.- Joann Roa, director of the diocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry, calls the idea âexciting.â Diocesan Vocations Director Father Richard Rocha calls it âa Godsend.â For four hours a day during the summer, six seminarians work jobs for the Bishop Sullivan Center, installing air conditioners for Project ElderCool, or doing intake and sacking groceries at the food pantries at the center, St. James Place or Sacred Heart/Guadalupe Parish.
For the other four hours in their work day, five of them receive one-on-one immersion tutoring in Spanish. The other seminarian, Guatemalan-born Darvin Salazar, is learning English.
âItâs been a blessing and a Godsend for our diocese,â Father Rocha said of the program, which was put together by Father Rochaâs Vocations Office predecessor, Father Stephen Cook, and Bishop Sullivan Center director Tom Turner.
âWeâve been able to keep the guys in the diocese, learning about the community and learning Spanish,â Father Rocha said.
Roa echoed Father Rochaâs enthusiasm.
âItâs invaluable right now,â she said. âIt goes right along with our pastoral plan. We need more priests to be bi-lingual. We donât have enough priests in the diocese to cover the needs we have now.â
In addition to Salazar, the seminarians learning Spanish while they are earning on badly needed summer jobs are Curt Vogel, Sean McCaffery, Patrick Puga, Gabe Lickteig and Timothy Leete.
âTheir workday consists of four hours of working, and four hours of one-on-one tutoring in Spanish, and they get paid for an eight-hour day,â Father Rocha said, who spent a summer in Mexico learning Spanish while he was a seminarian.
âI donât regret that summer at all,â he said. âThat one summer helped me to converse in Spanish on a basic level. But if I had this opportunity as a seminarian, it would have been wonderful.â
Vogel, along with McCaffery, also work two half-days a week at the Sacred Heart/Guadalupe food pantry in Kansas Cityâs Hispanic West Bottoms.
Both seminarians said that both the experience of working directly with the poor, and the opportunity to gain at least a working relationship with the Spanish language will make them better priests.
âYou walk into their lives and see the challenges they face that I donât in my experience,â said McCaffery, a fourth year theology student at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, who is originally from Edmond, Okla.
âLearning Spanish gives me a greater opportunity and shows me how I can be of service with the sacraments and the faith,â he said.
For Vogel, a seminarian from St. Bridget Parish in Pleasant Hill who will enter his senior year at Conception Seminary College, it is also the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to be bi-lingual.
Vogel said his mother, Haydee Vogel, is a naturalized citizen from Columbia. Fearing that their son would pick up an accent and would be teased at school, Vogelâs parents decided to speak only English in their home as he was growing up.
âIâve had a dream of being bi-lingual,â he said. âMy parents have told me that if I were born right now, I would be.â
He does have the advantage of going home and practicing what he has learned that day with his mother, said Vogel who is in his second year with the program.
âMy Spanish is certainly better than when I started,â he said
But echoing McCaffery, Vogel also said that working with the poor is another opportunity to add to their preparation as priests.
âI have never been exposed to the poor this intensely,â Vogel said. âWhen you go into their homes to install air conditioners, you see the environment they live in. Thatâs been a huge eye-opener, and it makes you humble.
âYou see the reality for these people and you start thinking of ways you can help,â Vogel said.
Father Rocha said an influx of Spanish-speaking people into the diocese â and not just Kansas City â has already created pastoral challenges that can only be addressed by more people, especially priests, with a working knowledge of Spanish.
He recalled as a seminarian intern at Our Lady of Peace Parish in northeast Kansas City attending an ecumenical meeting of various denominations that were trying to work together to meet the needs of the rapidly growing, Spanish-speaking population.
âI was just shocked at the number of different religions that had already brought in Spanish-speaking people,â he said, noting that nearly all of the newly arrived Latinos were Catholic.
âI looked at our diocese, and all I saw were a few people like me who had just a little bit of Spanish,â Father Rocha said. âI thought then, âWouldnât it be a good idea if all our seminarians were being exposed to Spanish?ââ
Father Rocha said that the tutors come from Kansas Cityâs Latino community. This year, the Bishop Sullivan Center contracted with Christi Ivers, Spanish teacher at St. Pius X High School, to design a uniform curriculum and to train the tutors in teaching Spanish to the seminarians.
Even if none of the seminarians becomes entirely fluent, the program will reap rewards, Father Rocha said.
âAt least they are being exposed to the language,â he said. âIf somebody comes up to them for help, they might be able to understand enough to understand their problem and to refer them to a person who speaks better Spanish. Plus, they should be able to celebrate Mass and the sacraments in Spanish better than if they werenât exposed to it.â
Printed with permission from the Catholic Key, newspaper for the Diocese of Kansas City â St. Joseph.