Seminarians learning that priestly vocation is a bilingual one

Students spending summers between seminary terms mastering the Spanish language ahead of ordination

By Bill Brewer

Pase la sal y la pimienta por favor.

Chances are Robbie Bauman, Joseph Austin, Andrew Crabtree, and Neil Blatchford recognized the request and passed the salt and pepper.

Lunch at St. Meinrad Seminary is a learning experience for students from the Diocese of Knoxville.

While they’re studying the finer points of theology, Church history, canon law, or homiletics during their mornings and afternoons, one lunch hour each week is strictly reserved for Spanish.

That’s when a lunch table at the southern Indiana seminary is reserved for Spanish speakers, and the diocese’s future priests are ready to join the conversation.

“At seminary once a week there is a table set aside for those who want to speak Spanish, and those of us at St. Meinrad from the Diocese of Knoxville plan to spend our lunch break speaking Spanish,” said Robbie Bauman, who is in his second year of studies.

After spending much of last summer studying the Spanish language and culture in Miami at the Southeast Pastoral Institute, five diocesan seminarians are on their way to becoming fluent by the time they’re ordained.

Southeast Pastoral Institute, or SEPI, is the formative branch for the Southeast Regional Office for Hispanic Ministry for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which coordinates and supports Hispanic ministry in the 30 dioceses of the Southeast.

Bishop Richard F. Stika said Diocese of Knoxville seminarians must know Spanish by their ordination or soon after, an indication of the importance of the Hispanic faith community to the Catholic Church and the diocese.

“Some people have more of a proficiency in the ability to learn languages. So some of our seminarians are much more comfortable in having conversational Spanish while with others it’s just to read and comprehend somewhat,” Bishop Stika said. “It’s a requirement for all of our seminarians, unless they are from a Latin American country.”

The bishop noted that in some other U.S. dioceses with large numbers of parishioners who speak a specific language, those seminarians may be required to learn a different language. He specifically noted Miami, which has a sizeable Haitian population. Seminarians in the Archdiocese of Miami must now know Creole.

Bishop Stika said the Diocese of Knoxville now has two Vietnamese Catholic communities and he is hoping to have seminarians who can speak Vietnamese.

“Language is important to ministry because it allows you to communicate,” he said.

Mr. Bauman had never studied Spanish prior to his “mini immersion” in Miami June 16-July 26, although he did take German in high school and French in college. He is looking forward to round two next summer.

“It was a really fantastic experience. We had solid teachers. It was every day, except for Sunday. There were no classes on Sunday,” he said, noting that the instruction involved learning vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and conversation. “But next summer we will do a full immersion in a Spanish-speaking country for two months.”

Mr. Bauman acknowledges having a long way to go before considering Spanish as his second language, but he looks forward to getting there. He plans to incorporate Spanish into as many of his courses as possible.

“Knowing the end goal is to take the Gospel to those in our Hispanic community, the end of all those efforts and the humbling nature and patience required is worth it,” he said.

He believes being able to speak Spanish well is necessary now for priests ministering to the growing U.S. Hispanic community.

“To be a spiritual father with them and enter their culture, to rejoice with them, and mourn with them more fully is a blessing and provides us tremendous benefits as priests,” Mr. Bauman said.

Mr. Austin is one of the seminarians who now lunches at the St. Meinrad Spanish table. He welcomes new members and recommends the SEPI Spanish language program to any seminarian. Before traveling to Miami last summer, he had not taken any Spanish lessons since high school.

“Needless to say, my Spanish had fallen out of memory to a great extent. However, after having gone through the summer program, I was beyond what I had learned through taking Spanish at any other point in my life,” Mr. Austin said. “This program does a good job of helping you to retain what you learn, while making the learning progress a smooth one.”

He noted that beyond just learning the language, the SEPI program also introduced seminarians to the Hispanic culture and taught them about the growing presence of the Hispanic population in the Church.

“Given how much I learned over such a short period of time, I feel that it was a great experience,” he said.

Michael Willey is in seminary at Kenrick School of Theology in St. Louis and also attended the SEPI summer Spanish language program from the Diocese of Knoxville.

He brings a deeper understanding of the language because he spent a semester in Madrid, Spain, while in college and he has spent time there since. He still found the SEPI program invaluable.

“For the most part, I can understand spoken Spanish as long as I know the context. And I can read fairly well. Speaking is a bit more challenging, so the best thing about this summer was getting opportunities to practice,” Mr. Willey said, adding that he found the instruction in Hispanic culture equally valuable.

He also understands how important Spanish as a priest’s second language is to his ministry.

Mr. Crabtree can attest to the adage “use it or lose it.”

The seminarian learned some Spanish in high school and college, but because he didn’t use the language regularly, he forgot much of it.

“Luckily a small amount of the grammatical basics stuck around. I would say that at this point I’m far from fluent, but I have a great structure to continue study and I have grown to really enjoy the language,” Mr. Crabtree said.

He credited the classes at SEPI with giving him “a foundational grasp” of the language.

“And the atmosphere helped, especially in my listening and comprehension skills. More than just the language however, SEPI has opened my mind more to the understanding of Hispanic/Latino culture. I gained a great love for the culture and the people, which has helped me embrace the ideas of Encuentro,” said Mr. Crabtree, who is determined to not repeat the “use it or lose it” lesson from his early Spanish instruction.

“I plan on continuing my study of Spanish and try to do so every day in little conversations with my brother seminarians and from an app on my phone that keeps me studying. I don’t want to make the same mistake I did after my college courses,” he said.

“In the Diocese of Knoxville there seems to be a continual increase in the number of Spanish-speaking parishioners. I know that in the parish being able to communicate with the people in their native language is crucial. In fact, one thing SEPI taught me is how much the language communicates culture. Being able to understand more than just the words of the people is uncompromisingly important, to understand the way of thinking will help me minister more effectively and much more lovingly,” he continued.

Mr. Crabtree would “highly recommend” the SEPI program for future seminarians, especially as a primer for the Spanish language, but more importantly to encounter the Hispanic culture and people in a way that is not completely foreign.

Bilingual priests are nothing new to the Catholic Church. In fact, canon law states that the program of priestly formation is to provide that students not only are carefully taught their native language, but that they also understand Latin “and have a suitable understanding of those foreign languages which seem necessary or useful for their formation or for the exercise of pastoral ministry.”

And dioceses across the country are facing increasing demands for Spanish-speaking priests.

“I think knowing Spanish will help me to be a better priest. It’s no secret that there is a need for priests in our diocese who are able to minister to Spanish-speaking Catholics, and the better my command of Spanish, the better I’ll be able to do that. The U.S. Church is becoming more Hispanic every year, and so it seems to me to almost be a pastoral obligation to possess the cultural competencies and language skills that are necessary to serve an increasingly Hispanic Church,” Mr. Willey said.

While the Hispanic population is growing within the Diocese of Knoxville as well as in many other U.S. dioceses, Mr. Austin believes statistics belie the reason for learning Spanish.

“Regardless of how large the population of Hispanics is, they are present here in the dioceses in the U.S. That is enough to make learning a functional level of Spanish a worthwhile venture. Most younger Hispanics learn English fairly quickly, but this is not the case with their parents. It is particularly important to be able to communicate effectively with these older individuals who do not have a solid grasp of the English language,” he said.

Mr. Austin points out that understanding Spanish is critical for priests as they catechize a significant part of their congregations ranging in all ages.

“Catechesis starts in the home, and so the Church would be doing the right thing in making sure all its members can understand the message being given, both for the sake of the adults as well as the youth,” he said.

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