Mexico: Mystery, Music, and Faith
I am grateful to Martin Jean, director of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, for inviting me here, and am very happy to know that your entire faculty and student body will soon visit my country. I will be among the first to welcome you there.
You already know that Mexico is a profoundly Christian country, and that today all the principal religious denominations are represented. Your other speakers in this Colloquium series will address the Anglican and Protestant presence; since I am a Catholic priest I would like to speak about the Catholic Church. As visitors to my country, you will soon experience the baroque splendor of our buildings and early church music, and the colorful Catholic traditions of our people.
I also come to you as a resident of the largest metropolitan area in the Americas with a population of eighteen million people,1 and I would like to share what the Catholic community in Mexico City does liturgically during its earthly pilgrimage. We are all fellow travelers on a journey to our eternal homeland. I would like to begin by telling you that I have had the pleasure of serving the Archdiocese of Mexico as a priest for the last thirteen years; I am now the archdiocesan Director of Worship, and every day that passes my commitment to its liturgical life is renewed.
Mexico is a densely populated country of ninety-seven million people, of whom around ninety percent are Roman Catholics, although only forty-five percent can be considered practicing. The country is divided into ninety Catholic dioceses. At the center of the country is the Federal District, which includes Mexico City. It was founded on the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, the seat of the Emperor Moctezuma II (d. 1520). At the time of its formal foundation in 1531 the Diocese of Mexico took in all of Central America, and extended south all the way to Peru, and west to the Philippine Islands. With the passing of time, of course, it has been reduced in size.
The Archdiocese of Mexico-Tenochtitlán is the largest diocese in the world, with close to eighteen million inhabitants. We have one archbishop and ten auxiliary bishops. The diocese is divided into eight pastoral regions; there are four hundred and twenty-four parishes, and eleven hundred church buildings for worship.2
Since 1992 we have undergone a serious process of re-evaluation and renewal of the evangelization process. We have sought to create a more dynamic community in which the participation and interaction of all the members may improve the experience of the Paschal Mysterythe living and dying of Jesus Christin every worship experience. Speaking theologically, through worship understood as the exercise of the priesthood of Christ by all of God’s people, we believe that we can effectively re-evangelize our parishes. In other words: good worship evangelizes. Liturgy done well teaches and forms Christians in their identity. Through this work we hope that our parishioners and clergy will intensely experience a life of spiritual conversion. More on this in a moment.
A Lesson from History: Sacred Music in Mexico
First, let me begin with a little history. I will speak of the pre-Hispanic cultural platform of Mexico, especially that of the Aztecs or, to use the name they gave themselves, the Mexica. They were speakers of the Nahuatl language, which is still used today in some places, even in Christian worship. I would like to address some concrete ideas about music and rituals. These can be, even to this day, applied to musical performance in Catholic churches all over Mexico.
The basic notions of music and ritual before the arrival of Europeans can be summed up in the poetic expression in xóchitl in cuícatl, which we might translate as “flower and song.” In Nahuatl xóchitl not only means flower, but refers as a metaphor to preciousness, holiness, and the heart of God. It is how beauty and truth are revealed and created through poetic insight. Xóchitl is also a day on the Aztec calendar,3 a day for creating beauty and truth, which speak to a heart that knows it will one day cease to beat. “Flower” reminds us of life, of how quickly life fades and passes away (see Psalm 90), and that our homeland lies elsewhere. Xóchitl is the call to a fuller life that, for a Christian, can only be found in the One who rose from the dead.
Song, cuícatl in Nahuatl, has more connotations; these depend on how it is being used, and on the context. For example: cuicatlaša means to tune up, give the tone; cuicatlašaliztli means tuning up; cuicatlali means composer; and cuicatlalia means to compose.4
Thus, in xóxhitl in cuícatl, “flower and song,” is the way in which people experience the path to actual truth, the way in which people can experience and say true words. In Christian terms we may say that it means to experience the deepest mystery of life, the mystery of Christ. In xóxhitl in cuícatl is the expression of the human person before the God in whom we live, and move, and have our being.
We can see in the life of the ancient Mexica how this expression was vital to their relationship with their gods. The founding of cities as centers of human culture is said to have begun with drums and song. These dynamics are based on daily life, and on those emotions that we all have at beginnings and endings. In the illustrated codices that the Aztec scribes produced, we see that the poet is a musician, and the musician is a poet. He accompanies his poem on a drum. Out of his mouth come the flowerlike speakingsinging glyphs. Held in the highest esteem, the Aztec poet had the responsibility of articulating the people’s “flower and song,” their deepest aspirations, sorrows, and joys.
The encounter of two worlds had enormous implications for the native peoples of Mesoamerica, and also for the Europeansbut this is beyond the scope of my presentation today. In the New World created after the encounter, with all its tears and blood, the native people, now Christianized and baptized, maintained their sense of in xóchitl in cuícatl. For them to sing, to dance, to make poetry was to live. A new people was trying to survive and live in a new political-social situation.
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