Congo Catholics welcome Mass in native tongue

By Amanda Lauer | For The Compass | April 5, 2022

Appleton parish responds to parishioners’ request for Mass celebrated in Swahili

Fr. John Katamba, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Appleton, talks to sisters Josephine, left, and Gift Batumike following the Mass he celebrated in Swahili on Sunday, April 3. The Mass in Swahili has been celebrated every other Sunday since March 20. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

APPLETON — There’s nothing like celebrating the Mass in your own native 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 the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Fr. John Katamba, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, a native of 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. 

He said 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.

“But then I was just an associate pastor,” noted Fr. Katamba.

Fr. John Katamba, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Appleton, talks to sisters Josephine, left, and Gift Batumike following the Mass he celebrated in Swahili on Sunday, April 3, 2022. The Mass in Swahili has been celebrated every other Sunday at the church since March 20. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

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,” Fr. Katamba said. “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 native 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 met at St. Mary’s. We wanted to talk to Fr. 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 Fr. Katamba.

Altar server and cross bearer Michael Kalamba leads the opening procession into Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Appleton at the beginning of Mass April 3. Fr. John Katamba, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, began celebrating Mass in Swahili in March for the African community of Appleton. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“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, another native of 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 native 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 long-time Sacred Heart parishioners. “It went really good and we’re looking forward to keep (it) going,” said Kalamba.

“I didn’t want to do it every Sunday at the beginning,” said Fr. Katamba. “I wanted to start at first with two Masses in a month and see how it goes.” 

While he likes the concept, Fr. Katamba said he doesn’t want the native 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. 

Fr. John Katamba, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Appleton, with the assistance of altar server Justin Zirimwabagabo, reads a prayer in Swahili during Mass April 3. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

With the use of the Swahili lectionary, Fr. Katamba not only celebrated the Mass in Swahili, but put his limited language skills to the test by preaching in Swahili. “I know some Swahili and they said they’re comfortable if I mix Swahili and English,” he said. “But, I preached mainly in Swahili.”

The African natives moved to the United States for various reasons, they said. It’s a growing population 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, growing the region’s Congolese refugee community to more than 400), and they welcome interaction with their American parishioners.

“We are inviting everyone,” said Kalamba. “Everyone is welcome to participate in our Swahili Mass.”

Fr. Katamba 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. We are trying to make up the prayer card for the Mass where you have the essential parts of the Mass translated, one part is Swahili, the other part is English. Whether you understand the language or not, the flow of the Mass is the same.”

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