Catholic youths of various cultures pray during a camp in Canby in 2019. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Catholic youths of various cultures pray during a camp in Canby in 2019. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Archbishop Alexander Sample celebrated two Masses recently with a mix of Spanish and English. He did so before dedicating new structures in Albany and Aloha.

Before the mid-1960s, most Catholic liturgies were in Latin. Once Masses began in the vernacular, there was a new problem: What if not everyone knew the tongue?

The first time the term “bilingual Mass” appeared in the Catholic Sentinel was December 1974, announcing a Spanish-English midnight Christmas Mass at St. Alexander Church in Cornelius.

Considered by some as a way to unite two large language groups in the U.S. church, bilingual Masses are relatively rare in western Oregon. A few parishes hold them regularly, but most reserve bilingual worship for a few times a year — often Holy Week — and during large celebrations like the dedication of a new building.

Early hopes and experiments

In 1970, after Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers raised awareness and showed that Spanish-speaking Catholics were past ready to take their place in the nation and the church in the United States, the nation’s bishops called for bilingual courses in Catholic schools. But at the time, there was no official guidance on bilingual Masses.

Meanwhile, parishes were experimenting. A watershed moment came in 1981, the 450th anniversary of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. That year, parishes in Medford, Eugene and Portland held bilingual Masses for the Dec. 12 feast.

In 1987, the Instituto Nacional Hispano de Liturgia and the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions collaborated to produce guidelines for multilingual Masses. Diversity should be reflected through gestures, postures, clothing, environmental design and music as well as language, say the guidelines, which were updated by the U.S. bishops in 2013. The bishops noted that Latin chants, perhaps known by all, could be a good way to achieve musical unity.

St. Patrick Parish in Independence experimented with a bilingual Mass in 1989 before the parish picnic. St. Patrick Parish in Portland, then home base for the city’s Hispanic ministry, had bilingual confirmation Masses in the 1990s. Around the turn of the millennium, when cultural unity was a keen desire, parishes in places like Creswell and Springfield started regular bilingual Masses.

In 2008, a Sentinel letter writer had high hopes: “We should not have segregated Masses in any language,” wrote Geraldine Ballas of Milwaukie. “Why not offer bilingual Masses on a regular basis so the Spanish community can more easily learn English and Americans (sic) learn Spanish? Mass is a wise and sound alternative to bridging the chasm that now exists. Our goal should be to bring people together.”

The people’s preference

But the trend in the past decade is toward fewer bilingual liturgies, with both English-speakers and Spanish-speakers preferring to pray in their native languages.

“We tried bilingual Masses for holy days and for joint functions but did find them challenging for both communities,” said Father Dave Gutmann, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton. “Dialogue portions of the Mass or the ability to pray the Lord’s Prayer in common were especially compromised. I believe people of both communities appreciated the effort but also were pretty vocal about expressing the discomfort of switching between languages. We learned quickly that it did not work for Christmas or the Triduum and actually bred some animosity.”

A Tuesday evening bilingual Mass at Shepherd of the Valley Parish in Central Point is now all in Spanish. Father Fredy Bonilla, pastor in Central Point, said the bilingual Mass had been poorly attended. Meanwhile, numbers have gone up for all the single-language liturgies.

“The community is happier when we give them the option to pick English or Spanish,” Father Bonilla said.

Father Bonilla once held bilingual group baptisms. Now he presides at separate English and Spanish rites. “That has been well received by the community,” he said.

Most priests also prefer celebrating Mass all in one language, because moving back and forth makes it difficult to focus on the deep spiritual meanings, said Father Bonilla. Bilingual Masses make it hard on choirs, too, he explained.

If there is a bilingual Mass, as on Holy Thursday, Father Bonilla said it is helpful to project or have a sheet with translations so no one gets lost.

When it comes to staff, bilingual is good, Father Bonilla said. Five of his six employees are fluent in both languages, as is he.

St. Mary Parish in Astoria shifted from a regular bilingual Mass to a straight Spanish Mass. Apostle of Jesus Father William Oruko, pastor in Astoria, said there will still be bilingual liturgies during Holy Week and for first Communion celebrations.

A Kenyan accustomed to a multilingual society, Father Oruku said he likes many languages in liturgy because they signify how many parts become one body in Christ. But as a pastor, he has listened to parishioners of both language groups say they in general have a richer experience praying in their native tongues, as if God is speaking to them in their languages.

A digital solution

Convinced that no one likes bilingual Masses, Father Mark Bentz of St. Alice Parish in Springfield in 2017 launched a simultaneous translation app for parishioners. Using their mobile device earphones, anyone can hear a simultaneous translation of Mass.

During an era of livestreamed Masses, Father Bentz is trying to determine if the Interactio app can be used to broadcast simultaneous translations so worshippers can hear Masses at home in their language.

“It takes a lot of infrastructure to integrate translation — we’ve been working on it for the last three years and we still have a long way to go,” said Father Bentz, who has hired a communications professional for the parish staff. “My hope is, with a new communications department, we can eventually get to the place that every Sunday and feast day has simultaneous translation in the other language. Also, every guest speaker/retreat/class presentation would be the same.”

A chance to evangelize

One major weekly bilingual Mass endures in western Oregon, at 11 a.m. Sundays at Ascension Parish in Southeast Portland.

Attendance at the previous 10:30 a.m. English Mass had dipped. Father David Jaspers, the bilingual pastor of Ascension, noticed that those who still came tended to be the bilingual families. After changing to a bilingual Mass, attendance increased. Father Jaspers balances and rotates Mass parts and prayers, making sure that what is Spanish one week is English the next, and vice versa. Readings are in English, with a Spanish or bilingual psalm response. He preaches in both languages.

Father Jaspers knows that not everyone is ready to try the bilingual experience. He offers encouragement, saying that meeting the other language groups of the church can be highly enriching. He invites all Catholics to deepen their lives and community by learning another language.

“For a successful bilingual Mass, monolingual people have to understand the spirituality is different,” Father Jaspers added. “We are so used to understanding everything — we will be disappointed and frustrated when we can’t. But that can lead us to a more contemplative spirituality. You contemplate what you have understood while you live into the parts you don’t. You can rejoice in the unity in diversity.

You can value the different parts of the community gathered together in worship.”

The bilingual Mass can be especially good for Hispanic youths, most of whom are bilingual, Father Jaspers said.

“As the church, as the body of Christ, what will we do to support them in their faith? What are we willing to sacrifice for them? Are we willing to give up understanding every word of the Mass for bilingual kids to feel at home at Mass but still understand the message?”

Father Jaspers also said that a bilingual Mass is good for highly-motivated Spanish speakers who want to evangelize in Oregon and so should know the Catholic vocabulary in English.

“Hispanic adults need to learn how to evangelize all Oregonians, not just Hispanic Oregonians,” he said.

“A bilingual Mass is a conscious decision to build bridges,” Father Jaspers concluded. “Why go to a bilingual Mass? So you can meet the next generation of Catholics and build relationships with them.”