Abbé Marcelo de Oliveira, you’re originally from Brazil. When did you leave your home country?
I left Brazil for the first time to move to Ann Arbor, Michigan (Go Blue!) in America, where I went to pursue my PhD.
So, your first degree was in Brazil and then you did your doctorate in Michigan. What was your area of research?
I majored in Biomedical Sciences in Brazil, and then I did a Masters in Pharmacology in the same department. My PhD was done in the department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at the University of Michigan, which is basically an umbrella department for all non-evolutionary biology labs. My research, in Dr. Mohammed Akaaboune’s lab, focused on the development and the plasticity of the neuromuscular junction, which is the contact between a nerve and a muscle cell that controls the contraction of the latter. This junction is studied due to its importance in neuromuscular diseases, as well as because it provides us with a better known and more easily accessible model to how neurons communicate in the brain.
Fascinating. When did you experience a call to the priesthood?
I began discerning the priesthood in July 2012, after a diocesan barbecue that hosted a talk by Fr. John Linden, director of vocations for my then diocese of Lansing. Some of the material he brought had some vocation stories of the priests in the diocese, including my very own pastor’s, who left his Biochemistry PhD to go to seminary.
A clear precedent! And so, you entered the seminary of the Institute of Christ the King in Italy.
Yes. I first met the canons of the Institute at their 2013 Sursum Corda event for young adults in Chicago. Their liturgy, particularly the Divine Office, and their dedication impressed me right away. In the following years, it became clear to me that the charisms of the Institute made it the ideal place for me to live my vocation: the Traditional Mass, the solemnity of the liturgy, the delightful spirituality of St. Francis of Sales…
And how did you end up in Preston?
Our seminarians are usually assigned for one or more years of apostolate as part of their priestly training. I was blessed with being chosen to come to Preston, a wonderful apostolate, with excellent priests and very kind faithful. Furthermore, I get to be involved with the St. Benedict Academy and to teach, which has long been one of my great passions.
What subjects are you teaching at The Saint Benedict Academy?
I teach Latin and French grammar, as well as catechism (moral theology) to seniors.
But no molecular biology!
If the Head Teacher will grant me the hours, I will gladly teach it as well…
Hang on; that’s a few languages: English, French, Latin, Portuguese of course. Are there any others?
I can manage Italian, though not as fluently. My Spanish withered away from lack of practice, but I can still easily read it.
What’s your method in learning and in teaching a language?
I have found that one of the greatest challenges of teaching a language in our day is that students are not familiar with the grammatical structure of their own native language. The result is that they speak it by memorizing patterns throughout the year, but never understanding what they do unconsciously. Learning another language like this is possible, but very fatiguing, especially when you are no longer a child. On the contrary, I was lucky to have received a very classical view of the grammar of my own native language (Portuguese). Therefore, when I learn a language, I start with the grammar; understanding how the language works. On the side, it is important to read it and listen to it as much as you can, even if in the beginning you might understand little of it. In teaching a language, I have followed the same line: grammar is crucial. It is not sufficient to memorize constructions: the student should know the general rule that explains why it is so and be able to apply it in all particular cases, and even extend it to other languages, when applicable.
You clearly like the intellectual discipline of the Latin. Why do you think it’s an important subject for children to learn? What type of formation can it give them?
The structure of grammar parallels the structure of thought. It’s unsurprising, then, that many young men and women have difficulty with reasoning – they do not know how to order it! In a lot of ways, our Latin program should serve to instil this structured understanding of all languages, including English, whose grammar we often painstakingly review in our Latin sessions. Nevertheless, this view of a language exclusively as a set of rules would appeal to only a very small minority of people, and rightly so. Therefore, we also make sure to examine this structure in context, with a wealth of Latin texts, in particular related to our living usage of Latin in the liturgy, as well as French. In addition to the enormous spiritual richness, Latin is also a key to a body of classical literature that is at the base of our civilization, of its history, politics, philosophy etc. One of the best ways to understand the modern world is to read classical and medieval authors.
It’s very interesting that you come from this intensely scientific background and now you are teaching Latin and moral theology, but clearly you see a continuity…
I do see a clear continuity. Prescriptive grammar, especially in a language like Latin, is almost mathematical in its way of proceeding. As I mentioned, its logic mirrors the natural order of reasoning, which is at the basis of all science, including Theology and the natural sciences. As for Theology, there could be an apparent discontinuity to those in today’s majority, who believe Theology to be a matter of opinion, and something completely foreign to the domain of science. On the contrary, as paragoned by our patron, St. Thomas Aquinas, Theology is a science, grounded in reasoning even when its premises are revealed, and its conclusions are more often than not of greater certainty than those of the natural sciences.
Abbé, thank you very much and thanks for all your hard work at the Academy!