You might call it a match made in heaven.
The 34-year-old Nigerian priest serving in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles meets weekly with an 82-year-old American religious sister via “Skype” sessions to polish the English pronunciation of his prepared homily.
“I’m his grandmother,” joked Holy Names of Jesus and Mary Sister Vera Ruotolo, a retired junior high teacher and parishioner at Holy Family Church in South Pasadena.
“I call Sister my professor,” said Father Kelechi Alozie, associate pastor at Holy Family Church in Wilmington. “She helps me in all [areas]: in life, as a mom and also as a teacher.”
Father Alozie and Sister Ruotolo were among nearly 40 priests and religious sisters gathered at the Archdiocesan Catholic Center June 11 to attend the end-of-semester celebration and evaluation meeting of the archdiocese’s “Teachers and Preachers Learning Together” (TAP) program, pairing retired or semi-retired women religious with immigrant priests in efforts to improve the priest’s English, or Spanish, used at Mass.
Since TAP was organized jointly through the archdiocesan Offices of the Vicars for Clergy and Women Religious two-and-a-half years ago, approximately 40 priests hailing from countries in Africa, Asia and Central/South America have gone through the program accompanied by their partner teacher.
The “preachers” and “teachers” participating in the program meet weekly — either face-to-face, via Skype or over the phone — approximately 16 times during each of TAP’s two “semesters,” beginning in September and ending with the closing celebration in June. Usually, the priests email their written homilies early in the week to their teacher, who corrects the draft for grammatical errors in advance of their meeting to polish pronunciation.
“One of the things that really impresses me about this program is the collaborative aspect,” said Msgr. Lorenzo Miranda, archdiocesan vicar for clergy. “We need to work together, to be able to have that gift of listening and learning. I think priesthood is a beautiful gift. Religious life is a beautiful gift — we’re supposed to transmit that to each other.”
He noted that the biggest complaints as well as the most touching compliments from U.S. parishioners center on the delivery of the homily. “This is touching something very deep,” said Msgr. Miranda. “This program is touching us personally in our vocation and also so many people out there who want to be fed spiritually.”
Dominican Sister Cecilia Canales, archdiocesan vicar for women religious, said the TAP partnership has proven to be valuable for its mutually-supportive relationship between teacher and preacher.
“Anybody could work with a priest on their English,” she noted, “but the added advantage of having a Sister work with a priest is that she knows theology and spirituality, so she has a better insight into what he might be trying to communicate to the American population, and how best to say it. It’s not just about pronunciation.”
“It’s been amazing for me, exciting,” said East Indian Father Joseph Kennedy Savariyar, associate pastor at St. Cornelius Church in Long Beach. “Initially, I didn’t feel the importance of the TAP program, but it helped me inculturate with the culture here.” In a letter he wrote to his TAP teacher, Daughters of Mary and Joseph Sister Mary Mortz, he expressed his appreciation for her “epic ministry of love.”
School Sister of Notre Dame Marlene Panko said she has enjoyed meeting and working with Mexican native Father Julio Ramos, associate pastor at St. Joseph the Worker in Winnetka. “I have learned so much about another culture,” she said. “And it has been a pleasure working with a priest who is so eager to learn the language and the culture where we are right now.”
“Sister Panko teaches me many things,” added Father Ramos, “and one thing very important for me: to directly connect my homily and the words of the Gospel to the life of the people of God.”
Priests interested in learning more about the next TAP semester beginning in September may contact Louis Velasquez in the archdiocesan Office of the Vicar for Clergy, (213) 637-7575.