Father Has an Accent

Cardinal George Mundelein, the colorful archbishop of Chicago from 1915 to 1939, styled himself “Prince of the West.” He was indeed the first bishop west of the Allegheny Mountains to be made a cardinal, and he enjoyed to the fullest all the pomp and glory of a prince of the church. But he discovered that his fief was not easily governed.

His predecessors had faced a serious problem that had taxed their patience and exhausted their energies. The archdiocese was an unruly patchwork of national parishes full of Irish and Germans, Poles and Bohemians, Slovaks and Hungarians, Italians and Lithuanians. There were even special parishes for the Dutch, Belgians and Kashubs (people from the border between Germany and Poland, who spoke their own unique dialect). Luxembourgers, Croatians and Latvians all insisted on their own churches. There were even serious divisions between Irish clergy born in Ireland and Irish-Americans. One Irish-born priest, the infamous Jeremiah J. Crowley, was excommunicated and declared vitandus (“to be avoided”) after he and 30 other Irish-born priests threatened a schism because Archbishop Feehan chose a mere Irish-American as his auxiliary bishop. Real priests came only from Ireland!


The Germans and Poles both had national “leagues.” Their numerous parishes had huge grammar schools where their culture and languages were taught. Only the First World War, with its anti-Kaiser feelings, ended the German schools. But of course everyone resented the Irish, who had the episcopal monopoly.

As a later archbishop confided, “Chicago is ungovernable.”

So what does a cardinal archbishop do with such an archdiocese, full of antipathy and distrust, full of clergy from such a variety of cultures and pieties? How do you mix soda bread and sauerkraut, pasta and pierogis?

The Prince of the West had an idea. He knew that much of the problem could be traced to his priests. They did not know colleagues outside their “leagues.” Ethnic suspicions were only increased by the custom of sending Irish seminarians to Saint Mary’s in Baltimore, Germans to Milwaukee and Poles to Orchard Lake near Detroit. Cardinal Mundelein’s idea was clearly risky, radical and very expensive. He would build and staff a completely new seminary just for Chicago, which he would make the most beautiful seminary campus in the United States.

All Chicago seminarians would spend their student years together. In the chapel, the classrooms and on the ball field they would come to know and, God willing, come to understand one another. Even during the summer vacation they would go to a “villa” at Clearwater Lake, Wis., to share canoe trips on the Deerskin River, baseball games in the neighboring towns and three meals a day in the dining hall. There would be much bonding, and little by little a united presbyterate with high morale would form. There would be a “Chicago spirit” among his priests.

The plan worked. From 1926 to the present the archdiocese has had priests who for the most part support one another, respect differences and work with gusto for the good of the church. In fact, the reputation of the Chicago clergy has been extraordinary. The unity that Cardinal Mundelein wanted was achieved.

But now, are things changing? The clergy crisis was delayed in coming to Chicago and other major cities. The rural dioceses felt the priest shortage 20 years ago, but Chicago had an abundance of priests. Ordination classes usually numbered 30 or more. In addition, there were many religious orders that could supply extra priests for Sunday help. But now things are different. So many have resigned. So many have retired. The religious orders are feeling the pinch as much as the diocese.

So once again priests are imported from other lands. Now it is no longer F.B.I.’s (foreign-born Irish) who come, but Indians, Poles, Latinos from many countries, Vietnamese and Filipinos. It would be preferable if they came as seminarians and learned not only the language but also American customs and attitudes, especially regarding the laity and the women’s movement. But some come already ordained and are soon in a pulpit preaching to their new American congregations.

Although a heavy foreign accent can be a real problem, it seems that much is forgiven if the man is clearly an unselfish and kind pastor. One Vietnamese priest I know would be the first to admit that his English pronunciation has a long way to go. But he is so obviously a happy and generous priest, a man of real faith and charity, that he has won over everyone in the short time he has been a pastor.

But should we take satisfaction in knowing that imported priests are relieving the clergy shortage in the United States, that in many places there is no longer a native clergy? The missionaries who went off to Africa and Asia had as their primary concern the establishment of a native clergy who would best understand the hopes and needs, the customs and dialects of their own people. Will these new missionaries to the United States appreciate that Americans need a native clergy, or will they establish a whole new set of “leagues” that have little contact with one another? Will they have sympathy with our American culture? Will they work for a unity of mind and heart? Or will there be a Polish turf, a Vietnamese enclave and a Mexican diocese within the diocese? Will the vision of Cardinal Mundelein still be realized?

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11 years 11 months ago
The article by the Rev. Willard F. Jabusch, “Father Has an Accent” (2/16), did not emphasize the impact of some foreign-born priests on the laity in our parishes. Under the assumption that we ought to be grateful to have any priests at all left to celebrate the Eucharist, we often find ourselves with priests who cannot be understood linguistically or culturally. A priest who is affable but cannot preach a comprehensible homily is a clear indication that lay people must courageously stand behind the small efforts being made to ordain women and married men to the priesthood.

It is possible that older Catholics will tolerate very poor homilies and attend Mass out of a sense of duty, but it is not reasonable to suggest that this will keep our young people coming to our liturgies. At a time when other religions are evangelizing and attracting converts in large numbers, we do not have the luxury of accepting a lack of effective preaching and a mediocre liturgy. People will eventually go where they are fed or stop going completely.

Many Catholics are obviously crossing over parish boundaries and seeking out the best in a total worship experience, but it appears that in the near future there will be fewer, if any, parishes that meet our basic needs.

We are allowing man-made rules to weaken our life as a church, and we are not accepting the available and willing resources of women and married men in total priestly ministry.

The old defense that we must “bring” something to Mass and not go expecting something in return is not going to keep us afloat. We can go on praying for vocations at every Mass, but if we continue to ignore the vocations already just waiting to be accepted and allowed to enter, what possible future is there for this community of faith?

11 years 10 months ago
Thanks to the Rev. Willard F. Jabusch, chaplain emeritus of the University of Chicago, for his thoughtful insights in “Of Other Things” (2/16). His reflections on the challenges that currently face the American church remind us forcefully that all efforts to build ecclesial community must be rooted in charity, while his reflections on the 20th-century Chicago experience remind us more subtly of the importance of learning from the lessons of history.


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