Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Some Thoughts on the "Spanish Mass"

A reader/correspondent recently shared with me his thoughts on a practice common to most parishes (in the western US, at least): the regularly scheduled Mass in Spanish.

Please note: neither my correspondent nor I have anything against legal immigrants to this country, and we are both sensitive to the difficulties faced by non-English speakers here. Still, I know for myself, I would not travel to a country where English was not the language of the people, and expect to be accommodated. In particular, if I were planning to make that new country my home, I would expect to have to learn the local language in order to get along.

That said, my correspondent notes:

When the changes in the Mass were made long ago from Latin to the language of the land, I was not happy, but over time I adjusted. Then somewhere along the way someone decided to introduce Mass in Spanish, here in the United States. I have attended Mass in many non-English speaking countries. I know of no other country that has one “native” language and some other language for the convenience of some other group of people who do not speak the native language.

My family emigrated from Mexico to California in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Some of them considered themselves Californians, not Mexicans. I am told the priority was to learn English in order to better their station in life. They knew that learning English was important if they were going to continue living in a new country.

I don't see that being the case with Spanish-speaking immigrants nowadays, though I am sure there are some exceptions. In our parish, we have the English and Spanish Masses, and the two groups never seem to be able to mingle.

This failure to “mingle” has been my experience, as well. I’ve seen a number of parish events that were meant to encourage interaction between the Hispanics and the Anglos end up as two separate groups of people in one parish hall, each seeming to barely notice the other.

My correspondent continues:

I am a member of our Parish Pastoral Care group. We take communion to the home-bound, and to the nursing homes and the hospital. My gig is the hospital. At times I get to visit the Birth Center. Most of the Spanish-speaking women there speak very little English, and many are unmarried. They are registered as Catholic by the hospital, yet when I try to explain why I am there, they have no clue what I am talking about. I am beginning to think that at check in the hospital personnel see they are Spanish-speaking and just assume they are Catholic. I also get that with older patients in the regular hospital rooms.

I think that, especially in some geographical areas, this could definitely be the case. After all, this country has a long history of associating certain ethnic groups with Catholicism, and discriminating against both the culture and the religion.

I guess my biggest problem with the Spanish Mass is that I feel it divides people. I do speak and understand some Spanish myself, and I have no problem with [cultural] traditions. I grew up in a predominantly Italian parish. The Mass was always in English, but there were large Italian celebrations on the parish grounds or in the hall. Everyone enjoyed the celebrations, and they were attended by a mix of people with different backgrounds.

I’m not sure whether the “Spanish Mass” is a cause of division, but I do think it helps to maintain the two separate populations.

The main problem I have with the “Spanish Mass” is not really the Spanish Mass at all; it’s the mixing of Spanish and English in one Mass – the “bi-lingual Mass”. Ugh. And it’s not really the mixing of the languages that is the worst part: it’s the mixing of musical styles. Some people seem to think that if we try to have Spanish-speakers and English-speakers at the same Mass, we must have one reading in English, one in Spanish; one song in English, the next in Spanish. And so the worst of “Breaking Bread” meets the worst of “Flor y Canto”.  It’s a no-win situation.

The liturgy is supposed to be coherent, not schizophrenic! Following a Gregorian chant Gloria with a snappy Pescador de Hombres, simply doesn’t make good musical or liturgical sense

And guess what: we actually do have an official language of the Church! It’s LATIN. Not English, Spanish, or Swahili. Not French, Norwegian, or Dutch. LATIN. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal tells us that “since faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin” (§41).

Not only does the Church have an official language, it has official music for the liturgy. It’s called Gregorian chant propers. Imagine: instead of singing one song in English and one in Spanish, we could sing everything in Latin, using standard or simplified Gregorian chant melodies. That would unify us in a language as well as a musical style. And we would be following the mind of the Church.

To my way of thinking, priests should not be expected to learn a new language for every cultural group that wants a Mass in its native tongue. I know there are parishes in the big cities that have Mass in Vietnamese, Korean, Eastern European languages, etc.  What a daunting task to try to learn to say Mass in each language!

Latin-Spanish missal
But priests are supposed to have had extensive training in Latin in the seminary. Saying Mass in Latin puts everyone on the same footing, doesn’t it? And c’mon…surely we know what is being said at Mass, even if we cannot understand fully the language used to celebrate it. The homily, of course, is a different issue…but I challenge you to find 5 people from last week’s Sunday Mass who can tell you what the priest said in his homily. Sad, but true.

Bottom line: If Sunday Mass is to be said in the vernacular, it makes sense that it be said in English, since that is the official language of this country.  Then, instead of offering more Masses in various other languages, let one Mass be celebrated in Latin, for the benefit of all the ethnic groups in a parish, as well as the English speakers. We’re supposed to know the Latin ordinary (Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Credo, even the Pater Noster) anyway - no matter what our native language is. Maybe it’s time parishes actually learned the Latin – putting into practice what Vatican II really mandated.


  1. Obviously you failed the courses in political correctness and popularity at all costs---courses that most Bishops and Priests excell at

  2. I incurred incredulous looks when I suggested that if the Church in Idaho really cared about the Spanish speaking peeps, perhaps they should consider giving them English lessons so they could fully participate in the economy.

    1. Adrienne
      Oddly enough the "social justice" catholics, which includes far too many of our Bishops, would fault you for that comment...though if your suggestion were followed in the long run Hispanic people would benefit far more than they currently do from the Church's social justice emphasis.

    2. Adrienne, your comments about teaching English rang a bell. The CCHD thinks nothing of spending thousands of dollars, maybe even millions over the years to support political activism in the name of helping the poor. Michael Voris did a great piece on his CIA reporting in 2010. It can still be viewed on the Real Catholic TV site. Its just another way of dividing people.


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