Mass in 2 Languages

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Mass in 2 Languages

ROME, 12 JULY 2005 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: Is it appropriate/legal to have a Mass said in two languages at the same time and to hold hands at the Our Father? — M.C., Mocksville, North Carolina

A: I know of no universal norms or guidelines, but there might be some local norms. From what I have observed in several places I would hazard the following principles.

There should be a congruent reason for using more than one language, usually involving a special occasion drawing members of two or more nationalities for the celebration.

Such occasions could be, for example, ordinations of priests from several countries, an international congress, or the principal celebration of the patron in a parish which habitually has separate Masses in two or more languages.

In general, the mixture of languages is concentrated in the Liturgy of the Word, such as having a reading in one language, the psalm in another and the Gospel in the third. Generally it is best to sing or recite the psalm in the most commonly used tongue. The prayers of the faithful may also be in several idioms.

It is usually pastorally necessary to prepare a booklet for the entire assembly containing the texts to be read and a translation in the lingua franca of the community.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist, and especially the Eucharistic Prayer, should not mix languages as this would distract from the solemnity of the moment and is generally unprecedented as a practice. Usually either Latin or the most common tongue should be used.

With respect to the use of Latin, it is always allowable to use it in chanting the common of the Mass and this would not be considered as mixing languages in the sense used above.

Thus, even if the Mass were in English, nothing prevents the singing of the Kyrie, Gloria, Sequence, Creed, Sanctus, Pater Noster, Agnus Dei and final blessing in Latin.

Latin motets may also be used for the introit, psalm, alleluia, offertory and Communion hymns.

If Latin is not used, it is probably also better to use the general idiom for the Common of the Mass so as to ensure maximum participation. Perhaps, on especially solemn occasions, a choir could execute a musically elaborate version of one or two of these parts in the language of another representative group.

There would also be no difficulty, at least in principle, in using various languages for the usual hymns such as at the offertory and Communion, or singing in more than one language a hymn whose melody is shared by many. For example, at Christmas Midnight Mass in St. Peter's Basilica the hymns "Adeste Fidelis" and "Silent Night" are often sung in several languages.

Regarding joining hands at the Our Father, we have addressed this question in our columns of Nov. 18 and Dec. 2, 2003. ZE05071222

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Follow-up: Mass in 2 Languages [07-26-2005]

Similar to the question on multilingual Masses (see July 12) a Los Angeles reader wrote:

"I would like to know, is it permissible to sing several different lines of the Memorial Acclamation over and over. This is done in English and Spanish; we have a bilingual Mass. It seems as though the choir sings for example, 'Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again' and adds lines in between in the other language. If they start it off with Spanish, they intersperse with English. This is very distracting."

The earlier column mentioned that, in general, the mixing of languages in Mass should be reserved for special occasions, limited above all to the Liturgy of the Word. The Common prayers should be said or sung in the prevalent tongue.

We did make an exception for an especially well-orchestrated choral rendition of one of these prayers in another language. But the case mentioned above is somewhat different as it mixes two languages in one piece.

As the Book of Ecclesiastes says: "There is nothing new under the sun" (1:9). The problem of choirs singing in several languages at once was discussed at the Council of Trent and almost led to the prohibition of polyphonic singing during Mass.

The Council Fathers stressed that in liturgy, the word always has priority over the music and the function of liturgical music should always serve to express the word to its greatest advantage.

Some Fathers feared that certain compositions, while beautiful to the ear, encumbered and obscured the word, rendering it unintelligible in a maze of harmonies and counterpoints.

In the end, the work of such great composers as Pierluigi da Palestrina and Tomas Luis de Vitoria saved the day by finding a middle way between intelligibility and musical expressiveness.

It is probable that the above-mentioned mix of Spanish and English in the Memorial Acclamation does not exactly echo de Vitoria and Palestrina. But the principles involved, that of the priority and intelligibility of the word over the music, are the same as those faced by the Tridentine Fathers.

Our reader comments "it is very distracting" and indeed it probably is, because, in this case, the liturgical music is not fulfilling its function of enhancing worship by expressing the word of the liturgy as fully as possible.

Liturgical music should never distract but always strive to draw the faithful deeper into the celebration of the mystery. ZE05072627

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