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.