Have you ever traveled to or lived in a foreign-speaking place where you were able to understand the language very well but still struggled, linguistically, to respond and to connect culturally? Have you ever experienced this in a context as important as a worship service, a context in which you seek to grow closer to God? Have you ever experienced this on your own college campus?

It is truly sad that many Harvard undergraduate students can answer yes to these questions. There are some Catholic Harvard undergraduate students who would like to attend Mass at St. Paul Parish, the Catholic church in Harvard Square, but are discouraged from doing so due to linguistic and cultural differences between the Mass in which they grew up and the Mass offered at St. Paul Parish. I imagine there are other bilingual students at Harvard who experience these same discouragements at worship services for other faiths. However, this investigation will focus particularly on the experience of Spanish-speaking Catholics. The goals of this investigation are to answer three primary questions in relation to this topic. First, what roles do language and culture play in our understanding of the Mass? Second, what have St. Paul Parish and the Harvard Catholic Student Association (CSA) done to make Mass at St. Paul Parish more familiar and accommodating to Spanish/English speaking bilingual students who may have grown up attending Spanish Mass? Third, what do they plan to do in the future?

By definition, Catholic means “universal.” Considering its entire membership of about 1.23 billion throughout the world, the Catholic Church is celebrating the Mass at every moment of every day[1]. The central part of every Mass is the celebration of the Eucharist, which refers to the bread and wine which are (as Catholics believe) transubstantiated to the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Receiving the Eucharist is an important part of Catholic faith formation. It seems feasible, then, that every Catholic that wants to attend Mass, that wants to receive the Eucharist, should be able to do so without hesitation. Yet, despite the universality of Catholicism, we can recognize that there are undoubtedly differences, both linguistic and cultural, that exist in the celebration of the Mass from country to country and even from parish to parish within a country. I sat down first with Vanessa Martinez ‘16, President Emeritus of the Harvard CSA, and then with Alondra Ramirez ’18, a member of the Harvard CSA, to identify and understand some of these differences and why they might cause a person to hesitate to attend Mass.

“I was born in Mexico,” says Alondra, “I was introduced to my faith in Mexico. Everything I knew about God was in Spanish. It was not until college that I regularly attended English Mass. I knew English, but I didn’t know what the English Mass was about.” The transition took some getting used to. Although Vanessa grew up going mainly to English Mass, she did have some exposure to Spanish Mass before coming to Harvard; she reports: “there was a significant Latino population in my home parish, and I sometimes went to Spanish Mass with my grandparents.”

Alondra notes that “the structure and order of the Mass present something recognizable: procession, prayer, reading, homily, et cetera. So in that sense, there is no difference” between Spanish Mass and English Mass. While people may be able to recognize pieces of the Mass in both languages, the words and verbal responses of the Mass are obviously linguistically different. Vanessa notices, “Back at my home parish, some people choose to respond in whatever language they most comfortably know the Mass responses, whether this means responding in Spanish at an English Mass or English at a Spanish Mass.” Alondra identifies with this: “The words are more familiar in Spanish, and I do not know as many hymns in English.”

Both Alondra and Vanessa have fond memories of each December 12th growing up. This is the day of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Catholic feast day that is particularly important in Mexican culture. Alondra recalls that the feast day was “huge back home, an all-day event.” Vanessa always attended Spanish Mass to celebrate the feast day. Both believe that the music of the Mass is one of the most noticeable cultural differences. At the Mass for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, for example, Vanessa’s parish had a mariachi band. Alondra mentions, “With the guitars at Spanish Mass, you can sing along. English Mass, though, has choral music, so it can be hard to follow along. The music at English Mass is so well-practiced that, if you can’t sing well, you feel like you can’t contribute…The differences [between language and culture] are very hard to separate. Language can’t be independent of culture. The songs I am used to are very much Mexican.” Asked about this further, Alondra clarifies that, even if the songs of the English Mass were translated to Spanish, they would not be representative of the songs one typically hears at a Spanish Mass.

Feeling a cultural connection to one’s fellow parishioners can be important in feeling fully comfortable at a Mass. We express our faith in union with the people around us, our fellow parishioners. Alondra recognizes a difference in the expression of unity particularly during the prayer of the Our Father at Mass. “People at Spanish Mass reach out and hold hands across the aisles during the Our Father. People at English Mass don’t do that. Spanish Mass seems friendlier to me,” she says. “[It] has a more personal connection to me.”

Both language and culture have a significant role in establishing the differences between Spanish Mass and English Mass, because both linguistic and cultural unfamiliarity can hinder one’s participation in the Mass. Because participation in the Mass is so central to the Catholic faith, any barrier, whether linguistic, cultural, or other, that hinders participation in the Mass is significant. With this in mind, we now turn our focus to the CSA’s efforts in the past, present, and future, to not only organize a Spanish Mass at St. Paul Parish, but also to include Spanish/English speaking bilingual students more generally into the Catholic community at Harvard.

Having served as Co-President of Harvard’s Catholic Student Association (CSA) in 2015, Vanessa played an important role in organizing the first Spanish Mass at St. Paul Parish, which took place late in the Fall 2015 semester. I asked Vanessa about how the CSA came to organize the Spanish Mass. “I knew many Spanish/English speaking bilingual students who had grown up going to Spanish Mass, including several of my blockmates and friends, who were not ‘discouraged’ per se from attending English Mass at St. Paul Parish but found it somewhat upsetting that they did not feel as connected to the Mass due to linguistic and cultural differences,” she says. For these students, Mass at St. Paul Parish felt “different,” and they preferred to attend a Mass more similar to the type of Mass that was so central to forming their faith as they were growing up. Some of these students would go to Mass at parishes elsewhere in Cambridge or Boston that offered Mass in Spanish. Vanessa recalls, “As early as my freshman year at Harvard, I saw that there was a true need for St. Paul Parish to offer a Spanish Mass. The idea of having a Spanish Mass was something that was definitely ‘talked about’ during my freshman and sophomore years, but it was not until my junior year, when I began serving on SteerCom [CSA’s Steering Committee], that I felt that I was in a position to really bring forward the idea.”

During Vanessa’s junior and senior years, it became evident that the CSA’s community-building efforts needed to focus on greater inclusion of Spanish/English bilingual students, especially those who grew up attending Spanish Mass. During a town hall-style meeting at the CSA summer retreat in late August 2015, non-leadership members of the CSA brought up the need for a Spanish Mass at St. Paul Parish. “That other CSA members, too, were expressing the need for the Spanish Mass allowed me to further realize how very much the Spanish Mass was needed and how much this need was recognized,” Vanessa says.

“Early last semester [Fall 2015], AnnMarie [AnnMarie Healy ’16, Vanessa’s then Co-President of CSA] and I met and blocked out one day each month of the semester for a Spanish Mass.” Father Mark Murphy, the undergraduate chaplain at St. Paul Parish, was excited by the idea of having a Spanish Mass and worked diligently to find a Spanish-speaking priest to celebrate the Mass. Unfortunately, due to unavoidable scheduling conflicts, the Spanish Mass scheduled for October 24, 2015 had to be cancelled.  Eventually, a priest was found, and the scheduling worked out; the first Spanish Mass at St. Paul Parish took place on November 14, 2015.

Twenty-seven students attended the Mass, including  students like Alondra, who had grown up attending Spanish Mass, as well as some students who had never attended Spanish Mass. “I saw how excited the students were for the Mass even before it took place. In planning for the Mass, I emailed several students to ask if they would lector, altar serve, and/or be involved in other ministries during the Mass, and I got at least four eager responses right away,” Vanessa recounts. Alondra remembers, “I lectored at the Spanish Mass. It was comforting to see so many familiar faces, members of Harvard’s Latino community, each time that I looked up from the book as I was reading”. While Alondra says that she did not feel exactly like she was “back home” because, “there weren’t as many people as I was used to seeing at a Spanish Mass,” she does recall seeing two students who do not usually attend Mass at St. Paul Parish. “They came right from an all-day conference and were super tired, but they really loved the Spanish Mass,” Alondra says. Vanessa remembers one of these students, who had grown up attending Spanish Mass, coming up to her after the Mass, nearly in tears, to say how she finally felt connected to St. Paul Parish and the CSA.

When asked how important it would be for CSA to arrange another Spanish Mass, Alondra responds, “So long as there is a demand, and given that it’s a community for the students, that demand should be met. Unless everybody’s comfortable and enjoys going to St. Paul’s English Mass, then it is the CSA’s responsibility to meet people’s needs. The CSA should want to reach out to the most people, and having a regular Spanish Mass is a way to do that.” According to Vanessa, the future for Spanish Masses at St. Paul Parish looks bright. She believes that Justin Sanchez ’17, the current president of the CSA, and the other members of CSA leadership “have their fingers on the pulse of the community.” They understand that including Spanish/English speaking bilingual students continues to be a need and focus of the Catholic community at Harvard. Justin comments, “The CSA definitely intends to continue with Spanish Mass in the future, in order to fulfill the need that continues to be expressed by this essential part of our community. We received a good amount of enthusiasm for the last [Spanish Mass], and it’s right in line with our two-pronged mission of bringing people closer to Christ and His Church and making sure people feel welcome in our community. Unfortunately, planning a Spanish Mass turns out to be much more of a logistical nightmare than one might expect, but we’re pushing to set a precedent of doing at least one Spanish Mass per semester going forward, in addition to other community events like Spanish Rosaries and Spanish Bible Studies.”

In fact, these other community events have already begun. Vanessa leads a Spanglish Bible Study that Alondra attends. “We meet on Mondays. Vanessa brings Takis [a Mexican snack food] and chocolates. We read the Bible in English but then discuss in Spanglish. The girls in the Bible Study relate to the same language and culture. I don’t have to explain myself additionally.” The CSA also prays a Spanish Rosary on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe each year. Alondra adds, “Whenever I have something to pray about, I go to Vanessa. We pray the Rosary in Spanish.”

While the CSA continues to work to make Spanish Mass and other Spanish community events a more regular occurrence at St. Paul Parish, I asked Vanessa if she could offer any advice to students who may currently not feel as comfortable attending Mass at St. Paul Parish due to linguistic and cultural differences. Vanessa emphasizes, “The end goal of the CSA is not merely to accommodate students who grew up attending Spanish Mass by having regular Spanish Masses at St. Paul Parish. Rather, what is more important to the CSA is to more fully integrate these students into every aspect of the Catholic community on Harvard’s campus by making the community as open and as welcoming as possible. By getting to know the community, these students may be able to feel a deeper connection to Mass at St. Paul Parish, regardless of the language and culture of the Mass. The CSA’s efforts will not end until these students feel that they can take part in all aspects of the community.”

Alondra can attest to Vanessa’s line of thinking. Before starting college, she was a little worried about attending English Mass. “My older brother warned me that Mass would be different, less comforting,” Alondra tells me. However, it was through getting to know the community that Alondra became more comfortable despite the lack of the Spanish Mass. “I definitely got closer to the people in CSA because of Vanessa. I met Vanessa at Visitas. She was so friendly, and we immediately started speaking Spanish. This made me feel so welcomed. It was through Vanessa that I got to know other people in the CSA community.”

Perhaps the most comforting piece of advice that Vanessa offers is for students to recognize that the Eucharist is present, central, and available to every baptized Catholic in a state of grace at every Mass, no matter what language the Mass is being celebrated in or what cultural traditions are being observed at the Mass. The Eucharist, which is “the source and the summit of the Christian life,” has no bounds, least of all culture and language[2]. Alondra sums it up well when she says, “I think faith goes beyond any linguistic or cultural barriers. I definitely grew up really strong in my faith, so I don’t think I ever really felt discouraged from going to English Mass. Just being in the House of God, I feel comfort.”[3]


[1] Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). “Frequently Requested Church Statistics.” Georgetown.edu. CARA, 2015. Web. 20 March 2016.

[2] Second Vatican Council. Lumen Gentium quoted in Catechism of the Catholic Church. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, n.d. Web. 20 March 2016.

[3] I owe much thanks to Vanessa Martinez ’16, Justin Sanchez ’17, and Alondra Ramirez ’18. Without their time and thoughtful comments, this article would not have been possible.

Marina Spinelli ’18 is a Human Evolutionary Biology concentrator in Eliot House.