My First Experience of the African Mass

Anyone that reads my blog posts is aware that I have found a new love for the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church and recently wrote a post about breathing with both lungs of the Church. Within this motif, I have found myself interested in experiencing how other cultures pray and worship Jesus Christ in the tradition of Catholicism. After all, Catholicism has been THE Universal Church from Acts 2.

This past Sunday, I was blessed to attend St. James Roman Catholic Church in Glendale, Arizona. They celebrate an African Mass on the last Sunday of every month. My uncle and aunt attend St. James and have invited me to attend this Mass for some time. The parish is within the boundaries of the Diocese of Phoenix, but is run by the Apostles of Jesus, an African order founded in Uganda and now headquartered in Kenya.

Knowing that I wanted to witness the preliminaries before Mass begun, I arrived about ten minutes early. My aunt was waiting for me in the back of the church, which is actually a multi-purpose building. Along with my uncle, we took our seats, I said my Before Mass Prayers, and waited with great anticipation for Mass to start. The 10 to 12 person choir was playing music as people entered. Most of the choir was dressed in African attire and some wore headdresses as well. The music for the liturgy would be sung in Swahili. I knew this was going to very different!

Procession for the Ugandan Martyrs Mass in Namugongo.

Procession for the Ugandan Martyrs Mass in Namugongo.

As Holy Mass started, the procession entered from the back and my uncle said, “Here they come!” Eight girls ranging from their teenage years to maybe 10 years old processed in wearing African attire and dancing to the very festive, yet reverent music being played by the choir. Behind the girls were two young teenage boys also wearing similar attire, but they were carrying spears and shields. Behind them were the three altar servers, lectors, extraordinary ministers of hospitality, and then the Deacon and Priest. I had a grin from ear to ear!

The only time I had seen this before was in the Catholicism Series by Fr. Robert Barron when he visited the site of St. Charles Lwanga and Ugandan Martyrs (see the video below and the video at the end).

After the priest said the opening prayer, the same group that just processed in came in again dancing to a different song. This was the Bible Procession. A man danced and carried the Book of the Gospels in a wicker basket on his head. In the African Mass, the Word of God is so important that it has its own procession. The whole congregation was focused on the Gospels. During the Kyrie Eleison, the first part was chanted in Greek, the second part was chanted in English, and the third part was chanted in Swahili.

Mass flowed as usual in the Roman Rite: First Reading, Responsorial Psalm, Second Reading, and then the Gospel, all being read in English, except the Psalm, which was sung in Swahili. For the Alleluia or the “Nilakweli”, the individuals that processed in were dancing in their places as the Deacon carried the Book of the Gospels from the altar to the ambo. The Pastor, Fr. Robert, gave the homily. It was Stewardship Sunday at the parish so he focused his homily on the narrow gate and stewardship. As with the Liturgy of the Word, the Nicene Creed and Universal Prayer (Intentions) were said in English.

As we sat for the Offertory, the dancers processed in again as the Bread and Wine was offered to the Deacon and Priest. It was yet another festive, but reverent song with the words, “We bring to you, we bring to you, Oh Lord receive…Our offertory Father…Bread and Wine…Our Life…All our relatives…And all our countries…Oh Lord receive them.” From that point onward, the Holy Mass was celebrated as it is in the Roman Rite.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist was very reverent and the music that accompanied (Holy, Holy, Holy; Memorial Acclamation; Great Amen; Lamb of God; and the two Communion Songs) was just as prayerful, sacred, and all sung in Swahili. You can see that the priests have a real love and devotion for the Holy Eucharist. The parish of St. James is blessed to have this order serving them.

The same group they processed previously led the procession down the aisle and out towards the vestibule as Mass concluded. After saying my After Mass Prayers, my uncle and aunt introduced me to Fr. Robert. He and I had heard many things about each other and it was finally good to meet him in person. After sharing with him how much I enjoyed Holy Mass, we left for lunch.

The one thing I can tell you about this particular Mass is that it was very reverent. Even though the music had a more festive rhythm to it, it was sung and played in a sacred way. The focus was never on the choir; the focus was always on the sanctuary.

It was a great experience and one that I hope to repeat in the near future. I would encourage you to attend an African Mass if one is in your area. As Catholics, it is our duty to learn from the other cultures that compose the Church. I believe it’s a vital component for the New Evangelization in the 21st century.

250th Blog Post 

12 replies »

  1. As an Eastern Rite Catholic myself, love the post Tom! However, a quick question. I thought that like in most of western Africa, the Church celebrates the Roman Rite in Uganda? So, the mass you went to would be in the Roman Rite, just in Swahili. Or, sounds like a mixture of Swahili and English.This is different from say a Byzantine, Melkite, Maronite or like in my case, Ge’ez Rite mass. These are one of the Eastern Rites in the Catholic Church and regardless of what language they are celebrated in, they are not the Roman Rite. Not positive, just a question. Thanks!

    • Sefanit – Thank you! The Mass I attended was a Roman Rite Mass. It was a mixture of English and Swahili. All of the music that accompanied the Liturgy was in Swahili.

      I there is a difference between the Eastern Rites and the Roman Rite. I am aware that the Eastern Rites, like the ones you mentioned, are not the Roman Rite. I started the blog post with breathing with two lungs because I wanted to show my interest in the different rites and the cultures of the Catholic Church. Hope that answers your question.

  2. Thank you for your post. Fr. Robert asked me to help lead the African Choir here at St James last Easter. We hold it on the last Sunday of the month at the 11 am Mass. It is an honor to integrate the traditions of the African songs into our parish Mass celebration. We write the music to the Psalm responses.

    Mike Giacalone
    St James Assistant Music Director
    African Choir Accompanist and Group leader

  3. How fascinating. I bet the only time dance was actually meaningful at a Mass!

    One of the things I have often wondered-and it’s a tad off topic- is why Pope Benedict wanted us to use more Latin because a lot of the Church is not Latin based. I understand the necessity of having a common language and maybe his desire does not apply to various cultures or rites, I’m not sure but your post made me think of that question again.

    At any rate, I bet it was fascinating. Thanks for sharing a bit of the experience with us and I am so glad that they are doing this in the community. What a blessing for the rest of us European types!

  4. Tom,
    Your posting is most informative. I have already penciled in myself to travel from Las Vegas, Nevada to attend the African Mass at St. James in October.

    Like you, I am a fan of all the rites of the Catholic Church especially the Eastern Rites.

    I am retired and split my time between Las Vegas, Nevada and La Verne, California. (Archdiocese of Los Angeles) Most of the Rites are in Southern California. A one of a kind of parish is in Las Vegas. Our Lady of Wisdom Italo-Greek (Byzantine), Eparch of Phoenix. The pastor is Bi-ritual from the Byzantine to the Roman. He is also the Rector of the Roman Rite Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer in Las Vegas. Father also serves as Judicial Vicar for the Roman Diocese of Las Vegas and the Eparch of Phoenix. It is different to see the same priest say the Liturgy in two different rites.

    In California, I have been fortunate to also attend Melkite, Romanian, Ruthenian, St. Andrew Russian, El Segundo, California (one of only four in the USA) and Ukrainian Byzantine Liturgies. Each has it’s own personality.

    I am in awe of the Armenian High Mass. The Coptic Rite at St, Mary (one of three in the USA) The bread used for Holy Communion is a round loaf, similar in looks to Sour Dough baguette. It is pulled apart before consecration. Chaldean Mass is amazing. I am a registered member of St, Jude Maronite Parish in West Covina, California. I find it to be the closest in presentation to Roman Ordinary Form. It is much longer, around an hour or so, The Syrian Liturgy has traces of Chaldean, Maronite and Knanaya/Malabar Liturgies. For the Eastern rites I am missing the Ethiopian and Malankara.

    As for the West/Latin Church the Traditional Latin Mass is my true love of Liturgy. It is hard to find. A few months ago Las Vegas went from one TLM a month to every Saturday at 7:00pm. In Southern California there is only one full time TLM parish, St, Anne In San Diego. There are six or seven parishes that have an every Sunday TLM. (within reasonable driving distance of my La Verne Home)

    The Anglican Use Mass is very impressive, I really appreciate the reverence of the congregation.If one didn’t know better they would think the were at an English speaking TLM. I find that it is a mixture of the TLM and the Novus Ordo with some Byzantine thrown in.

    The Dominican Rite has its own mystique. I grew up in a Capuchin Parish 1944 to 1956 there were a couple of differences from the Roman Mass. They had a special mass that had the rubrics similar to a High Mass without any singing. I required four lit candles. I really miss it.

    The Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite is very different when said ad orientem whether in English or Latin and the priest is wearing Roman vestments is very good.

    Don’t know where you live, wherever it is I hope that you have access to all of the forms of the Liturgy. I hope to run into you at any form of the Liturgy.

    I hope that your Liturgical experience is greater than mine,

    John Rondina

    • Thanks John for your comment. You have experienced many rites of the Catholic Church. The only one I have a question about is the “Dominican Rite.” Is that Latin or Eastern? I have never heard of that rite before. Is it the Latin Rite but said by Dominicans? Capuchin’s are Franciscans, not Dominicans. Thanks again!

      I would encourage you to read my blog post on Breathing with Two Lungs for the Assumption of Mary –

      • Tom, It is a religious Order rite of the Latin Church and separate from the Roman one. In lieu of the TLM it was often said at Mission San Buenaventura, Ventura, California, until the new Pastor kicked the TLM out of the Mission. The old Carmelite Rite (1962) is the only other Religious Order Rite that is said on a regular basis in the USA. The Carmelite Monks of Wyoming (Mystic Monk Coffee) use it exclusively. I am going to have to make a trip to Wyoming.

  5. I have a friend that is from the Congo and Kenya that speaks Swahili the father is dying.He has been giving 2 days to live this past Sunday the father asked to go to church but the hospice will not allow him to leave. I’m contacting your organization to see if possible someone to come out and pray with the family or call on conference call so the father can hear words of of the annoytie.pls contact me at 702 460 2599. thanks

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