ST. BENEDICT — At Mount Angel Seminary, the goal is Catholic priesthood, not cultural diversity. Yet students' common sacred focus allows a rich encounter of different backgrounds, fitting at a school preparing pastors for a worldwide church.
The seminary is temporary home to Catholic men from Mexico, The Philippines, Vietnam, Columbia, Uganda, Congo, Thailand, Micronesia, Samoa and Hungary.
U.S.-born seminarians are the minority at this hilltop school, overlooking Willamette Valley farms.
Nearing the end of his seminary formation for the Diocese of Samoa-Pago Pago in the South Pacific, Pio Afo has spent seven years at Mount Angel. During his first years of college, he struck up a friendship with a classmate from Vietnam. Afo offered English help to his friend, who in turn tutored Afo in math.
"The diversity here is challenging but it's also enriching," says Afo. "I have developed this mentality that if I come to a different group and different ideas, it's not that one of us is right and one of us is wrong. This environment teaches me people are just different. No one is higher than the other."
Though his island diocese is homogenous, Afo has been studying Spanish just so he can relate better to Hispanic classmates.
At Mount Angel, about 60 percent of seminarians were born outside the U.S. Nationwide, the percentage of foreign-born ordinands increased from 22 percent in 1999 to 31 percent now.
"This seminary is even more international than an airport," says Gonzalo Siller, a native of Mexico in his second year of graduate theological study for the Diocese of Fresno. The cultural spread creates challenges, but more important are the opportunities to experience the catholicity of the church, Siller insists.
"Different cultures have different faith expressions," he says. "To me that says the Holy Spirit is alive." Siller, president of the Hispanic community on the hilltop, has been attending various cultural fairs in campus. He is helping organize a public Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration for Dec. 7.
Rev. Mr. Francisco Bringuela is on track to be ordained next spring for the Archdiocese of Portland. He grew up in The Philippines and came to the U.S. in 2009. This year, he is serving as deacon at Queen of Peace Parish in Salem and has had time to reflect on his school.
Though the language gulf at the seminary is an obstacle to socializing, cultural diversity is a spiritual gift, Bringuela says.
"Our whole purpose in life is to encounter Christ and there is no better way to do that than to encounter him in the faces of the people you see day by day," he explains.
"For those people to be different from me gives me a new way to meet Christ."
Anh Tran, 31, is finishing undergraduate studies for the Archdiocese of Seattle. A native of Vietnam, he came to the U.S. at 17 and says he is still working hard to improve his English. The first months of seminary college were daunting. He felt lost often and gravitated naturally toward other Vietnamese seminarians. Staff gently encouraged him to get to know more and more people.
"The environment is very friendly, so that helped me," says Tran. The many cultural festivals catalyzed his courage in relationships. A slight, quiet man, he was impressed when he attended an event sponsored by the Samoan seminarians, burly men who danced vigorously on stage shirtless in grass skirts.
"The differences help us open up a bit more to belief," Tran says. "We learn from each other. Al the seminarians are very supportive of each other, in spirituality and academics. We all help each other succeed."
Seminary officials know U.S. Catholics must be able to understand their priests. That's why there is a major effort to teach English grammar, diction and pronunciation.
Benedictine Sister Hilda Kleiman leads the English communications program at Mount Angel. The effort includes composition and the spoken word and the mission is to create men who can write, preach and converse effectively in English.
There is a peer tutoring center for writing and a journalism class for those who want a challenge. In addition to the standard skills needed for composing ideas — thesis, organization, logic — these writers are also learning the language. Sister Hilda admires her students' courage.
The men do get dejected sometimes, especially when progress is slower than they hoped.
"It takes a lot of time and energy to keep at it," Sister Hilda says. "Imagine even everyday conversation, having to back up and try again and again." When she sees progress, she is quick to point it out to keep the men inspired. One Spanish speaker came to her proudly with a paper, saying he had thought it out in English, not by mental translation.
Jim Sisley, a professor of communications, helps the men learn to pronounce English. He sees mostly Spanish speakers, but also must handle the particular challenges brought by speakers of Vietnamese, Korean and even Hungarian. Often, it's a matter making the tongue, lips and palate do things they have never before done.
Beyond saying separate words right, students need to learn cadence and rhythm.
"It takes a lot of hours to make incremental changes," Sisley says. "A lot of guys do get frustrated. My job is to keep them motivated."
Usually, the task is not hard. Seminarians have a drive to learn he has not noticed elsewhere. "It has to be the draw of the faith," he says.
In addition to its English language program, Mount Angel is pursuing funds to promote cultural literacy. The aim is to give guidance to seminarians from places where some parts of liturgy are conducted differently than they are in the U.S. The hope is that cultural education will bridge two vibrant cultures, helping each.