When "Jesus Christ Superstar" first appeared in Latin American theaters several years ago, there was considerable grumbling among priests and bishpos about the "unseemliness" of the film, particularly the dancing and singing.

But that was before the Catholic Church in Latin America rediscovered "popular religiosity" with its richly varied cultural expressions of Christianity.

Taking a page from the early Spanish missionaries, local churches are now encouraging the people to sing and dance the Mass, to worship God in their own Indian or African languages and rituals and even to use the church for anti-government morality plays.

At the annual religious festival at La Tirana in northern Chile, for example, the people dance the Mass in front of the altar instead of holding their rituals away from the church as in the past.

Sixteenth century in origin, these dances are a deep expression of reverence for La Tirana's Virgin of Carmen and more than 45,000 people participate. Nowadays, there are more religious dance groups in northern Chile than sports clubs, and they practice two hours daily, five days a seek during four months of every year.

All across the continent, ancient forms of worship are being revived and purified in an effort by the Catholic Church to reach the masses.

Unlike the Christain-Marxist dialogue that split the Latin American church in the late 1960s, there is general agreement that popular religiosity is a good thing.

It is seen as more than the key to a religious revival in Latin America, where 90 per cent of the people are baptized Catholics. Moderate and progressive churchmen also believe that popular religiosity can be used to heighten political awareness among the illiterate, disenfranchised masses.

"The thesis of Marx and Engels that religion is just an opiate for the people, and hence does not prepare tham for social and economic growth, has been pretty well exploded," said Brazilian theologian Eduardo Hoornaert."Today everyone recognizes that in certain circumstances religion can be an opiate but that under others it can foment development; everything depends on how the message is delivered."

The challenge, according to the Latin American Episcopal Council, is to encourage the people to see the saints as models of Christ's life rather than as advocates who must be bribed with candles and other offerings to intercede with God for favors. The council also maintains that it is possible to alter the fatalistic aspects of popular religiosity by educating the people "to become co-creators with God."

Catholic sociologists, anthropologists and theologians have seized on popular religiosity because they believe it is "the only genuine form of cultural expression and creativity for most Latin Americans."

"Unlike Europe or the United States where secularization has sidelined religion," Chilean sociologist Renato Poblete said, "it has a strong influence on social, economic and political conditions in Latin America. In discovering what is really important to the people in a religious sense, we will discover other forms of political and social self-expression."

Whether for religious or political motives, Latin American churchmen are giving the study of popular religiosity top priority in order to understand and communicate with the people.

In Peru and Paraguay, this has meant revising church ceremonies to accommodate local Indian rites, such as the repetitive chanting of litanies or the incorporation of pre-Columbian religious symbols.

In Brazil, where heavy emphasis is placed on lay ministers, the church is reinterpreting rituals such as baptism, to give them deeper spiritual meaning and to reinforce the traditional relationshop between a child and its godparents - ties that are much deeper than in Europe or the United States.

In many dioceses in northeastern Brazil, for examole, no one can become a godfather or godmother unless he or she is an active member of the community and is prepared to accept the responsibilities. The purpose strengthening these ties, according to Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga, is to create a social conscience within the community.

As elsewhere in Latin America, emphasis is placed on such physical gestures as raising arms to heaven during communion, on symbols like the cross and the star and on religious shrines. The latter are particularly important in Chile, Argentina and Paraguay, where they have become a symbol of national unity. More than 100,000 Argentines attended this year's annual procession to the shrine of Lujan, for example, to pray for peace in the largest religious gathering in the country's history.

In Chle, where the hierarchy has opened a seminary on popular religiosity, rural peasant songs with Old and New Testament themes have been incorporated into official hymns. The church also is studying the possibility of using the popular Chilean term for God, the True Messias, in all its catechisms.

Colonial festiva's have been revived, bringing 2,000 horseback-riding huasos , or cowboys, to the national shrine at Maipu to join Raul Cardinal Silva in celebrating the Mass with folk dancing and singing.

Even Easter Island, Chile's remote Polynesian possession, has been caught up in the religious-cultural revival.

To honor the Virgin of Carmen, Chile's official patroness, the islanders carved a statue of Mary and Jesus that looks exactly like the island's mysterious pre-Columbian stone carvings.