A key part of the argument for the liturgical reform was that it was needed for 'the missions'. What was never explained was why a reform which responded to objections from Enlightenment thinkers to the liturgical tradition was appropriate for cultures to which such objections were completely alien, and indeed incomprehensible. The Emperor Joseph II, Voltaire, and the like complained about excessive ritual, supposedly superstitious veneration of holy places, images, and objects, the obscurantist use of sacred languages, silence, and so on and so forth. What on earth have these concerns to do with traditional societies? Unless, perhaps, one imagines that they are Rousseauist 'noble savages', like the lovers of 'noble simplicity' imaginatively projected in the Early Church by liturgists.
Daniel Dolley put paid to such fantasies about the native peoples of South America in his excellent article in the Catholic Herald which I commented on here, and this weekend Dr Pia Joliffe has had a letter published in the same place about the traditional culture she studied in Thailand, the Karen.
SIR – It was with great joy and interest that I read Daniel Dolley’s article on “how to evangelise the Amazon” (Cover story, January 24).
Dr Dolley’s point that the Amazon communities are more traditional in their approach to gender roles, religion and ritual action than those who advocate on their behalf is also valid for the Karen communities in northern Thailand, where I did my own ethnographic fieldwork for my DPhil in International Development.
I lived for a total of 12 months in a Catholic Karen village in Chiang Mai province. An elderly French missionary priest was responsible for the village church and the community appreciated his liturgical correctness. There were daily Masses and morning prayer and weekly rosaries and Stations of the Cross during Lent. The women in the village formed a Legio Mariae group and most households had holy water at home.
The village elders started to become Catholics in the 1950s and spiritual protection was – just like for the Amazon people – a major reason for conversion.
During my stay, villagers told me several times that they preferred priests who wore proper vestments, including an alb, to those who just use a stole for celebrating Mass. A good liturgy and the correct vestments gave the religious service the dignity that the Karen expected from sacred rites. Indeed, like the Amazon people Dr Dolley wrote about, the Karen people in Thailand did not find it difficult to engage with the traditional rituals of the Church.
Perceiving this parallel between the Amazon people and the Karen of northern Thailand highlights to me the global dimension of the issue at stake, ie how the Church can best serve indigenous peoples around the world.
Pia Jolliffe Cumnor, Oxfoorddshire
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