By Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

St. Luke’s strives to make Mass an experience beyond words.

Like many parishes with diverse populations, St. Luke’s offers liturgies in several languages: Spanish, Tagalog and English. But the Virginia Beach parish takes an extra step: celebrating in two, and, occasionally, three languages, all in a single Mass.

“We want to make sure the Mass is for everybody. And on feast days, especially, we want to be sure we bring everybody together,” said Deacon Lito Magsombol.

In 2013, a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops subcommittee revised guidelines for multilingual Masses, emphasizing the “goal of Masses which blend multiple languages and other cultural expressions is to unite people around the word and the Eucharistic Table.”

Or, in plain English: the family that prays together stays together.

How does a bilingual Mass work?

Often, different segments of the Mass alternate from one language to another: in a Spanish-English Mass, the Welcome may be in English and the Gloria in Spanish. The first and second readings might alternate, with the Gospel read in both languages. Music from both cultures helps pull all the elements into a seamless whole.

Special worship programs offer side-by-side translations. Some parents who speak English as a second language bring their English-speaking children to such Masses, hoping they will come to learn and appreciate their parents’ mother tongue.

Parishioners to St. Luke’s who are just learning Spanish will find themselves in good company. There’s one more ingredient to the linguistic pie.

Deacon Magsombol explained, “People will ask me, ‘The Monsignor there—his name is Raphael— is he Spanish?’  and I will say, ‘No.’  Then they ask, ‘Is he Filipino?’ and I’ll say, ‘No. He’s from Ghana.’”

Monsignor Raphael Peprah arrived at St. Luke’s last September, after only two weeks in the Diocese of Richmond. He came on a Saturday and learned he would be giving his first Mass in Spanish on Sunday. He expected just a few people. A crowd of 250 to 300 attended.

“When we first met him,” recounted Rose Marie Rivera, administrative assistant for the parish, “we asked him, ‘Do you speak Spanish?’”

“No,” Monsignor Peprah, laughed, remembering his arrival.

“It’s been a crash course for the Monsignor,” said Patty Trail, parish pastoral care coordinator.  “But he’s been doing very well.”

Quiet and easygoing, Monsignor Peprah has taken it all in stride. “Out in the commons, you will hear people speaking one language, and then they may move to another group that is speaking another language; it’s all very smooth,” he said.

“And in this environment, it’s much easier to pick up new words.”

From its founding as a mission parish in 1986, St. Luke’s has endeavored to bring people of different backgrounds together. Father Gerald Pryzwara, St. Luke’s first priest, hoped the church would embrace a people-oriented outlook, according to Mrs. Trail.

That outlook includes responding to the changing linguistic needs of its parishioners. The parish celebrated its first Mass in Spanish in 1998 and its first trilingual Mass at Midnight Mass, Christmas 2002.

The church holds bilingual Stations of the Cross and recognizes parishioners’ cultural heritage with processions and feast day celebrations throughout the year.

Most services at St. Luke’s end in a language everybody understands.

“Most of our liturgies end in food,” said Monsignor Peprah.

Even weekday Masses generate a smorgasbord: bright trays of sliced fruit, brownies, bread, salads, and pancit, a Filipino noodle dish—more than enough for all with plenty to spare. There are no formal sign-ups. Everybody simply brings something. Parishioner Lisa Burke attended St. Luke’s for about a year and a half. “We absolutely love it here,” she said. Gesturing to the cozy commons area, where people milled about chatting and enjoying breakfast on a rainy Wednesday morning, she added, “Where else are you going to find a community like this?”

This sense of unity has led to an incredible “phenomenon of volunteerism” at the church, said Monsignor Peprah.

For everyday tasks such as mowing the grass and making simple repairs parishioners of different backgrounds work together to keep maintenance expenses down, Deacon Magsombol said.

“It’s like a family,” he said.

“When you can greet someone in their own language, it makes such a difference,” Monsignor Peprah said.

For those in search of a sense of community, sharing—whether language, tradition, or a simple cup of coffee—can make all the difference in the world.