Not since the mid-1990s has there been sustained talk of an African-American rite in the Catholic Church, but a new book from the Vatican may change that.

“Pope Francis and the Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire: A Promising Rite for Other Cultures", a forthcoming text from the Vatican, appears to give credence to such developments.

Pope Francis himself celebrated Mass according to the Zaire Use on December 1st, 2019, and the book celebrates the anniversary.

"[In] the Zairian rite there is a culture and a spirituality animated by religious songs at an African rhythm, the sound of drums and other musical instruments which constitute a real progress in the rooting of the Christian message in the Congolese soul," wrote Francis in the book's preface (published in an Italian daily this morning).

"This process of liturgical inculturation in Congo is an invitation to value the various gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are a treasure for all humanity."

A video message from Francis accompanied the announcement of the book.

While African-Americans have been unsuccessful in their attempts to gain an independent rite—a process dating back over a century and most recently ending in an abortive survey sponsored by the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus in 1993—the need for rejuvenation in the Black Catholic community remains.

Moreover, the heritage of Congolese Catholics is directly connected to Black Catholicism in America.

Approved in 1988 (and drawing from an Afro- or Congo-centric rendering of the Latin Mass created 30 years earlier), the Congolese rite in question—created when the Democratic Republic of the Congo was still called Zaire—is the "only inculturated rite of the Latin Church issued after the Second Vatican Council".

After gaining independence from Belgium, the country had been called the Republic of the Congo (among other names), and the new rite came alongside a larger national push for Africanization led by Joseph Mobutu following a coup. With that dictatorial revolution came the name "Zaire".

While African-Americans have never quite gained political independence in the country of their enslavement, they did experience a similar Afrocentric revolution around the same time as Zaire.

This included a period of Black Catholic inculturation known as the Black Catholic Movement, which resulted in the Gospel Mass tradition seen today.

Yet and still, on the books there is no African-American rite. This, despite the fact that at least some Black parishes indeed integrate innovations from the Zaire Use itself.

Citing his own apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia (related directly to African-Americans here), the Pope notes that it is past time for official liturgical inculturation to begin in earnest.

"[Vatican II] requested this effort to inculturate the liturgy among indigenous peoples, but more than fifty years have passed and we have made little progress in this direction."

Edited by Sister Rita Mboshu Kongo, a Congolese theologian and member of the Daughters of Mary Most Holy, the new book is due to be released December 9th.

note: a previous version of this story stated that the book is written by Pope Francis. This is not the case, though he did write the preface.


Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger, a priesthood applicant with the Josephites, and a ThM student w/ the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).


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