The Revolution of the Vernacular: When the Catholic Mass Became an Instrument of Liberation Theology

Priests celebrate Mass for protesters in the middle of a rural street in Honduras in 2017 in an effort to block the passage of equipment for a construction project that would be harmful to the environment. (source)

Latin is a beautiful and ancient language. Many consider it a sacred language as it is one of the three languages used for the inscription Pilate had affixed to the Cross declaring Jesus king of the Jews (the other two being Hebrew and Greek). Latin was also the language used for centuries for the Roman Rite Mass. Of course, few people, including Catholics, know Latin well (even the U.S. bishops who participated in Vatican II famously struggled with the Latin documents). 1969 was perhaps the most pivotal year for many decades for the Church, for the Mass was changed and the vernacular, which was now allowed, soon became the dominant language, in some cases entirely replacing Latin. The flood gates were opened for the vernacular.

For many Catholics around the world, this was the first time they had heard the Mass in their own tongue. Think about that—the first time hearing the prayers, the chants, the creed, and especially the readings in one’s own language. Not only does that mean they could understand what they were hearing, they now could, in a sense, own it. There was no longer a distance, a gulf between the laity and the Mass.The Mass became their own, not a foreign thing.

Citizens raising the Nicaraguan flag upside down as a way to protest at the Managua cathedral. Photo: Carlos Herrera (source)

There has been a consistent lament about the loss of Latin from some corners of the Church since 1969 but, for the most part, use of the vernacular was fully embraced and celebrated by most Catholics and remains their preference. This is true for both laity and priesthood. The distance shrinking between the two was a welcome change. Something surprising also happened. When Catholics began hearing the Gospels read in their own language—and remember many around the world cannot read or don’t have the means to afford a Bible, thus the Mass is where they heard the Gospels—they heard the radical nature, the explosive content of Holy Scripture no longer hidden behind a veil. They could also begin to judge the homilies as they compared the preaching to the words of the Gospels, and in some cases they began to see a disparity between the two. For some, that disparity shone a light on the dichotomy between rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed, and between the earthly kingdom and the Kingdom of God.

Roman Catholic pilgrims travel in a boat as they accompany the statue of Our Lady of Conception during an annual river procession and pilgrimage along the Caraparu River in Santa Izabel do Para, in the Amazon jungle December 8, 2012. The statue is transported by boat along this small Amazon tributary to a small chapel in the village of Cacoal, where a mass is held. Picture taken December 8, 2012. REUTERS/Paulo Santos (source)

We have all heard of people who once denigrated Christianity only to later change their views because they read the Bible for themselves rather than receiving it through the filter of organized religion. Consider this passage from The Gospel in Solentiname in which some poor folks (campesinos), who have been reading and discussing the Gospels, point out a fascinating fact:

[Ernesto Cardenal] said: “I’ve just had a visit from a young fellow from the north, from Estelí, from a poor town. He is a campesino like yourselves, and he was saying that there, to get together for their Masses first they have to ask permission from the police, and the police captain said that those gatherings were dangerous. The captain is right, for they gather to talk about the Gospels.” […]

TOÑO: “That didn’t use to happen here because the Masses were in Latin. The priest read these things but he read them in Latin, and he didn’t explain them to the people. So the Gospels didn’t bother the rich or the military.”1

Now that the Mass was celebrated in the vernacular the reality of the Gospel frightened the earthly rulers and the rich who oppressed the poor. All saw the possibility of revolution. Some were afraid and others found joy.

Christ made it clear that one of the fundamental enemies of the Gospel are the rich. The Church has spent nearly two thousand years trying to downplay and obfuscate that clear truth. But there’s only so much evasion one can get away with once the Gospels are read or heard as they are. Fortunately, there have been many in the Church who didn’t play along with the dominant ideologies. Some became well known—Saint Francis comes to mind, and so does Óscar Romero—but most are not, such as the many priests, religious, and even more laity killed in Latin America at the hands of US-backed governments because they defended the suffering poor against the oppressive rich. All were marked by a direct confrontation with the Gospel.

Vatican II and the Mass of Pope Saint Paul VI which flowed from the council took the bold step to get the Gospels more directly into the hands of the faithful.

In Latin America the vernacular Mass began to appear even earlier than 1969, such as the Misa típica panameña de San Miguelito (Panamanian Folk Mass of San Miguelito, 1966).2 Of course, when we refer to the Mass we refer not merely to the readings, homilies, and spoken prayers but also to the chants, songs, and creeds. Spanish language Masses began to be written and even recorded and spread via LPs. For example, the Misa Campesina Nicaragüense (“Nicaraguan Peasants’ Mass”) with words and music by Carlos Mejía Godoy, and incorporating liberation theology and Nicaraguan folk music. It was inspired by the faith community in Solentiname and was first celebrated in 1975. Here is the entrance hymn from the Misa Campesina Nicaragüense:

Notice the addition of liberation-themed images in the video above. The use of the vernacular encouraged the development of folk Masses and thus reached the hearts of the people more readily—those people included priests as well. The writing and recording of these Masses, in forms that could be easily sung by the faithful, and with the fundamental Gospel theme of liberation, contributed to the spread of liberation as a social and political force in Latin America and, not only that, linked that liberation to the saving work of Christ and the faithful life Christians are called to live. Liberation, as a political force, was seen as a call to the faithful, thus countering the over-spiritualization of the faith, of interpretations of Scripture, and even of worship itself.

Bernard Gordillo writes of the power of the new Mass settings in Latin America and how they helped change the culture and enriched the faith [emphasis added]:

The Catholic Church underwent profound renewal during the 1960s. The bishops of the Second Vatican Council elected to engage the modern world in response to its social and political challenges. Catholics saw the church acknowledge them and adapt to their realities. The once steadfast celebration of the liturgy, a bedrock of sacred rituals, now addressed local or regional identity. Latin and plainsong gave way to vernacular languages, musics, and performance practices. Taking inspiration from this wave of change, Catholic musicians, writers, and artists created diverse musical settings and textual translations of the liturgy, in addition to innovative visual art. These developments took on particular resonances in Latin America, where the bishops of CELAM sought to confront systemic poverty and injustice by affirming the experience of the poor, as well as the social and political processes that would give rise to a theology of liberation. Singing was an abiding collective expression wherever concientización took place, not as a secondary feature, but as part and parcel of a ritual whole, forming a circular relationship between concientización, prayer, and song. This uniquely Latin American postconciliar ritual (concientización-prayer- song) was the fundamental building block of the liberation method for the Familia de Dios movement. The vernacular masses that emerged from San Miguelito, San Pablo Apóstol, and Solentiname musically embodied the community in reflection of its collective identity. They accompanied the transition of liberation practices from internal community building to outward social and political engagement, as enacted by postconciliar priests, religious, and lay people. If the origins of liberation theology lie in the experiences and critical awakening of the poor, they also lie in their expressions— spoken and sung. The Familia de Dios masses were thus musical emblems of this process within their respective popular church communities. They were liberation masses that sang of faith, hope, and struggle in a post conciliar world.3

Consider, that after centuries of Christendom and the Church, in collusion with governments and ruling powers, seeking worldly power, after centuries of the Church protecting itself from the challenges and judgements of the Gospel and the often frightening workings of the Holy Spirit, a council, a new Mass, and a group of Latin American bishops took the risk and sought to allow worship that might address local and regional identity, getting the Gospel into the vernacular, and promoting the radical message of liberation. No wonder Liberation Theology took root in Latin America.

The Gospel is like a hidden treasure because nobody used to understand it, right? They used to read it to us in Latin, and they preached on it in a way that wasn’t even close to the true Gospel. And now we’re discovering it, as you might say: we’re finding a treasure.4

1Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, trans. Donald D. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 122-123.

2Note: I have no personal history or real connection with Latin American histories or cultures. I am merely at the beginning of my own journey of discovery arising from my interest in Liberation Theology. My own background includes being a descendent of mixed European origins and having benefited from an American society whose economic opportunities, of which I have enjoyed somewhat, are connected to the plundering of Latin America.

3Bernard J. Gordillo, “Vatican II, Liberation Theology, and Vernacular Masses for the Family of God in Central America,” EliScholar, 2021,, 81.

4Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, trans. Donald D. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 237.

Contrarian Criticism in the Round

“What distinguishes modern art from the art of other ages is criticism.”

~ Octavio Paz

What is the role or the function of the film critic today? At the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) several film critics discussed the roll of film criticism and, in particular, the contrarian roll (or possibilities) that can be a kind of stance one takes, or might take, as a critic. The most important topic in this discussion, however, is on authority. It is an old topic and it is just as relevant as it has always been. If this discussion suffers, which it does, it is from the problem that always arises in rountable discussions: lack of focus combined with insufficient time allotted to any one thought. Still, it is an interesting look into the interests and ideas which motivate some film critics today.

In this roundtable the idea of authority is most closely linked to expertise. Film critics should be experts in film; they should know the obvious and the arcane, the new and the historical, the depth and the breadth. However, there are other ways that one can be an authority. For example, I would rather a film critic be wise, knowing philosophical (yea even theological) issues that trouble humanity, than merely a fanatical film goer who has seen everything three times. I would rather a critic be able to draw connections between cinema, the other arts, politics, sociology, and home economics than give me tantalizing gossip or merely personal reflections. I thing these critics would agree. Still, authority is ultimately something given rather than taken, and film critics these days tend to live in a tenuous state of existence as our society continues the march away from the idea that cinema is truly important or that critiquing a film is anything more than gossip or personal reflections. In other words, one has to truly love being a professional film critic to be a professional film critic.

>considering cycling utopias


I have been showing a lot of cycling related videos from or about the Netherlands and Denmark. Amsterdam and Copenhagen may be the most bike friendly cities in the world or, at least, in the Western Hemisphere. And since I have never been to either city they function as Utopian cycling destinations for me, which probably means I have a false picture of their realities. False or not, here is another great look at Copenhagen from the Little Known Travel site:

There is some value in considering these kinds of cycling utopia scenarios if only to highlight the gap with our own scenarios. I say “our own” because if you are not living in Copenhagen or Amsterdam it is likely you are not living in a city designed nearly so well for cyclists. So, wherever you are you probably noticed some gaps with your own city and that of the video. Raising consciousness, as it were, is a good thing. It can lead to positive change over the long run.

What I find interesting is how cycling enthusiasts and, to some degree, just plain old commuters, speak of cycling in such glowing terms. They talk as if they have reached the shores of Valhalla or some kind of Nirvana. I imagine it was the same way for motorists decades ago. At one time a car was just about the most exciting thing a person could buy. Then came the personal computer and the Internet. But now people are acting like bicycling is this new, exciting, even transformative thing, even though bicycles have been around longer than cars. If anything it demonstrates that the car never fully replaced nor completely improved upon the bicycle. 

This rediscovery of the bicycle, if that is what it is, may end up being something akin to the Renaissance when those of the (then) modern world rediscovered and enthusiastically appropriated the great thinkers of the ancient world. This is not to say that the bicycle ranks with the brilliance of Plato or Aristotle, but one could say that the invention of the bicycle ranks as one of the best in all of history, a perfectly balanced and beautiful combination of form and function. What the movers and shakers of the Renaissance sought was harmony in thought, design, polity, business, and art. May we do so well.

>cycling infrastructure and urban planning


We all face dangerous situations from time to time. Cyclists will occasionally come across structural traffic creations that actually offer (guide, one might say) pathways into danger. Here is an example:
But it does not have to be.
I find urban planning fascinating, particularly when it comes to traffic, congestion, and bicycles. I recently came across two videos from the Netherlands that look at different aspects/results of urban planning. The first shows us how a busy intersection incorporates the needs of cyclists and legally allows right turns without stopping for cyclists at red lights. The second looks at the transformation of a city when it is turned over to pedestrians and cyclists rather to automobiles.
Years ago the city of Eugene, Oregon closed off several downtown streets and made a kind of walking mall. At the time the goal was to revitalize a dying downtown. Many downtowns were dying as the suburbanization of America bloomed. “Create a European style environment,” some said and it will attract more people. It did not work. I give two reasons:

  1. They blocked off streets and filled them in with brick but they did not change the overall configuration of the space which was originally created around the needs of cars and trucks and still had that feeling. Thus walkers felt somewhat undersized in the space. It was obvious that the space was made so that cars and trucks could get within twenty feet of any store front. It was obvious that the new mall design was only a temporary experiment. This is the kind of “solution” one gets when the goal is to see how to improve business through schemes rather than make structural changes that are first about people.
  2. No bike riding was allowed on the mall. If they had encouraged cyclists, added bike lanes, added more bike parking (made it covered as well), and created better bike paths/lanes to and from the mall, it might have worked. In short they only went so far and not far enough in their commitment, and it showed. For all the so-called bike friendliness of Eugene there is still a strong undercurrent of fear; fear that cyclists will hurt pedestrians, fear that cyclists will interfere with motorists, fear that cycling is really just another form of anarchy.

Then a few years ago the city reopened the streets to cars and trucks, again to revitalize a still dying downtown. It didn’t work. Now, in another scheme to help businesses, they are offering free parking to motorists. I predict it also will not work. Plus it is going in the wrong direction that the city needs to go. They should be encouraging more cyclists and pedestrians, not more cars. Eugene is a rather bike friendly city compared with much of the U.S., but it is far from where it could be.

As a bonus, and just a freely delivered as the previous three videos, here is a look at bike parking infrastructure in the same magical bikeland as the two previous videos:
Of course, to create a similar magical bikeland here requires the desires of a lot more people to want to ride their bikes year round to work, school, and play. Building infrastructure is also necessary, but I would not want to see miles of empty bike racks paid for with my taxes. It takes more than bike racks and bike lanes. It takes better laws, more intelligent policing, and structural designs that make it easier to get around by bike than by car. Fortunately, and a sign of a better-than-average social sensibility, the City of Eugene is better than most cities in the U.S. for bicycle friendliness, ranked #5 from Bicycling Magazine. But it is still a ways from Copenhagen.

>There is nothing new under the sun, or how bicycling behavior has always been worthy of satire


What is new is old. Some advice from 1934:
As there has recently been a rather tactless criticism directed towards us cyclists, it must be permitted for me to bring some modest, if not harmful, proposals for a new traffic etiquette for cyclists and other wheeled persons.

Let us begin at the beginning. You set yourself up on the bicycle, have a good look around – first up and down and then from side to side – wherefter you rest for a moment whilst regarding the road ahead and behind. Do this several times and take your time doing it. Therefter you push down on one pedal and up with the other. The bicycle is then propelled into motion. You can, of course, repeat this process, but experienced cyclists rarely need to.

You will now find yourself in the so-called traffic, unless you are riding on the island of Saltholm, but we’ll assume you’re on a busy street.

As soon as you’ve run over the first person you come across you immediately accelerate and try to dash across the intersection while the yellow light is lit. If the light turns red in the process, pretend like nothing happend and continue on – there is nothing easier than pretending like nothing happened. Those who are approaching from the side – whether in a car or on foot – will no doubt let you pass. They will think that it is them who has made a mistake. So ingrained is the bad conscience in all of us.

Never cross an intersection when the light is green, as you risk being knocked over by someone running a red light from the other direction. This is very important as it can still cause misunderstandings, court cases and outbursts of anger.

Now you continue riding. Let’s say you have to turn to the left. Extend your hand – please be careful it can’t be seen – to the right. This means that you won’t be turning that way. There has been some discussion about this question but as a cyclist you must never doubt. Your entire focus must be on your riding.

The use of a bicycle bell is absolutely out-of-date and simply unecessary. The bell can’t be heard above the noise and you should therefore only use your bell after midnight – or after you’ve arrived home.

During the day, instead of a bell, you should use different verbal expressions, shouted with a loud, high-pitched voice. It is recommended to acquire a copy of J.F. Braldrelunds ”Dictionary of Danish Swear Words”. It contains more than enough content for this purpose.

On corners you attempt, wherever possible, to brush the person or persons who dare to stand there. It is best if you’re travelling fast enough that you manage to knock one of them over. Then you can confirm beyond a doubt that the person in question was in your way or, in other words, ”That taught them a lesson!”

If you’re going from the street into a port leading to a courtyard or similar, always weave through the pedestrians as dramatically as possible. The bell must NOT be used here – remember that! If you use your bell you’ll make people jumpy and it will be much more difficult to weave past them.

In the courtyard you discard the bicycle as carelessly as possible, in order to give any potential bystanders the impression that you’re cool (superior in intelligence).

Ensure that the bicycle is placed so that anyone and everyone can trip over it. You’ll quickly discover that the person who trips over it will pick it up and place it politely against the wall – usually under a sign that reads: ”Bicycles will be removed”.

Regarding bicycle lights, you need not take this question too seriously. Bicycle lights are simply no longer used and are only rarely seen on bicycles.

This is generally because the police aren’t bothered much if you cycle without lights, as the statistics show. In 1932-1933, on the stretch between Here and There, only one bicycle light was observed. According to the police report it wasn’t possible to identify the cyclist – he was riding like a madman.

An absurd idea has popped up in the minds of some so-called people who are believed to live inside unexcavated bronze-age burial mounds. Putting a licence plate on bicycles, as well as a hook under the saddle on which to hang a telephone book and a pair of eyeglasses.

The thought is incredibly impossible – a licence plate that must host a number like seven million three hundred and thirty thousand, six hundred and forty three would be wide enough to fill City Hall Square, and if you placed the digits vertically the licence plate would rip down the electricity wires.

Yes, well, those were my modest proposals for a new traffic etiquette for cyclists. We have, for far too long, been viewed in a negative manner by Mr Motorist and pedestrians – or rather sleepestrians – and I feel that these proposals will please every motorist and sleepestrian – we apparently haven’t evolved any further than this in our sorry old world.

I found this on the blog, Copenhagenize. From Copenhagenize: “The above was translated, modernised and edited for clarity from the original text by one of Denmark’s most loved satirists and cartoonists, Robert Storm Petersen. Better known at Storm P.. It was first published way back in 1934 (in ‘Snak om en ting’) and again in 1993 (in ‘Udvalgte historier’)” 

>cycling and croissants (or ‘have bikes will roll’)


We loaded the kids in the trailer and rode our bikes to Hideaway Bakery one recent Saturday morning.

We rode along the Willamette River, through Skinner’s Butte Park, through the Univ of Oregon campus, then some neighborhoods, along the Amazon bike path, to the bakery. The ride is about 7 miles one way.

I shot this on my Canon G11 – a little tricky hand holding it at times while riding and pulling the trailer. I wish this camera shot in HD, but it’s not bad for what it is. Edited in the Canon utility that came with the camera, and with Windows Live Movie Maker (yes, I’m cheap).

Music is by Caribou, from ‘The Milk of Human Kindness.’ Song is track 5: ‘Bees.’

>Let’s go Dutch


Great vintage footage of a bicycling culture that we just don’t have in the U.S.A.
I live in a bike friendly city (for the most part), but I wish it was more like Holland (or much of Europe for that matter). In fact, I would love to see bikes outnumber cars.

I think what I am most struck by is that no one is wearing all the cycling gear that we feel we need today. Of course they are not wearing helmets, which were not available then, but they also don’t need bike shorts, jerseys, etc. Dresses and sport coats were just fine – even wooden shoes!

As a comparison, I’m adding this video of rush hour, April 2010, 8:30 AM in Utrecht Netherlands.