For Priests, a Crash Course in Spanish and Culture

Interview With Father Alex Yeung of Sacerdos Pastoral Center

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NEW YORK, JULY 17, 2005 ( The Hispanic community forms close to 40% of the Catholic population in the United States. Yet, there is only one Hispanic priest for every 9,925 Hispanic Catholics.

These statistics reveal an opportunity for English-speaking clergy to reach out to Hispanic Catholics — if only they knew Spanish.

That’s where Curso de Hispanidad steps in: an intensive Spanish language and culture course held in Mexico for North American priests and seminarians. This summer it runs July 19-Aug. 19.

Father Alex Yeung, director of the Sacerdos Pastoral Center, shared with ZENIT how the program immerses participants in Hispanic culture and prepares them to minister to the growing Hispanic population back home.

Q: What exactly is the Curso de Hispanidad?

Father Yeung: The Curso de Hispanidad in Mexico is a five-week intensive Spanish language and culture course for North American priests and seminarians. It is sponsored by Sacerdos in conjunction with the Department of Humanities and the Center for Language Studies of Mexico’s Anahuac University.

The language module has two tracks: one for priests and seminarians with little or no knowledge of Spanish; the other for those with some previous experience.

The learning methodology is varied, with classes, individual or small-group coaching, conversation, tapes, films and visiting with families.

Both tracks emphasize pastoral Spanish usage, how to engage in simple conversations in ordinary pastoral settings, and how to celebrate the sacraments and sacramentals in Spanish.

The cultural module includes complementary classes in Latin American culture and religiosity, and visits to significant spiritual, cultural and archaeological sites in and around Mexico City.

Participants grow in their understanding of the culture from the inside, and in their ability to relate to the cultural features that their Hispanic parishioners bring with them. Hispanics have a great cultural and religious richness that, if effectively tapped and channeled, can be a source of renewal for the local churches in North America.

In the pastoral ministry module, participants are guided in putting into practice the pastoral Spanish they are learning. Participants are welcomed by the local communities and, according to the ability and interest of each, they can administer the sacraments and preach homilies in the nearby villages and towns.

Q: Why do you see a need for a course like this?

Father Yeung: One of the biggest needs among North American parishes is effective outreach to the Hispanic community, which forms close to 40% of the Catholic population, according to the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops’ document «Encuentro and Mission.»

This document reports that there is one Hispanic priest for 9,925 Hispanic Catholics in the United States, in contrast to the one Catholic priest for every 1,230 Catholics in the general Catholic population.

Without adequate pastoral care, migrant workers and young Hispanic families find themselves without the support of a faith community they are accustomed to in their countries of origin. The result can be a dramatic loss of faith, moral aberrations, substance abuse and family breakdown.

Besides, a significant number of North American Hispanics are enticed to join other Christian denominations every year. Fundamentalist groups and sects are making a big effort to welcome Hispanics and cater to their spiritual and material needs. There is an urgent need to increase the number of Catholic parishes that are able to provide for the sacramental, catechetical, spiritual and social needs of the Hispanic community.

Q: What are the biggest challenges that native U.S. clergy face with the Hispanic members of their parishes?

Father Yeung: I think the question might be rephrased as: How can North American parishes effectively welcome and embrace the richness Hispanic Catholics have to offer?

Surely there are aspects of «need» that require skill in addressing them: the emotional and moral situation caused by Hispanic migrant workers being away from their families; the undiscerning acceptance of materialistic and hedonistic values by first-generation Hispanics; some reticence in learning and valuing the English language and positive American cultural values, etc.

But I think that Hispanic members of the parish are much more of an asset than a «needy» community. Their religiosity, sense of God and family, hard work, joy, optimism, and love for the Church and the Pope can do so much to help strengthen parish communities in North America.

If the demographic percentages are correct, we need to think «outside the box» of considering «Hispanic ministry» as a specialized pastoral program to be engaged in by a chosen few and confined to relatively localized areas of the country.

Rather, the more priests are able to motivate their parishioners to appreciate and embrace as their own the richness Hispanic Catholics have to offer, the more vibrant and integrated these parish communities will be.

For example, something as simple and profound as celebrating the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, on a parishwide level can create a unified parish élan. Other beautiful traditions that can be easily integrated could be the celebration of Quiceneras, processions on certain feast days and the Christmas posada.

Q: What is a typical day at the conference like for participants?

Father Yeung: A typical class day consists of intensive but well-parceled language instruction. This is completed by «clinics» on how to celebrate the sacraments in Spanish and homily preparation. Each day also has an appropriate amount of relaxation.

Perhaps most importantly, the day centers around the communal celebration of the Eucharist and moments of prayer. The priests and seminarians are not lodged in private houses, and thus a real fraternal community is created in which the participants pray and study together.

Q: Besides the Spanish language, what aspects of Hispanic, and particularly Mexican, culture are participants exposed to?

Father Yeung: In order to refresh body and soul, various days of the week are planned as cultural outing days. These days are much more relaxed, in which the participants can assimilate Mexican language and culture more by osmosis than by instruction.

Highlights include the concelebration of Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and cultural visits to the pyramids and the picturesque towns of Mexico.

Opportunities for guided pastoral ministry on the weekends, going to celebrate the sacraments in the nearby parishes — depending on the interest and skill of each — will expose one to the religiosity, spontaneity and hospitality of the Mexican people. There may be opportunities to participate in feast day processions and celebrations, too.

Q: What are the practical benefits for native English-speakers who go through this course?

Father Yeung: I think the advantage of Sacerdos’ program is its integral nature. Professional language instruction is provided by the Center for Language Studies of Mexico’s Anahuac University.

Priest-teachers coach the participants in celebrating the sacraments and preaching in Spanish. Participants will imbibe almost by osmosis a greater love for the Spanish language, an enthusiasm for the faith, Mary, the Church and the Holy Father, and for the priesthood itself that is lived by the Mexican people.

It is not just about learning a language. Rather it is inculturating a priest’s pastoral heart; this requires the special elements I think the course provides.

Q: How have Hispanic congregations responded?

Father Yeung: In general, I think that the Hispanic people at the parish level have unlimited patience with a priest who is starting to speak Spanish because they are genuinely enthused to see him working to meet their needs.

A Hispanic woman who helps Father Joseph Benson, a priest in Louisiana and a graduate from the 2004 Curso, related that Father Benson came back from the Curso more eager to speak Spanish, responding faster in conversations and more importantly, communicating with more confidence and gusto.

The mere fact that their pastor is showing interest in their cultural and spiritual needs and is making a committed effort has made all the difference in the world.

Father Joseph Looney, a priest in Connecticut and a graduate of the 2003 Curso, also confirms that Spanish-speaking people are not demanding that their priests speak perfectly, but rather that the priests are trying and making an effort to hear them.

Q: How have bishops responded to the course?

Father Yeung: We have run the course for two summers now, and four U.S. bishops have been among the participants.

Bishop Allen Vigneron of Oakland had this to say about the program: «I found the Curso de Hispanidad to be extremely valuable. Its pastoral focus on priestly ministry to Latinos in the United States was right on target. …

«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.»

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