Friday, June 26, 2015

The Forbidden Mass

By Mónica García Peralta (English translation by Rebel Girl)
La Prensa
June 14, 2015

Forty years ago, on an earthen floor and between adobe walls, the Misa Campesina Nicaragüense [Nicaraguan Peasant Mass] rang out for the first time. The Church and the government thought it heretical, blasphemous, and dangerous. Both banned it. Now Carlos Mejía Godoy, its author, will ask Pope Francis to lift that veto.

And there they all were. A white haired and bushy bearded priest officiated the Mass. The peasants anchored their boats and pangas around the island. The mazurkas rhythms echoed, Nica sound, sound of bulls, the “miskitu” and five musicians sang at the beginning of the rite: "Vos sos el Dios de los pobres/ El Dios humano y sencillo/ El Dios que sufre en la calle/ El Dios del rostro curtido..." ["You're the God of the poor / The human and simple God / The God who suffers in the street / The God of weathered face ..."]

A small plane was flying over the shingled church, but inside the Misa Campesina didn't stop. It was a Sunday during Holy Week, says poet and sculptor Ernesto Cardenal. In 1974 or 1975, vaguely recalls Carlos Mejia Godoy, its composer and singer, with the musical group Los de Palacagüina. "Spies from the Somoza government also came and the plane was still there, threatening us from the air, almost about to fall on us," remembers Ernesto Cardenal, the former priest who was also an adviser with his brother Fernando Cardenal in the creation of verses for this Mass.

Many people came that day, says Cardenal, from different places, but especially from San Carlos, "especially the young people." "All the guys were there. The future combatants who would later take the San Carlos barracks: Felipe Peña, Alejandro Guevara, Laureano Mairena, Elvis Chavarría."

Mejía Godoy finished shaping the refrains on that piece of earth on the waters of Gran Lago. "Solentiname was the little laboratory where we were putting together that brainteaser. That's where the Misa Campesina was sung for the first time."

The Nicaraguan Bishops Conference, presided in those days by Monseñor Manuel Salazar y Espinoza, reacted against the songs. On November 9, 1976, it decreed "the non-approval of the Misa Campesina because it is not considered liturgical song" as the Church published in a communique, according to the study Canto Popular de Nicaragua by Francisco “Pancho” Cedeño that is soon to be published, says Roberto Sánchez, the book's editor.

The great "sin" of the Misa Campesina was the boldness that Carlos Mejía Godoy wrote into the lyrics, in Cardenal's opinion. "It seemed heretical," he says, because it put God as a worker in the street. "A God who sweats, a God who is Christ the Worker. And that is Christ himself, it's the Biblical Jesus. It seems like outlandishness or blasphemy but no, it's talking about God himself incarnated in man," explains the poet, who at that time wrote an explanatory document for the Bishops Conference defending the texts. No answer ever came.

Even so, the ban remained. Carlos Mejia Godoy recalls that the Vatican itself issued a veto and the state also forbade it. According to Ernesto Cardenal, Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo also forbade it. "And it's still prohibited today," he reiterates. And although these conflicts did not stop the spread of the songs that sounded later in Bolivia, Guatemala, Peru, Spain, the United States and many other countries, this year, Carlos Mejia, on the 40th anniversary of its creation, is going to ask Pope Francis for an audience so that the Misa Campesina Nicaragüense can resound again under the church atria.


In those days, Carlos Mejía Godoy was already a thirty-year-old. He had already recorded two albums -- Cantos a Flor de Pueblo and La Calle de en Medio. He had studied three years to be a priest in the National Seminary. And he had become disenchanted with Christianity because of the "monastic" training in which he had been taught since childhood.

The Spanish priest José de la Jara, his music teacher in seminary, urged him to participate in the creation of a Nicaraguan popular Mass on leaving the seminary. "In those days, national Masses were being written everywhere. There was a Salvadoran one, a Honduran one, and Father de la Jara created the Nicaraguan one," comments Ernesto Cardenal. Mejía Godoy wasn't involved in that Mass because "in conscience I still wasn't clear about my position as a Christian," he explains. "I just told him a little later, never imagining that it would really be so."

The Misa Popular Nicaragüense began to be sung in all the Nicaraguan churches in 1968, historian Roberto Sánchez points out. "Father de la Jara had left his role as a teacher to found San Pablo Apóstol parish in Colonia 14 de Septiembre and they put out a record with those songs that had the Mass on one side and on the other side, Ernesto Cardenal's psalms sung by William Agudelo," says the historian.

"He (Father José de la Jara) gave birth to the Nicaraguan people's churches and that's the experience on which I worked, later," says Godoy, who saw a potential movement to fight for the poor, which originated in the eastern neighborhoods of Managua "and so yes I became enthusiastic; that Mass served as a parameter for me and I started planning something different, a little deeper."

"That was the main antecedent of the Misa Campesina Nicaragüense. The Misa Popular was traditional, but still pointed to the identity of Nicaragua," explains Wilmor López, journalist and cultural researcher, who believes that was the base on which Carlos Mejia began the composition and arrangement of 11 songs intended to accompany the church liturgy of Nicaragua.

"The difference with the Misa Popular was perhaps in its musical rhythms and its song lyrics. The latter incorporated the instruments and rhythms of mazurkas, sounds of bulls, a Nica sound, songs with the harmony of Miskito songs and new creations, like the meditation song, known as "Canto de los Pájaros" ["Song of the Birds"], by Pablo Martinez Téllez of León," López says. But the unexpected leap of this creation "was taking the living word of the gospel in the mouth of peasants and workers," says Mejia Godoy, who was given the task of gathering -- tape recorder in hand from the four corners of the country for more than a year -- what people understood from the gospel.

"When you say 'Christ have mercy, Christ take pity on us', what are you thinking?," Mejía Godoy would ask people. He says that thus, with that curiosity, he went to the ministry in the north, where pastor Gregorio Smutko, affectionately known as "Goyito", assigned him to Anselmo Nixon, a seminarian in the area so he would sing the Miskitu Lawana, an anonymous hymn of the Moravian Church. "Because I didn't want the Mass to just be from the Pacific but I wanted it to be from all of Nicaragua, the guy came to Managua to sing it, as I wanted it to be, in the original language," says the songwriter, who also went to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, to later come to a stop in Solentiname.

The most important thing about this Mass, says Carlos Mejía, is that it not only contains the rhythms that were already sounding from end to end in Nicaragua, but also the words. "Those of the workers, those of the peasant. It's slang, escaliche [Nicaraguan urban slang], words derived from Nahuatl. It's the fruits, the birds, the flowers. Nicaragua is alive there."


That small plane that was flying very low over the church of Solentiname the first day that this mass was sung on that archipelago, was only a warning. Those who attended the celebration heard a huge noise, but the harassment would go beyond a document issued by the Bishops Conference and that noise against the music would be heard many other times.

A large opening Mass was planned that would be attended by over a thousand people and would be in Managua. They chose to celebrate it in Plaza de los Cabros in the Open Tres neighborhood, now Ciudad Sandino, but the celebration hadn't started when the National Guard made a massive eviction. "At rifle butt, with shots and tear gas they kicked everyone out. Carlos Mejia himself was put in a military vehicle," recounts Roberto Sánchez. All because of different lyrics -- "Lyrics that called to liberation and Somoza wasn't going to allow those expressions, anything that smacked of freedom clashed with the dictatorship and the Misa Campesina is a liberation song," says the historian.

The day after that thwarted premiere, the Mass was already being sung in the four corners of the country, says Mejia Godoy, that this "was a vast wave of spirituality and love for Nicaragua." Sanchez says it was the music itself that won the people's love and imposed itself over Church measures. "It became popular religiosity, even when it couldn't be celebrated in any church officially."

The judicial vicar of the Archdiocese of Managua, Julio Arana, recalls the situation very differently with regard to the Misa Campesina. According to him, there was just one conflict in the eastern neighborhoods of Managua, in a chapel where "some people wanted the Misa Campesina to be sung every Sunday at all the Masses." In some years it was allowed to be sung, said the priest, and this served to attract people to an experience of the Eucharist "as something folkloric, but you must understand that the songs of Carlos Mejia Godoy's Mass were responding to a reality of the times, a specific political situation and in the context of liberation theology. But the Church has never forbidden singing the Misa Campesina. There is no document that expressly forbids it," says Arana.

Yet according to the memories of those involved, only some "progressive" priests allowed this Mass. Today parts of it are sung in some churches, but there are sectors that still don't allow it, says Sanchez. "I think if Carlos Mejia Godoy wants to make that request to Pope Francis, it's his right. I think the Vatican is going to say that you have to go to the commission of the Bishops Conference and in this case, the liturgical commission so that any kind of theological errors that these songs might contain is evaluated," Father Arana says, for his part.


Carlos Mejía Godoy is the main author, but other musicians also collaborated. Here is the structure and the contributions made:

Entrance hymn: compilations by Carlos Mejía in the Popular Sound Workshops.

Kyrie: is a Greek word meaning mercy. The song is a Segovian mazurka with Jinotegan music from La Perra Renca.

Gloria: contains the sound of bulls known as La Mama Ramona, the music was played by the popular band of Diriá under Professor Teodoro Ríos.

Credo: was composed with parts of the testimonies that were given after the gospel [at Masses] officiated by Ernesto Cardenal and were a sort of dialogue with the peasants.

Offertory: has parts of a Segovian mazurca -- La Chancha Flaca.

Miskitu Lawana: is an anonymous song from the Moravian Church; it was interpreted by Anselmo Nixon.

Meditation song: known as "El Canto de los Pájaros" ["Song of the Birds"], it is a creation of Carlos Martínez Téllez, El Guadalupano.

The Sanctus: the music is a version taken from the musicians called Los Soñadores de Saraguasca, from the Tomatoya district in Jinotega.

Closing hymn: it was the last song to be composed in the popular sound workshops.


The Misa Campesina was evaluated by Nicaraguan and foreign theologians from different religious denominations, among them Catholics, Evangelicals, and Baptists.

Carlos Mejía Godoy, according to Julio Arana, followed the structure proposed in the Roman Missal after the Second Vatican Council.

It has been translated into six languages and is still sung in many parts of the world.

Father Arana defines this composition as "something that was not contrary, but they aren't strictly liturgical songs."

  • Full text of the Misa Campesina Nicaragüense and other Central American folk Masses. (PDF)


  1. Somebody let this get through at the official vigil Mass on the night before the beatification of Monseñor Romero. "Vos sos el Dios de los pobres" was sung in the streets of San Salvador - even with Cardinal Rodriguez presiding. In the Mass other hymns, mostly from the Misa Campesina Salvadoreña, were sung.

    The many young people at the Mass sang with gusto - knowing the words of these and other hymns, notably the hymns of the martyrs.

    I even saw Cardinal Rodriguez singing one of the hymns right after Communion.

    Maybe Romero is performing another miracle. At least, I pray and hope so.

    But the hand of power was present at the beatification Mass. I had my hopes up as the first song of the Mass was the entrance song of the Misa Campesina Salvadoreña, Vamos todos al banquete, which is in part based on sermons of Rutilio Grande.

    But even though they repeated two verses numerous times, the last verse was omitted. It reads (in translation)

    God calls us to make of this world
    a table where there is equality,
    working and struggling together,
    sharing our property.

    I guess this was too much for the organizers and the government officials who came from many countries where this would be considered subversive.

    By the way, I heard that there was an alternative vigil held by the base communities. That would have been a treat to attend.

  2. On Sunday April 10, 2016 “Misa campesina nicaragüense” will be performed in Montreal, Canada.

    Maisonneuve Presbyterian Church