New Emmaus course emphasizes accompaniment in formation of youth

Rocio Meza-Barajas reflects in a quiet spot at Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary as part of her studies at Emmaus Institute.

Story by Mary L. Parks

When Rocio Meza-Barajas first heard about Emmaus Institute during a Bible study, she thought, “Four years is a long time.” But after making the commitment to attend, she never regretted it.

“It is amazing what you find out,” Meza-Barajas said. “You dig and dig and don’t want it to end. One question would get answered and another would pop up.”

The Emmaus Institute is an intellectual and ministerial formation program for lay ministers and potential Latino/Hispanic diaconal candidates from the Diocese of St. Cloud, in partnership with Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary. Students attend one Saturday a month, September through May, for four years, and the program provides courses in English and Spanish.

Meza-Barajas, who serves as a greeter and usher at her parish of St. Andrew in Elk River, said her favorite class at the Institute was Christology, the study of Jesus Christ.

“You realize you don’t know him like you think. We don’t know him until we spend time with him,” she said.

When her four years at the Emmaus Institute were over, Meza-Barajas just wanted to keep going. According to Kristi Bivens, director of lay leadership formation for the diocese, other graduates of the Institute feel the same way.

“They are always asking ‘What’s next?’” Bivens said.

While Meza-Barajas and her classmates were finishing up at the Emmaus Institute, Mayuli Bales, director of Multicultural Ministries, was noticing a need for more youth programming in the diocese.

According to Bales, this need is particularly strong within the Hispanic community, where youth are bicultural.

“They are growing up in two different worlds and their families are changing as a result. It has a social impact,” Bales said.

Donelle Poling speaks with Sandy Garcia and Rocio Meza-Barajas during a course at the Emmaus Institute.

Recognizing the demand for more ministerial formation, as well as the need for more youth programming, the diocese is once again partnering with Saint John’s to offer a new track called “Foundations for Youth Ministry.” This new, year-long course provides an introduction to youth ministry, particularly within the Hispanic/Latino context.

Bales explained that the program builds on the work that others have been doing for years, citing the 1976 USCCB document, “A Vision for Youth Ministry” and V Encuentro, a 2018 convention held by the USCCB to emphasize the importance of involving young Hispanics in the Church.

“We are continuing the conversation the Church had before, using the documents we already have. They tell us to listen and see others who may not be in the pews. God always invites everyone to the table and the Holy Spirit is continually working,” Bales said.

Donelle Poling, director of Youth in Theology and Ministry at Saint John’s, teaches the courses in the new program.

“This is a different context [than YTM] but the focus — accompaniment — is a perennial truth.What does accompaniment mean in light of the Gospel?” she said.

Poling explains that youth ministry has changed, post-COVID.

“Participation has declined. The ways we define faith are changing. The world is different. There are more mental health challenges. Accompaniment — listening deeply to the lived experiences of others — is more important than ever.”

Based on the USCCB’s “Renewing the Vision: A Framework for Youth Ministry,” which builds upon the earlier “A Vision for Youth Ministry,” the course focuses on the theme of accompaniment and the “culture of encounter” called for by Pope Francis.

“Youth ministry is about a call into relationship and accompaniment, walking together in discipleship,” Poling explained. “It’s the walk of Emmaus. Jesus met them exactly where they were at. He said, ‘Walk with me and let me listen to you.’ He allowed them to be themselves.”

Poling describes an invitational style of formation inspired by the Benedictine charism of hospitality, “It feels good to be welcome. It’s good to belong.”

There are nine people in the first cohort of Foundations for Youth Ministry, including Meza-Barajas. Other students include a paid lay minister, catechists and a diocesan director. Some of the students have completed Emmaus Institute, but that is not a requirement to participate in this new course.

Classes are held in English, which is a second language for some of the students. Some students speak to each other in Spanish, for clarification and ease of understanding.

“The Holy Spirit works in every language, in every person, everywhere,” Meza-Barajas said.

“Some people say that the youth are our future, but I say they are our present,” Bales said. “The Diocese, under the leadership of Bishop Patrick Neary, has heard and responded to the need for lay ecclesial ministers, especially for Latinos and for youth.”


Photography by Paul Middlestaedt

To learn more about Foundations for Youth Ministry or the Emmaus Institute, contact Kristi Bivens,  associate director for Lay Leadership Formation, at 320-258-7642 or at

Author: The Central Minnesota Catholic

The Central Minnesota Catholic is the magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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