March 27, 2018

The multicultural parish: Preparing music for a bilingual liturgy

The Intercultural Parish: Preparing music for a bilingual or multilingual liturgy


Written by Santiago Fernández. For more tips and information on bilingual liturgies, check out his bilingual book Un Hermoso Intercambio Cultural/A Beautiful Cultural Exchange.

As far as bilingual music and full, conscious and active participation of the faithful is concerned, everything starts with the choir at most Catholic churches. We are not only music makers, but also catechists, evangelizers and ministers of liturgical hospitality. Folks in the pews are looking to us for leadership and example. We must believe that which we sing. We can only be convincing and inspiring if our hearts, mind and voices are in harmony.

So whether you have bilingual celebrations for Holy Week, Christmas, first Communion, confirmation, or a regularly scheduled Mass, here are a few ways you can help English- and Spanish-speaking choirs and assemblies be more open and receptive to bilingual music.

Tips to successfully combine choirs for bilingual liturgies

  1. Use songs with short refrains that are easy to learn.
    Songs that have Latin refrains are especially effective, like “Ubi Caritas,” by Bob Hurd or “Deo Gratias,” by Pedro Rubalcava.
  2. Use songs with refrains that must be sung bilingually.
    Talk about how the melody and text are related and intertwined. Examples include “Somos el Cuerpo de Cristo/We Are the Body of Christ ,” by Jaime Cortez, or “We Venerate Your Cross/Tu Cruz Adoramos ,” by Santiago Fernández. This kind of liturgical song represents exactly the balance and harmony we are trying to achieve.
  3. Use songs that are already hits in one language and have been translated into the other.
    This way our choirs can learn more about the history, culture and heritage of both language groups: e.g., “Caminaré / Yes, I Will Walk ,” by Juan Espinosa, “Here I Am, Lord / Aquí Estoy, Señor” by Dan Schutte, “Visión Pastoral / The Good Shepherd,” by Juan Romero, “Open My Eyes/Abre Mis Ojos ” by Jesse Manibusan.
  4. Take some time during choir rehearsals for liturgical catechesis.
    Study documents and statements that deal specifically with multicultural issues, like these publications by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity; Many Faces in God’s House; and Sing to the Lord. In my experience, choir members have a genuine interest in liturgical matters and always welcome new information.
  5. Bring both choirs together socially from time to time.
    This form of socializing can help foster a more familial relationship and to provide an opportunity to discover one another’s uniqueness. As we all know, some of the best conversations in our lives take place when we are gathered at a table.

Encouraging assembly participation in a bilingual Mass

How can a liturgical song increase the participation of the assembly? In my opinion there is nothing more inviting to an assembly than a memorable melody. Melodies that flow naturally and easily have a much better chance of getting into people’s minds and hearts than those plagued by awkward intervals. The most effective bilingual songs have short refrains without complicated words (which may be difficult to pronounce).

Needless to say, the three judgements as presented to us in Sing to the Lord must always be applied: the liturgical judgement, the pastoral judgement, and the musical judgement (126-136). When selecting songs that unify the assembly and encourage their participation, we must be careful, pastoral and profoundly spiritual.

There are two ways to sing bilingual music at Mass; the languages may be intertwined in a song that can only be sung bilingually or the languages may be independent from one another, giving us the option of singing them entirely in Spanish or English, or any combination of the languages. The second approach works especially well when the idea is to introduce the songs separately at the English and Spanish Masses before bringing people together for a bilingual liturgy.

Formation for music ministers

We as choir directors should always act as administrators of the group’s collective gifts, as stewards of their talents and abilities, completely detached from the self-absorption and grandeur, driven only by a burning desire to be instruments of God’s love for his people — because God is the one who touches people’s hearts and transforms their lives.

Of course it is good to have academic credentials and musical training, but ultimately real formation has more to do with good balance among academic degrees, pastoral sensitively and liturgical discernment, remembering always that sung prayer is to be fostered effectively at all costs, not only because we are good musicians but also because we are good disciples who understand our role and purpose and have a genuine desire to serve. This is especially true when ministering at bilingual Catholic Masses, when we may find ourselves working with trained musicians, those who can’t read music, and self-taught instrumentalists, all at the same time.

Let us strive for a formation worthy of our ministry, a ministry of selfless giving and humble discipleship that seeks to unify the body of Jesus Christ in song.

All songs mentioned in this article can be found in Flor y Canto, Third Edition, except for “Here I Am, Lord / Aquí Estoy, Señor” by Dan Schutte, which is available in Journeysongs, Third Edition, Glory & Praise, Third Edition, and Spirit & Song hymnals.

Using Flor y Canto with your multicultural parish

In the video below, we feature St. Leo the Great Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio. The small, diverse parish is known as a “beacon of light” in its low-income, urban neighborhood. Built in 1886 by German and Italian immigrants, the parish now serves another generation of newcomers: immigrants from Guatemala and Barundi. With the diversity has come new growth and new life.

Each week, between 200-500 people attend the parish’s Masses, which are celebrated in English and Spanish by the pastor, Father James Schutte. Sunday Mass is a multicultural blend of English, Spanish and Kirundi readings and music.

Using Flor y Canto hymnals has allowed this parish to meet some of the challenges they face in their music ministry, such as being able to pray and sing together. With no central music ministry director, volunteers step up to informally coordinate music for liturgy. With the various language groups working together, everyone takes ownership of the music in their parish.


Contact one of our product specialists to more about how to select a resource for your bilingual or multilingual parish.

More stories from parishes like yours

The collaborating choirs: Building a stronger music ministry together

The collaborating choirs
Building a stronger music ministry together

Learn more

stained glass window at Holy Family

The small parish
Developing your volunteer-run church choir

Learn more


The growing parish: Music ministry and the expanding community

The growing parish
Expanding your music ministry along with your community

Learn more

The family church: Music for a multigenerational Catholic parish

The family church
Selecting songs for a multigenerational congregation

Learn more