As a Chicago seminarian, one of my summer requirements is to undergo a language immersion. In the Archdiocese of Chicago, there is a great need for priests who can minister in Spanish. With 44 percent of the Catholic population being of Hispanic ethnicity and 287 scheduled weekend Masses in Spanish, it became clear to me that I had to learn Spanish. In a Catholic Extension Society press conference held in September of 2014, Archbishop Blase Cupich said “I want all of our seminarians, whatever their background is, to learn Spanish … I want to really make sure that that happens.” Clearly, Archbishop Cupich sees the importance of being able to meet people where they are, to engage and embrace the rich cultures that define Catholic Chicago. And one way of doing this is by learning another language – a language that will enable the minister to connect with others in their native tongue.
To begin the process of learning Spanish, I took a year of introductory Spanish at Mundelein Seminary as a second pre-theologian. This course was taught by a local high school teacher and entailed attending a one-hour class each week. Although that was a minimal amount of instruction time, the course, nevertheless, laid out a basic foundation of the rules of Spanish grammar and exposed me to new vocabulary words. Following this preparation, I went to Costa Rica to study Spanish at the CPI Spanish Immersion School for 8 weeks. I spent my first week in Flamingo, three weeks in Monteverde, and my last four weeks in Heredia. For seven of those eight weeks I lived with a homestay family which enabled me to practice Spanish outside of school. I had private classes for 4 hours Monday through Friday.
Overall, I had a great experience in Costa Rica. The teachers were hospitable, friendly, and caring; they were professional and skilled. Moreover, the Costa Rican people and culture not only contributed to my comprehension of Spanish, but it also filled me with many spiritual graces. Christ was most definitely present to me through those I encountered, and even if I couldn’t communicate well, even if I didn’t understand everything a person said to me, I could feel, very tangibly, their love and affection. I will always remember the beautiful liturgies that I attended, the dedicated and compassionate priests, and the many parishioners who welcomed me with open arms and assured me of their prayers. They were a great wellspring of strength and support.
Last summer, I had the incredible opportunity to attend the Institute for Priestly Formation program which focused on the spiritual and human pillars of formation. More specifically, this 9-week program is designed to help seminarians fall more deeply in love with Christ, and most importantly, to stay in love with Him. Though this program is considered to be a full summer assignment, I realized that this past summer could be one of my last opportunities to do another Spanish immersion. Despite having a facility with the Spanish language, I knew that there was more to learn. In fact, I didn’t feel that I had grasped enough Spanish to be able to comfortably minister to native speakers. In addition, I wanted to improve my ability to speak extemporaneously in ordinary conversations with some degree of confidence, fluidity, and accuracy. Therefore, with the remaining time left in the summer, I went to Cuernavaca, Mexico for an intensive 3-week immersion. I again had private classes for 6 hours Monday through Friday, and I lived with a homestay family. Cuernavaca is a beautiful place and, like Costa Rica, I had awesome teachers who taught with clarity, enthusiasm, and patience. More to it, I will always remember the great faith of the people, their holiness, and their love for Christ. Truly, one of the things I cherish from these immersions is not only learning a new language, but witnessing the universal Church. Everyday Catholics from around the world are professing their faith, celebrating the Eucharist, and praying for one another. We are one body in Christ, and regardless of our different cultures and languages, we are bound together and united in His love.
At this point, I do feel more confident in my use of Spanish, but I also realize that this is an ongoing journey and that I still have a lot to learn. I also understand that the likelihood of being assigned to a parish where the Sacraments are offered in Spanish is very high, and I want to be able to serve and minister to their needs to the best of my ability. And so if the opportunity presents itself, I would love to do another immersion, even if it’s just for a few weeks. Please pray for us, and be assured of our prayers for you as well. Paz!