Wednesday, 14 June 2023 14:36

6. The Celebration of the Eucharist In Different Cultures: Case of the Democratic Republic of Congo

Noel Mayamba, SSS. 
Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, 4/9/2022. 

Original text in French.


The ecclesial event that marked the history of Christianity in Africa in the 20th century is without doubt the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II is the first Council in the history of the Church where the participation of bishops from sub-Saharan Africa was noted. 

The Congolese episcopate (DRC) was one of the most represented of the DRC episcopates at the Council with 40 prelates including 10 bishops from DRC. Bishop Malula, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Leopoldville, conciliar member of the liturgical commission, was one of the most remarkable figures of the African episcopate for the liturgical reform. Each episcopate had to make its contribution, as modest as it was decisive for the future of the Church in Africa. It was about Africa which was still suffering from the wounds of Western colonization. [In 1997, Zaire became DRC.]

Indeed, Africa at that time was subjugated by the Western powers who imposed their culture, language and religion. The culture of the colonist is the criterion of civilization. It is in this context that the confusion will exist between the mission of the Church and the colonial power. It was thus that when the legitimate aspirations for independence gave rise to friction with the civil authorities, the missions appeared to many as linked to the government and forming a block with it.

It was in this [context of the] struggle against Western imperialism that Africa received the announcement of the Second Vatican Council. This announcement aroused such a strong enthusiasm that Africa as a whole expected to find answers to the concerns inherent in their socio-political, ecclesial and liturgical context.

It is at the end of the program given to the Vatican II Council, in Sacrosanctum concilium that the Congolese episcopate (DRC) of the time will look for an African and Zairean framework of the Eucharistic celebration, which will lead to the project of the Zairean Rite of the Mass.


1. The dialogue between the episcopate of Zaire and the Holy See

The initiatives taken by the bishops to inculturate the liturgy offer “the Congolese an opportunity to recreate their inner unity and to find a response to the community aspirations so deeply rooted in their hearts”.[1] It is a question here of taking into consideration the African and Congolese culture in the Roman Rite introduced on African soil. Because the culture constitutes what is of the specific [to humans].[2] Indeed, without this knowledge, the Gospel of Jesus will remain as an information and not a message of salvation.[3]

The project of this new rite [for the DRC] is already arousing much interest and passion in the episcopate. It will even be the object of dialogue between the Prelates of the Congo during the ad limina visits.

The ad limina apostolorum visit of 1983 was the occasion to exchange on the fundamental options of the Congolese episcopate, elaborated in the light of the teachings of Vatican Council II. It is notably about the evangelization in depth of the human and the inculturation. The tone changes on the part of the Congolese prelates. It is no longer the adaptation that they ask but the inculturation of the message in Congolese soil. 

Speaking on behalf of his colleagues, Cardinal Malula expressed one of the major concerns of the Church in the Congo to the Pope, saying, “In Zaire we are committed to finding ways for a liturgy that responds to the deepest aspirations of Africans, in this case the Zairian Rite”.[4]

The response of Pope John Paul II was not long in coming. He gave his agreement in principle by saying: “How, he declared, could a faith that has been truly matured, deep and convinced not be expressed in a language, in a catechesis, in a theological reflection, in a prayer, in a liturgy, in an art, in institutions that truly correspond to the African soul of your compatriots?”.[5]

At the end of this ad limina visit, the Congolese episcopate felt comforted in its efforts to evangelize in depth. Thus, in 1988 the Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire, commonly called the Zairian Rite [ZRM], was promulgated.


2. The achievements of the Roman Missal for the dioceses of Zaire (ZRM)

     2.1. The active participation of the ZRM

In fact, the ZRM will not be a creation ex nihilo [or out of nothing]. It is part of the unity of the Roman Rite, which accompanied the evangelization of the country and the establishment of the Church in the Congo. Thus, in order to find its originality, it is necessary to examine its constitutive elements in the light of the Roman Rite. 

It is in the insertion of the proper elements of the black culture that the ZRM will obtain this active participation. These include:

           2.1.1.   Verbal expression

In Congo, there are 4 national languages: Lingala, Kikongo, Thiluba, Swahili; and 2 international languages: French and English. For the Congolese episcopate, the problem is to let the genius of each language express itself and to express what it has of better in the liturgy. “The ordinary are convinced that we cannot achieve an active participation of the faithful, if at least cannot be done directly and exclusively in living language: all the liturgy”.[6]

Thus, the Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire will be published in Lingala as the starting language for all other Congolese languages. For the moment, the rite is celebrated only in local languages.

Cardinal Malula's experience speaks volumes about the issue of liturgical language in the Congo. During one of the working sessions during the Council, he was asked to sing one of the liturgical chants in his language; when he opened his mouth, it was the “Our Father” in Lingala that came out. A look of relief and especially of hope was on the faces of the participants, as if to say: “Here is a foretaste of what our efforts are leading to My teammates felt in this ‘Our Father’ in Lingala, my whole soul vibrating. I fully lived what I was singing”.[7]

In sum, we can say that language is the instrument of communication par excellence, celebrating in the local language, the new Congolese ordo favors this participation of the faithful in the mystery celebrated. For Latin, the liturgical language for the Roman Rite, cannot ensure this communication between the African soul and the mystery being celebrated.

          2.1.2.   Musical expression: Congolese music at the service of holiness

The Second Vatican Council gave the criteria that should be used for music properly linked to worship. Indeed, music in the liturgy is for the glorification of God and the sanctification of us. To this end, nothing profane should be integrated, with a profane connotation in the text, the genres and in the compositions.

To promote an authentically African music in the liturgy, the Congolese episcopate proposed the creation of commissions of sacred music, which “will take care to preserve this inspiration its authentically African character, avoiding to distort their spontaneity by processes of composition of other cultures [...]. The use of African musical instruments is encouraged during the celebrations in the service of the songs of the assembly”.[8]

Many songs will be written and sung in local languages. These songs will be set to the rhythm of the tom-tom and other traditional instruments.

Thus, in a short time, everywhere in the Congo, singing in the national language has replaced Gregorian Chant. The bishops ask that composers be faithful to African musical modes and African rhythm.[9] On the one hand, liturgical songs are often texts inspired by the psalms or other passages from the word of God.[10]

On the other hand, these liturgical songs draw from the folklore of the people and even from the popular style. The music, whose rhythm provokes bodily participation in the prayer through singing and swaying, forms the soundtrack of the celebration. And, the bishops say that: “The use of the tom-tom and other traditional musical instruments is foreseen to accompany the songs”.[11]

          2.1.3.   Artistic expression

The musical instruments must promote the piety of the people. In 1966, for the first time, the Archbishop of Kinshasa decided to introduce the tam-tam. It is an African instrument par excellence which gives rhythm to the great joyful or painful ceremonies. Indeed, the Second Vatican Council opened the doors to the use of musical instruments other than organs. The Archbishop of Kinshasa says: “We can therefore make use of our traditional instruments in the execution of liturgical chants [...]. These instruments must always keep their role, that of supporting, of accompanying the chants, not of dominating them nor of crushing them. The drums should serve as background music, so that the voices of the singers and the words that express the prayer can be heard”.

Among the directives that accompanied the authorization of African instruments in the liturgy, Malula insisted that these instruments destined for divine worship must absolutely be withdrawn from all profane use, and never dragged on the ground to set the rhythm of jazz or dances in youth movements.

          2.1.4.   Cultural expression: Dance in the Congolese liturgy: an expression of communication

Along with singing, dance occupies a predominant place in Africa. It is a powerful means of communication with the cosmic forces. But in liturgy, “It becomes the expression of the enthusiasm born of the feeling of the presence of God and to share its being”.[13] For Engelbert Mveng the dance also establishes the contact between the us and our creator: “The dance is the sacramental expression of the African religion [...]. It is a mystical impulse, which tries to translate the impotence of [us] to cross the abyss which separates it from that which is the Life in which it seeks the plenitude”.[14]

The dance will be introduced into the liturgy of the Mass. The Entrance Procession is done with a dance step; during the Gloria the priest with the other ministers perform the dance around the altar. The meaning of the dance around the altar is to participate in the glory of God. When the choir sings the Offertory Hymn, the faithful indicated for this purpose take the sacred vessels, the cruet and the other gifts. To the rhythm of the chant, they move towards the altar, performing dance steps. They also dance during the Sanctus and the exit procession. In short, the dance is an expression of contact with God, to whom one wishes to express praise, adoration, sorrow, repentance and the joy of being in his presence.

To this end, the African liturgical celebration must be understood not only through words, but also through the movement of the body, that is, through gestures and dance.

The dance in Congolese liturgy is performed with dignity, without jerkiness, without profusion of movements in various directions. Moreover, the bishops prohibited the tendency to transform the liturgy of the Mass into a musical concert with profane dances.

In the ZRM, the elements call and respond to each other in words, in actions, in movements, and even in meaningful rhythms. The faithful stand as in the Roman Rite. While they are seated during the readings including the Gospel. They hold their hands up during the orations, during the doxology and the prayer of Our Father. And during the Penitential Act, they take on an attitude of asking for forgiveness: their heads slightly lowered and their arms crossed over their chest.

Let us also think of the Homily which, using the language developed by the Christian communities, becomes a familiar conversation that is no longer unidirectional but dialogical and participatory. At the end of the Homily, the people express their adhesion by a gesture of final acquiescence to the preaching by clapping their hands. At the presentation of the offerings, the whole congregation, standing with hands raised, pronounces in unison with its representatives the same words addressed to the celebrant. In the prayer over the offerings pronounced in its substance by the celebrant, it is closed in unison with the assembly. The congregation participates with raised hands, singing the concluding part in unison. Like the Collect and the Prayer over the Offerings, the Prayer after Communion, the singing of the Preface, even the Canon, no element escapes participatory expression.

If in the Roman Missal for the Congo the dialogue between the priest and the assembly is constant, it is particularly remarkable during the Eucharistic Prayer. It is not limited to the dialogue of the preface, but runs through the entire Eucharistic Prayer and culminates in the final doxology. The need for participation is such that the congregation instinctively moves on to the conclusion of the prayers, to the end of each phrase of the preface. But the articulation of the dialogue is not limited to this level. The dialogue that marks each part of the celebration is also visible in the four rhythmic processions that form the backbone of the Mass. It is present in the protocol management of the word and in the art of oratory that elaborates the homily in dialogue and in collaboration with the assembly.

We can deduce that the gestures in the Congolese liturgy project a particular vision of the sacred, while being channels of transmission of the memory of Jesus. There is a time of quiet to listen to the word of God, and a time of joyful demonstration to express the effect of the story of Jesus on the assembly. There is a style and a strategy in the gestures. They embody a whole history, a whole memory.



According to specialists, the inculturation of the liturgy in the DRC is a successful experience:

The options taken by the episcopate of Zaire to achieve a Eucharistic celebration particular to the people of this country is a successful example of inculturation, where the original source remains recognizable, where the faith of the Church is expressed without ambiguity, but where the way of expressing this same Catholic faith borrows the best of the religious genius of the African soul.[15]

Pope Francis has just said it again. After celebrating Mass on December 1, 2019 in the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome in the Roman Missal is held up as an example of liturgical inculturation. In the celebration of this rite, one can feel a culture and a spirituality animated by religious songs with an African rhythm, the sound of drums and other musical instruments that constitute a real progress in the Congolese soul. The Roman Rite for the Dioceses of Zaire, with its gestures, words, symbols and songs, generates a liturgical practice that reinforces the means of evangelization.




Antoine SANON, “L'africanisation de la liturgie”, LMD 123 (1975), pp. 100-122.

Episcopal Conference of Zaire:

  • Allocution des évêques des provinces ecclésiastiques de Kinshasa, Mbandaka et Kananga en Visite ad Limina du 18-30 Avril 1988 (ECZ: Kinshasa), 1988, 7.
  • Dynamique de la diversité dans l'unité, Kinshasa, secretariat of the Episcopal Conference of Zaire 1887, 24-25.

Conférence Épiscopale Nationale du Congo, Actes de la 6ème APEC, Léopoldville 1961, p.363

Congregation For Divine Cult And Sacrament Discipline, “Congus Leopolitanus”, Notitiae (1965), p. 1-12.

Engelbert MVENG, L'art de l'Afrique noire, liturgie cosmique et langage religieux, (Point Omega: Paris) 1964, p. 181.

Elochukwu UZUKWU, “Corps et mémoire dans la liturgie africaine”, Concilium 259 (1995), pp. 105-120.

François KABASELE LUMBALA, Alliance avec le Christ en Afrique, inculturation des rites religieux au Zaïre, (Karthala: Paris) 1994, p. 131.

Josef MALULA, “Les instruments de musique africaine dans le culte divin” (4 June 1967), DC 1487 (1967), pp. 278-285.

Missel romain pour les diocèses du Zaïre, Secretariat Episcopal Conference of Zaire, Kinshasa, 1989.

Roger MBOSHU KONGO, editor, Pope Francis and Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire (RDC) (Vatican Publishing House: Vatican City), 2019, p. 255.

Tharcisse TSHIBANGU, “Towards a black-colored theology”, RCA 14 (1960), pp. 227-333.


Acronyms and abbreviations

APEC:          Plenary Assembly of the Congolese Episcopate 1961-1967

CENCO:      National Episcopal Conference of Congo

CEZ:            Episcopal Conference of Zaire

MRDZ:        Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire

RCA:            African clergy magazine, Leopoldville 1950-1978


[1] Josef Malula, “Congus Leopolitanus”, Notitiae (1965), p. 121.

[2] Cf. John Paul II, Discours à l’UNESCO, 2 June 1980.

[3] Tharcisse Tshibangu, “vers une théologie à la couleur noire”, RCA 14 (1960), p. 333.

[4] CEZ, Dynamique de la diversité dans l’unité, (Kinshasa: secrétariat de la conférence épiscopale du Zaïre), 1987, 24-25.

[5] CEZ, Allocution des évêques des provinces ecclésiastiques de Kinshasa, Mbandaka et Kananga en Visite ad Limina du 18-30 Avril 1988 (Kinshasa: CEZ), 1988, 7.

[6] CENCO, Actes de la 6ème APEC, Léopoldville, 1961, 363.

[7] Josef Malula, “Congus Leopolitanus”, Notitiae (1965), p. 123.

[8] CENCO, Actes de la 6ème APEC, Léopoldville 1961, 364.

[9] Josef Malula, “Préface à Kabasele Lumbala”, in Alliance avec le Christ en Afrique, inculturation des rites religieux au Zaïre, Paris, p. 13.

[10] Cf. 6th APEC, 365.

[11] “Présentation générale de la liturgie de la messe pour les diocèses du Zaïre”, in MRDZ, Kinshasa 1989, secrétariat de la conférence épiscopale du Zaïre, p. 78.

[12] Josef Malula, “Les instruments de musique africaine dans le culte divin” (4 juin 1967), DC 1487 (1967), p. 285.

[13] Antoine Sanon, “L’africanisation de la liturgie”, LMD 123 (1975), 122. Also see, Roger Garaudy, Danser sa vie (Éditions du Seuil : Paris), 1973.

[14] Engelbert Mveng, L’art de l’Afrique noire, liturgie cosmique et langage religieux, Paris 1964, p. 81.

[15] Elochukwu Uzukwu, “Corps et mémoire dans la liturgie africaine”, Concilium 259 (1995) p. 105-106.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 June 2023 14:44