Fr. James Mazzone

Jean Jacques Olier Outstanding Alumnus Award Recipient 2014

Back to Alumni Day 2014

“Lightning in a bottle.” This is just one of the thousands of idioms that international seminarians memorize when studying the English language. These idioms may be introduced in textbooks or by ESL instructors. At other times I am asked about them at the dinner table or after the students encounter them in a conversation, on TV, or in a movie.

Lightning in a bottle: To witness a particularly powerful, exciting, or creative moment. That is an easy one to understand –– to imagine. But, sometimes the explanations of idioms get complicated.

I can remember taking a long pause from raking leaves with a number of international seminarians in the backyard of the house trying to explain another idiom. It would have been one of those great photo opportunities for the front cover of a vocation’s magazine: The New England fall colors, the fallen leaves, a jug of apple cider sitting on a tree stump, father standing with the seminarians, holding their rakes in their work-gloved hands, talking in a semi-circle.

However, the accurate caption quoted above the picture would have read, “Well, it’s not that we enjoy, or have any daily habits of skinning cats, even though we seem to be boasting about the many ways this can be done.” There is more than one way to skin a cat – a real doozy in the world of idioms. I think they all locked their doors that night. We use a lot of idioms in our daily conversations, and the English language is such a hard language to learn.

As Fr. Hurst just mentioned a moment ago, in 2007 a lot of Grace converged in such a way that it really was lightning in a bottle when the Holy Name of Jesus House of Studies was established. We have all witnessed the power of God’s Providence in our various ministries. In these moments, the Pentecost-power of the Holy Spirit nosedives right in, and you deeply sense the presence of Divine fingerprints everywhere.

There are nine alumni of the House of Studies in this room today. During our years together we have lived, prayed, worshipped, worked and shared a lot of meals together. We know each other very well. We have shared many stories about ourselves. However, here is one they have never heard before.

In the summer of 1993, between my sophomore and junior years of college, I had it in mind to do something very different. In the end, what that looked like was spending three months digging ditches, by hand, with a shovel, on the property of a Benedictine convent in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Having installed miles of fence in my lifetime while employed by a fence company in my hometown, I suspected that the physical demands would be similar. I was right.

However, the emotional and mental demands would be much different. I knew very little Spanish, and therefore could not communicate well with my two, native co-workers, Carlos and Sabas –– or for that matter, with the Benedictine sisters for whom I worked. However, ditches all day required no language skills. I became very good at digging ditches, and very good at not speaking Spanish. Regarding my ability to not speak any English during those three months –– well, I was extraordinarily gifted at that.

Outside of our relatively quiet, shared meals in the convent dining room, and daily prayers and Mass in a language I did not understand, it was a fairly solitary existence. I did not cross paths with another English-speaker for the full-three months. What had begun as an idealized notion of Sidney Potier’s movie, “Lillies of the Field,” in which his character, Homer, builds a church for some East German nuns in the Arizona desert, by the third month turned into Clint Eastwood’s “Escape from Alcatraz.” I had the tools, and I had the digging expertise.

Now to be fair, Carlos, Sabas, and the Benedictine sisters truly could not have been more kind and hospitable, but there was no denying that I was lonely, I was mentally burnt out by the Spanish language, and I longed to speak with someone in English –– anyone –– even an American fugitive running from the FBI. I completed the three months, but it was tough going at the end.

Incidentally, the next summer, in 1994, I earned money to pay for my last year of college jackhammering 350 tons of granite, underground, for three months, in Manchester, NH. This jackhammering was the most grueling work I had ever undertaken, but I would have done it again in a heartbeat over the sociological and mental challenges of Cuernavaca.

You might see where I’m heading with this story: leaving your home country and your native language is hard. I only had a three-month trajectory –– a three-month experiment. The seminarians that I work with face a trajectory of change that will affect the rest of their lives. My little three-month adventure had a different setting, and it was for a different purpose, but I had felt that ache, that angst, first-hand, of some of the challenges they would face: a new language, a new culture, a new climate, new foods, some home-sickness –– and for my men, the added excitement of Massachusetts drivers. As an extra bonus, they also would live in the city of Worcester whose spelling is indicative of just how intuitive pronunciation is in the English language.

I knew that I would not be able to eradicate these challenges entirely, but I wanted to minimize them. I wanted them to succeed. I wanted them to truly be ready to speak, write, listen and think theologically, in English, in an American seminary. Of course, ultimately, I wanted them to become good and holy and happy priests –– to conform themselves to Christ.

Now, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Over the years I have learned a few things about this work — the recruitment, formation, education, and care for international seminarians. It is certainly not the “only way” to do things, but it’s simply what has worked for us. I thought I would share a short list of highlights.

For example, in a particular year if you happen to have a good amount of international seminarians from South America, purchase hair gel by the case. Be prepared for one, or two, or an entire group of men to unselfconsciously break out into song anywhere, and at any time –– on a three-hour van ride to New York City, while doing dishes in the kitchen, or in the cereal aisle of a supermarket. And explain that the best way to cool down your bedroom in the dead of winter is not to open up all of the windows, but rather to turn down the heat. A few fun memories, but let us address just a few weightier topics. First, “What languages?” and “Whether or not to recruit.”

Outside of English, what are the languages in which we need to be ministering to Catholics in the Diocese of Worcester? First, Spanish; second, Portuguese; third Swahili; fourth, Twi; and fifth, Vietnamese. With the ability to minister in Spanish being the most critical, we addressed that need first. This raised the question of whether or not to send some native-born American priests to intensive language school for a summer, or 6 months, or 12 months, etc. Frankly, we were not in a very good position to go that route, personnel-wise, while considering how many future Spanish-speaking priests we were seeking. Therefore, we pressed on with the House of Studies idea for international seminarians. Our plan had a clear objective, and it would be dictated by particular language needs.

Thanks to a couple of seminarians who had come from the country of Colombia to our diocese under the previous vocation director, Msgr. Tom Sullivan, we had among our priests two good men, Fr. Manuel Clavijo and Fr. Edwin Gomez, who were extraordinarily helpful in finding us “boots on the ground” in Colombia to pre-screen candidates before our personal arrival for face-to-face interviews. By the way, these three priests I have just mentioned are all St. Mary’s alumni. Trusted boots on the ground for pre-screening proved to be very important and very helpful.

Now, who are these candidates we interview? What are our criteria? Again, there are many ways to skin a cat, but here is what has worked best for us: 1) They have completed Pre-Theology; 2) They have completed first Theology, and preferably second Theology; 3) They are presently in seminary, on a seminary-regulated pastoral year, or have recently, voluntarily withdrawn from seminary to work to support their families, or to earn the funding to continue seminary. (In a number of countries I’ve worked with, the cost of tuition room and board is 100 percent self-pay); 4) They have never been expelled from a seminary program; 5) They obviously don’t suffer from any canonical impediments; 6) They comply with all USCCB’s requirements in the Program for Priestly Formation; 7)They have authenticated letters of recommendation from their present or former seminary rectors, as well as from a number of priests from their home diocese or archdiocese; 7) Their parents and families are supportive; 8) They are physically and mentally healthy, 9) And, they clearly understand that they will be considering life-long, priestly ministry in the U.S. Finally, they are ready to attempt to learn one of the most difficult languages on the planet.

One would think that finding candidates who can “check off all of these boxes” do not exist, but they do, and again, I submit that this is a result of God’s Providence, Grace, and of course due to the extraordinarily generous and brave responses from the candidates themselves. You have observed this in your own dioceses and archdioceses, and you know this to be true. You have crossed paths with these good men. You have ministered with them. God continues to generously provide for His Church.

Early on in our planning, Bishop McManus thought that the program for an international seminarian arriving to the House with little or no English language ability should be 2-academic years in length, including a total of 10 weeks of summer study as well. However, I sincerely thought we could get the job done in one year. The bishop allowed me to run with that idea, but in the end, he was right. To their great credit, the first class of men worked very hard and made extraordinary strides, but it was simply too fast a pace. Further, sending these good men possibly prematurely to full-time graduate studies in theology, in the English language, can be stressful on the seminary faculty and administration, too. The Bishop was right: The program should be two years of ESL and American culture studies.

This change has yielded men who are very well-prepared to resume their theological studies, but now fully in the English language. Two full years of studies has also consistently yielded the recommended TOEFL scores for graduate studies in the English language.

Our international seminarians at the House of Studies are assigned to weekend parish ministry (this can total as many as 70 weekends of ministry over a two-year period), as well as to 10-week, full-time, summer assignments. This provides them an up-front and close look at ministry in the Catholic Church in the U.S. It also presents them with opportunities to practice English and forge new friendships with the laity, with co-ministers from religious orders, and with diocesan priests.

If a seminarian has little or no English language aptitude upon entering the program, they are assigned to a bilingual parish – obviously emphasizing the need to practice the English language, but also welcomed and encouraged to enjoy the “comfort food” of ministering and worshipping in their own native language. This is oftentimes a surprise to some. I am occasionally questioned, “No total and complete English immersion? I answer, “No,” and add, “We also have no ‘English-only’ breakfast, lunch, or dinner table rules.”

In the end, we have found that the English language and American culture can be well-learned, understood and integrated over a two-year period, without strict restrictions from using one’s native language. A healthy balance can be struck. Stress is decreased, and an ease of learning is increased. These are good men, these are smart men. These are men who want to learn English. The English will come along.

Still, reaching the required TOEFL scores at the completion of two years of studies does not preclude the need for continued ESL assistance now and then after entering an American seminary, and so sending these men to a seminary that employs a full-time, 5-day-a-week, in-house ESL instructor is an extraordinary help and support. Not only does St. Mary’s Seminary & University have such a position, it is filled by an outstanding individual and teacher –– Mrs. Emily Hicks. When Emily visited the House of Studies last summer I asked her, “Do you know what my men say about you?” I told her, “They like you . . . and they fear you!” Emily responded, “I think that’s called ‘Respect.’” I responded, “Yes, that is respect!”

We fund and invite our international seminarians to visit home once a year – their choice – either during Christmas break for a few weeks, or for a few weeks in the month of June. Again, the question arises, “Aren’t you afraid they will regress in their English language studies?” I’m not. I want them to enjoy home. Enjoy their families and friends. They come back happy, they come back re-charged, and they are ready to tackle the next chapter in their English studies with a renewed vigor.

The summer of ’93 obviously made an impression on me. I suppose the subtext of it all emphasizes the importance of having a program that cares for the whole person — spiritually, emotionally, pastorally, mentally, and physically. A trust has also grown that the language-learning will come along just fine without a breakneck, pressure-cooker pace.

I have been so impressed by the caliber of candidates that have come through the House of Studies from 6 dioceses and archdioceses so far. And I know that there are more seminarians in this room who have walked this same path in their own programs in their own dioceses. I am moved by their courage, their steadfastness, their work ethic, their intelligence, and their willingness to leave so much that is familiar and comforting behind in order to respond to God’s call to the priesthood.

My own four years here at St. Mary’s Seminary were very happy years where I received excellent formation and an excellent education. I owe a great debt to this great seminary.

Two important memories that also stand out during my years at St. Mary’s are the openings of the Center for Continuing Formation during my second year of Theology in 1996, and later the Associated Archives in 2002 –– when I served on the faculty. To witness both of these building projects, to attend their dedications, and to observe the good fruit that they’ve both borne, certainly served as a confidence-booster while opening the House of Studies in Worcester.

I wish to especially thank Fr. Hurst, Fr. Griswold, Fr. Burke, the Sulpician fathers, and the entire faculty and staff of St. Mary’s Seminary who have been such good and trusted partners in continuing to educate and form these good men. I also wish to thank Fr. Bob Leavitt and Mrs. Betty Visconage for their friendship and support over these many years. I am humbled by this award. Thank you.

Fr. James Mazzone, Diocese of Worcester
Alumnus 1999
Jean Jacques Olier Outstanding Alumnus Award Recipient
October 16, 2014