The Pope the Dog and the Bicycle Bell

Someone has joked, “In Central America it’s not really a valid Mass unless there is a dog present.” I was therefore amused to see that at one of the Pope’s liturgies in Brazil a stray dog wandered onto the stage. For five years I took some American high school kids to El Salvador on a mission trip. The  Catholicism I experienced there helps me admire and understand Pope Francis. Sometimes there were dogs at the liturgy. Sometimes there were madmen and screaming children. There was loud music and no air conditioning. It was hot. It was real. It was the beautiful struggle man!

I’d like to share some learning points from El Salvador that have helped me understand Pope Francis and where the Lord is taking the church.

First, Central and South America is, for the most part, a Catholic culture. North America is a Protestant culture. What I mean by this is that certain Catholic ideas and principles are deeply woven into the South American and Central American worldview and self understanding. There are many aspects to this, but one of them is community over individualism. My experience of Central America was that community and the extended family were much more viable and active concepts than the individualistic, suburban nuclear family concept in the United States. The Catholic faith was part of this community experience.

Because of this emphasis on community and family the shared responsibility for one another was much higher on the agenda than it tends to be in the United States. I realize these are generalizations and we have good community carers here and selfish individualistic people there. However, I’m thinking in generalized terms. If I am right this underlying commitment to community and family means that the “social agenda” of the church becomes more prominent. To belong to a church is to belong to a community and community means solidarity and unity.

The typical American attitude on the other hand is, “Everybody is personally responsible. Every man for himself. This is the land of opportunity. Work hard and pull up your bootstraps!” This, is reflected in American Protestant religion which is also based in the subjective individual “born again” experience rather than the primary experience of the church. It seemed much more typical in El Salvador for people to be concerned for one another, to build community and to assist one another in that extended family sense. From what I experienced in El Salvador, I can better understand Pope Francis’ natural involvement in the local community, with the poor and the needy. To be a priest there was to be a Father in a different way than in the USA.

The second thing I experienced was the Hispanic approach to liturgy and music. Their lively and enthusiastic culture was part of their liturgy. The music was earthy, ordinary and Hispanic. It was their music. Read More.

  • defiant12314

    Well Father the idea that the Mass has to be tailored to individual ethnic groups is itself quite individualistic, 60 years ago a Pilgrim could walk from England to Jerusalem and the Mass would be the Mass, not an English Mass, a German Mass a French Mass or a Czech Mass, it would be the Mass and he would know by heart the ordinary and always know where he was. It’s exactly the whole ‘we must be sensitive to ethnic needs’ idea which has caused the crises in the Church.

    Oh and as a parting shot I would add that Cdl Burke (as well as the previous Holy Father) identifies liturgical gimmickry with moral decay in the Church

    • Illinidiva

      In South and Central America, high Church is associated with colonialism and oppression as opposed to the low populist Church of the people. Francis understands the distinction and is an adherent to the theological school the teologia del pueblo which honors populist Catholic expressions… especially a deep Marian devotion and veneration of different saints.

      And Cardinal Burke just doesn’t get it, which is why he is no longer in the Vatican “in circle.”. I highly doubt that he understands Francis’ extortion to “smell like his sheep.”. This would dirty his cappa magna.

      • Augustine

        As a Brazilian, I have no idea where you came up with the idea that “high church” is regarded as oppressive and colonialist. Especially when pretty much every major city was founded by missionaries, often Jesuits. And in a country filled with thousands of churches built at the apex of the barroque era, lavishly decorated with gold and other fine materials. And this is something that always strikes me: American Catholics often are pretty adamant about demanding simple churches, simple sanctuaries for the Lord of Lords, while they themselves live in McMansions and harass anyone living in a simple house through their HOAs.

        • Illinidiva

          I attend a predominantly Latino parish and their liturgical style is very in line with Evangelical Protestantism. Lots of exuberant singing and active participation during the liturgy. They lay hands for blessings.. for instance to celebrate a deacon’s wedding anniversary last week, the entire congregation joined the priest in a special blessing right after the homily. Some children.. horror of horrors.. did a Mexican dance around the altar to celebrate the parish’s cenntenial founding. Of course, there is some very traditional practices.. a deep Marian devotion and personal veneration of saints. It is my understanding that Catholicism in Brazil has veered even further in an Evangelical direction.

          And the institutional Church in Latin America has a history of siding with colonialist and post colonialist elites rather than the people. There were a few like Romero who sided with the people, but they were acting against the institutional Church. It is my understanding that the Argentine Church officials were supportive of the military dictatorship and that Videla and other elites were devout Catholics. I don’t think the ordinary people in Argentina and other Latin American countries feel very favorable toward a Church that stood by while their loved ones were killed and even supported the oppressors. Latin Masses that you cannot understand and ornate cathedrals that only the elites are allowed to attend Mass in are symbols of that.

          • Jack Gates

            Politically, Karl would be so proud!
            Marx, that is.
            As far as your liturgical preferences, I really hope for a smaller, leaner Church. That is where those who prefer to act like Protestants would LEAVE, so the rest of us can be Catholic. There are literally thousands of sects out there, waiting with open arms. laying of and holding hands and other diabolical nonsense.
            Leave MY Faith alone, or just LEAVE.
            Pretty please? :-)

          • Illinidiva

            “Politically, Karl would be so proud!
            Marx, that is.”
            So basically not liking the “elite” because your daughter disappeared and her body was never found and her unborn child is still missing counts as Marxism now? That was what was happening in some Latin American countries less than 30 years ago. This is why, as I mentioned, the High Church really is seen with disdain in Latin America, because outside a few bishops, there was little condemnation of that violence.

            “As far as your liturgical preferences, I really hope for a smaller, leaner Church. That is where those who prefer to act like Protestants would LEAVE, so the rest of us can be Catholic.”
            I do prefer a more vibrant liturgy, but my point was that this is typical of the Latin American Church. You are basically telling 40% of the Church that you want them to leave, including the Pope. Heck that is typical of worship in the Global South.. so I guess the “true” Church would resemble the Anglican Church. As I mentioned and as the blog post mentioned, the Latin American populist Church or “low Church” is deeply Catholic in terms of its Marian devotion and veneration of different saints. It is just they prefer more charismatic forms of worship for political and cultural reasons.

            The Universal Church needs to be large enough for both styles of worship. The Mexican immigrant parish I mentioned isn’t in any way personally affecting your life. You aren’t being force to attend their Masses and it is quite exclusionary of you to demand that people pray and honor God exactly as you do or leave.

  • tracymoschelspenst

    Thank you, Father, for these observations. Since I’ve never been to South or Cental America, it does help me understand Pope Francis much better. I like him as well, but he’s a lot different from the two popes I’ve known since becoming Catholic. Our new bishop (Bishop John Folda) has taken Pope Francis’ example as his own in getting to know our diocese and those of us who have met him have really appreciated his approachable style. I look forward to learning more from Pope Francis on how to reach the people within my own circle of influence.

  • AnneG

    To understand Pope Francis it helps to speak Spanish, too. Some of the translations have been more editorial than translations.
    There is also a strength in Latin Catholicism that stands up for the faith. I see that in Pope Francis.

  • Richard Conlan

    Father, I found your description of your time there very interesting and heartening–what a beautiful culture it sounds like. However, I must admit your comment that the traditional liturgy would appear ludicrous in that setting seems contrived and not thought out. The Catholic culture you praise there was birthed, raised through infancy, childhood and adolescence hand in hand with the traditional liturgy. Only now as it approaches middle age has it adopted anything else–and for whatever reasons, its best days as a spiritual culture seem to be behind it. Just my observations, father.

  • Illinidiva

    I regularly attend a parish with both Spanish and English Masses and I much prefer the Spanish Mass. The attendees generally arrive late and there are lots of screaming babies but I’ve found it more reverent than a suburban American Mass. People really want to be there to worship God vs. just doing so out of obligation.

    And it might look different than in Latin America but I do think priests the world over could learn to smell like their sheep. So few priests seem to know their parishioners.

    • Cincinnati Priest


      First, it is beneath the dignity of a Christian to insult bishops and cardinals of the Church (“that would dirty his cappa magna”), and uncharitable to boot.

      Second, you accuse priests of “not knowing their people.” Do you — or others — who complain about this bother to invite priests into your homes, or go out of your way to make an effort to get to know them. Most priests are responsible for thousands of people. Without some initiative to help them in this effort, it is difficult and challenging. The blame has to be shared here.

      Priest- and bishop-bashing is not helpful here.

      • Illinidiva

        1. Burke has never displayed one iota of pastoral care. He was utterly dismissive of sexual abuse victims in both Wisconsin and St Louis and famously bullied a parish to get control of their money while in St Louis. He deserves all the criticism that he gets.
        2. And priests in the Global South also have lots of people under their care as well and still manage to be much closer to their flock than those in the U.S. I could probably fill a book with stories about bad experiences with priests. I’ve met lots of priests who are concerned about their careers and very few who follow Francis’ ideal.

  • Slocum Moe

    In El Salvador, if a young, unmarried Catholic girl gets pregnant, she can keep the baby at home, as long as she nurses but the baby will not be fed in her parents home. When the child must go out into the streets as gamin, the mother can go as well, if she wants to stay with her child.

    A lot of young women or one of their friends go through this process. A lot of them are no longer Catholic.

  • Mariana Baca

    Thank you Father, for this. I am from South America (am American now), and it helps to hear an outsider notice and explain these things. I feel a lot of criticism of Francis comes from not understanding his culture.

  • Lydia

    Thanks for this Father. It was a beautiful reflection. We sometimes forget that we are earthy people but the people in Central/South America don’t seem to forget.

  • Augustine

    Fr. D,

    As a Brazilian, I think that your impression is marked by the faith as lived in the countryside of Latin America. In larger cities, there as stateside, secularism is rampant, but for a curious reason: the imported entertainment displays an America that they associate with prosperity whose customs are worth imitating in the hope of leading to prosperity, albeit the America portrayed by Hollywood is from a single ZIP code, 90210.