By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published January 21, 2016
ATLANTA—The first class of 60 students from the Archdiocese of Atlanta has completed a three-year formation program in Spanish through the University of Dallas, earning a pastoral theology certificate.
At a graduation ceremony Jan. 9 at Holy Spirit Church, Bishop Luis R. Zarama sent forth the Spanish-speaking church leaders to catechize and evangelize the faithful from Gainesville to Jonesboro and fortify Hispanic ministries across the archdiocese.
The online program aims to form leaders and strengthen the Spanish catechetical foundation in the Church of the archdiocese where 68 of 100 parishes offer Mass in Spanish and nearly half—44 percent—of Catholics are Hispanic.
The second class of 70 students will complete studies in December and registration will open in April for the third class to begin this fall.
“This program has really made a difference in reaching out to the leaders in the diocese. It has provided this formation for them and raised awareness of the importance of forming these Hispanic leaders,” said program coordinator Monica Oppermann of the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship.
“Our mission is to equip parish leaders for ministry. This program has fulfilled the mission in equipping them with formation and resources and networking with each other.”
In the fall and spring semesters, students took two theological classes and one pastoral course over 15 weeks, watching a weekly video lecture at their convenience and completing assignments, tests and quizzes with online communication with professors. The certificate in pastoral theology is comprehensive but less demanding than a degree program. It meets study requirements for master catechist certification. The workload for the graduating class included 90 weeks of study, 18 books and 90 discussion forums, videos and exams.
A professor from the Catholic university kicked off each semester with a class at the Chancery in Smyrna where students received books from Spanish publishers. Class members were also divided geographically into smaller groups to meet for study and prayer.
“We formed them and we connected them and the teachers interacted with them,” said Oppermann.
The students, ranging from Mexican and Central American immigrants to second-generation Americans of Hispanic descent, hailed from 30 parishes. The archdiocese offered two scholarships per parish for members nominated by the pastor; the parish paid 30 percent, the archdiocese 40 percent, and the students covered the remainder of the $670 annual tuition. Five also participated from the Diocese of Savannah and six paid for themselves as independent participants.
“That partnership was fabulous because students felt affirmed by the pastor, and for the parish, the diocese was affirming them, too. And we are assured it was a good investment because we know whoever was nominated was going to work at the parish,” Oppermann said.
84 percent of enrolled completed program
With few online certificate programs in Spanish in the United States, archdiocesan leaders believe this program meets a need in addressing the realities of Hispanic Catholic immigrants in the United States. The archdiocese launched the program in 2013 after planning with UD’s School of Ministry to design an online version as an alternative to the on-site program offered by Dallas since 2009.
Oppermann said that the online format was key to attracting leaders from rural parishes who lacked the transportation or the time to attend a Saturday class in Atlanta. UD needed 70 students to make the program financially viable, and 73 originally signed on to set things in motion under the patronage of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Oppermann commended the students’ perseverance on top of day jobs and ministry service. Their retention rate was 84 percent.
“So many of the Spanish-speaking leaders at the parishes are well-intentioned and might have had some formation, but the formation opportunities are almost non-existent,” she said. “It’s a testimony of how much the Hispanic population is getting integrated into society, into technology, and how much they are willing to give to the church in terms of time.”
Courses range from Scripture and church history to youth and young adult ministry, liturgy, sacraments, prayer and spirituality. Oppermann herself completed the program in order to learn the content and troubleshoot any problems—such as having a professor replaced who was not engaged.
She contacted students falling behind to give them encouragement and support. Students also received spiritual formation, including a retreat on the contemplative reading of Scripture, Lectio Divina.
“They really felt they were loved and cared for by both the archdiocese, the parish and the School of Ministry,” she said. “These 60 students have gotten to know Christ better and they are on fire and in love with him.”
‘Desperate need’ for more faith formation
The pastor of St. Peter Church in LaGrange, Father Patrick Scully sponsored two students and concelebrated the graduation Mass. Graduate Adriana Bayardo Munoz serves as a catechist at the parish and as a liaison between the Anglo and Hispanic communities at their summer bilingual Masses.
“She’s thrilled with the program, really enjoyed it,” said Father Scully. “Now after having been given this diploma she’ll be also equipped to teach adults about basic elements of the faith in a little more depth. … She does a wonderful job, a natural-born teacher.”
Father Scully is eager to expand the catechetical palette in Spanish. He would like to add classes on core topics such as Scripture and the Old Testament roots of social justice teaching—starting with a class on Lent.
“They are thirsting for more,” he said. “There’s a desperate need for these folks to get more formation.”
At Prince of Peace Church in Flowery Branch, Father Eric Hill gladly took advantage of the program to better serve the roughly 800 worshippers at the Spanish Mass. Two leaders just graduated and three more are in the second class.
“It’s a matter of being proactive and supportive of the leadership,” he said. “We want to form them with the skillset to step forward and lead the community. We want to make sure everybody has the right tools, and we want to make sure to take advantage of that.”
At St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro, graduate Danilo Campos Arias serves as a catechist, Eucharistic minister, altar server coordinator and parish council member. During his studies, he and his wife formed a class for catechists in order to share coursework he was receiving.
“Today it’s a reality, and we work with nearly 20 persons in the planning and implementing of a catechesis program for the Hispanic community. With guidance from the Holy Spirit, this initiative has brought great joy and participation from families in diverse ministries,” he reported.
A native of Costa Rica with a degree in physical education, Arias has lived in Jonesboro since 2001. The program strengthened his faith and resolve to persevere and quieted his anxieties. He now feels a greater sense of responsibility to serve. “Our gifts and talents must be formed and guided to work most effectively to carry out a mission of evangelization,” said the father of four. “I thank God, the Archdiocese of Atlanta in partnership with the University of Dallas, and my church, St. Philip Benizi, for their support and the opportunity to grow in faith.”
The Office of Formation and Discipleship is one of the offices funded by the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal.