SOURCE: Legion of Christ

April 28, 2008 15:05 ET

Priests Learning a Language and People: Hispanic Immersion Course Helps Priests Minister to Their Spanish-Speaking Flocks

THORNWOOD, NY--(Marketwire - April 28, 2008) - The Catholic Church is presented with a challenge and a tremendous opportunity in the rise of Hispanic Catholics in this country. But if this opportunity is not seized in the moment, it could result in a serious loss of fervor, fire, and enthusiasm for the Church in America.

To date, a whopping 39% of all U.S. Catholics are Hispanic, while only 6.3% of U.S. priests are Hispanic. About 20% of all Catholic parishes in this country have a majority Hispanic presence, including a fair number of recent immigrants who speak only Spanish and some broken English. For many Catholic priests, this is a significant pastoral challenge.

How does a pastor hear minister effectively to parishioners who speak another language and come from another culture? Charity is a universal language, but words are also necessary, especially when it comes to the sacraments, family counseling, education, and spiritual guidance of all kinds.

The dangers of not meeting this challenge are already written in the statistics. About 20% of Hispanic Catholics arriving to this country end up converting from Catholicism to various branches of evangelical Protestantism, sects, or no religion at all. Of the total population of Hispanic evangelical Protestants, half are ex-Catholics.

Aware of the challenge -- and the great promise -- of a booming Hispanic population, many bishops are requiring their seminarians to learn Spanish and asking their priests to become bilingual.

And the Church's shepherds are taking up the challenge. While seminarians are conjugating their verbs, many priests are signing up for online Spanish classes or CD programs to get up to speed. Most promising of all, a growing number of priests are participating in immersion programs that allow them to learn both the language and the culture of "Hispanidad" on site in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Intensive Immersion

One of these immersion programs is the Curso de Hispanidad, a five-week intensive course from July 1st to August 1st for American and Canadian priests and seminarians. The program, sponsored by Sacerdos Institute in conjunction with the Department of Humanities and the Center for Language Studies of Mexico City's Anáhuac University, takes them to Mexico City where they take intensive classes in Spanish language and Hispanic culture at the Interamerican Cultural Center while also enjoying priestly fraternity with other participants in the course.

The program is adapted to varying language abilities, with a beginner's and an intermediate track, both of which use a range of teaching styles: lectures, tutorial, conversation periods, readings, listening tapes, seminars, and media. Both language levels emphasize preparation for priestly ministry, with special clinics on celebrating the sacraments and preparing homilies in Spanish. In addition, there are classes on Latin American culture and on the particular aspects of ministering to Hispanics in North America.

Integral Learning

But classroom learning is only half of the picture. The other half of this integral program is the "learning by osmosis" that takes place through exposure to the Mexican people with their fervor and celebratory spirit. On the weekends, participants go out into the community alongside a Mexican priest in guided pastoral ministry, adapted to their ability level. And of course, there are the outing days for visiting interesting cultural sites and practicing their Spanish en vivo. One of these outing days includes the opportunity to concelebrate Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an experience that stays with the participants for a long time.

"The information on Hispanic culture and religious experience were particularly useful. As I celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe this year I recognize that without my participation in the Curso de Hispanidad I would be at the periphery of this observance rather than at its heart, which is where I want to be," said Bishop Allen H. Vigneron of the Oakland diocese.

His experience was echoed by Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell of the Springfield diocese in Massachusetts. "I have to say that my appreciation for the Latino culture has been very much enhanced," he said.

Seminarian Vincent Anyama agreed. "The in-depth exposure to the values and richness of Mexican culture was a very valuable tool for my future ministry to Mexican Hispanic immigrants in the local Church of Dallas," he said.

All for Priests... and Priests for All

Legionary of Christ Father Alex Yeung, who organizes the program, emphasized that this is a program that brings priests together and offers them a chance to build a sense of fraternity while learning and growing together.

"The participants live, study, and pray alongside each other," he said. "We teach an integral approach to ministry to Latinos, coupling practical solutions with communication skills. A love for Hispanic peoples is a great fruit of the program. Besides the accredited small-group tutoring to allow learning at one's own pace, there are numerous pastoral experiences giving participants exposure to the day-to-day life of Latinos in various sectors of society."

For priests, ministering to an increasing Hispanic population can be a challenge, given the language logistics and the differences in culture. But, as past participants in the Curso de Hispanidad program -- and others like it -- have observed, the time investment in learning the language and culture is worth it.

For more specific information about the Curso de Hispanidad, click here.

Contact Information

  • Contact:
    Jim Fair
    Director of Communications
    Legion of Christ
    Phone: 630-858-6398
    CELL: 312-953-9864
    Email Contact


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