For almost two years, 56 Hispanic/Latino adults met in Melrose each month for a full weekend of study — Friday, Saturday and Sunday — for a pilot program designed to form lay ministers. On May 4, they graduated from the program, which was established in collaboration with the Pastoral Leadership Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake University (Mundelein Seminary) in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
“Because the complexion of the dioceses in the U.S. is changing so significantly, we have to pay attention to that,” said Bishop Donald Kettler. “With the Latino population growing, especially here in our diocese, we need to prepare for that. I see a willingness in the Latino community to step forward and lead but they also say to me that they are not properly trained. That’s the reason for this program. It’s an attempt to meet the current needs of our diocese and the people we serve.”
In 2017, Mayuli Bales, diocesan director of multicultural ministries, and Deacon Ernie Kociemba, director of the diaconate, visited parishes across the diocese to invite men and women to participate in the program.
“In order to help meet our Hispanic/Latino neighbors’ spiritual needs, our diocese searched for a catechetical formation program that would help form lay Latino Catholic catechists and other parish ministries,” Deacon Kociemba explained. “It was hoped that … we could [also] use the program as a seedbed to [encourage] Latino men to go on to be deacons and priests.”
The formation program, funded in part by the students, their parish and the diocese, was held at the City Center and public school in Melrose. People traveled from as far north as Pelican Rapids and as far south as Worthington. The parish of St. Andrew in Greenwald offered the parish rectory to house the visiting professors. Many people from the surrounding area hosted the students, provided meals and cared for their children while they studied.
Deacon Kociemba said his greatest joy came from witnessing the students putting the Gospel into action.
“I watched … complete strangers from more than a dozen communities form one community,” he said. “It was incredible to watch how each took care of the other. They opened their homes to one another, carpooled, pitched in with meals, provided daycare, prayed and worshipped as a group. All this while sacrificing their own income from the weekends they needed to attend — 18 weekends in all, from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. That takes faith and a great love for God.”
Rosa Ramirez, one of the 56 students to graduate from the program, attends St. Mary Parish in Melrose, where she ministers as a server and singer at the Spanish Mass. When she was first approached about the class, she wasn’t sure it was for her.
“I decided to start the formation class because I wanted to learn more about my faith,” she said. “I am Catholic, and I felt that sometimes I did not know why I was Catholic. My friends in a prayer group invited me, and I decided to do it. ‘What could go wrong learning about God?’ they said. I enjoyed it because I recognized that God is giving me the opportunity to be part of his kingdom.”
Ramirez said the weekends also were fun.
“I looked forward to coming to class because every time I learned something different,” she said. “It was a school of love. I learned about myself in relationship with the Lord. I learned to recognize the face of Jesus in others. I learned different ways to be close to the Lord.”
Ramirez hopes to continue learning and also hopes to work with the youth in her parish.
“I hope I can be a better Catholic and evangelize with my actions and not just my words,” she said.
As part of their ongoing education, the men and women from this initial cohort will be preparing ministry projects that will be unveiled in their parishes in the coming months. According to Deacon Kociemba, more than a dozen men are considering applying for the Hispanic/Latino diaconate formation program, which the diocese plans to launch this fall.
“It’s been a successful experience,” Bales said. “How do we measure success? It is successful because of the number of people who registered, continued and finished. It is successful because their love for the Lord and their deepness of faith has grown. It is successful because they are missionary disciples, who are formed to go forth and evangelize, not only by their words but through the testimony of their lives.
“It is a great benefit, not only for these 56 who have gone deeper into their faith, but it is a gift to the whole Church, which has now grown by having these 56 persons graduate. There will be a ripple effect,” she added.
Deacon Kociemba and Bales said they were both astounded by the commitment the students made to their education. Both leaders said their own faith was stretched and nurtured.
“As I look back these past couple of years, I am still amazed at their dedication, their humbleness to be formed and their reverence for God and Mary,” said Deacon Kociemba. “I am amazed how the Holy Spirit works among them. They never asked to be served, only given a chance to serve. They worked hard to complete their studies and formation. In the end, through their faith, great love for God and one another, not only were they formed, but this deacon was also formed.”
Deacon Kociemba said his greatest hope for these graduates is that they take what they have learned and put their formation and talents to good use in their respective parishes, communities and families.
“I hope they never stop learning about their faith,” he said. “I ask that they be given the chance to become leaders in their communities, parishes, as directors of religious education, heads of marriage and family ministry. I pray, too, that a number of them be allowed to enter formation to the diaconate and priesthood. Most of all I pray they stay the same loving, faith-filled, humble people that I found them to be.”