From Mexico City to Salt Lake City: Conquering language and cultural barriers

By: Taylor Jaussi

Rising from the confessional after listening to nearly an hour of confessions — all in English — Rev. Jorge Roldán felt as if his head would never stop spinning.

Roldán had only been living in Park City, Utah, a few days after being assigned to serve as a pastor in the city’s parish when the parish priest asked him to listen to confessions. It was his first Saturday in the area, and although he still did not feel comfortable with the language, Roldán agreed to fill in for the priest who was attending to business in Salt Lake City.

“I will always remember [that first Saturday in Park City] for the rest of my life,” Roldán remarked. “I arrived to the church and see a long line full of all English speakers. I don’t know what sins they confessed, what things they had done wrong, but the priest forgives the sins that are confessed. And I forgave everyone!”

Leaving the confessional, Roldán was shocked to see what his superior had just texted him: He would not be able to make it back from Salt Lake City in time for mass and asked Roldán if he could celebrate mass that evening.

Overwhelmed, but willing to accept this assignment, Roldán rounded the corner from behind the confessional and was alarmed to see that the church was completely full.

Thinking back on that stressful day when his English skills went through somewhat of a refiner’s fire, Roldán said, “That was the first experience I had where I had to say, ‘I have to do it; I can do it.’ And you know what? I did it!”

Decision to dedicate life to the church

“Sometimes people think that as priests we are born that way,” Roldán said. “But no, I grew up with a normal family and I also got into trouble at times. All in all, I had a normal life.”

Born and raised in Mexico City, Roldán is the second of four children. Although his parents and siblings weren’t extremely devout Catholics, Roldán attributed the beginning of his spiritual devotion to his grandmother. He remembers her walking to mass every day as soon as the church bells began to ring out in the late afternoon.

While growing up, Roldán often attended mass with his grandmother, and it was there that he began to seriously consider becoming a priest.

“At first, the Father used to scare me. I saw the vestments he wore, the large robes, and as a child I thought, ‘He is Batman!’” Roldán remembered. “But as I observed his life, how he treated the people around him and how they looked up to him, I begin to think, ‘This is something I might like to do.’”

In the end, the possibility of being a leader and positive influence for those around him is what made Roldán want to become a priest. The impact Father Daniel, the priest of the parish where he grew up in Mexico City, had on Roldán as a young teenager made this way of living seem so rewarding.

For Roldán, it was not uncommon to hear people in his native Mexico commenting, “the Father said this” or “the Father asked us to do this.” The image of the local priest as a leader and local guide to all around him is ultimately what Roldán has sought to achieve in his service in the church.

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Difficulties along the way

When Roldán told his mom he wanted to become a priest, she told him no. He persisted, and finally she told him that he could do whatever he wanted, but he first had to graduate from high school.

Upon graduating from high school, Roldán began his religious studies at the Cuautitlan Seminary in Mexico City. These studies are not easy as they require students to study philosophy for three years, go on a mission for one to two years and then finish three more years of theology studies.

When he returned from his two-year mission in Campeche, a state in Mexico, Roldán began studying theology. After one year, he was sent to the prestigious Universidad Pontificia de México (Mexico Pontifical University).

Roldán told of a particular night that had a significant impact on the rest of his life path.

“It was there at the university during my last year of studies when a friend of mine said to me, ‘Hey Jorge, my bishop is going to be visiting and he invited us to dinner,’” Roldán recalled.

This visiting bishop was then-Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City who participating in a pilgrimage in Mexico. At dinner, Bishop Wester invited Roldán and his six companions to his diocese in Utah.

“We said to ourselves, ‘OK, let’s do it!’” Roldán remembered. “I was very excited in that moment, although I had no idea where Salt Lake City even was, and I had also realized … English was going to be a huge obstacle for me to overcome.”

After accepting the invitation from Bishop Wester to serve in the United States and waiting nearly a year for immigration papers to be accepted, Roldán began the long, difficult journey of learning English. This journey began at the Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, Texas. Roldán honestly admitted this may have been the worst place for him to learn English.

“When I arrived to the United States and everyone was speaking English, I always had the biggest headache! [In San Antonio,] everyone speaks Spanish. I didn’t have a headache anymore!” Roldán laughed, thinking back on his language studies. “All the teachers were Mexican, the students were Mexican; this was definitely the worst place to try and learn English.”

Even without the immersion necessary to truly master the language, after a year and a half in San Antonio, Bishop Wester told Roldán he was ready to be ordained a priest. Following his ordination, he was assigned to Park City. It was during his first Saturday there — the day Roldán will never forget —  he began to observe a noticeable improvement in his English simply because he was forced to speak the language.

Celebrating mass in English for two years in Park City and for almost a year in the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City is where Roldán believes he has been able to develop his language skills the most.

Joy in the service

Although Roldán’s journey has not always been easy — thanks in large part to what he calls “a tongue-twister language” — there are moments when he recognizes that what he is doing is worth the struggle.

“For me, the best payment I can receive is when I leave mass and I see that the people leave happily and that they are smiling,” Roldán said. “That is my payment.”

Roldán considers his position as priest to be what truly fills his soul, day in and day out. The opportunity he has to help others and offer advice when they seek it is what Roldán hoped for ever since he made the decision to become a priest.

Regarding his service, he said, “If I was born again, I would again choose to be a priest. If I could choose again, I would again choose to serve in Salt Lake City.”

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