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.
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.
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, https://elischolar.library.yale.edu/yjmr/vol7/iss1/3/, 81.
4Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, trans. Donald D. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 237.