On the eve of the visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines from January 15-19, 2015, I thought of reposting in this weekâs edition of the Forum an essay that I wrote way back in 2003 regarding the need to improve the English proficiency of the countryâs Roman Catholic priests. I actually had that essay posted in the Forum in 2010 or over four years ago together with the preface below, but not being aware of any determined efforts taken by the church hierarchy regarding the matter, I believe that the forthcoming visit of Pope Francis to our predominantly Roman Catholic nation makes that essay even more relevant reading today. (December 28, 2014)
In their efforts at evangelization, should the major organized religions just rely on the momentum and stickiness of their respective belief systems? Or should they make a purposive and continuing effort to be better communicators and defenders of the faith, whether using English or any other language for that matter?
I have often pondered these questions over the years and even wrote an essay about the subject, âThe Grammar of Clerics and Preachers,â sometime in 2003 after listening to a priest give his homily during a mass in Metro Manila. That priest had bungled his English grammar and had stumbled on his English phrases and idioms far too often for comfort, and I felt that this was an untenable state of affairs that needed the immediate action of the church leadership.
Within a few hours after my essay came out in the Internet edition of The Manila Times
, however, I received the following e-mail from one of the faithful overseas:
âRegarding your column on the grammar of preachers, let me say that none of us is perfect. I must admit that Iâm not that great either when it comes to English grammar. We even have a Filipino priest who has been here in America for over 10 years, but who still finds it next to impossible to correctly pronounce just a simple English word; he also doesnât know the difference between âsheâ and âhe,â but of course I know what he means. However, if you listen closely to the message of God that he is trying to tell you through the homily, you will be surprised that all those grammar errors fade away. Let Godâs message reach your heart and mind instead. And for their big and little imperfections, our priests need our prayers, too.â
I really wonder if the church hierarchy should follow the line of least resistance being advocated above and leave everything to God, or start being really proactive and make sure that its seminarians and even its full-fledged priests will get much more intensive, rigorous grounding in English grammar and usage from now on. (March 20, 2010)The grammar of clerics and preachers
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. His cadence and pronunciation reminded me of the late Fr. James Donelan, S.J., then chaplain of the Asian Institute of Management, who used to say morning mass at the institute in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He would regale the middle-aged management students with English-language homilies of simple beauty and depth, and then, in his formal humanities class, he would lecture them with delicious erudition about the cultural wealth of Western civilization. Now, listening to the young priest at the mall, I thought that here at last was one more man of the cloth of possibly the same weave. I thus settled down on my chair confident of hearing a well-delivered homily to strengthen my resolve as a believer for the week ahead.
That expectation was soon dashed to pieces, however, for as soon as the priest no longer read from the book and 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 (âThe woman walked in the storm and go under the tree to deliver his baby.â). 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. Of course, I couldnât presume that the rest of the congregation shared my discomfort; perhaps I was just too exacting in my English grammar that I tended to magnify what could really be minor mistakes. But two weeks later, I asked one of my sonsâthen a high school seniorâto validate my impressions of that homily. Having attended grade school in a Jesuit-run university, he would normally be squeamish about criticizing priests about anything, but he told me without batting an eyelash that he thought the priestâs English grammar was bad because he kept on messing up his noun-verb agreement and gender usage. I really needed no better confirmation of my impressions than that.
Looking back to that incident, I think that the countryâs priests and preachersâmore than anybody else in our highly Anglicized societyâneed better than just average English-language skills to effectively practice their vocation. We expect TV and radio broadcasters to have good English so they can properly report or interpret the news for us; we expect classroom teachers to have good English so they can effectively instruct our children on well-established, often doctrinaire areas of learning; and we expect lawyers to have good English to ably defend us in our mundane civil entanglements or prosecute those who have criminally acted against us and against society. But priests and preachers have a much more difficult job than all of them, for their goal is to teach us modes of belief and behavior that are matters not of fact but of faith. They ask us to believe with hardly any proof. And whatever doctrine they espouse, 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. This is a definitely a tall order even for one with the gift of tongue, for it demands not only the fire of belief but also good or excellent command of whatever language he or she uses to preach.
Since I was a child, my impression has always been that priests and preachers stay in school the longestâten to eleven years if my memory serves me wellâbecause they have to master the craft of language, suasion, and persuasion better than most everybody else. My understanding is that this is why seminarians study for the priesthood far longer than students pursuing a degree in medicine or law. I would think that those years of long study could give them a truly strong foundation in English grammar and usage, in listening skills, and in reading skills, then imbue them with a facility with the language that couldnât be matched by lesser mortals. However, as shown by the fractured English of that priest delivering that homily at the mall and of so many other priests I have listened to over the years, that foundation has been resting on shaky ground indeed.
I therefore think itâs high time that the church hierarchy took steps to remedy this problem. This might be a tall order, but if nothing is done about this, Iâm afraid that the established religious faiths would lose more and more of their flock to less virtuous but more English-savvy preachersâpreachers who may have rickety or dubious religious platforms but who have honed their gift of tongue and powers of elocution to a much higher degree. I therefore suggest, for their own sake and for the long-term survival of the faith, that all seminarians and even full-fledged priests be given a much more rigorous grounding in English grammar and usage. They need to effectively smoothen out the grammatical and semantic kinks in their English to become more able promoters and defenders of the faith.
As the old saying goes, God helps only those who help themselves. (May 23, 2003)From the weekly column âEnglish Plain and Simpleâ by Jose A. Carillo in
The Manila Times, May 23, 2003, Â© 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.MORE RECENT RESPONSE TO THE ESSAY ABOVE (January 8, 2015):Critique of the Catholic clergyâs English by a former university professorRELATED READING (Next Panel):The Dangers of OverstatementRELATED BREAKING NEWS (January 4, 2015):Pope Francis to say Masses in English in PH visitRELATED BREAKING NEWS (January 8, 2015):Pope Francis polishes his English for PH visitRELATED BREAKING NEWS (January 11, 2015):Opus Dei tutors Pope Francis: English only, please