BLOOMFIELD – Before a priest can minister effectively, he must be a good communicator. In a world that is growing increasingly diverse, being fluent or conversant in more than one language is a valuable commodity, said Father Michael J. Dolan, director of the Vocation Office and vicar for seminarians.
"There are 70 identifiable ethnic groups in the Archdiocese of Hartford. That’s 70 different languages," he said. There are 400,000 Hispanics and 100,000 Asians living in Connecticut, he said. With the help of the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal and other funding sources, many of the more than 40 archdiocesan seminarians are learning the languages those groups speak, he added.
"We have to communicate, and we have to reach out to people we don’t understand," Father Dolan said. Language study is part of a seminarian’s propadeutic, or preparatory, study, not directly related to the core studies of philosophy and theology, he said.
"It may be as simple as having a guy study Caribbean culture, and that will be his propadeutic period," Father Dolan explained.
Father Dolan himself is conversant or fluent in Spanish, French, Polish, Japanese, Arabic, German, Italian, Portuguese, Latin and Greek.
St. Augustine Parish in Hartford has about 18 different language cultures, he said.
Foreign-born seminarians have both an advantage and a disadvantage. They already know the vernacular of their country of origin, but they must learn English as part of the formation process.
He noted that the largest archdiocese in the country is in Los
Angeles, where nine out of 10 Masses are said in Spanish. Also, in Miami, people speak mostly Creole or Spanish, and maybe some English. Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami speaks English, Spanish, Creole and Polish, Father Dolan said.
All seminarians study Latin and most study Greek, because those are the languages of the Church, he said. He said one man will study Hebrew in order to study the Old Testament and to be able to converse with rabbis, especially in cities like West Hartford, where there are eight synagogues and five Catholic churches, Father Dolan said.
Other languages seminarians have studied or are studying include Creole, French, Bosniac, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Italian and Lithuanian.
The cost can range from a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars for each seminarian, he said. "Sometimes it’s an immersion program, where the person goes to the country." Other times, he said, they take a course at the Berlitz Language Center in West Hartford or use a language-learning software program, Father Dolan said.
"And what’s the return? The return for us is, first generation people hear the Gospel in their first language, which means that the second language generation that speaks English can have a conversation with their parents, whom they love and respect, in a way where everyone’s included," he said.
Seminarians, priests and deacons receive between 15 percent and 18 percent of the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal. In 2008, the Vocation Office alone received about $350,000 from the appeal. In 2009, that amount was about $500,000. This year, the amount is expected to be about $590,000, according to director of the Finance Office Matthew A. Byrne and Archbishop’s Annual Appeal coordinator Colleen Boccaccio Corriveau.
"They’ve been very generous," Father Dolan said. The Knights of Columbus and other charitable groups and individuals also help fund the Vocation Office, but the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal is the greatest source, he said. "That really makes it happen. If we didn’t have the Annual Appeal, honestly, we wouldn’t be able to send guys, we wouldn’t be able to do things."
Studying other languages and cultures brings a greater understanding of self, Father Dolan said. "Ignorance breeds contempt, and knowledge helps us to be better Christians."
For a man who will one day be a priest, communicating in a parishioner’s native tongue is especially important, because a priest’s primary task is to preach, he said. When you talk about the meaning of life, you’ve got to find the right words."