A Roman Catholic archbishop in South Africa has suggested that a libation of blood—a ritual pouring as a symbolic sacrifice honoring the ancestors of black Africans—should be incorporated into local Catholic liturgies such as the Mass. Archbishop Buti Tlhagale, of Bloemfontein, recently raised the issue in an article in South Africa's Catholic weekly publication, The Southern Cross."Sacrifice to the ancestors continues to be a very common practice among Africans," Archbishop Tlhagale said. "The slaughtering of an animal—cow or sheep—takes place wherever there is a funeral or a marriage feast, or in times of illness, unemployment, family feuds or the birth of a child."The practice should be considered within the context of inculturation, according to which local, indigenous culture and values are a means of presenting, reformulating and living the Christian faith, he suggested. In an interview with Ecumenical News International (ENI), Archbishop Tlhagale said that white Christians who balked at the idea of blood libations "are not talking from the same experiences" as black Africans. "There is a clashing of cultures. All I'm trying to argue is that even sophisticated black Christians slaughter animals as part of their tradition of communing with their ancestors at important occasions in their lives."Is there a way to integrate this custom with their Christian belief as a step towards meaningful inculturation?" he asked.The archbishop told The Southern Cross that he was not suggesting reverting to Old Testament times (when the Jewish people sometimes performed animal sacrifices), but the custom of spilling blood "is alive [in Africa], and cannot be ignored in the context of inculturation.""The ritual and the language of ancestors [are] deeply ingrained in the local African culture. Ancestors are very close to the living," the archbishop said, adding that they were the "doorway to the spiritual world.""Because of them, the world of spirit is real. That is why to speak of the reality of God is not entirely foreign to African traditionalists."The libation of the blood of a slaughtered animal could be introduced into funeral rites at the home of the deceased, at the start of the night vigil, or the evening before a marriage, he said. "This should be linked to the word of the Gospel so that the ceremony clearly has a Christian stamp on it."Archbishop Tlhagale told ENI he was trying "to start a conversation" about how the African tradition of libation could be incorporated into the liturgy of the Mass in a symbolic way. He was not suggesting that an animal be slaughtered during Mass, he said. The blood of an animal slaughtered beforehand, or traditional African home-brewed beer, for example, could be used for the libation."If used at Mass, its best position would be before the offertory [an early stage in the Mass], because the libation is a gift to the ancestors, not to God." Archbishop Tlhagale said clergy would need to take care that worshippers did not confuse the blood of Christ—symbolized by consecrated wine—and the blood of the sacrificial victim. "We know that the blood of Christ atones for all humanity's sins, and we cannot attribute its redeeming effect to the blood of animals," he said. "Perhaps we can overcome the difficulty by indicating that the animal blood is not an element in a true and proper sacrifice. It is only metaphorical as a prayer for a special request, such as health, well-being, peace, reconciliation or favor."In a written statement, Archbishop Tlhagale added: "Ancestor veneration predates the advent of Christianity in Africa. It was indeed the cornerstone of the African religious consciousness, the basis of a true African spirituality."This belief is deeply rooted in the African psyche and will not be simply washed away by the water of baptism. So strong is this belief that most African families—even among sophisticated urban Christians—continue to slaughter animals during the rites of passage. At marriage feasts, at funerals, at major healing ceremonies, animals are slaughtered."This custom, so basic within the African culture, can be kept out of the Church to thrive on its own, or be made part of our Christian belief and ritual practice," the archbishop said.The archbishop said that, according to the African worldview, ancestors continued to be members of the family of the living. The living and the dead made up "one bundle of life," the archbishop said, and ancestors could intercede on behalf of their descendants."The Western mind has a problem in understanding the role of ancestors. If Christianity is to be Africanized, ancestors and what they represent cannot be ignored. The danger of syncretism is always there, but that is why inculturation is being openly debated."Ancestor veneration and the symbolic pouring of blood as libation is not a return to paganism. It is how Africans talk to the dead."Attempts by ENI to get comment from Archbishop Wilfrid Napier, president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference (SACBC), proved unsuccessful, but Archbishop Tlhagale said the bishops had not paid much attention to the question of inculturation. He complained that the SACBC did not have an inculturation committee "to review inculturation experimentation and to set guidelines."Copyright © 2000 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.

Related Elsewhere

The Southern Cross Web site does not offer Tlhagale's article.