Father Kelly

Words. We use them to communicate. They are all that we have. When working across cultures we use English. American English. British English. And so on. But also the English spoken by non-native English speakers. In fact, that English is spoken by more people than those who speak native English.

1998. Federal elections in Germany. Chancellor Kohl recommended to a young Member of the Bundestag in his party to invite Father Kelly (name changed) to Bonn in order to talk about educational reform in the American university system.

Chancellor Kohl and Father Kelly had become acquaintances. Kelly, President of a major American and Catholic university located in Washington D.C., had done his Ph.D. in Theology in Germany. He was fluent in German. The Chancellor, also a Catholic, was very well-versed in both church history and theology. He was also quite well-connected with Rome.

University reform had become an important issue in German domestic politics. Federal elections were just around the corner. Father Kelly’s office gets a phone call. “Would the university president be willing to participate in a hearing in the Bundestag?”

The Bundestag is the German Parliament. And Parliament is analogous to Congress. Father Kelly’s chief of staff made the connection: a hearing in the Bundestag is like a hearing in the House or in the Senate. The Chancellor is inviting via the parliamentary group? “Yes, certainly. Father Kelly would be honored.”

Documents are sent back and forth per email. In English. It all seems to match up, but with a few question marks. A week before his scheduled flight to Bonn, it begins to occur to Father Kelly that the “hearing” he has been invited to as a very high-level subject area expert does not quite sound like one he would participate in across town in a Senate office building.

A phone call is made from Father Kelly’s office to the Bundestag seeking clarification without success. Father Kelly makes the flight from Washington to Bonn. The “hearing” in the Bundestag turns out to be a half-day meeting with a handful of young members of the Chancellor’s party who are focused on the issue and seeking expert input from across the Atlantic.

The “hearing” did not take place in the Bundestag. There was no large committee room. No panel of Bundestag Members from the various parties asking Father Kelly well-researched questions about how American universities approach the educational challenges of the future.

Nor did Kohl’s party schedule any other meetings for Father Kelly, neither with the press, nor with the presidents of nearby universities such as Bonn and Cologne, nor with German Secretary of Education or at least with his Undersecretary. Nothing.

Father Kelly flew from Washington to Bonn to speak with very junior members of the Bundestag for no more than half a day, then flew back to Washington. A terrible waste of time, and money, for Father Kelly and the university he is the president of.

Hearing isn’t hearing. Words aren’t words.