“I Can’t Understand a Word My Priest Says”

So runs the headline of an article in the Houses of Worship series on the Opinion page of the Wall Street Journal on Friday October 6, 2017. [subscription required to read entire article].

Its author Mary Sherry begins

I have been singing the praises of my new parish ever since I moved to the small Wisconsin town where I live. Here people respond and sing with conviction during the liturgies. They participate as lectors, altar servers and Eucharistic ministers. Our pastor comes from India. He loves his vocation, projects warmth, and is great with kids. He’s everything you want in a parish priest — except I can’t understand a word he says.

Today around a quarter of Catholic diocesan priests were born outside the U.S., and about 30% of priests ordained in America last year were foreign-born. Parishioners complain that priests from Africa and Asia are taking over the parishes. In former times, the US Church sent numerous priests to mission countries; now the flow is in the opposite direction.

Sherry then moves on to cultural differences, and that these, joined with hard-to-comprehend English, is what annoys people in the pews and encourages them to shop for another parish. Those cultural differences can, on the other hand, be a source of enrichment. She recounts some of those positive experiences as new pastors arrive, and finds that what these engender remind her

that I’m part of a big, wide church. It’s sometimes tempting to tune out a hard-to-understand priest, but I’ve learned it’s worth it to try. I was brought up on the Latin Mass, which I didn’t understand either. And as a traveler, I’ve heard Mass in many languages I don’t speak. The universality of Catholicism is powerful at these moments.

The new priest is starting to settle in. He seems more comfortable when he presides. He appears to be a friendly and gentle man. I still can’t understand a word he says. Yet in a grace-filled, mysteriously powerful way I understand him.

Her experience is, of course, replicated in the UK, so it’s not just an American issue. The underlying question is whether, even if cultural differences can be overcome (and the English experience of many Polish priests, for example, has resulted in a significant proportion of them having to be sent home again), the issue of comprehensibility remains. It is not new. Some native-born Irish priests are also rather difficult to understand, too! But the increasing numbers of Indian and especially African priests who come to Britain to study mean that many parishes are now staffed by men who would previously have been only associate pastors, the principal pastor being of British or Irish origin. It’s a particularly difficult problem for the elderly and those who have hearing difficulties. The 2010 “English” translation of the 3rd Edition of the Roman Missal has only served to exacerbate the problem.

In the health service, there has been a recent clampdown on foreign-born doctors and nurses whose English-language skills are lacking. That is clearly not the answer for the Church, but how best to help those who have learned English “badly” in foreign countries and have acquired bad habits of mispronunciation, especially when they get excited, is a major issue that has yet to be tackled.

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17 comments

  1. Publishing homilies in printed (not audio-video form) on the parish website would be a helpful move by preachers whose speech is not likely to be well understood by congregants. That of course may raise the issue of the design and utility of parish websites, about which many parishes seem to take pride in living on a 15-20 year lag; I am regularly struck by how poorly parishes often communicate on their websites.

    1. You bring up a good point Karl. There is also the problem with who has access to the internet and others who just straight up don’t know how to use it. Another option which I’ve spoken about with friends is possibly printing out the homily and having it available in the pews before Mass so people can follow along during the homily itself. But that also gets into how much paper do we want to print off if we have three Masses a day we need to prepare copies of homilies for. Definitely a tough situation.

    2. I agree that publishing homilies would be a helpful thing to do – – but it has the huge liturgical downside of conveying that the variable/proper texts (collects, prefaces) are unimportant. When the presider says “let US pray” I’m part of that us & would like access to the prayer that I, a member of the Body of Christ, have joined in offering.

      1. Agreed, but at least there is such a thing as hand missals for those texts (missalettes these days tending *not* to include those texts for the sake of saving space for other material), though obviously way fewer people use them than was once the case for a few generations. (During the first year of the new translation, I did tend to carry a hand missal with me to walk my way through the first year of that experience. It was instructive in a number of ways.)

    3. Printing is a great idea, but a word of caution regarding homilies or sermons in print form. If the homily contains copyrighted material, especially quotations, from other sources (poems, books, etc) you have to be careful about infringement. I know of cases where well-meaning pastors and churches have been caught up in legal issues because of sermons available on the web. Quoting materials on a Sunday morning when speaking from the pulpit is fine, but apparently once it enters print form things can get tricky. Too bad there isn’t a CCLI for homilies!

  2. This is a growing problem. Given the numbers, it would be wise for the bishops to utilize, or organize, accent reduction schools for foreign born priests. Good language skills are more than just vocabulary and grammar; proper pronunciation is a must. Too many good priests are handicapped by their strong accents. There are resources available; we need to start using them.

    1. I think a diversity of accents contributes to the universality and inclusiveness of the Church. I honestly do. Certainly, we all labored under the annoying, thick, heavy Irish accents of many of our Parish Priests for years and years.

      But, in doing so, we realized we shared the same Faith, came from the same Church, and worshiped the same God.

      People who whine about their Indian Priest, might well just offer it up and be thankful they have access to the Sacraments. They might even move into their uncomfortable space and feel lucky that India speaks English at all due to the British empire.

      In my experience, and it is of course just one man’s, the people who like to complain about their Priest’s accents usually are the upper middle class white ladies who think everything should conform to their comfortable world view.

      1. Oh, I know…..but I hear it most often from them in Northern Virginia– where we have our own surplus of Priests…. Honestly, I am not sure why we even bring in mission Priests outside of Spanish speakers. Most Parishes here seem to have between 2 and 4 Priests.

  3. Many dioceses with urban conurbations will have people who are trained ESOL teachers in their congregations.
    Why not use their skills?

  4. I work with people from India and Africa all the time in my professional life. The professional-class English speakers I work with from those geographies are easier to understand than some co-workers from the UK :-).

    I agree with Mary Sherry that it’s generally worth the effort to work a little harder to try to understand what the priest is saying. And that doesn’t apply just to worship life. The United States, or at least my little suburban corner of it, is becoming more diverse. Not all the foreign-born priests are recent imports; some of them may be graduates of the local seminary.

    Of course parishioners complain. Parishioners always complain. It is what they do. If they’re not able to complain about the priest’s accent, they’ll complain that it’s too hot in church, or they don’t like the music, or the donuts aren’t fresh enough.

  5. This has been a known and ongoing issue now for 20 years. Around 2000, the USCCB published a pamphlet on this issue and how to address foreign priests via formation, minimum standards, etc. But, the dearth of priests and bishops’ needs rolled right over any united efforts to address this.

    Will end with a SVP of Mission at a large national Catholic Health System – they would not hire a foreign MD or Executive and allow his/her lack of English skills OR if they did, the system would support, require, and pay for training so that the English skills deficit was addressed – period. So, why do bishops tolerate lack of language skills? and, even more, the pamphlet also addressed cultural differences – these can be easily addressed through educational programs, mentoring, etc. Where there’s a will; there’s a way. But, one senses a lack of will or even understanding of the issue.

  6. Some priests do not have the language skills to effectively communicate, and frankly some good and holy native-born priests simply do not have the charism of preaching. Perhaps it is time to take a second look at lay preaching at Mass.

    “How can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?”

  7. We have had priests from Africa and India for many years in this diocese. A few years back I was in attendance at a meeting primarily for international priests, most of whom were from two dioceses in India. After one of them expressed frustration at hearing time and again that parishioners were unable to understand their use of English, I offered this tip. Tell their confreres who are newly arriving from India (or Africa) to include this opening line in their first homily and tell them to try to say it in the best American English they can muster: I have come a long way from my country to respond to the call of your bishop for additional priests and I am happy to be among you but I need to tell you up front that I am having great difficulty understanding the way you speak English in America. I promise to listen carefully so as to better understand you.
    Communication involves both speaking and hearing. We have a hard time with what we call accented English because we don’t understand its different cadence and pronunciations. But if we really want to understand, we can listen attentively. We actually don’t need to comprehend every word to understand what is being communicated. I don’t know of any diocese that has invested the time and money to offer classes in American English for international priests. I think that is scandalous.
    How many of you are aware that while English is an official language of India and is the language of instruction in their seminaries, prior to their coming to the US, most of them have never celebrated Mass or any of the sacraments in a language other than their own native tongue.

  8. Thank you, Fr. Jack – well aware of the issues. Work and have a call center in Bangalore, India. We utilize English in flyers, HR, etc. but this barely bridges the language issues. Employees depend upon dialects and that is how business is done.
    Thus, employees are not promoted to USA without good language skills – it is a no brainer and yes, it is a scandal that bishops offer no language requirements – much less education.

  9. Let me broaden the focus a little. Since I first came to Japan in the mid-seventies there has been a shift in the ethnic make up of the members of my own community (SVD). Once predominantly European – German speakers were the majority – and American, we now have priests from India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Korea, China and the Philippines among other countries. Depending on what part of their native country they come from, and there are regional variants in language and pronunciation in Indonesia, India and China, they all seem to struggle with the pronunciation of words that contain consonant-vowel combinations not found in their native languages, but that are common in Japanese. We have a well established and respected Japanese language programme at our university, and conversations with the teachers there reveal the struggles they have teaching pronunciation. Understanding and patience may be the only thing one can recommend to the faithful in the pews.
    In recent years, along with teaching commitments, (English and Christian Thought) I have often been called on to edit the English of texts, mostly academic articles, but also including chapter by chapter whole books written by confreres from the countries mentioned above. Both in terms of word choice and grammar the writers native or first language influences the way they write, and I have become used to some of the distinctive traits found in their writing styles. In a similar way, and I also am aware of it in my own written and spoken Japanese even after 40 + years working here, we probably need to recognize that the influence of a speakers first language will continue to be present in how they read a text – the prayers and texts of the liturgy, and any homilies or talks they give. On more than one occassion, particularly after a long presentation I pause to reflect where my grammar failures or word choice probably got in the way of what I was trying to say.

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