IS incorporating Hindu elements into the Catholic liturgy syncretism? The simple answer is, it depends on which elements and how they are incorporated.
In the Caribbean, Hinduism is a religion; in India, it is a prevailing ancient culture. There is a big difference. In every culture, forms of hospitality and greeting vary.
In the West, a handshake or a kiss on the cheek is a typical greeting; in Japan, it is a bow; in Trinidad, it could be a bounce or an extended handshake with five or more movements. Cultural practice communicates a message to those of the culture. It could convey something very different to those outside the culture.
The use of aarti and the anointing of the head of a distinguished guest are aspects of Indian culture that are also used in Hindu ritual. When, on a visit to India, Pope John Paul II had his head anointed there was an outcry from the West, with people making all kinds of spurious claims.
In a letter from the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, dated November 22,1994 Archbishop John Foley says: “Indian Catholics . . . use aarti when a child returns home after receiving First Holy Communion and when a newly married couple are received by their respective families. Nowadays, aarti is often performed to greet the principal celebrant at an important liturgical event, as it was on the occasion shown in the photograph (of Pope John Paul II) … Use of the aarti ceremonial by Indian Catholics is no more the worship of a heathen deity than is the decoration of a Christmas tree by American Christians a return to the pagan rituals of Northern Europe.”
What may seem strange to us in Trinidad is not odd to Catholics of India. They see these things from a cultural and not religious standpoint. The passing of a tray with flowers, hot coals and incense over the body of the deceased is a sign of reverence, no different from using a thurible with incense.
In Trinidad, some people are hypersensitive to cultural adaptation. We believe the Western cultural default is the only expression of culture. This is simply wrong. Western culture, as we know, has borrowed heavily from other cultures. The Latin Rite of the Mass has also borrowed heavily from older cultures.
We need to remember the drum, the chac-chac and the tambourine were all outlawed in the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance of November 16, 1917. Let us also remember that the repeal of this ordinance was in 1951. These musical instruments were not allowed in any religious ceremony. It was not only illegal but was also highly disdained and believed to be “of the devil”.
The mainline religions stood by and allowed this prohibition. This was a terrible moment in our history that we should not forget. Today, we see the drum, the chac-chac and tambourine as essential to the musical accompaniment of our choirs. This was not how it was seen 70 years ago.
One of the great hypersensitivities is the steel band. The disparaging remarks that were made about the steel pan are still remembered. When the pan came into the church, there was much contention. Many people believed it was the worst day for the local church.
Today, we have selective memory. We all are happy when there is pan accompaniment in the choir. David Rudder immortalised the sentiment in his song “Engine Room” which tells of the in-law who “used to open the church door/ Just to pray on mih head/ Now she boasting to the neighbour next door/ Oh my granddaughter beats for a steel band”.
In the letter to Gentile believers, Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 15, the early Church settled this dispute between worship and culture.
Circumcision, prayer in the temple, the many laws of the Jews were all dispensed with. Many things that Jews believed were a matter of religion and vital for worship were seen by the early church as culture.
There is so much that Catholics have borrowed from other cultures. Christmas is celebrated two days after the winter solstice—the shortest day in the year, when the sun pushes back on the darkness.
Lent is at the height of winter when the land is fallow. Easter is in spring, when new life shoots forth. Our churches have taken on the shape of the Roman basilica; our vestments are from the Roman court; and incense was used to make the streets smell good. The list is endless.
• The Most Rev Charles J Gordon is Archbishop of Port of Spain