The challenge of bilingual Mass

In an earlier post, I talked about using hymns of one language in a Mass of another. But how about Masses in two languages? How do you handle those?

There are many challenges here, but let’s focus on the similarities first. The Mass is the Mass in any language, so the structure will be the same. And at least some folks at bilingual Mass speak both languages and attend Mass in both languages.

But the first challenge is getting folks to come. More than a few at our parish go somewhere else and avoid the church when we have bilingual Mass. And it’s understandable. It’s tough to go to Mass where you don’t understand a chunk of what’s being said. That, however, isn’t my main concern here; my main concern is over the music.

A big challenge is the lack of usable music. Many hymns switch between English and Spanish lyrics in the refrain. I don’t recommend this. Like it or not, people won’t tend to sing what they can’t understand. A hymn with lyrics of one language and verses in both, I’ve found, is better. This Thanksgiving, I’m planning to use a hymn with the refrain in Latin (“Deo gratias, alleluia“) and the verses in English and Spanish but sung by a cantor. I suspect that will work a lot better.

Psalms tend to work a little better. For one thing, there are approved translations, so the lyrics tend to be better. For another, the refrains are often short enough that you can sing both the English and Spanish refrain quickly. There, we tend to have better response. Mass parts, you’re pretty stuck. Switching between languages within the same Mass part isn’t a good idea. Pick something people tend to know and go with it.

I don’t object to using a hymn without a counterpart in the other language. In fact, for Communion, I think one hymn in each language is a good idea. (Otherwise, all you got with English/Spanish crossover is “I Am the Bread of Life,” a wonderful hymn that nonetheless gets tiresome after 10 verses.)

So there are a few thoughts. Certainly open for questions on this.

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2 responses to “The challenge of bilingual Mass

  1. Thank you for expressing my feelings about bilingual mass so clearly. “It’s tough to go to Mass where you don’t understand a chunk of what’s being said,” I participate in mass and never attend when I know the service is bilingual as I am not bilingual and hate missing out on something. I think the same thing applies to the music at mass. My Christmas mass was a real struggle for me. I carefully chose the mass I wanted to attend because it was in English. It was not listed as bilingual. Once there, several of the songs were Spanish only. The others started in Spanish and had some English. Choir directors please advertise if you are going to do this so I can find another mass so I can fully participate in mass.

    • My experience is that churches don’t tend to advertise bilingual Masses (unless they’re bilingual by necessity, such as Holy Thursday or Easter Vigil). That’s because if people know a Mass is bilingual, they tend to walk with their feet directly to another parish. For example, my main parish’s Christmas Masses were both bilingual. At neither Mass was the church more than half full. That’s, um, not good. Meanwhile, the church I live near (but don’t play at) had multiple Masses, and all the Eve ones were stuffed and the Day ones were relatively well attended.

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