Liturgical Celebration in a Multicultural Parish

A few decades ago, multicultural parish was an unfamiliar term. Today, unique parish is an unfamiliar term! The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), in its 2011 survey, observed: “One in three parishes (29 percent) celebrates Mass at least once a month in a language other than English. This is an increase from 22 percent of parishes in 2000. Most of these Masses, 81 percent, are in Spanish. Overall in the United States, about 6 percent of Masses (weekday and weekend) are celebrated in Spanish. Thirty-seven percent of parishes indicate that they have some special observance for particular cultural or ethnic groups in the parish.”

Among these special observances, the most visible and well recognized celebrations are Quinceañeras, Simbang Gabi (Missa de Gallo), feast of Our Lady of Lavang and feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

A question that usually comes to mind for priests and deacons who minister in multicultural parishes is: “How can I serve my people and celebrate their ceremony effectively?” Some celebrants choose the “easy” way: let the ethnic priest or deacon preside at the celebration for his ethnic group. These ethnic priests and deacons should understand the culture and the needs of their own group — though in reality, that’s not always true! Some celebrants follow the traditional way: European standards are the standards of faith; all other styles are secondary. And some celebrants want to collaborate and cooperate with their own parishioners to prepare the ceremony.

Understanding the needs of inculturation, Vatican II, in Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), especially Nos. 53-62, emphasized the full development of a human person in one’s culture, ways in which salvation and culture are linked, and the mutual enrichment of the Church and cultures throughout human history. Paragraph No. 53 states: “Man comes to a true and full humanity only through culture, that is through the cultivation of the goods and values of nature. Wherever human life is involved, therefore, nature and culture are quite intimately connected one with the other.” Then, in No. 58, it emphasizes that the Catholic Church must enter into communion with various cultures, to their enrichment and to the enrichment of the Church herself.

Liturgical Guidelines for Cultural Celebrations

While the Catholic Church gives thoroughly detailed instructions for celebrating the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, with the General Instructions of the Roman Missal, she does not give clear liturgical guidelines for cultural celebrations. The reason is understandable: not all cultures are the same, and not all understanding about culture is similar. This liturgical openness offers both blessings and difficulties. At some celebrations, usually at Mass, the ethnic congregation participates fully in the joy and spirit of the evangelization in their own culture. They perceive the preaching of the “good news” as truly for them. At other times, people do not feel the celebration is for them. It is not sensitive enough to their cultural needs, and the ceremony could be applied to any group, any situation, at any time.

What Is Culture?

There are many good definitions of culture, but none of them completely agree with each other. However, a common understanding looks at culture as the visible activities of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge, which constitute the shared bases of social actions of a group or people. These inherited ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge are seen and recognized in the visible activities of social actions, behaviors and ways of living.

Expressing the social actions, behaviors and ways of living, many anthropologists observe that American people, especially those from Anglo-Saxon roots, culturally focus more on the texts or rubrical directions, while ethnic groups from Asia, the Pacific Islands, Africa and Latin America pay attention more to the cultural demonstration.


In preparing a liturgical celebration in a multicultural setting, the celebrant and his liturgy team need to determine what is essential to the proclamation of the Gospel, and what can be changed; what is very important for the congregation; how the Church should catechize people, and what is good for the celebration according to both the liturgical rubrics and the cultural demonstration.

Anthropologists, describing the cultural iceberg, recognized that ideas, beliefs, feelings and knowledge belong to the covert aspects, while food, language, festivals and dress are the overt aspects. In preparing the liturgical celebration, this means that the liturgy team must go beyond the instruction of the texts to understand how the rituals are understood by both the Church and the people.

Most ethnic groups from Africa and Asia have a rich tradition of ritual gestures that reflect respect and social order. Ignoring the meaning of these ritual gestures may cause anger and frustration. For example, Asians and Africans cannot understand why, during Mass, some communicants walking to receive communion put their hands behind their backs. The back is connected to the lower part of the body. For them, walking in that way shows disrespect to God and to the congregation!

Liturgical symbols such as incense, oil, water, flags, the Bible, flowers, bread, fruits and pictures have their own power to convey the message of care, respect and love. People bring flowers to friends not only to celebrate an anniversary, a birthday or feast. They also bring flowers to the cemetery to offer their love to the deceased. Similarly, they bring food not only for the potluck or party, but also to place in front of the picture of the deceased to show their care for that person who once was living and now is dead. That beloved one has passed away, but is still living in the hearts of friends and relatives, and still can share the joy with people who are here.

The overt cultural aspect of language plays a very significant role in human life. People pray and worship more devoutly when they speak their own language, when they sing to their own music, or dance in styles they are familiar with from youth.

It is not a surprise when, during the sacrament of Reconciliation, the confessor hears a confession spoken perfectly without any accent in one language, and then hears the penitent recite the act of contrition in another language. Praying in their mother language, people feel that God’s forgiveness touches their hearts and that “God understands them more.”

Some Helpful Suggestions

Here are suggestions for planning a liturgical celebration in a multicultural parish:

1. Form a multicultural ministry.

2. Form a multicultural liturgy committee from that multicultural ministry, if possible.

3. Form a leadership team if there are a number of ethnic members. The leadership team will advise you on you need to prepare and how to preside at a ceremony for their group. With this collaboration, your ministry will serve all the people, and the ethnic leaders will feel happy to contribute to the service of their people and their parish.

4. Prepare and plan the ceremony with the leadership team and with the multicultural liturgy committee.

5. Provide this group your guidance with texts such as “Guidelines for Multi-Lingual Masses” (Instituto de Liturgia Hispana 1987); “On Masses with Special Groups” (1969); “Guidelines for Multicultural Celebrations” (1991); La Liturgia en una Comunidad de Diversa Culturas (2007). Remember, the Internet and websites are also helpful resources. Once the leaders of the group recognize that you already have some resources, they will listen to you and respect your ideas more.

6. The scriptural readings should be in the language of the majority of the participants, for “the faithful’s participation in the liturgy is increased to the degree that they listen to the word of God spoken in the liturgy...” (The Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass, No. 6, 1981).

7. In preparing your homily, ask leaders for input, even some words that are personal to their group.

In the instruction Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi, the Pontifical Council For the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People observed that, in previous centuries, missionaries had to go to new countries to evangelize people, but nowadays, people from everywhere come to the Church. Reaching out to them in the parish is a way both to evangelize and to be evangelized with different styles of worshipping God. Pope John Paul II saw that plan as “the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures” (Redemptoris Missio, No. 52).

FATHER DAO is pastor at Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church in the Diocese of San Bernardino. The parish, at two different sites, has three active communities: English, Hispanic and Vietnamese.