The Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in Kinshasa on Wednesday, 1 February, was not the first he celebrated using the Zaire rite. The first time was on 1 December 2019 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Congolese Catholic Chaplaincy in Rome. In reality, the Zaire rite is not truly a rite of its own but rather an adaptation of the Roman rite for the Dioceses of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was approved by the Congregation for the Divine cult and the Discipline of the Sacraments on 30 April 1988, when the country was still known as Zaire. The aim had been to incorporate Roman Liturgy into African culture because the bishops had realized that the faithful did not feel sufficiently involved. It was the fruit of a long process of inculturation of the liturgy that began with the Pontificates of Paul vi and John Paul ii.
The key differences between the Zaire rite and the ordinary Roman rite can be observed at the beginning of Mass and in the Liturgy of the Word. After the presentation of the offering, there are no substantial differences. One of the most evocative moments of the rite is the singing of the Gloria that can last up to 15 minutes, in which the entire community sings and dances, including the priest. Usually in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Gospel is recited in Lingala, one of the four languages that can be used in the Zaire rite. The other languages are Kikongo, Swahili and Tshiluba.
The need of the Church in Central Africa to use local music in the liturgy began to surface with greater intensity in the 1950s when entire Masses were celebrated using local instruments, languages, rhythms and melodies. This repertoire obtained official recognition with the great success of Missa Luba, composed in 1958 by the Belgian Franciscan Guido Haazen. In 1959 Catholic priest, Stephen B. G. Mbunga, composed a Baba Yetu Mass and in 1963 he published his doctorate thesis on “Church Law and Bantu music: Ecclesiastical Documents and Law on Sacred Music as Applied to Bantu Music”, in which he encouraged the use of African music in Catholic liturgy and outlined some rules that African composers could follow to create suitable music. These initiatives were part of a movement of general renewal and took place in a climate of decolonization. Those early experimental attempts to use local rhythms and melodies in the liturgy were officially recognized by the Church in 1963 with Sacrosanctum Concilium, one of the four Constitutions of Vatican Council ii. Adopted with 2,158 votes in favour and only 19 against, it was solemnly promulgated by Pope Paul vi on 4 December of the same year.
Tanzanian Cardinal Laurean Rugambwa, the first African to be created a Cardinal, (by John xxiii in 1960), was a fervent supporter of this new openness. During Vatican Council ii, he expressed his opinion on the new perspectives of sacred music, highlighting the importance of composing African music and calling for the creation of liturgical commissions made up of experts from all areas, with the mission of approving or rejecting certain compositions. The case of the Zaire rite can be a further step towards new pathways and processes of liturgical discernment in which the various characteristics of each community, inserted within a culture with their own language and symbols, can be taken into consideration without changing the nature of the Roman Missal which guarantees continuity with the ancient and universal tradition of the Church. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope speaks precisely of the opportunity of reaching various cultures in their own language. He urges us to overcome the rigidity that excludes and distances in order to reach a pastoral sensitivity that accompanies and integrates because “Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression”. (Silvina Pérez)