of "an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy" (SC, 40), for which special ecclesiastical approval is required, is a moot point.19 The fact is that certain practices of the popular devotion to the dead are now an integral part of the liturgy, and more specifically, of the Eucharistic celebration.

The Invocation of Ancestors in the Rite Zaïrois

The tortuous history of the Rite Zaïrois (RZ) from its inception in 1969 to its final approval in 1988 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments under the official title of "Missel Romain pour les Dioceses du Zaïre" (Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire) is in itself a fascinating and sobering lesson on liturgical inculturation and ecclesiastical politics.20 What is of interest here is the way the RZ incorporates the cult of ancestors into the celebration of the Eucharist itself. Recognizing the communion between the living and the dead, especially their ancestors, between the church in heaven and the church on earth, the RZ opens the celebration of the Mass with an invocation of the saints and the ancestors, usually in the form of a litany. As Egbulem explains:




Most tribes of black Africa would not begin a public ceremony without invoking the ancestors, who are believed to exercise real control over the living and under whose surveillance people live. By opening the celebration with the invocation of saints and ancestors, the Zairean Mass identifies the Christian assembly as the meeting place between the Creator, the ancestors, and the living" (1997:59).

As Egbulem notes, what is new in the RZ is "the place in the liturgy at which this invocation is made as well as the fact that the ancestors are asked to become part of a celebration in which many of them never shared in their lifetimes" (1997:59-60). As the priest’s invitation to the people before the invocation makes it clear:




Let us unite ourselves with all who,

even though they had not known Christ in their lifetime,

have however sought God with a sincere heart.

With God’s help,

they have accomplished God’s will,

and are now with God (1997:60 with slight modification).

The memory of the ancestors is repeated in various places of the Mass, especially in the second part of the Eucharistic prayer, in which the Church prays for those who have died in the hope of the resurrection.21

The invocation of the ancestors (and not only the dead in general) and the invitation to them to participate in the Mass (which goes far beyond offering suffrage for them) represent a successful attempt at liturgical inculturation in which popular piety and the liturgy are harmonized with one another. They also go beyond the Directory’s bedrock and oft-repeated principle that "the formulae proper to pious exercises should not be commingled with the liturgical actions. Acts of devotion and piety are external to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist and of the other sacraments" (13). Fortunately, in this case, the incorporation of popular devotion to the ancestors into the liturgy has enriched the Eucharistic celebration immeasurably by making it a truly and genuinely local act of worship.22

The Asian Context

Vietnam, along with Korea and Japan, has been heavily influenced by China, especially its Confucian culture.23 This influence is most visible in certain funerary rites and especially in the cult of ancestors. The Chinese Rites Controversy and Rome’s ensuing prohibitions against the cult of ancestors affected Vietnamese Catholicism, profoundly and extensively, even today. In 1964 the Vietnamese hierarchy applied to Rome for permission to implement the 1939 decree of Propaganda Fide permitting ancestor veneration. On 14 June 1964 the Vietnamese bishops issued a letter "The Veneration of Ancestors, National Heroes, and War Dead" spelling out the concrete norms to apply Propaganda Fide’s instruction. In general, the bishops distinguished three kinds of acts, attitudes, and rituals: those that are clearly secular, patriotic, and social expressions of piety toward the ancestors, national heroes, and war dead; those that are clearly religious in nature and contrary to Catholic belief, smack of superstition, and are performed in places reserved for worship; and those that are of an ambiguous nature. The first kinds are not only permissible but are to be encouraged and promoted; the second are prohibited; and the third need to be examined according to the common local opinion: if they are generally thought to be of a nonreligious nature, they are permissible. If doubt concerning their nature persists, it is permissible to act according to one’s conscience. If possible, explanations of one’s intention should be given with due tact, or one can participate in a passive manner.24

On 12 April 1974 the Vietnamese bishops issued another communication in which they specified a list of activities, attitudes, and rituals deemed permissible:

"1. An ancestral altar dedicated to the veneration of the ancestors may be placed under the altar dedicated to God, provided that nothing smacking of superstition such as the ‘white soul’ [the white cloth representing the dead] is placed there.

2. Burning incense and lighting candles on the ancestral altar, and prostrating with joined hands in front of the altar or the repository of the ancestors are gestures of filial piety and veneration, hence permissible.

3. On death anniversaries it is permissible to present the dead person with ‘offerings of commemorative cult’ according to local customs, provided that one eliminates things smacking of superstition such as burning paper money. It is also recommended that the offerings be reduced or changed to express more clearly their true meaning of respect and gratitude to the ancestors, for instance, flowers, fruits, incense, and lights.

4. During the marriage rites, the bride and groom are permitted to perform the ‘ceremony of veneration toward the ancestors’ in front of the ancestral altar or the repository of the ancestors. These rituals are expressions of gratitude toward, recognition of, and self-presentation to the ancestors.

5. During the funerary rites, it is permissible to perform prostrations with joined hands before the corpse as well as to hold burning incense sticks in joined hands according to local custom, as a way to express veneration for the dead person, just as the Church permits the use of candles, incense, and inclination before the corpse.

6. It is permissible to participate in the ceremonies venerating the ‘lord of the place,’ who is usually called the ‘titulary genius,’ in the village community building, to express gratitude toward those whom history shows have earned the gratitude of the people, or the benefactors of the village, and not to express a superstitious belief in evil spirits and harmful ghosts."25

The Cult of Ancestors in the Vietnamese Mass

In addition to the permission of these rituals of ancestor veneration outside of the liturgy, the Vietnamese bishops have introduced two properly liturgical innovations.26 The first is an expansion of the prayer for the dead in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass. In the second Eucharistic Prayer, instead of the simple formula "Remember our brothers and sisters who have gone to their rest in the hope of rising again," the Vietnamese memento of the dead reads: "Remember also the faithful, our brothers and sisters, who rest in peace in the expectation of the resurrection, and the dead who can only trust in your mercy. Remember in particular our ancestors, our parents and our friends who have left this world...."27 Obviously, the explicit mention of "ancestors" is an attempt at inculturating ancestor veneration into the liturgy, with significant theological implications which will be detailed below.

The second liturgical innovation is the Masses for the celebration of the lunar New Year or Tet. For the Vietnamese Tet is the most important cultural and religious feast, the equivalent of New Year, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas rolled into one.28 It symbolizes the total renewal of all things. All debts should be paid, all bad feelings set aside, and everything should be clean and new. On New Year’s Eve, especially at midnight (giao thua), there are various rituals to perform, the main of which is to "welcome the ancestors" (ruoc ong ba) to the home. Culturally, Tet is the celebration of the family: all members of the family are supposed to return to the ancestral home to show gratitude to their ancestors and to renew the family bond. Religiously, it is the occasion for the most solemn celebration of the cult of ancestors. Members of the family gather before the ancestral altar with the pictures of the dead ancestors displayed on it, make deep bows, burn incense, make offerings, and pray for their protection. Catholics say their prayers in front of the altar.

Tet is celebrated for at least three days: the first is reserved for the cult of ancestors and the living parents, the second for near relatives, and the third for the dead. Alexandre de Rhodes had already attempted to Christianize Tet by suggesting that its three days be dedicated to the Trinity: "The first day in memory of the benefits of creation and conservation, which is dedicated to God the Father; the second in thanksgiving for the inestimable benefit of redemption, which is dedicated to God the Son; and the third in humble gratitude to the Holy Spirit for the grace of being called to be a Christian" (Phan 1998:80-81). In the 17 century and until even as recently as the 20th, as long as the monarchy lasted, on the first day of the year the emperor offered in the name of the nation the Nam Giao (south gate) sacrifice to Heaven, which de Rhodes interpreted as a "sacrifice offered to the heavenly King" (Phan 1998:92-3).

Given the central position of Tet, it is not surprising that the Vietnamese bishops have undertaken to solemnize it with eucharistic celebrations. Five Mass formulas have been composed to express the various meanings of Tet and are now in use: the first for the end of the year in to give thanks and ask for forgiveness; the second for New Year’s Eve to celebrate the passage into the new year (giao thua); the third for the first day of the new year to praise God and to ask for peace and prosperity; the fourth for the second day to pray for ancestors, grandparents and parents; and the fifth for the third day to pray for the sanctification of labor.29

For our present purpose the fourth formula is of special interest. Here are some of its significant prayers:

Collect: Father of mercies, you have commanded us to practice filial piety. Today, on New Year’s Day, we have gathered to honor the memory of our ancestors, grandparents and parents. Deign to reward abundantly those who have brought us into this world, nurtured us, and educated us. Help us live in conformity to our duties toward them....

Prayer over the Gifts: Lord, accept our offerings and bestow your graces abundantly upon our ancestors, grandparents and parents, so that we may in our turn inherit their blessings....

Preface: As we look at things in the universe, we clearly see that every being has an origin and principle: birds have their nests, water its source, and the human person coming into this world has a father and mother. Moreover, thanks to your revelation, Father, we recognize that you are the creator of all things that exist and that you are our Father. You have given life to our ancestors, grandparents and parents so that they may transmit it to us. You have also filled them with good things so we may inherit them by knowing you, adoring you, and serving you....

The inclusion of the veneration of ancestors in the Mass, and especially the mention of the term "ancestor" in the Eucharistic Prayer, mark a monumental step in liturgical inculturation in Vietnam. We have traveled a long way from the days of the Chinese Rites Controversy. Theologically, it is important, at least for two reasons. First, in mentioning the ancestors explicitly in the Eucharistic Prayer and in praying for them, the Vietnamese text does not distinguish between Christian ancestors and non-Christian ones (among Vietnamese Christians attending Mass there are many whose ancestors did not receive baptism). In the cult of ancestors, the ancestors are venerated not because they have been saved or were holy but simply because they are ancestors. Simply in virtue of the physical bond with their descendants, the ancestors are bound to protect them, and the descendants to honor them. Furthermore, in describing the cult of ancestors, many Vietnamese bishops have used not only the word to tien (forebears) but also thanh hien (saint and sage) to refer to those who should receive this cult. Of course, they do not mean to say that these are "saints" in the Christian sense of being officially canonized, but clearly the old objection that the word "saint" should not be used for people like Confucius no longer holds, and of course there is no suggestion that the non-Christian ancestors have been damned simply because they were not Christian.

Secondly, there is in the prayers cited earlier an affirmation that somehow the ancestors act as mediators of the blessings and graces that their descendants receive from God. The descendants are said to "inherit" them from their ancestors. Of course, in these prayers the ancestors are not directly asked to "intercede" with God for their descendants, since these prayers are not addressed to them, in contrast to those said in front of the ancestral altar at home. Theologically, of course, there can be no objection to ask someone, dead or alive, canonized or not, to intercede for oneself or others before God. The old objection that the cult of ancestors, in so far as they are invoked in prayer, is superstitious is a red herring, since no Asian who practices this cult believes that the ancestors are divine, in the strict sense of this term.30

The Challenges of Contemporary Culture

In a helpful aside the Directory notes the phenomenon, widespread in contemporary Western societies, of "hiding death and its signs." It points out how doctors and nurses often hide the fact of imminent death, how tiny apartments do not permit the holding of a vigil for the dead, how traffic congestion prevents funeral corteges, and how cemeteries are no longer provided for in urban planning (259). On the other hand, today funerals tend to be a very expensive affair, with the cosmetic restoration of the corpse, the use of funeral parlor as a place of worship, and the funeral director as the orchestrator of the funeral rituals. The Directory urges that Christians reject both the "intolerance of the dead" and the "commercialization of the dead" (259).

In addition to these two pastoral challenges to the Church’s care for the dead and their families as well as to the popular piety toward the dead, others may be mentioned. There has been a tendency to simplify the committal service and celebrate it at the Church or the funeral home rather than at the graveside or the crematory, thus truncating the process of mourning by the family and curtailing the need to take a final and definitive leave of the deceased. At times the body is disposed of without ceremony and without the family attending. No funeral is celebrated and only a memorial service is held at a later date. Also there has been an increasing privatization of funerals, with the attendance of close family members only, apart from the parish community and its support, reflecting the contemporary loss of the sense of belonging to a larger community. In reaction to the extraordinary increase in the costs of funerals, some have planned a simple disposal of their corpses with little or no ritualized resources for the living to cope with grief. Even the pre-planning of funerals, though economically and practically helpful, may disassociate death from grief and bereavement.

Furthermore, today death itself has acquired new faces that demand from the Church a complex pastoral approach and perhaps even new funeral rites that would allow the community to cope with these new forms of death in a truly Christian way. Examples of new faces of death include: mass death (e.g., caused by terrorist attacks or natural disasters), death as the result of socially and morally stigmatized diseases (e.g., AIDS and drug addiction), and "problematic’ death (e.g., suicide, people who have left the Church, and "public sinners"). The increasing popularity of cremation poses challenges to the current funeral rites that presume burial as the norm.31

While these new challenges to the liturgy of funerals and the popular piety toward the dead are most prevalent in the West, these begin to emerge also in Asia, given the impact of globalization. With regard to the rituals of the ancestor veneration, it is increasingly difficult, to practice them in full given the frantic rhythm of modern life. Often they are regarded as outmoded and quaint, especially by the young who more often than not lack the requisite knowledge of their cultures to understand the meaning of these rituals. Furthermore, in Asian countries where Christians are a minority and co-exist with the followers of other religions which have feasts in honor of the dead (e.g., the Buddhist festival of Ullambana, that is, offering of foods to the "hungry ghosts" on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month), it is highly recommended to synchronize the Christian feasts (e.g., All Saints and All Souls) with similar non-Christian festivals.32

To meet the challenges facing the Church in matters of funerals and the cult of the dead, it is imperative that the harmonization of the liturgy and popular devotion go beyond the limited scope of the suffrage for the dead and include such steps as those taken for example by the Zairean Rite and the Vietnamese Mass for the dead. Only in this way can the deepest elements of African and Asian cultures relating to the cult of the dead, in particular of ancestors, be preserved and celebrated. Only thus can the process of reinforcing the awareness of pain and loss caused by the death of the loved ones, of remembering the deceased, of going through mourning and bereavement, of providing support and comfort to the survivors, and of re-organizing one’s life deprived of the company of the beloved—a process enabled by the funeral ritual itself—be achieved.

Funerals and the cult of the dead are endowed with psychological, social, and religious significance. Psychologically, they provide the bereaved with the means to cope with their loss and to reorganize their lives without the presence of their loved ones. Socially, they re-affirm the bonds that bind the family, social group, and Church together in moments of profound anguish and crisis. Religiously, they reiterate God’s faithful love, the hope in the resurrection, and the comfort of fellow believers. Given the importance of funerals, it is natural that the Church wants to do everything possible to make them meaningful to people in their cultures:




Among all peoples, funerals are always surrounded with special rites, often of great expressive value. To answer the needs of different countries, the Roman ritual offers several forms of funerals. Episcopal Conferences must choose those which correspond best to local customs. They will wish to preserve all that is good in family traditions and local customs, and ensure that funeral rites manifest the Christian faith in the resurrection and bear witness to the true values of the Gospel. It is in this perspective that funeral rituals can incorporate the customs of different cultures and respond as best they can to the needs and traditions of each region (CDWDS 1994:58).

Excellent words, indeed! To implement this lofty goal, the Directory is a good place to start, but as has been shown above, there is still a long way to go.


1. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS) 2002. The directory was signed by Jorge A. Cardinal Medina Estévez, Prefect, and Archbishop Pio Tamburino, Secretary, on 11 December 2001. Henceforth, the document will be cited as Directory, with the number of its paragraphs in parentheses.

2. Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), 13. The Directory may be viewed as an implementation of this directive of Vatican II. This relative neglect of and suspicious attitude toward popular religion by Vatican II was one of the results of the triumph of the Liturgical Movement, spearheaded by Dom Prosper Guéranger, at the Council. The Liturgical Movement saw popular religion as rooted in subjective and emotional piety, thus favoring the Enlightenment’s individualist tendencies which it wanted to combat. This belittling of "subjective" or "personal" piety and consequent rejection of "all other religious exercises not directly connected with the sacred Liturgy and performed outside public worship" were criticized by Pope Pius XII as "false, insidious, and quite pernicious" (Mediator Dei, 30). Papal condemnations notwithstanding, the Liturgical Movement’s negative assessment of popular religion found its way into article 13 of SC. See Malloy 1998:2-4.

3. For a helpful discussion of these terminologies and of popular religion in general, see Schreiter 1985:122-43. Popular religion is often contrasted to official religion, elite religion, and esoteric religion. Schreiter rightly notes the inadequacy of these approaches and calls for an adherence in the studies of popular religion to the following principles: "trying to listen to the culture on its own terms; adopting a holistic pattern of description; remaining attentive to the audience and the interest of the questioner in each event" (126). Other helpful discussions of popular religion are found in Williams 1980:2-21; Lippy 1994:1-22; Candelaria 1990:1-38; and Bamat and Wiest 1999:1-16.

4. As evidence of this resurgence of popular religion in contemporary theological discourse, Anscar Chupungco cites the bibliography compiled by F. Trolese in 1979 which showed as many as 528 titles in Italian, French and Spanish languages alone. See Trolese 1979:273-325, cited by Chupungco 1992:95. For works in German, see ibid., 95, footnote 1. For a review of recent works on Hispanic popular religiosity, see Wright 1998:141-6. The rise of this scholarly interest in popular religion may be a symptom of a diffused malaise and disenchantment in Western societies with the ideals of scientific, value-free and objective knowledge spawned by the Enlightenment. In the United States, it has been accompanied by the adoption of some beliefs and practices of Eastern religions and some forms of Gnosticism such as New Age.

5. See Malloy, 5-8. On the resurgence of Marian devotion in the United States in particular, see Phan 2000:425-39.

6. It is these characteristics that lie behind SC’s insistence on a "full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations" (no. 14). For a presentation of the critique of Vatican II’s liturgical reform by four ideologically diverse theologians (Joseph Ratzinger, David Power, Francis Mannion, and Matthew Fox), see Malloy, 12-20.

7. For a description of the general traits of popular religion, see Chupungco, 109-11. Chupungco quotes C. Valenziano’s characterization of popular religion: "It is festive, felt, spontaneous; it is expressive, immediate, human; it is communitarian, collective, joyful, symbolic, traditional, alive" (109-10). See Valenziano 1979:83-110. Chupungco, in his analysis of Filipino popular religion, identifies the principal features of popular religion as follows: "These are, first, their literary genre, which is marked by discursive and picturesque quality; second, their use of sacred images; third, their preference for such devices for participation as repetitiveness and communal recitation; and fourth, their use of dramatic forms that are often strongly mimetic or imitative" (119).

8. For an exposition of these two opposing views of popular religion, see Candelaria 1990, already cited above. Candelaria highlights the double dimension of popular religion, already noted by Karl Marx, namely, its alienating effect and its liberating potential. For a detailed study of popular religion in Latin America, see Seladoc (Maximino Arias Reyero, Cristián Johansson and J. Manuel De Ferari) 1976 and Smith and Prokopy 1999.

9. See Empereur 1998:105-10. The works examined are mainly: Espín 1997 and Goizueta 1995. Other Latino/a theologians should also be mentioned: Virgil Elizondo, Allan F. Deck, Ana María Díaz-Stevens, Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, Alex García-Rivera, Timothy Mantovina, María Pilar Aquino, Jeanette Rodríguez, and so on.

10. For an earlier discussion of mine on popular religion, see chapter 5 Popular Religion and Liturgical Inculturation: Perspectives and Challenges from Asia in Phan 2004:65-91.

11. For a comprehensive commentary on the Directory, see Phan 2004a.

12. This is a reference to the fourth Eucharistic prayer.

13. The Code of Canon Law, canon 1176, § 3 says: "The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine." See Beal, Coriden, and Green 2000:1408. See also canon 1184, §1, 3.

14. While the first five dangers are self-explanatory, what is meant by "application of spatio-temporal categories to the dead" is rather cryptic, and no explanation is given. Presumably the Directory warns against imagining purgatory, hell, and heaven as "places" where the dead continue to exist and enjoy carnal pleasures or suffer physical pains as retribution for their deeds, as is often depicted in popular literature on the world beyond.

15. For a commentary on the Order of Christian Funerals, see Butherford 1990. For helpful descriptions of funeral rites in various Christian denominations by different authors, see "Funerals," in Bradshaw 2002: 215-27.

16. In emphasizing the paschal character of death in reforming funeral rites, the Ordo exsequiarumimplements the recommendation of Vatican II: "Funeral rites should express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death" (SC, 81).

17. For studies of this question, see Minamiki 1985; Noll 1992; Mungello 1994.

18. See, for instance, Schreiter 1991; Manus 1993, and Akinade 1995: 181-99.

19. See the document of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments 1994.

20. For a presentation of the RZ, see Egbulem 1997. Egbulem notes that the official title was imposed on the Zairean church by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to underline the fact that the RZ belongs to the "Roman" rite, and not a new rite. In Zaire, however, it is referred to simply as "Rite Zaïrois."

21. Egbulem rightly laments the fact that the RZ, when referring to the ancestors, does not invoke them by their names, especially those of women, who too can become ancestors.

22. Egbulem suggests further interesting additions to the RZ such as mentioning in the various prayers of the Mass the functions that ancestors are believed to perform for their people, ending the litany that commemorates the ancestors with an acknowledgment of their participation in the Eucharist, and offering a piece of the consecrated bread and some of the consecrated wine to the ancestors as in a libation.

23. For what follows, see Phan 2003:122-29.

24. See the Vietnamese text in Sacerdos 43 (July 1965), 489-92. A French translation is available as "L’Église du Vietnam et la question des rites," Missions Étrangères de Paris 145 (May-June, 1966), 7-10.

25. Sacerdos 156 (1974), 878-80. My translation from Vietnamese.

26. The second edition of the Roman Missal in Vietnamese was published in 1992 by the liturgical commission of the Vietnamese episcopal conference. The missal does not bear the Vietnamese bishops’ approval nor theimprimatur, but only mentions the approval by the Department of Culture and Communication of the Vietnamese government. However, permission for its publication had been given by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on 21 February 1989 (prot. CD 1375/88, cf. Notitiae 29, 1993, p. 725). The Vietnamese translation was approved by the same dicastery ad experimentum for five years starting from 7 January 1994, including the Vietnamese texts of the Mass for the lunar New Year, the Mass for the Feast of Mid-Autumn for children, and the Mass for the Vietnamese Martyrs (prot. 2444/93/L and 2445/93/L respectively, cf. Notitiae 30, 1994, 324). On the issue of the liturgical inculturation of ancestor worship in Vietnam, see the excellent article by Roland Jacques, "Le Dossier des rites chinois doit-il être rouvert?" cited in note 3 and Peter De Ta Vo, "A Cultural and Theological Foundation for Ancestor Veneration Among Catholics in Vietnam," PhD dissertation, The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, 1999.

27. My translation. The Vietnamese word for ancestors is to tien. Literally, to means grandfather, tien means go before. A similar addition is found in the third eucharistic prayer.

28. On the meaning of Tet, see Nguyen 1981:98-101.

29. See the Vietnamese Roman Missal, 1035-47.

30. The oft-invoked distinction between "veneration" and "cult" of ancestors, accepting the former and condemning the latter, is more for the benefits of Western Christians caught in the issue of iconoclasm and the Protestant reformers’ attack on the cult of the saints. In Vietnamese, the word kinh tho, literally venerate-adore, is a compound word; it may be used together, or singly, or in the reverse (tho kinh) for living parents, dead ancestors, Christian saints, or God.

31. Among the funeral rites approved by episcopal conferences that take into account contemporary challenges of death and dying in Western society, those of French, German, and Spanish bishops deserve special attention. See Nouveau rituel des funérailles, I. La célébration des obsèques; II. Prières pour les défuncts à la maison et au cimetière (Paris: Desclée-Mame, 1972); Die kirchliche Begräbnisfeier in den katolischen Bistümern der deutschen Sprachgebietes (Freiburg/Br., 1977); and Ritual de exsequias(Barcelona: Coeditores liturgics, 1989).

32. In 1970 the Congregation for Divine Worship accepted the request of the episcopal conference of Laos and Cambodia to celebrate the feast of All Saints and All Souls in conjunction with the Buddhist feast in honor of the dead ("Prachum Ben"). See prot. 240/70- "Laos and Cambodia," Notitiae 6 (1970):133.


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