Vocation directors focus on Hispanic Catholics

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HUNTINGTON, N.Y. - As Jesus called His disciples in many ways, vocation directors and seminary faculty must walk with candidates and students to understand and meet their individual needs as they discern their call to priesthood, according to the bishop of Orlando, Fla.

Diocesan policies and seminary practices should accommodate varying expressions of prayer and cultural celebrations, particularly in the diverse and growing Hispanic Catholic community, said Bishop John G. Noonan.

He addressed the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors Hispanic workshop Oct. 29 at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington.

The bishop said Hispanics comprise 42 percent of the Catholic population in the United States, and more than 50 percent of Catholics under 35, but only 15 percent of seminary students. "What are we doing wrong?" he asked.

Bishop Noonan said differences among Hispanic cultures should be recognized by the church, and vocation directors should point to the example of Pope Francis as a Spanish-speaking priest and leader.

The Irish-born bishop described his own bilingual education at two seminaries in the Archdiocese of Miami as a cultural eye-opener. The student bodies included Cuban immigrants and non-Hispanics. He said the joyful, physical, noisy liturgies and celebrations "were kind of extraordinary for an Anglo. We never express our feelings in Ireland," he quipped.

"People clapped at Mass, people swayed, people talked. It was all foreign to me. I embraced it and thoroughly enjoyed it," Bishop Noonan said.

He drew on personal experience as an immigrant seminarian, longtime rector of his seminary alma mater and his nine-year tenure as director of priestly life and ministry for the Archdiocese of Miami to encourage vocation directors to accompany candidates on their journey of discernment and development.

Bishop Noonan said it's not necessary to speak the language or know the culture, but priests must care for their people, reach out and welcome them. Pastors at primarily Anglo parishes that celebrate a single weekend Mass in Spanish need to understand that Hispanics "are not just using the church, it's their parish, too," he said.

"Food, music and folkloric dancing are important to a culture, and they tear down barriers," Bishop Noonan said. "The experience of our faith is so limited sometimes that we don't understand what it is to celebrate multiculturalism," he said.

Vocation directors and seminary faculty must spend time getting to know candidates and develop appreciation and respect for every student. "Each has a story to tell. You need to know as much about them as you can to set them up for success," Bishop Noonan said.

"Don't let laws, rules and regulations overcome you," he said. Learning disabilities and a weak educational background are surmountable obstacles that can be addressed in houses of formation and mitigated with support throughout the seminary years.

"We need to walk with our young men and understand what they need. We need to give them the hope that it's important to let Christ into their life," he said. "Don't give up."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015