Ministering in Spanish for the First Time

By Doug Ray, SJ

Jesuits in formation in the United States are generally expected to become proficient in Spanish, so that we can minister to the growing Spanish-speaking population in the Church. Since I entered the Society, I have worked hard in the classroom at learning the language, but until this summer, I had never tried ministering to people in Spanish. I headed down to Richmond, Virginia in July to work at Sacred Heart Church, where the majority of the parishioners come from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, and figured that this would give me a chance to practice using my Spanish. 

The parishioners were very welcoming, and also very forgiving of my halting Spanish. The pastor, Fr. Shay Auerbach, SJ, made a real effort to get me involved in the life of the parish, bringing me with him to visit families at home in the evenings, or attending weddings and quinceañeras (Latin American celebration of a girl's fifteenth birthday), where I would try to start conversations with people I had never met before, using the vocabulary of a five year-old. We also went out one evening to bless the homes of a group of families from the parish. People who had never met me before let me into every room of their homes, and even opened up their closets, so that Fr. Auerbach could bless their contents with the holy water I carried. I was struck by the trust and faith of the parishioners. Generally speaking, people don’t show you the contents of their closets the first time they meet you, but they let me into their lives that night, without holding back, because I was there with their pastor, and they trusted us, and God.

The Sacred Heart Center across from the church helps provide opportunities for Richmond's Latino community.

The real test of my ability to communicate was the family retreat, when I had to lead a guided meditation on the story of the prodigal son. I worked on my presentation for over a week, but when the night came, I stood in front of a hundred parishioners, petrified. I am usually pretty comfortable speaking in front of crowds, but I found myself holding onto the podium for dear life. I was afraid of making a mistake and making a fool of myself. But I had spent almost a month with these parishioners. I had been in their homes and prayed with them at major celebrations in their lives. I was reminded of the warm welcome that they had shown me, and the trust they had shown in God. If they could trust me to come into their lives for a month, I could trust them to listen to me for twenty minutes without judging me. I would love to say that I was so inspired by the Spirit that I delivered the deepest, most moving talk anyone had ever heard, but of course that didn’t happen. My grammar was awful, and I tripped over my words, but the Spirit was indeed at work that evening. I was able to trust that the people listening to me would see past my mistakes, and listen to what the Spirit was trying to say to them through me.

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