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 during his visit to Brazil a few years ago 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 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!

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.

At the same time the worship was very simple and very reverent. If we were to import their music into our Mass it would jar and seem rowdy and noisy. In their culture, however, it was their music and their style of worship and it was reverent and holy. I was deeply moved by it, and realized that the music we venerate in traditional church circles was once as much a music of the people as the Hispanic music at Mass is their music.

Gregorian chant and polyphony grew out of the religious music of the people and the culture of the early middle ages, and before that from the religious chant of the Jewish people who were the first Christians. You experience the organic sense of this when you attend a Maronite liturgy and hear their music–which is a bridge from Western music to the music of the culture of the Middle East. The liturgical music, however, which we term “Catholic” is now specialized religious music. Because of its development it works for us, but it may seem totally foreign to cultures in the developing world.

There was, therefore, in El Salvador, an integration of culture and religion which we do not seem to have in our American suburban culture. Here church seems to be another activity for busy consumers. There it was woven into ordinary village life. There everybody at least understood the basics of the Catholic faith even if they did not understand it fully or practice it well. Here Catholicism is just one among many religion choices.

An example of this was on the Feast of Corpus Christi. The village parish where we ministered planned a Corpus Christi celebration. The parish priest asked if I would carry the Blessed Sacrament for the first leg of the procession around the town. It must have been over ninety degrees with humidity you could cut. There I am in all my vestments, carrying the monstrance with boys from our school carrying the canopy. As I come out of the church into the churchyard there is a boy of about fifteen or sixteen years of age at the churchyard gate leaning on his bicycle. It’s a delivery bike with a big basket out front and he’s probably taking a break from delivering bread. As I pass with the monstrance he nods his head every so slightly and rings his bicycle bell three times. I choked up. How cool was that? Here was a teenager who had probably been an altar server. A peasant kid who knew what was going on and honored the Lord with his bicycle bell.

I have criticized cultural Catholicism on this blog before, but this is the right kind of cultural Catholicism–in which the faith is integrated and incarnated in the ordinariness of life within a Catholic culture. I therefore understood what Pope Francis meant in encouraging priests to get out from the parish office and be with the people. The people where he comes from are Catholic by the default setting. They know what a priest is and what he does and value the simple presence of the priest in their midst.

The context in the United States–at least in South Carolina where I minister–is very different. Here the Catholic priest is in mission territory. The people are likely to be Baptists or Assembly of God and not only not know what a Catholic priest is and does, but be suspicious of it.

The third thing I learned from my experience in El Salvador is that many of the European traditional practices that I know and love simply don’t connect with the people of that culture. Any idea that the traditional Latin Mass and Gregorian chant and Gothic architecture will save the world was ludicrous in that setting. What will save the world is the beauty and truth at the heart of the Mass, music that is offered in simplicity and beauty and reverence as the people are able and architecture and art that is from the heart and rooted in and informed by the great traditions of the church.

It was interesting to see, for example, that the village church was built in a traditional style with Nave, aisles, apse and porch, but it was done so with local materials–pre formed concrete, stone and tiles with a tin roof. Likewise the music, statuary, vestments and sacred vessels were informed by the great tradition, but were provided in a medium, style and materials appropriate to the locality and culture.

The fourth thing I was aware of in El Salvador is the extreme gap between rich and poor and the very real struggle the poor have been engaged in for hundreds of years. In many parts of the developing world the real economic system is feudalism. A vast portion of the land and wealth is owned by a few powerful families. The poor are often driven from the land into the cities. The Catholic Church has been in the middle of this struggle with a bitter division being part of what it means to be Catholic in Central and South America.

We visited the poor in the slums of San Salvador city. We visit the rural poor and the disabled and disenfranchised. We also visited the wealthy and saw how many of them are working with and for the poor as they too strive to live out their faith. All of this elemental struggle was woven into the heart of Catholicism in their world in a way that it is not in the USA. Again–this is not a criticism, but an observation.

Consequently,  when Pope Francis’ message or style jars, I think back to my mission trips to El Salvador. When I see him I see some of the hard working, local and solid priests I met in El Salvador. I see the example of the majority of Catholic priests around the world–hard working men living honest and simple lives in service of the Lord–providing beautiful worship informed by the great tradition in a way that is accessible and real for their people.

If it isn’t as grand or as splendid and awesome as I might prefer…then I’m learning and I’m glad to do so.