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Training for the nitty-gritty

Stockton, Calif.

Not long after her mother died, Elvira Orozco decided to become more involved in the church from which her mother was buried -- St. Edward’s Parish in Stockton.

Mother and grandmother Orozco, who was working at an electronics plant, spoke to the pastor, Fr. Leo Suarez, and pitched in where help was most needed -- initially cleaning the bathrooms.

Four years later she is director of religious education.

Nationally in those same four years, it is likely -- the final figures are not in -- the number of Catholics in paid lay ministry has surpassed the 45,000 working priests. Each year, the kind of training that is going on in Stockton and other places is becoming more essential to a church where the clergy ranks continue to diminish. Laypeople are taking a range of training, from more extensive courses needed to qualify for employment to courses that better prepare volunteers.

A 1997 survey by the National Pastoral Life Center showed 30,000 laypeople had gone through ministry training, with a further 30,000 in training. Not all of those laypeople land parish or diocesan jobs. Even so, thousands more have graduated from programs like the Stockton diocese’s School of Ministry that has changed Elvira Orozco’s life.

To be counted in the center’s survey, the lay ministers had to be working 20 or more paid hours a week. That matches the retired priests working halftime, though not today’s average pastor who is probably working well beyond anyone’s normal workweek.

Bathrooms to classroom

In the four years from bathrooms to classroom, Orozco’s job folded, she retrained as a dental technician but, most important, she went on a parish retreat. At the same time, Carlos Hernandez, parish director of evangelization, asked Orozco to work with a Monday night catechists class.

He also encouraged her to take the evening Stockton programs he was giving. He’s an adjunct staff member of the diocese’s ministry school, one of less than a dozen such lay formation programs around the country accredited by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Hernandez taught in Spanish.

These days, parish employee Orozco is taking the School of Ministry’s course again, this time in English. “I’m hearing everything twice,” she said. “It makes increased sense and, as I’m bilingual, it’s an enrichment for me.”

Orozco is one of almost 3,000 Stockton diocese Catholics who, in the past decade, have gone through the school’s programs, said its executive director, Sr. Diane Smith of St. Joseph of Carondolet.

“We’re not training people for jobs,” emphasized Smith, “we’re training volunteers who do the nitty-gritty parish work. Not the youth minister, but the volunteer who comes in on a Tuesday night to work with the youth.”

Nonetheless, the School of Ministry programs have proved to be first rung on a church career ladder for people like Elvira Orozco.

Smith said the school’s 27-week core course prepares them for the shorter courses that lead to certification in whatever field they next choose -- being a catechist or working in the grieving ministry. A further two-year advanced course provides some parishioners with steps toward teaching School of Ministry programs.

“We have a good faculty,” said Smith. “Some already have master’s and Ph.D.s. They’re all involved in other ministries and parishes and have full-time jobs.” At Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Modesto, the Wednesday evening instructor is Bill Brennan, a permanent deacon at Stockton’s Presentation Parish. By day he’s a history professor at the University of the Pacific.

Paying God back

Wednesday evening student Doris Sanders of St. Patrick’s Parish in Ripon wasn’t active in her parish until she retired as an AT&T engineer in 1999. “I decided it was time to get involved and pay God back,” she said.

Her parish needed baptismal preparation teachers. “Fr. [Mark] Wagner really encourages people to take courses,” she said. So Sanders signed up for the eight-week program on working with new parents and godparents.

In 2001, as her husband was dying of cancer, Sanders took the grieving ministry course -- “I was going through a lot of the steps.”

What she’s learned along the way, she said, is that she’d taken for granted a lot about her religion and the sacraments. Now she wants to be an accredited catechist. Then she’ll tackle LIMEX. It is a Loyola University, New Orleans, extension master’s program in religious education or pastoral ministry -- four years of part-time study under a local facilitator.

“Never too old to learn,” said Sanders, who added that her two grown sons think her involvement “is great.”

Her enthusiasm rubs off. Fellow parishioner Virginia McElroy, at the time studying to become a Catholic, was encouraged by Sanders to take the core course, too.

McElroy, who made her first Communion this Easter, said she may eventually teach catechism. “But right now I’m really just concentrating on learning about my ‘new family,’ ” she said.

Thursday mornings, Wanda and Gerard Scheuermann lead the classes at Presentation Parish. Both have their master’s in religious education from Regis University, Denver; Gerard is adult education director at St. Anthony’s Parish in Manteca, Wanda an editor with Resource Publications.

As ministry school faculty members, said Gerard Scheuermann, “we have to be aware that when we walk into a room with a group of adults taking courses, they are going to be all over the place in their interests and levels of knowledge about religion.”

And that, say the Scheuermanns, means using up-to-date adult teaching techniques at every step of the way. Otherwise those providing adult faith formation programs will run into “the bowling ball” syndrome.

Picture a bowling alley, said Wanda Scheuermann. If adult educators just knock down all the pre-Vatican II tenpins in the alley, two things happen: “One,” said Wanda, “some people just walk away. Two, others just pick up the pins -- and cement them back in precisely the same place so they won’t be knocked down again.”

With adult education, said Gerard, “you have to provide an atmosphere, plus information and opportunity within the education so that they will hit the pins down themselves -- and rearrange them within the teaching today that touches on their lives.”

The Scheuermanns said there is a strain of “apologetics types” who come to the classes. “They clutch tight their catechisms -- they are fundamentalists as far as their Catholicism is concerned,” said Wanda, “and they don’t know how to go beyond those lines.”

During one class on the Eucharist, she said, by way of explanation, when she quoted the Vatican II documents about Jesus’ presence in the assembly and the presider, “one person said talking that way is going to lessen Jesus’ presence in the consecrated bread.” He opened his catechism and quoted something about Jesus’ presence in the consecrated host as primary.

Scheuermann said she explained, “You’re quoting that quote, but everything I said comes out of the catechism, also. Did you check the other sections on the Eucharist?” She added, “There’s a small number of very loud people who are not inquirers but hold to pay, pray and obey.

“The majority of students want a solid foundation,” she said. “Generally, the people are hungry. They’re going to seek and latch on to something that’s going to feed them in some way. If we don’t offer to help stretch them -- then they’re open to any influence that comes along that will,” she said.

Becoming professional

The School of Ministry is very much Smith’s re-creation. The Sister of St. Joseph had just finished a 1991 sabbatical when Stockton Bishop Donald Montrose asked her to head diocesan religious education and revive a moribund ministry school originally started by then Bishop (now Cardinal) Roger Mahony.

Smith welcomed the challenge and took on the Catholic conference’s accreditation program as a guideline. “The accreditation process forced us to become professional,” said Smith. “There are eight sets of standards. Meeting those helped us organizationally. One standard,” she said, “was to develop a mission statement. We had to reflect on how Vatican II [1962-65] documents help in identifying the diocese’s needs. Without the guidelines, frankly, we might not have taken the time to do that. Yet we’ve revised the mission statement three times since then.”

Stockton diocese covers six counties in the San Joaquin Valley -- an agricultural region essential to much of America’s food supply. The two major cities are Stockton and Modesto. There is no major or dominant culture, said Smith. Hispanics, the largest overseas Portuguese population outside the Azores, plus Vietnamese and other Asians, and many Anglos make up the community.

Courses are taught in English and Spanish. But other cultures surface, she said -- in one diaconate course, a Laotian candidate taught his pastor how to say the Mass in Laotian.

The ministry school’s basic training components, said Smith, include programs such as ministering to the grieving, training people for marriage preparation, scripture studies or junior high catechetics.

At this time the diocese has enough priests, she said, but the program does train parishioners to lead prayer services and vigils. Costs run from $100-$400, depending on the program level and length; Smith is finding that it’s the parishes that increasingly are picking up the fees. “It’s the parishes themselves that benefit,” she said.

Back at St. Edward’s, Elvira Orozco has a different challenge. “My gift is leadership,” she said, and she’s coordinating the parish’s 17 Hispanic small Christian communities. The challenge is building up similar small groups among the Anglos. “That starts at the end of May,” she said.

Further, with Smith, Orozco is bringing the School of Ministry programs to St. Edward’s. She wants her catechists to have certificates, too.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

Lay formation resources

Other U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops accredited schools of lay formation in dioceses in 21 states including those at the St. Augustine diocese in Jacksonville, Fla.; Brescia University, Owensboro, Ky.; Kino Institute, Phoenix; Rockville Centre, N.Y., diocese; Toledo, Ohio, diocese; and programs at the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio.

There are programs in more than 10 states preparing for accreditation from the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Stockton School of Ministry can be reached by e-mail at: dsmith@stocktondiocese.org.

The Web site for the Loyola Institute for Ministry Extension Program is: www.loyno.edu/lim/extension

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002