A letter writer to Newsday last week, expressing his displeasure with the diocese for declining to use the term “priest shortage” to characterize the numbers of Catholic clergy, turns his ire on the “125 foreign-born priests working on Long Island.”

I’ll leave it to Bishop Murphy to respond to the “priest shortage” question – as he does effectively in his blog post on this site, “Join me in prayer for vocations to priesthood and religious life.” The bishop explains that he rejects the term “priest shortage” NOT because he is unaware of the numbers, but because the term’s negative connotation draws attention away from the positive responses to those numbers: among them, greater opportunities for service from so many others who have stepped forward – lay Catholics, consecrated women and men, ordained deacons; the dedicated work of our vocations ministry leaders that continues to call forth outstanding candidates for the diocesan priesthood; and the inestimable contributions of those foreign-born priests who sacrifice so much, and give so generously of themselves, to minister to us in so many ways. It is the letter-writer’s disparagement of these faith-filled men that I would like to address here.

“Although very nice,” he states condescendingly, foreign-born priests “cannot be understood by many of the parishioners because of their accents. This is alienating for many Catholics.”

Well, what is alienating to this Catholic – besides the presumption of any one person to speak for “many Catholics” – is the reduction of the role of the priesthood to basically one function. ALL priests – like all people – have particular areas where they excel, and other areas of their ministry where they are weaker. This is inherent in the human condition, and a good priest — like a good worker, a good student, a good parent, to name just a few other vocations -– works to improve his areas of weakness. I don’t think any of us could disagree that our foreign-born priests -– who have already worked much harder than probably many of us have, in even LEARNING another language -– never cease striving to improve their English so they can better serve us.

“Alienation” at Mass over a priest’s foreign accent suggests a rather stunted understanding of his role -– and ours -– during this pinnacle of our worship as Catholics. Yes, it may make his homilies difficult to understand. Not to minimize their importance, but the homily is the ONLY part of the Mass during which a priest’s accented English should be in any way limiting to us. If we are actively participating in Mass, as we should be, we know all the prayers, and our responses to them. The Scripture Readings are done by a lector, the Gospel usually by a deacon, and these can be followed in our missalette if the readers are not easily understood. Is the Eucharist -– the “source and summit” of our faith –- any less the body and blood of Jesus Christ, because the celebrant’s words of consecration are uttered in less than perfect English?

How can any Catholic be “alienated” by these men who come here from faraway lands, leaving their families, their homes, their countries, in order to make the sacraments and the holy sacrifice of the Mass more accessible to us? Instead, their witness, their courage, their sacrifice -– and their humility -– should be an inspiration to us.

We can perhaps take a lesson from Auxiliary Bishop Andrzej Zglejszewski, who himself spoke barely a word of English when he first came here 27 years ago.

“If we keep a sense of respect, give priests a chance, like I had a chance to grow and develop my English,” he told me last spring, “God can say something beautiful, even through a priest with broken English.”

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