Monday, 13 February 2012

Veneration of Ancestors

The above picture and others taken at the Chinese New Year Mass at Holy Family, Kajang (Selangor, Malaysia) on 23 January 2012 went viral on Facebook soon after the celebration.

One reader of Herald The Catholic Weekly asked:  "Please help me understand if this is an acceptable practice for our Church ?"

Yet, another remarked:  "If the setting up of a red ancestral altar, the lighting of red candles and joss sticks, food offering, and bowing before the ancestral tablet are allowed, I am glad that I can fully participate in the forthcoming Cheng Beng festival in April."

The Herald Feb 12, 2012 carried a sharing by Rev PD Dr Sherman Kuek,  SFO; and I am especially intrigued by the following extracts:

This practice of venerating the ancestral tablet by the Chinese community has had a very long and controversial history. It is known in Catholic history as the Chinese Rites controversy. The specific proponents of the adoption of this practice in the Church were the Jesuit missionaries of the early 17th century in China, who adapted many elements of the local Chinese culture in order to evangelise the people, and they did it mighty successfully too. This adaptation of local culture in order to present the Gospel in a way that is recognisable to the particular cultural senses of a specific people is called “inculturation”.

In this Chinese Rites controversy, the Jesuits argued for more aggressive forms of inculturation, in this case, the legitimacy of the veneration of ancestral tablets in the Church. According to them, the veneration of ancestral tablets among the people of China was more a social rite than it was a religious rite. In the first place, they claimed, Confucianism (from whence this practice originated) was not even a religion, but rather, a philosophy and way of life. The other orders of missionaries in China though — like the Franciscans, the Augustinians and the Dominicans — absolutely disapproved of this practice, perceiving it as embracing a scandalous form of idolatry incompatible with the Catholic faith. 

Pope Clement XI agreed with the latter group of missionaries in his papal bull Ex illa die, declaring such Chinese rites contradictory to the Catholic ethos. However, note that this bull was not a blanket declaration over all elements of Chinese rites and customs. It only condemned specific practices but declared other elements within Chinese customs permissible as long as they were practices unassociated with pagan forms of religious rituals. Subsequently, Pope Benedict XIV in his papal bull Ex quo singulari further affirmed his predecessor’s decree on this issue.

......... it needs to be made clear that the practice of assimilating the customs and traditions of local cultures has never been an end in itself. This tedious exercise was always undertaken as a means of transmitting the message of the Gospel in a way that removes any possible unnecessary hindrances from the perceptive faculties of its recipients. In other words, our way of evangelisation should not make it more difficult than necessary for people to accept the Gospel. In the days of ancient China, to insist on the termination of such veneration rites actually scandalised the populace and prevented them from accepting the Gospel. 

........ whether or not the perpetuation of such a practice is to be allowed rests with the bishops, the successors of the Apostles. Therefore, on a personal level, a practising Catholic may not be entirely comfortable with such practice at the Chinese New Year Mass. On this, the individual reserves the right to decide whether he or she would like to participate in this rite of veneration. Neither doing it nor refraining from it makes the person more or less Catholic than those who choose otherwise ...........

.......... one should also notice that all the papal bulls issued on this practice refer specifically to the situation in China. They say nothing about the practice of venerating the ancestral tablet for Chinese in other parts of the world. It is an established fact that when a cluster of dioceses wish to add or alter any element to the established liturgical norms of the Church, the Conference of Bishops is required to obtain the assent of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS). Hence, if we are not a part of China, even an affirmative papal bull permitting this practice in China may not automatically grant us the right to practise the rite without express permission from the CDWDS. 

........ all that has been mentioned in this article are mere suggestions of aspects that need to be pondered over long and hard on the controversial issue of venerating the ancestral tablet. It is unlikely that the Local Church is ever going to come to a clear position on this anytime in the near future. But to the individual who feels extremely uncomfortable participating in this rite, it is probably safe to offer this advice: refraining from participation in this practice does not make you less Catholic. If we desire that those who wish to do it be given freedom to do so, then the same freedom must be given for those who wish to refrain to act in accordance with their conscience.

The full report can be viewed at 

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