(THIS is a condensation of a 936-word essay that I wrote for this column in 2003 regarding the need to improve the English proficiency of the country’s Roman Catholic priests.I believe that the forthcoming visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines makes this essay even morerelevant reading today.)
A few Sundays ago, my two sons and I attended Holy Mass in one of those improvised worship halls put up inside Metro Manila malls. The priest, in his late thirties or early forties, read the opening lines of the Eucharist in pleasantly modulated English, his voice rippling the familiar words and phrases like the chords of a well-tuned piano. I thus settled down on my chair confident of hearing a well-delivered homily that could strengthen my resolve as a believer for the week ahead.
That expectation was soon dashed to pieces, however, for when the priest started speaking extemporaneously, it became clear that his command of English left a lot to be desired. He could not even make the form of his verbs agree with the number of his nouns and pronouns, and his grammar was so gender-blind as to be irritating (“The woman walked in the storm and go under the tree to deliver his baby.”). His command of the prepositions was likewise disturbingly inadequate, and he stumbled on his English phrases and idioms far too often for comfort.
I therefore listened to the rest of his homily with increasing distress. I couldn’t presume that the rest of the congregation shared my discomfort, however; perhaps I was just too exacting in my English grammar that I tended to magnify what could really be minor mistakes. I therefore asked one of my sons to validate my impressions of that homily. Having attended grade school in a Jesuit-run university, he would be squeamish about criticizing priests about anything, but he told me without batting an eyelash that the priest’s English was bad because he kept on messing up his subject-verb agreement and gender usage.
Looking back to that incident, I think that the country’s priests need better than just average English-language skills to effectively practice their vocation. We take it for granted that TV and radio broadcasters, classroom teachers, and lawyers should have good English to practice their respective earthly professions. But this doesn’t seem to be demanded of priests even if they obviously have a much tougher communication job,which is to teach us modes of belief and behavior that are matters not of fact but of faith. Their mission is to help us experience the sublime, to make us shape our lives according to the hallowed precepts of prophets or sages of a bygone age.
I have always thought that priests stay in school for as long as ten to eleven years because they have to master the craft of language and persuasion better than most everybody else. That education should give them a truly strong foundation in English grammar and usage. However, as shown by the fractured English of that priest at the mall and of not a few others I have listened to over the years, that foundation has been resting on shaky ground indeed.
I therefore think it’s high time that the church hierarchy took steps to remedy this problem. If nothing is done about this, I’m afraid that the Roman Catholic Church would lose more and more of its faithful to other religious groups with more English-savvy preachers whose gift of tongue and powers of elocution get honed to a much higher degree. I therefore suggest that all seminarians and even full-fledged priests be given much more rigorous grounding in English grammar and usage to make them more able promoters and defenders of the faith.
As the old saying goes, God helps only those who help themselves.
Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.