Indigenous prayers, dancing in San Bernardino Synod Mass spark backlash
Michael Madrigal, a lay minister in the Diocese of San Bernardino, recites the “Native American Prayer to the Four Directions” at the beginning of the diocese’s opening Mass for the Synod on Synodality, Oct. 17, 2021 at Holy Angels Church in Riverside, California. | Screen grab photo of YouTube video.
Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Oct 23, 2021 / 11:33 am
The Diocese of San Bernardino says its opening Mass for the Synod on Synodality Oct. 17 sought to celebrate the California diocese’s rich cultural diversity and welcome those on the “periphery” of the Church.
But the liturgy’s unusual pageantry, featuring liturgical dancers, a Native American prayer to the “four directions,” and the appearance at the end of Mass of a colorfully costumed figure that resembled traditional representations of an Aztec demon, has raised eyebrows and sparked criticism on social media.
“Paganism in full bloom,” read one comment on YouTube. “This is an absolute disgrace to God and His Holy Church,” stated another.
The Synod on Synodality is a global consultative process that Pope Francis initiated earlier this month to gather input from Catholics and others around the world about important issues confronting the Church. Many U.S. dioceses held Masses last weekend to inaugurate a yearlong period of listening sessions and other means of soliciting feedback.
Bishop Alberto Rojas was the main celebrant of the San Bernardino diocese’s approximately two-hour-long opening Mass, held Sunday evening at Queen of Angels Church in Riverside, California. San Bernardino Bishop Emeritus Gerald R. Barnes concelebrated the Mass.
The live streamed, multi-lingual liturgy began in dramatic fashion. A lay minister who works at a nearby Indian reservation led the procession into the sanctuary, waving a large bird feather with one hand while carrying a basket in the other, to the accompaniment of beating drums.
After circling the altar and arriving at the lectern, Michael Madrigal, who the diocese identified as a lay minister at St. Joseph Mission Catholic Church on the Soboba Indian Reservation, removed a wooden rattle from the basket and shook it while chanting in a Native American language. Then, in English, he recited the “Native American Prayer of the Four Directions.”
“We begin to the North,” Madrigal began. “It is the direction of the cool winter snows and ice. It is the direction of our healing medicines from where we receive prayer and ceremony and blessings from our creator. In this direction, we pray for all of our spiritual leaders. We pray for strength and blessings for Pope Francis, as he has called us together for this year of Synod. We pray for all of our bishops, priests, religious, and community leaders. We ask you to give them wisdom, strength for the journey.” Similar prayers directed to the East, South, and West invoked the Trinity and asked God for guidance, healing, and protection.
You can watch the full Synod Mass in the YouTube video below. The Mass begins at the 7:53 mark. The entrance procession begins at the 11:15 mark. Matachines dancers appear at the 2:03:13 mark.
Contacted by CNA, a spokesperson for the diocese explained in an email that the prayer’s significance is two-fold. First, the prayer is meant to “reflect the multicultural character of the Diocese and to give voice to Catholic expressions that could be considered on the periphery.”
Second, “this prayer, by its nature, helps the faithful reflect on the entire web of life that God has created — a central idea in Pope Francis’s [encyclical] Laudato Si.”
There is a danger, however, that cultural expressions during the Mass can distract from the proper focus on the Eucharist, said Fr. Daniel Cardó, Benedict XVI Chair of Liturgical Studies at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.
“There are many occasions in the life of a diocese or a parish for cultural and self-expression, but the Mass is not the place for these,” Cardó wrote in an email to CNA.
“True and lasting ecclesial unity comes from the Eucharist, not from our well-
intentioned human experiments,” he stated. “Celebrating the sacraments according to the rubrics and their spirit is the ordinary and simple path for genuine participation in the graces God offers through them.”
In his homily, Rojas described the synodal path as an invitation to listen to and welcome “all the people in the margins of society.”
“Guided by the Holy Spirit, we come together from different cultures and languages around the world, but united in Christ as one family of families to pray and to listen to each other,” he continued. “We want all the people in the margins of society to know that they are welcome in our communities because they are all children of God created in the same image and likeness of God our Father.”
Near the end of the Mass, Rojas took a moment to explain the symbolism of the entrance procession.
“If you noticed, when we entered the Church, the entrance procession, it was a little different than what we have done in the past,” the bishop said. “Normally, the priest or the presider or the bishops come in the very back, at the end of the process. You noticed this time we were in the middle, symbolizing walking together.”
Moments later, traditional Mexican Indian dancers, called matachines, wearing bells on their clothing and tall, feathered headdresses, filed in front of the altar. After a final blessing, interspersed with loud drum beats, they processed out of the church, dancing.
One of the two drummers positioned at the foot of the steps leading to the altar appeared to be wearing a jaguar costume, which some viewers associated with the Aztec jaguar-demon Texcatilpoca. The diocese did not respond to a followup email from CNA seeking an explanation.
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While some social media commentators said they were deeply offended by some of the cultural aspects of the Mass, the Church generally has provided wide discretion in the liturgical use of cultural traditions.
Inculturation of the liturgy has a long history, but has come to particular prominence since the Second Vatican Council's constitution on the sacred liturgy included norms for adapting the liturgy to the culture and traditions of peoples.
Echoing Sacrosanctum Concilium and recent documents of the Congregation for Divine Worship, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal indicates that “the pursuit of inculturation does not have as its purpose in any way the creation of new families of rites, but aims rather at meeting the needs of a particular culture, though in such a way that adaptations introduced either into the Missal or coordinated with other liturgical books are not at variance with the proper character of the Roman Rite.”
Cardó, however, said there is a proper time and place for celebrating cultural traditions and diversity.
“Thankfully, there are plenty of occasions for other kinds of human and cultural exchanges,” he stated. “But the Mass is the supreme act of adoration, thanksgiving, expiation, and petition, and this is truly experienced through a beautiful and reverent celebration of the Eucharist.”
Joseph Bukuras is a staff writer at the Catholic News Agency. Joe holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from The Catholic University of America. He has interned in the U.S. House of Representatives, on a U.S. Senate campaign, in the Massachusetts State House of Representatives, and at the Susan B. Anthony List. He is based out of the Boston area.
Shannon Mullen is the Editor-in-Chief of CNA. He previously worked as a features writer, investigative reporter, and editor with the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press.
Carl Bunderson is managing editor of Catholic News Agency. He holds a BA in economics from the University of Colorado Boulder and a BPhil from the Pontifical Lateran University.
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