In its most recent study on the subject, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) reported that 16 percent of all priests serving in the United States were born in foreign lands.
That was 10 years ago. Today, as clergy and seminarians continue arriving in the United States each year to shore up a declining pool of active priests, some estimates claim that figure has doubled -- and with it the potential for dissatisfaction among American Catholics who sometimes find the accent and speaking style of some foreign-born priests too difficult to comprehend.
To address this issue, U.S. dioceses increasingly are sending international priests to speech professionals for "accent reduction" or "accent modification" training to help them communicate more clearly with their mostly English-speaking congregations.
"Clearly spoken English is elemental and needs to be an essential competency for today's priests," Sue Gibbons, an Oakland, Calif., speech therapist, told an annual lay convocation in the Archdiocese of San Francisco last fall. "Understanding and speaking American English is key, even if some of the seminarians and clergy already speak English or have studied in a foreign country. Not all English sounds the same."
Such training "is an absolute necessity," Auxiliary Bishop William Justice of San Francisco told the same convocation, "and it is also very important for the self-respect of the clergy themselves."
Father Thomas Daly, vocations director for the archdiocese, spelled out the problem more plainly for Our Sunday Visitor: "The word of God cannot be effectively heard if the preacher is not effective in his delivery."
Training, not therapy
Lynda Katz Wilner, a Baltimore speech and language pathologist and founder of Successfully Speaking, has worked with 10 priests of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston (W.Va.) over the last two years through one-on-one distance training and videoconferencing. She emphasizes that accent-modification work is not speech therapy, which implies a disorder, but speech training, which addresses communication skills.
Wilner, who also does extensive work with health care professionals, told OSV that it's not uncommon for a foreign-born priest or other professional to be unaware of a communications barrier.
"Doctors and priests will say, 'Nobody's complaining about my speech,'" she said. "But people often will not complain to authority figures."
Techniques for modifying a foreign accent for English use vary among languages, she said.
Chinese speakers are accustomed to using their tongue muscles in such a way that makes pronouncing English vowels difficult.
Asians in general tend to drop word endings, which creates grammar issues, and mispronounce the "r" and the "l" sounds. Natives of India usually speak in a monotone voice.
African natives often learn English in school but still need to train for American audiences, Wilner said.
"They have good command of the language, but they don't stress appropriately. Sometimes when they stress words, they just make them louder, and that makes them sound angry" to American ears, she explained.
"They need to learn that when you stress words, you don't just make them louder. You make them higher pitch, and that adds more melody to your speech."
Wilner said patients often say they don't like the "attitude" of their foreign-born doctor or nurse. But, she said, "It's not the attitude, it's their voice, because they sound abrupt."
Pace in speech is important, but even more critical is the use of pauses, she said. To speak slowly can sound robotic and can be difficult to comprehend, while to speak in "chunks of information" and pause briefly in-between allows listeners a chance to process more effectively what is being said.
One priest who has benefited greatly from accent-modification training is Father Martino Nguyen, parochial vicar of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Grovetown, Ga. In 2005, a year after his ordination, Father Nguyen worked with a speech professional twice a week for 10 weeks to improve his English.
"The parishioners didn't have trouble understanding me, but I would skip a word or two, or mispronounce," he told OSV. "They knew what I was talking about, but I knew that I could improve. . . . If we feel uncomfortable, then people will feel uncomfortable with us."
Father Nguyen highly recommends that foreign-born priests seek such training, but he stressed the importance of practicing on their own and "doing the homework."
"I set up 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon," he said of his training regimen. "I actually booked it on my calendar as my own appointment." Today, when he finds a word he cannot pronounce, he asks a parishioner or a student at the parish school for help.
He also maintains a good sense of humor about his accent. He recalled how he would mispronounce the word "ash," substituting the "ss" sound for the "sh." "On Ash Wednesday, I bless ashes," he said in jest, using his old pronunciation. "My parishioners and I have fun together."
To keep the issue of international priests in context, consider this historical fact: Catholics in the United States have relied heavily upon foreign-born clergy to offer Mass and the sacraments for most of the nation's existence.
"When I was growing up, it was, 'Why do we have a priest who is Irish? I can't understand a word he's saying,'" recalled Sulpician Father Jerry Brown, a longtime seminary rector and homiletics expert who is a strong supporter of accent-modification training.
"We wouldn't have a Church [in the United States] today if it weren't for the Germans, the Polish, the Spanish, the Belgians, the Irish, the Italians who came here to minister to all the immigrants in this country."
People tend to give up too easily trying to understand a non-native English speaker, he said, and should make the effort to befriend their foreign-born priests.
"It takes a long time to learn the accent," said Father Brown. "But I find that when people fall in love with the priest, no matter what his culture or language, all of a sudden they start understanding him better."
Gerry Korson writes from Indiana.