Mass in the Zaire rite for the Congolese community in Rome in 2022 Mass in the Zaire rite for the Congolese community in Rome in 2022  (Vatican Media)

"Catholic and African" - The Zaire Rite

As Pope Francis continues with his visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Vatican News speaks to an expert on the Zaire Rite, the liturgy developed specifically for use in that country.

By Stanislas Kambashi SJ

Father Michel Libambu, a priest of the Archdiocese of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is an expert on the Church Fathers and an official in the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

In an interview with Vatican News, he describes the origins of the Zaire rite of the Mass, as well as some of its particular features, such as the invocation of the ancestors at the beginning, the seated assembly during the proclamation of the Gospel, the lively music and the dances.


What is the historical context of the "Zaire" rite, celebrated according to the "Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire"?

This rite has a history: it’s the fruit of the work of missionary evangelisation, from the first evangelisation by the Portuguese to the second evangelisation by the Belgian missionaries. In this process, two important documents should be noted: one by Pope Benedict XV, who in the apostolic letter Maximum illud, published in 30 November 1919, quoting Mk 16:15, gives recommendations to missionaries, asking them to bring the Gospel, not Europe, to their missions. The Gospel must be preached with care and in depth in order to reach the soul of the people; this is a process of inculturation, already begun by Rome.

Then there is the Second Vatican Council, mainly with the document Sacrosanctum Concilium, which strongly pushed for the liturgy to be closer to the people. This document had already defined the iter to be followed (SC, 40), or, in other words, how to proceed so that the liturgy is adapted to the life, the genius of the people.

After the Council, the bishops of Zaire (the former name of the DRC) began to reread all the Council documents, including Lumen GentiumGaudium et Spesand Sacrosanctum Concilium,to examine the possibility of applying and adapting them to the context of the country. There were “Theology Weeks” at the theology faculty of Lovanium University. In 1969, immediately after the publication of the Roman Missal in the wake of Vatican II, the Episcopal Conference of Zaire submitted a draft of the Missal readapted for the celebration of Mass according to the Congolese style, at the instigation of Cardinal J. Malula, who had been appointed a member of the Liturgical Preparatory Commission for the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII.

The project was presented to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. After almost 20 years of dialogue, exchange and study, the ad experimentum Missal (5th June 1974) was transformed into the definitive Missal accepted by Rome (30 April 1988); a document that was to reflect not only Africanness, but also Romanness. This is why it is called the "Roman Missal for the dioceses of Zaire". At the same time, in Kinshasa, the diocesan synod took place, a few years before the death of Cardinal Malula.  

Speaking of the structure of the Mass, the celebration according to this Missal follows the two main parts of the liturgy: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. But there are also many particular features: the invocation of the ancestors at the beginning, the seated assembly during the proclamation of the Gospel, the presence of the "Nkumu", the announcer, and many others. How do you explain this structure and all these features?

This Rite is essentially within the framework of the Roman Mass, with two main parts, the table of the Word of God and the Eucharistic table. But it also has some particularities: the entrance procession with singing and clapping according to the rhythm of the hymns, the invocation of the ancestors, the singing of the gloria with dancing around the altar to reflect Christ, who is represented by the altar, the living stone that maintains the balance in our life and in our society, and the acclamation of the Gospel with procession, to welcome Christ who speaks. The Gospel is listened to while seated, as a sign of respect and veneration for the Christ who speaks. Only after the preaching is there the Kyrie: the idea is that one can be converted after listening to the Word of God, a light that enlightens us to see what needs to be corrected in order to find peace with the Lord and the community.

The celebration (sign) of peace comes after the Kyrie. A peace song is performed. In the second part it is mainly the acclamations, the proper preface and the doxology sung in melodies according to the African style. The "nkumu" are ministers, symbols of wisdom, the elders of the people around the priest.


Another special feature is the live music and dances. What would you say about these aspects and the differences with the Latin rite?

Music is part of human life. It is part of our inner structure, as St Augustine recognises in De Musica. In many African traditions, events were punctuated by music, which has many facets: feast, mourning, birth. Musical rhythm accompanies the liturgy. Dancing is also part of the essence of mankind. Singing and dancing express harmony. The psalmist says that David danced for God. Music touches our humanity, our feelings: joy, sadness, and many others. Culture becomes the filter to change the music we have in our soul.

The Zaire liturgy is marked by a strong anchoring in culture. What would you say about this aspect?

This cultural anchoring comes from the recommendation of the Pontiffs and the Second Vatican Council that the Word of God should penetrate the souls of the peoples of whom culture is the mirror. The idea was not to create a cultural liturgy. We started from the theology of the Incarnation: in Christ, God became man in order to enhance our humanity and make it divine. We remain convinced of the symbiosis between divinity and humanity (theandricity), according to the theology of divinisation of the Greek Fathers.

The Gospel purifies culture (evangelisation of culture) and culture manifests itself in the Gospel (inculturation of the Gospel). But culture is only a filter through which humanity expresses itself. What is important is our humanity, which the Lord came to save and revalue. The problem remains the interpretation of gestures, which can vary from one culture to another.


How would you evaluate the consequences of this way of celebrating on the cultural and social life of the Congolese?

When we were reading the documents of the Second Vatican Council, particular emphasis was placed on Gaudium et Spes: the joy and hopes of the people are also those of the Church. The Congolese bishops were thinking about their society: to what extent the faith celebrated in the liturgy can have an impact on daily life. If one has preached forgiveness at Mass and after the penitential act one has converted to the point of bowing, one must live this forgiveness in one's environment.

The Congolese liturgy is renowned for its vitality. What accounts for this vitality?

According to studies by specialists such as Father Placide Tempels and Father Vincent Mulago, in Bantu philosophy, Africans consider life to be a gift from God, who has given each person the gift of vital force (in theology, we would speak of "grace") to live and promote life in community. In this sense, the Church is a family. The Mass is the celebration of the gift of life that God has given us, especially during the singing of the Gloria.

Receiving the professors of the Sant'Anselmo Institute of Liturgy on the 7th May 2022, Pope Francis invited them to work on the liturgy for the people of God. One would say: lex orandi, lex credendi must be complemented by lex vivendi. A liturgy that is too formalistic does not vitalise. The liturgy is not only a lesson, but above all the life of believers who pray.

The "Roman Missal for the dioceses of Zaire" is criticsed for being "very long"...

Here we may be faced with two notions of time: chronos and kairos, and opportunitas, which is liturgical time. The afterlife we believe in is given as a prelude in the liturgy. This does not prevent time from being regulated.

The Mass according to the "Zaire rite" has two forms: simple and solemn. It can be celebrated in between 1 and 1.5 hours. During Advent and Lent, it is more sober. It is up to the local ordinary to stop the liturgy from becoming exaggerated. However, it should also be added that this rite is only celebrated once a week, at the main Mass of the parishes on Sundays at 6:30 am (first Mass). Afterwards, the other Masses are celebrated normally, like here in Rome: the children's Mass at 9.00 am, the Latin Mass at 11.00 am or the evening Mass at 6.30 pm. You can choose to attend whichever Mass you want.

Is there anything you want to add?

This rite is not the product of a laboratory, but of the life of the Church to express catholicity and Africanness. To understand it, one must not only read the books but also immerse oneself in the African context, where the Church is first of all perceived as the "Family of God", according to the inspiration of the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium III, 27. One can say that it is the ecclesiological model inspired by the patristic model that is at the basis of the rite. We must consider several issues to understand it.

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01 February 2023, 12:47