Speech problems can actually help clergy, says Phong Vinh Nguyen
Three years ago stuttering was catapulted into the worldwide spotlight with the success of the movie The King’s Speech, which centered on King George VI’s struggle with the speech disorder and his unique relationship with his Aussie therapist, Lionel Logue.
Another famous person who stuttered was Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), who in writings would express himself with a fluency that he lacked in his real life. Carroll’s father was as Anglican priest and he was expected to follow suit. He became a deacon in the Church of England but never took the initiative to study for the priesthood. Most biographies cite Carroll’s stuttering as the reason.
But countless priests, nuns and Brothers who struggle with stuttering have pursued vocations in the Catholic Church and have not let their speech problems hold them back.
In 2011, when Archbishop Joseph Harris was consecrated as the Coadjutor-Archbishop of Port of Spain in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, he said that he almost never became a priest because of his stammering. “There was some doubt I would be ordained because of my stammer,” he said. “Fifty years ago I could not put two words together without stammering.”
Fr Luis Farinello, an Argentine priest who is famous throughout Latin America for helping the poor, did not let stuttering stand in the way of his vocation. A few years ago, the Argentine Stuttering Association presented him with the Jorge Luis Borges Award, named after the Nobel prize-winning author (and stutterer).
A couple of years ago, people in Bridgeport, Connecticut, must have been surprised to see an article in the Connecticut Post about Fr Michael Dunn, a parish priest who struggles with stuttering. Fr Dunn was counseling troubled teenagers and going for a graduate degree in counselling when he decided to enter the priesthood. He was heartened during the application process and during his seminary years that his superiors were so encouraging to him in terms of his stuttering. He said of his superiors and professors: “They were always very supportive and helpful and remained more confident than I was that my speech would not be an issue for me.”
This understanding and encouragement was far different than some poor treatment Fr Dunn received during his childhood. Other children at times teased or mocked his speech. The most embarrassing moment of his life was when he tried out for a part in the school play. When it was his turn to read, he could not get out the first word at all and eventually gave up and sat down.
Fr Dunn now counts his speech problem as a blessing as it helps him in his ministry, in that people can relate to someone who is not perfect. “I believe that my stuttering has made me a more compassionate, patient and understanding person in my dealings with others,” he says.
He encourages young Catholics who stutter not to let their speech stand in the way of pursuing a vocation. “I think with God’s grace and help you can do or overcome anything so young people should not be afraid or think they can’t do it.”
Fr Michael Skrocki, the parish priest of St Ann ’s Melkite Catholic Church in nearby Danbury, has a doctorate in Canon Law from the Catholic University of America. He is the product of numerous failed speech therapy programmes and cannot remember a time he did not stutter. But celebrating Mass has never presented a problem for him. “Well, most, if not all, of the Divine Liturgy in the Eastern Catholic Churches is sung,” he explains, “so I suspect I have less difficulty than if it were recited. The primary ‘spoken’ part would be the homily. If I run into a problem I simply pause and try again. Perhaps that effort makes my congregation listen a little closer to what I’m saying.” When asked how people should look at their faith when dealing with speech problems, Fr Skrocki says: “Whether it’s a stutter, some other physical, emotional or psychological disability I’ve always looked at it as the way God made us, the challenges that God has given us to overcome, for whatever reason. The verse in Exodus where Moses tries to ‘bow out’ of doing God’s will to free the Israelites because he’s worried about his powers of speech is sometimes interpreted to mean that he stuttered. In the Muslim faith this is actually rather explicit. And yet God chose Moses, with whatever flaws he had, to be the vehicle of God’s Word and God’s Will in the world. As St Paul says: ‘I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.’”
Another well-known stutterer is Sister Eileen Hogan, a New Yorkbased Sister of Mercy who has worked in prison ministry as well as forming Sister to Sister, an organisation addressing the Aids crisis in Africa. She has cited her stutter as helping put inmates at ease.
On the other hand, Sister Winifred Danwitz, a retired speech language pathologist, has vast experience in working with children who stutter, but is not a sufferer herself. Nearly 50 years ago, Sister Winifred saw a need to help children with speech problems in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx. In 1961 she founded the Mt St Ursula Speech Center to meet the needs of children with all types of communication disorders. Reflecting on the centre she founded that is still going strong, she says: “I am most proud of the fact that we never refused treatment to a child because of a parent’s inability to pay a fee.”
Ft Dunn, who is now the parish priest of St Francis of Assisi church in Weston, Connecticut, mentioned another positive in giving advice to people who share his speech problem. “I have always felt that God has been the source of my strength not only with my stuttering but in every other challenge and obstacle as well,” he says. “Without Him I would have never made it. I would have given up or thrown in the towel.”
Phong Vinh Nguyen is a writer based in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Recently the Stuttering Foundation, a Memphis-based nonprofit organisation, has contacted the Diocese of Memphis and the Secretariat for Education of the USConference of Catholic Bishop to make them aware of their new brochure “Special Education Law and Children Who Stutter”, which spells out this benefit of free therapy. It can be downloaded here.