When the Minister of Culture for the State of Puebla, Héctor Azar, organized the 350th anniversary festivities for the Biblioteca Palafoxiana in 1996, he included a concert of epigraphs and sonnets set to classical music in the city's cathedral. Employing an ancient form of the Church's liturgical psalmody,1 Azar replaced scriptural psalms with several lines taken from poetry written by the seventeenth-century bishop of Puebla, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, whose donation of books to the city in 1646 established the first public library in colonial Mexico. With a full accompaniment of string, percussion, woodwind, and brass instruments to provide music for the Salmodia Palafoxiana, Azar and the Coro del Benemérito Institute Normal del Estado transformed a few lines of the bishop's poetry into quasi-liturgy. Perhaps Bishop Palafox would have disapproved of substituting his poetic metaphors for biblical verse, but this probably never crossed the minds of the city's residents and visitors who gathered around the bishop's cenotaph to attend the concert. The first antiphon, however, evokes quite nicely Palafox's liturgical sensibilities: "Today the sun of wounded love, the new shepherd comes to be."2 The new shepherd is the resurrected, triumphant Christ who gives light to his flock. And, to the shepherd of Puebla and his seventeenth-century flock, Christ's real presence in the bread and wine was instituted each time a priest celebrated the Mass.
Liturgy as a sacramental rite imbued with cultural meaning has escaped the scholarly purview of most historians of colonial Latin America. Deciphering discrete portions of ecclesiastical texts in Latin or italicized scriptural citations located in the margins of ceremonials appears more suited to the canon lawyer or liturgist. Moreover, despite the historical centrality of the Mass, as well as of the seven sacraments, to Catholic culture, historians have examined almost every other dimension of the colonial Catholic experience except liturgy and prayer.3 Perhaps scholars view the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, or Hoc Est Enim Corpus Meum4 as officiai prayers of the institutional Church, whose significance remained hidden behind complicated Latin syntax that parishioners (and not a few clergymen too) failed to grasp. Even Bishop Palafox might have agreed in part with this view. Moreover, the mundane features of the Mass, rosary, and other liturgical rites and rituals, with their scripted formulas and responses, seem to demonstrate, on the surface, something less spectacular, less ideological than the extravagant religious and civic processions of Corpus Christi or Holy Week, for example, that so marked urban society in colonial Mexico.
Recent contributions to the new cultural history of Mexico provide theoretical and conceptual frameworks that interpret rituals and ceremonies within the context of power relations, popular culture, and resistance.5 Some historians have demonstrated how Spaniards used rituals to help establish their authority and legitimize colonial rule through language and ceremony. Ritual is seen as the medium for rulers to act out the drama of their power, while daily life itself is suffused with ritual performances that reinforce social hierarchies.6
The festival of Corpus Christi in seventeenth-century Mexico City has received some scholarly attention in recent years, and illustrates this turn to cultural history in Mexican studies. Indians and Spaniards, guilds and cofradías (confraternities), parishioners and priests, participated in festivities that expressed political as well as religious sentiment. The principal focus of such studies, however, tends to emphasize "procession-as-spectacle" and its uses as a tool of hegemonic control and institutional legitimization.7 The centrality of the Blessed Sacrament in Catholic worship and the liturgical dimensions of the procession are less evident. When, in 1692, the celebrations turned riotous, two Franciscan friars hoisted the Blessed Sacrament in the air, presumably in its sacred container, the monstrance, in an effort to calm passions and return tranquility to the city. …