Where Bishops Learn Spanish

NEW ORLEANS — An Irishman who speaks only English and a bit of French was given a parish in which more than one-third of parishioners speak only Spanish. It was no laughing matter.

“Initially, this resulted in a lot of Pepto-Bismol,” said Father Joseph Benson, founding pastor of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Parish. “There came a point when I actually had to minister to people — to hear their confessions and catechize — not just smile and try to be nice.”

So last summer Father Benson packed his bags, crossed the border and spent five weeks enrolled in Curso de Hispanidad — a course offered by the Legionaries of Christ to immerse priests and bishops in Spanish language and culture.

Initiated by Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, the course prepares priests and bishops to meet the needs of Hispanics in North America. For four weeks, students gather at a conference center on the slopes of a volcano near Amecameca, southeast of Mexico City. They attend language classes twice a day, converse in Spanish, and celebrate Mass and recite morning and evening prayers in Spanish. They spend the fifth week in local parishes and communities, immersed in Mexican culture.

“This course was extremely helpful, and I had a wonderful time,” said Father Joseph Looney, pastor of St. Margaret Parish in Waterbury, Conn., who took the course in 2003. “There’s a lot of emphasis on language, but there’s just as much emphasis on culture, mostly religious culture.”

Participants have included Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee and Bishops Allen Vigneron of Oakland, Calif., Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, and Earl Boyea, auxiliary of Detroit. The 2005ʼs course is from July 19 to Aug. 19.

“I now understand some of the central cultural issues that run through the Hispanic community and define what’s important,” Father Benson said. “Issues regarding the 1920s revolution in Mexico, for example, have a great deal to do with Hispanic culture in the United States. I have a better appreciation for the fact that Hispanic Catholics have a significant devotion to Our Lady, under various names, including Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

Father Benson also learned to understand that most Hispanics desire to worship in a manner that’s far more emotional, celebratory and festive than what they find in the United States, where worship is more reserved.

“A more enthusiastic form of worship is something constructive we can gain from Hispanic immigrants,” Father Benson said, explaining a new energy that’s transforming his parish and infusing parishioners with enthusiasm for Christ.

The priests recalled the experience: Beginning the course in Mexico City, priests and bishops gathered at a hotel and the next morning were treated to a gourmet breakfast prepared by the renowned culinary faculty of Universidad Anáhuac del Sur. They attended a lecture on the tilma of San Juan Diego and toured a variety of historical and cultural sites in and around Mexico City. The high point of the first day was the concelebrated Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The students spent some four hours a day in class and had about four hours of personal work.

“We followed a very user-friendly book,” Father Looney said. “All of the materials were just fantastic. The classes were all very interactive, and the person who was leading us, a priest from Spain, was just extremely well qualified.”

The retreat center sits at 6,000 feet in the foothills of a 17,000-foot volcano — a place where it’s often sweatshirt weather even in the middle of summer. When homework was finished, Father Looney said, games of Scrabble often broke out near the roaring fireplace.

Can’t Hear Confessions

As for language skills, Father Benson estimates he graduated from Curso de Hispanidad speaking Spanish at about kindergarten level — at least two grades higher than when he began the course. That’s what most of the students expect, Bishop Blair explained in a letter to his flock in the Toledo diocesan newspaper.

“Our language goals are modest: to be able to read Spanish well enough to celebrate the sacraments, to carry on a simple conversation and to say a few words as needed,” Bishop Blair wrote.

Father Benson said the course gave him conversation skills that have formed a foundation upon which to improve, and it helped to foster valuable relationships with Spanish-speaking parishioners.

“Thanks be to God, I have a community that’s pushing me and is patient with me,” Father Benson said. “I notice that I’m responding in conversations much faster and with more confidence.”

Father Looney, in contrast, was already conversational in Spanish when he enrolled in the course. Spanish is the mother tongue of half of his parishioners.

“I found that my fellow students got to where they were quite proficient at understanding Spanish,” Father Looney said. “They also learned to speak, at different levels of proficiency, but they learned very quickly to understand the language.”

At Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, which serves a large number of Hispanics and deaf people, all Masses are translated in sign language, and Father Benson learned early on to say the routine elements of the Mass in Spanish. But he needs to use a translator for homilies and when counseling those preparing for first Communion and baptism. For confessions, he sometimes has to send people to another priest.

“My Spanish is improving as I converse, and I’ve promised to deliver my first Spanish homily very soon,” Father Benson said.

Father Benson’s translator, Marina Romero, says the Hispanic community has unlimited patience with the priest because parishioners are enthused to see him working to meet their needs.

“The mere fact that he’s trying so hard has made all the difference in the world,” Romero said. “This is the first priest who has shown any interest in our cultural and spiritual needs. Most Hispanic Catholics feel that the English-speaking priests don’t care about them at all.”

As a result, Romero said, Hispanic Catholics are easily lured away by Protestant clergy who see the immigrant population as fodder for new life in their churches. She said Protestant ministers view Hispanic Catholics as a population of strong families that promote traditional family values.

“Protestant leaders are learning Spanish, and they’re going door to door to welcome Hispanic Catholics into their communities,” Romero said. “I’ve watched hundreds of Hispanics leave the Catholic Church this way, and Father Benson has stopped some of the bleeding.”

Father Looney says effort is all it takes.

“Spanish-speaking people are not demanding that their priests speak perfectly,” Father Looney said. “What’s important to them is that you’re trying, making an effort to hear them.”

Legion of Christ Father Alex Yeung, organizer of Curso de Hispanidad, sees that the wave of immigrants stands to strengthen the Church in the United States if Catholic clergy and laity are able to effectively welcome them and make the most of their religious and family values.

“In Mexico, the Church is the community, and it’s a meeting of the family,”

Father Yeung said. “In the United States, we tend to have an attitude of ‘get in, get out’ on Sundays.”

Father Yeung, who resides at the Center for Higher Studies in Thornwood, N.Y., said Hispanics may be the best hope for a great revival of the Church in the United States. They bring “spiritual dynamism, intense faith and genuine love for the Pope, the Church, Mary and the priesthood,” he said.

“In Mexico, feast days for saints are celebrated with parties,” Father Yeung said. “The people’s deep faith can’t but help express itself in rosaries, processions, adorations and celebrations. They can’t imagine a Church that’s cold and rigid.”

Father Yeung hopes that, as priests and bishops immerse themselves in Spanish language and culture, Hispanics will respond with generosity and commitment and help build the one true Church in America.

Wayne Laugesen writes

from Boulder, Colorado.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.