By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 25, 2012
In this “Year of Faith” called for by Pope Benedict XVI, the Archdiocese of Atlanta invites Hispanic catechetical leaders and other faithful Spanish speakers to enroll in an online pastoral theology certificate program through a new partnership with the University of Dallas School of Ministry.
The program aims to enrich formation of ministry leaders catechizing and evangelizing the Hispanic Catholic community in the United States to better serve their communities. Participants will complete online 12 theology and six pastoral courses in Spanish over three years, with two academic and one pastoral per semester, in areas of catechesis, prayer, leadership and methodology to achieve a certificado en teologia pastoral (CPT) and become master catechists for the archdiocese.
“It came about from the need of formation in Spanish. There are not many programs out there, but this parish program caught our attention. It’s coming from a very good institution,” said Monica Oppermann of the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship. “It’s a program that has been tested in other dioceses in the United States. … It is a program that has been designated here in the U.S. for Hispanic residents.”
The program’s courses range from Scripture, church fathers and church history to youth and young adult ministry, liturgy and sacraments, and prayer and spirituality. Priority enrollment is given to those in Hispanic ministry nominated by their pastor but is open to all until the 100 spaces are filled, Oppermann said. It may be beneficial for anyone from the busy professional with a college degree not related to religious studies wanting to bring formation to the parish to the immigrant leading a ministry who lacks the academic background or means to pursue degree studies. Two leaders from parish schools of evangelization are enrolling, she said, “as a way of continuing their formation and having the opportunity of receiving a certificate from one of the most prestigious Catholic institutions in the country.”
Oppermann also emphasized that the theology classes, which have no academic prerequisites, are not overly academic but are simple and practical in being taught by professors with both advanced degrees and parish leadership experience.
“People with experience in parishes, they’ve come up with it. It’s very necessary as catechists to know the history of the church and there’s a whole course on the catechism—there are so many Catholics who have never opened the catechism,” she said. “We’re forming a leader, equipping a leader or person who is already working in a parish or wants to know more about the faith and equipping them with deeper knowledge and pastoral methods.”
The courses require study and discipline but without the intensity of a degree program. Participants will view a weekly one-hour, 40-minute video at their convenience and complete periodic tests, quizzes and assignments. And some parishes will offer open study groups for those seeking community. Class is held weekly for 15 weeks in the spring and fall semesters. Archdiocesan staff will act as administrators and be available to provide class-related support as needed. “We are all going to be on the same page every week—one class every week and everybody has to complete assignments that week.”
Pastors in the 66 churches in the archdiocese with a Spanish Mass are being asked to nominate one person; those from the nine parishes with three or more Spanish Masses can nominate two. Those nominated by their pastor will receive a partial tuition stipend from the archdiocese, and for others the cost is $670 per year.
The enrollment period runs through Nov. 17, and the program begins Jan. 13 following a commencement Mass and orientation at the Chancery offices in Smyrna. The archdiocese will work with persons needing alternative payment options.
Marist Father S. Patrick Scully, pastor of St. Peter Church in LaGrange, said that he had already nominated a person from his parish. For that person, he said, “It will be beneficial, both for personal enrichment and service in the parish.”
He said, “In my experience, the Hispanic community is super-thirsty for faith they can understand and explain, especially in rural, Baptist-Methodist Georgia, where Catholics are minorities to begin with.”
He added, “This program will taste like ‘Gatorade’ to Hispanic leaders who have been laboring long and hard in Georgia fields, farms, stores, kitchens and industries.”
Additionally, the program is a straightforward way to become a master catechist, who can teach catechist certification classes and guide catechists in formation, as normally the catechetical certification process involves taking a mixture of formation classes under the director or parish mentor as they are offered around the archdiocese.
There are various online certificate programs in English but archdiocesan leaders believe that this program meets a need in addressing the realities of Hispanic immigrants in the United States. Pia Septien, director of continuing education programs for U.D.’s school of ministry, said that CPT was launched three years ago and helps Hispanic immigrants to better understand the communities they serve and the realities of the American Catholic church. She said, “Hispanics immigrants in the United States, for whom everything is different and new, the consistency that the Catholic Church gives to their lives is very important. The program will help them develop the skills and the knowledge needed to help their communities.”
Oppermann agrees that in the United States Hispanic immigrants look more to their church as a community center of social and spiritual life and also tend to volunteer much more than she experienced growing up in Mexico. But at the same time the many undocumented churchgoers don’t like to register.
“People see church here more like family,” she said. “I was really impressed when I got to Holy Spirit Parish and saw all those ministries going on here in the U.S. through the work of volunteers.”
In addition to its Hispanic perspective, Oppermann also likes the CPT’s flexible format that encourages students to consider how they can share materials with their parishes along the way. “It’s not pulling leaders out of a parish. It kind of molds to the needs of the pastor and the leadership,” she said. “It is for the leaders, so they can continue serving their communities at the parish level.”
Father Scully said, “This program tells our Hispanic leaders that the archdiocese takes them seriously and wants to cultivate its leaders so they can pass the faith on to the next generation, who can easily go to the Protestant church next door (which may have a Starbuck’s) if they can’t quench their thirst at their home parish.”