Traditional Shona Mass connects Zimbabwean Catholics to their homeland

On a wintry Sunday morning in an Edmonton church, Eve Masenda ties a blue Zambia — an African fabric — around her daughter’s waist before Mass begins.

“It’s more fun in Shona,” said Eve Masenda as she remembers the way Mass is celebrated in her homeland.

Eight-year-old Emily is also excited for this particular Mass, the Zimbabwean Mass, as she watches her father, her “Baba”, enter a small room on the side of the sanctuary.

“Baba’s going for Confession,” she tells her mother, who is feeling relieved after an earlier Confession with the Shona priest. It was Masenda’s first Confession in her mother tongue in 20 years. It takes getting used to, she said.

“I’m so used to doing it in English,” said Masenda.

Zimbabwean Catholics in Edmonton meet monthly for a Mass in English, with the songs sung in Shona. On Dec. 9, Rev. Clyde Muropa, a priest from Zimbabwe, celebrated Mass entirely in Shona – a national language of the landlocked, southern African country – at Annunciation parish in west Edmonton. It was a first for the Zimbabwean diaspora in Edmonton.

Rev. Clyde Muropa

Father Muropa was invited by the pastor of Annunciation parish, Rev. Francis Mariappa, to celebrate the 9 a.m. Mass in English on the same day he did the Shona Mass. It’s an effort to show that the Shona Mass is not separate from the Church in Canada but a part of it.

About 60 people attended the Shona Mass — a remarkable number considering just three years ago, there were only three families at the first gathering of Zimbabwean Catholics in Edmonton.

“They want to hear the Word in their language. It’s not that the Word is different, it’s just that they are looking for someone who relates to their way of life, that can speak to their cultural way of life and at the same time, grow their faith,” said Paul Murota, chairman of the Zimbabwe Catholic Society of Edmonton.

“The fact that we still seek God and we still have faith and we still believe in Catholicism and we believe in Christ, means it’s working.”

While as many as one in five Zimbabweans identify as Roman Catholic in their home country, not all of them continue to attend Mass when they move to Canada, Murota said.

The Zimbabwe Catholic Society of Edmonton hopes to change that.

“The main reason was around trying to evangelize to the Zimbabwean community, so they would come closer to the Catholic Church,” said Murota, noting the Zimbabwean Mass is unique in language and in style, and it brings many Catholics into a deeper spiritual experience.

“The music, the way we do offertory, the prayers that we sing instead of saying them, and just the language. We want to bring the culture into our faith because they’re one in the same: Our culture is not just the language, it’s how we behave, how we genuflect, give, all that is part of faith, and for that faith to grow, it grows in the church, in the Gospel.”

As they arrive for the Mass, people greet each other traditionally, saying “Kanjani,” and “Mamukasei?” (How did you wake up?). The singing begins, accompanied by musicians playing traditional instruments – a red ngoma (drum), and hosho (rattle) – keeping the beat of each hymn.

Children play with a traditional red ngoma drum after Mass.Thandiwe Konguavi, Grandin Media

Grandmothers lead the entrance procession, followed by little girls wearing blue, white and black Zambias walking alongside the boy altar servers, their hands clasped together in prayer. The men follow, flanking the Shona priest.

In Shona, with little snippets of English, Muropa’s homily encouraged everyone to live a genuine, Christian life to draw others to Christ.

“If you ask me, what’s the syllabus, or how do you go about it, I say, talk to God,” said Father Muropa. “Your message, what you say with your actions, will attract people to you and ultimately to God.”

Paul Murota

The homily resonated with Paul Murota of the Zimbabwe Catholic Society.

“When you hear it in your own language the homily becomes personal. It relates to how you live in diaspora, go to church in diaspora. Faith and peace, how to bring them in your own family.”

Balancing their own Zimbabwean traditions in multicultural Canada is one of the common challenges that the families face as first and second-generation immigrants.

Murota’s own children – Chipo, Tanatswanashe, Tinashe and Tovimbanashe – can understand Shona, but speaking the language is difficult. Besides the common words they know, Murota said they enjoy the Shona songs and hymns.

“They see the jovial, vibrant nature of the Shona (people),” he said.

Father Muropa, who has also celebrated Mass in Shona for the Zimbabewan community in Toronto and Hamilton, Ont., said: “It’s mostly for the kids, to connect them to the vernacular language in the celebration of the liturgy, so that even though they’re here, they can feel connected to the homeland.”

Maroro Zinyemba goes even further than that.

“Language shapes thought and meaning, so celebrating Mass in Shona enhanced the meaning of Mass,” said Zinyemba, secretary of the Zimbabwe Catholic Society.

At Mass, Zinyemba wore a white dress as a reminder to live a holy life, a white headdress as a sign of humility and a blue cape, representing her role in defending and protecting the Church from attack.

The ensemble is the traditional dress for the Chita cha Maria Hosi ye Denga (Mary Queen of Heaven guild), a religious order of missionaries. Maroro was one of the many Zimbabwean Catholics in religious dress, a reflection of their devotion to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph — a devotion which they brought from back home.

“Celebrating Mass in Shona was an experience that brought back fond memories of growing up in the Catholic Church in ‘Zim’,” said Zinyemba.

Rev. Clyde Muropa, third from left, meets with Zimbabwean Catholics after Mass.Thandiwe Konguavi, Grandin Media

The Zimbabwe Catholic Society plans to bring Father Muropa back to Edmonton in March for a retreat, and again every three months for as long as he is in Canada.

Muropa, 44, is pursuing his doctorate in canon law at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.

Originally from Mudzi, a district located in the far eastern part of Zimbabwe, Muropa joined the Jesuits at age 27 to fulfill his dream of being a priest. He was ordained in 2012.

“I fell in love with the Church and I fell in love with service and being God’s instrument to others.”

There are 180 Jesuit priests in Zimbabwe, a country which continues to struggle economically even after the 30-year rule of President Robert Mugabe ended in 2017. The Church in Zimbabwe also faces financial challenges.

While in Edmonton, Father Muropa counselled individuals one on one, made home visits, and encouraged Zimbabwean expatriates not to lose hope and to continue supporting their family members back home in the faith, as well socially and economically.

“As always, our country is in our prayers,” Maroro Zinyemba said. “Like many Zimbabweans, we are concerned about the overall well-being of our families, friends, and the country itself.”