WASHINGTON (CNS) — In 1969, four years after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, the bishops of the Democratic Republic of the Congo petitioned the Vatican for permission to use a new rite that spoke to the needs of Catholics in the sub-Saharan African nation.

Nineteen years and two popes later, that permission was granted. By 1988, though, the country’s name had been changed to Zaire, so the liturgical rite became known as the Zairian rite.

Less than a decade later, the country was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, better known simply as Congo. The name of the rite remains, though, said Congolese Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa, which is the capital of the country.


The biggest changes from the Roman rite known to most Catholics in the West to the Zairian rite are slight changes in order. The penitential rite follows the homily, and is followed by the sign of peace.

“We cannot ask for forgiveness until we have heard the word of God,” Cardinal Monsengwo said in his Aug. 5 address during the Aug. 5-7 Third African National Eucharistic Congress, held in Washington. “We have to know the teaching of the church first.”

The placement of the greeting of peace, he said, harks back to the biblical injunction that, if you are at odds with your brother, you must reconcile with him before bringing your gifts to the altar.

The Mass also features a moderator, an important element in Congolese culture. It also features the invocation of ancestors, which has long been part of African practices. In addition, dancing is common in Masses using the rite. Liturgical dance is far less frequent in the West, and often viewed as an oddity, if not with outright suspicion.

The rite was cited in 1989, a year after its approval, by then-Father George Stallings, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, as justification for the creation an African-American rite for black Catholics in the United States. During liturgies he performed before his split with the Roman Catholic Church, Father Stallings — now an archbishop in the church he founded, the African-American Catholic Congregation — incorporated calling on the intercession of ancestors, but none of the other elements of the Zairian rite.

The Zairian rite was not used in any of the Masses celebrated during the Congress, held at The Catholic University of America. The rite is approved for use only for Masses in the dioceses of Congo.

Cardinal Monsengwo was hailed as one of the last living clergy to have helped develop the rite and then advocate for its adoption by the Vatican.

Work on the rite had begun in 1961, before Vatican II had begun. Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, adopted in 1963, called for liturgical adaptation.

The Zairian rite is one of two rites particular to Africa; the Ge’ez rite has been approved for use for Catholics in Ethiopia and Eritrea.