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Foreign-language services connect generations, cultures

| Friday, Dec. 17, 2010

The prayer rings with clarity through a historic North Side Pittsburgh house of worship:

" Dominus vobiscum ('The Lord be with you')," the priest at St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church petitions in Latin. The congregation's response -- " Et cum spiritu tuo ('And with your spirit')" -- follows immediately.

On Grant Street, Downtown, a minister prepares to deliver a homily in German, as a German brass band and choir honors First Lutheran Church's own foundation in Europe.

"It is a reminder that the church transcends national boundaries and languages," says the Rev. David Gleason, senior pastor. The church conducts services in German four times a year, including a Christmas celebration at 4 p.m. Sunday.

In New Kensington, the celebrant of the Polish liturgy at St. Mary of Czestochowa lifts his head, proclaiming joyfully, " Hosanna na wysokosci ('Hosanna in the highest')."

"Participating in a Polish service enables people to connect their faith with the faith of their parents and grandparents," says George Pecoraro, St. Mary organist and director of liturgy. "Prayer has no particular language."

In the North Hills, members of the Pittsburgh Chinese Church gather for services in English and Mandarin/Cantonese.

The spiritually curious can broaden their experience by attending foreign-language services offered weekly, monthly or seasonally by denominations throughout Western Pennsylvania, especially in congregations strongly rooted in ethnic cultures.

The Rev. Matt Ruyechan, a Rankin native, says he is honored to make the trip from his Oil City parish to St. Nicholas Church in Millvale the second Sunday of every month to celebrate noon Mass in Croatian.

"Croatians have suffered their share of persecution and prejudice. The church and the faith have always been a refuge and a strength for them," says Ruyechan, whose grandparents came from Croatia to the United States before World War I.

"It's nice to give them a place to feel at home and comfortable," says the Rev. Dan Whalen, St. Nicholas administrator.

Ruyechan believes it is not necessary to be Croatian or even understand the language to still find value in attending the Croatian Mass.

"Listening to the songs, and experiencing the vitality -- the way the people respond and sing -- you can't help but be touched by the faith expressed," he says. "It's beautiful, just sitting there and listening."

Ritual speaks much louder than words, says the Rev. Daniele Vallecorsa, pastor of St. Regis Roman Catholic, a multicultural church in Oakland. An adjunct professor of Spanish and Italian at Duquesne University, Vallecorsa is chaplain and coordinator of the Latino Catholic Community of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, often celebrating the Spanish-speaking Mass at noon Sundays.

"Most of the time, people like to pray in their own language," he says.

"That helps you to use your heart as well as your voice," says Sister Faith Hepp, administrative assistant of St. Regis.

Vallecorsa believes that non-Spanish speaking people can appreciate the Spanish services.

"It broadens our horizons and minds," he says, "and lets us see people fundamentally are all the same, with the same joys and sorrows and yearnings; and at the same time we are all somewhat different."

Prior to the changes of Vatican II in the 1960s, Latin was the universal expression of worship in the Roman Catholic Church. The 1,000 members of the Pittsburgh Latin Mass Community, said to be the largest in the United States, want to preserve the 1,500-year history of the traditional Latin Mass. It is offered every Sunday at St. Boniface.

"Although the charge often is made that it is nothing but nostalgia, most of the people who come are too young to have any memory of it," says the Rev. Kenneth Myers, chaplain to the community.

Young people who are serious about their faith are trying to discover their religious heritage, and are seeking a more profound worship experience, he says. Parents who want to give their children that experience also are attending.

"People who have been away from the church for many years are rediscovering their faith in the Latin Mass and become very devout as adults," Myers says.

Latin is a vehicle, a language "that takes us away from the everyday and into the sacred to address God," he says. "It expresses the very depth of the human heart in the sight of God. Prayer has to begin in one's heart and mind before it comes to the lips."

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