They are interested in our schedule, what we learn, what we do for fun and our opinions about the church today. Like most college students, we head back around late August and return around mid-May, with the usual breaks for holidays and between semesters. So, what do we with our time in between? I can assure you that we are kept busy during the summer months with a variety of activities that range from parish placements, hospital internships or advanced studies in specific areas. Recently, the bishop has asked many of us to to participate in a Spanish-immersion program that exposes us to the language in the event that we might use it in our own ministry in the future.
A little background about me before I continue. I was born in Elmira, a small city in the Southern Tier, where I was born and raised. The only exposure to a foreign language that I had growing up was seven years of French classes in middle and high schools. I always wanted to learn another language, so when the opportunity to study in Colombia was presented to me last winter, I accepted it with enthusiasm and joy that ones takes with any new challenge. Before I left, I was able to spend a few weeks at home in order to prepare for the long trip. I prepared the best I could for living in a new culture and to learn a new language, but I knew that all of the studying and all of the questions could not have adequately prepared me for what lay ahead. When I arrived, I was welcomed warmly by my host family and felt part of their home. However, I did not travel alone, as one of our other seminarians, Frank Vivacqua, traveled with me. Knowing one person who speaks your language made a huge difference, but I began to realize how difficult it must be for those who move to a new country with no friends or family. I began thinking about some of the seminarians for our diocese who are not natives to the United States but have been invited to Rochester to be a part of our local church. We have been blessed with their presence, contributions to some of our parishes and sacrifices they have made to be here. Most come from the area of Medellin, so I viewed it almost as an exchange to spend time in the same area that our brothers hail from. After the first few days, I began to wonder, "Is this what some of the guys from Colombia went through when they moved to the United States?" It didn’t take me long to develop a deeper appreciate for the differences that exist between language and culture. Learning a new language is difficult enough, but to know it well enough to communicate with people on an everyday basis is an even bigger challenge. When the six weeks was up, I was torn. After a lot of learning, traveling and making new friends, I had to leave behind people who had gone out of their way to make me feel at home and treat me as one of their own. However, I knew it was time to get back in order to keep working and put everything that I had learned to the test.
When I returned to the United States at the end of July, I went immediately to St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Parish in Rochester. This gave me the chance to experience how the Spanish language is used in the life of the parish. Whether it was at the Mass, funeral or a committee meeting, I was able to use what I learned and build upon it.
One thing I learned quickly is that the way all of these things are done very differently between different Hispanic cultures! However, I found those challenges to be inspiring and have driven my interest for further study. The use of the Spanish is quite different between the cultures that I experienced, but if there is one thing that the two parts of my summer had in common was the fact that I had to practice a faith I have held my whole life in a language that I just learned. There were several differences between the worship style of the Catholic Church in Colombia and the Hispanic churches in Rochester, which made it all the more interesting to me. In Colombia, the devotional life and depth of personal prayer amazed me as I saw churches that were packed with people on a daily basis. In Rochester, I got to know a community who take pride in its style of praise and prayer to God and that is deeply committed to helping out the surrounding community. For someone aspiring to the priesthood, both experiences were very formative and important to me. It helped provide a sense of direction for where this is going for me and relieved any fears or anxieties that I had about working with people whose native language is different from mine. When it comes down to it, it is our belief in Christ and the trust in the promises that he made to us that assure us about where our lives are heading. Our local church has had many challenges, and probably has more ahead. For me, I find that to be an invitation from the Lord to follow more closely the people of God who are in our very midst, no matter what language they speak and no matter which culture they associate themselves with.
I am writing to you from my room at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. I have two more years of school left, and hope that I can be with you very soon. I ask you to please keep me in prayer and I will do the same for you. This is not an easy time to want to be a priest; I hope you realize how much your love and support means to those of us who are going through this. For those of you I met this summer: Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for all of your prayers, support, love, kindness and encouragement that you gave me. You shared your lives with me and invited me to share mine with you. To those of you I haven’t met yet: I hope and pray that our paths meet soon!
Matt Jones is a seminarian for the Diocese of Rochester.