by ARI DY SJ (September 2010)


From the outset it is important to state that what follows are simply suggestions. By no means are these suggestions to be considered rules to be followed to the letter. What I have tried to do is to integrate traditional Chinese customs with the celebration of the sacraments. As such, there are no strictly right or wrong answers. The important thing is that the celebrations are meaningful for the people involved.

A deliberate effort has been made to exclude obviously superstitious practices. All superstitions are based on fear. Our God is a God who tells us “Be not afraid!” and so superstitions really do not have a place in a Christian believer’s life. However, this is easier said than done, especially for older generations of Chinese Catholics. It can even be argued that many of the so-called Catholic practices are also steeped in superstition. Be that as it may, suffice it to say that genuine faith in Jesus Christ is the key to the age-old question of superstitions. If you have experienced Jesus personally, you will not be afraid of animal birth signs and their effect on you, lucky and unlucky times for certain events, etc.

It is also important to make a distinction between Chinese customs Chinese religious practices, whether Buddhist or Daoist. The distinction is important because many Chinese Catholics equate Chinese customs with Buddhism or Daoism. The most common example of this is Chinese incense or joss sticks. These are just like candles and may be used by any religion for spiritual activities, yet many Chinese think that only Buddhists can light joss sticks.

There are many churches in Taiwan where joss sticks are used in the liturgy instead of the Roman boat and thurible. This is just one example of how the Chinese way of worshipping can be used in the Catholic liturgy. What is needed is a critical and discerning attitude. We cannot mix the beliefs of different religions because some of these beliefs are simply incompatible, but we can certainly use our cultural symbols in expressing our faith, whatever our religion may be.

These suggestions are pointers for celebrations/liturgies that are inculturated, theologically sound, and meaningful.

General Guidelines when Using Chinese Cultural Elements in the Mass

1. INCENSE AND OFFERINGS: When Chinese incense is used, the incense burner or urn must be placed on a table in front of the altar, usually a little lower in height. Any foodstuffs offered during the Presentation of the Gifts are placed on this altar. It is not customary in Chinese rites to place offerings on the floor, although this is a common practice at Masses in the Philippines.

2. INCENSE FOR GOD: When incense is used to honor God, an odd number of sticks is used, following Chinese religious custom. Thus, it is usually one or three sticks.

3. ANCESTRAL ALTAR: Whenever the ancestral altar is set up for use within the Mass (e.g., Mass for the dead, Moon festival, lunar new year), it must have its own table for offerings and burning incense. Strictly speaking, the incense burner for the dead must be distinct from the incense burner used at the Eucharistic altar.

4. INCENSE FOR THE DEPARTED: For the dead, an even number of incense sticks is used, again following Chinese religious custom. Thus the usual case is to use two sticks. In modern times, however, it is acceptable to use just one stick of incense regardless of who it is offered to, in order to be friendlier to the environment.

5. COLOR: Following the practice in Hong Kong and Taiwan, red may be used as the liturgical color for lunar new year or other joyful occasions like Christmas or Easter. This is in recognition of the joy attached to the color red in Chinese culture, which can be understood as joy that comes from the Holy Spirit. In the Roman Catholic Church, red can signify either martyrdom or the flame of the Holy Spirit. The latter is the favored meaning when red is used in liturgies for the Chinese.

6. HYMNS: When Chinese liturgical hymns are sung, it is helpful to provide copies to the congregation or to project the text on a screen. In both cases, the ideal case is for the text to include the Chinese characters and the Pinyin romanization/Zhuyin phonetic symbols.

7. DANCES: On happy occasions such as patronal feasts or the lunar new year, Chinese dances can be inserted before the entrance procession and before the presentation of the gifts. These dances must preserve the liturgical mood and not become “liturgical entertainment.”

8. COMMENTARY: It must never be assumed that all in the congregation understand the Chinese cultural elements being used in the Mass. The commentator’s script must always include brief explanations of the cultural practices being incorporated into the liturgy.

For specific guidelines and reflections, just go to the list of Catholic sacraments and Chinese festivals below, and click on the item.  Comments are welcome!




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