APPLETON, Wisconsin — There’s nothing like going to Mass celebrated in your own language. But for many new arrivals to the United States, English is not their first language.
When Pope Francis launched a consultation process that is leading up to the Synod of Bishops in October of 2023, part of his call to “look others in the eye and listen to what they have to say” meant for the church to listen to diverse voices.
One way that is being lived out is the celebration of Mass in Swahili at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Appleton.
Swahili is “among the 10 most widely spoken languages in the world, with more than 200 million speakers,” according to UNESCO.
Father John Katamba, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, who is from Uganda, talked about the impetus for the Swahili Mass — with music provided by a Swahili choir — that he celebrates every other Sunday at 11 a.m.
When the priest was Sacred heart’s associate pastor, he was first approached in 2019 by a group of African immigrants, the majority from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who belong to various parishes in the area. They had been hoping to have a regular Mass in Swahili since 2019.
After he became pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, he further considered the idea.
“They were requesting me to help them have the Mass in Swahili because some of their members were not good in English,” Katamba told The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin. “They prefer to have a Mass in Swahili. I asked them to go back to their respective parishes so they could talk with their pastors. If their pastors accepted their idea, I could help them.”
Mary Kalamba, who is from Congo, was one of the driving forces behind the celebration of Mass in Swahili. “In 2018, I and my cousin and other choir group members, we were like, ‘Why not ask to say our Masses?’ We’re all here, we used to do it in our own countries. We don’t want to lose it,” she recalled.
Initially, they had formed a choir to sing worship music in their own language.
“We started singing together at my place. We decided to do our own Swahili Mass but it was kind of difficult to know who’s going to be our priest and stuff to get it all together. It was a long process,” she said.
“Then, earlier this year, we decided to do a meeting all together. We wanted to talk to Katamba. He offered to do a Mass in Swahili — even if he doesn’t speak Swahili. So, we said, ‘Let’s give it a shot,’ and it finally worked out.”
“They talked to me as a group about the Swahili Mass,” recalled Katamba.
“Then I told them I can help them, although it is not my language,” he said. “My native language is Ugandan, but I can speak Swahili good enough. When I was doing my catechetical programs in Kenya, priests used to come in asking for priests to help them fill in, so I said some Masses in Swahili. I told them, I can help them as long as they have the missals and lectionary in Swahili. They said, ‘We can get those books.'”
Olivier Mburugu, who is from Congo, said Swahili was selected for celebration of the Mass because it is the most spoken language in East Africa and Central Africa even though it isn’t the language of Congo, Burundi and Kenya, where most of their fellow Mass participants hail from. He added that most Africans speak more than one language, but the common language between them is Swahili.
The first Swahili Mass at Sacred Heart was celebrated March 20 and the plan is to continue every other Sunday. There were around 80 people of varying ages in attendance, including some longtime Sacred Heart parishioners.
“I didn’t want to do it every Sunday at the beginning,” said Katamba. “I wanted to start at first with two Masses in a month and see how it goes.”
While he likes the concept, Katamba said he doesn’t want the Africans to create a community within a community. Instead, he wants them to be involved at their own parishes on a regular basis.
However, he sees the benefits of the Swahili Masses. “Saying the Mass to them in Swahili brings out the richness of the celebration of the liturgy,” he said. “And, by saying Mass to them brings them more together as people who come from the same area.”
There was one overriding issue expressed to him. “They were concerned with the upbringing of their children in the faith. They wanted to feel a sense of belonging,” he said.
The African Catholics said they moved to the United States for various reasons.
This immigrant group is a growing one in the Green Bay Diocese. In 2019, 100 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo resettled in Appleton, according to the U.S. State Department Refugee Processing Center, bringing the number of Congolese refugees in the region to more than 400.
The group welcomes interaction with other parishioners. “Everyone is welcome to participate in our Swahili Mass,” said Katamba.
He echoed that sentiment and encouraged non-Africans to join them at Mass.
“Those who want to have an experience, they’re always welcome. The church is one. What differs is the language. Some people have never seen anything besides their own way of celebrating Mass,” he said. “The doors are always open. … “Whether you understand the language or not, the flow of the Mass is the same.”
Efforts are underway to make a prayer card for the Mass with the essential parts of the Mass in Swahili and English.
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Lauer writes for The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay.