ST. PAUL, Minn. — Andres Ramirez now has the theological background and formation to support his volunteer endeavors at Incarnation/Sagrado Corazon de Jesus in Minneapolis.
Ramirez, who doesn't speak fluent English, recently graduated with the first all-Spanish speaking cohort to earn an undergraduate lay ministry certificate in theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. The 45 students have attended lectures in Spanish on Tuesday nights since the spring 2014.
"It was really hard in the beginning because it had been 20 years since I had gone to class," Ramirez said through an interpreter.
Ramirez, a construction worker, volunteers with marriage preparation and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at Incarnation. He also serves as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion at Mass and hopes to pursue a vocation to the permanent diaconate.
St. Thomas' all-Spanish lay ministry certificate program, the first in the upper Midwest, started to bolster the formation of Hispanic volunteers and lay ecclesial ministers for service. The program, which already existed in English, includes six undergraduate courses such as Christology, moral theology, ecclesiology, sacred Scripture and sacramental theology.
Adding a Spanish-speaking program caters to a major population in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis; the archdiocese has 23 parishes with outreach to Latino communities.
Carmen Dean, 47, directs Latino ministry at Risen Savior in Burnsville. She has seen the need for Latino outreach grow since she began her work in 2004. Dean graduated from the St. Thomas program with Ramirez Dec. 20 at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul. Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis celebrated the commencement Mass for the students and their families.
Her biggest challenge is that "the Latino community is growing too fast" for ministry resources to keep up, she told The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper. There aren't enough Latino lay leaders with formation to meet the need, she added.
Dean and Ramirez previously took courses through the archdiocesan Office of Latino Ministry, but the college courses at St. Thomas took things to a new level, giving Dean more "vision about the Catholic Church, about the faith in general" and a better understanding of other Christian churches and religions. The program helped Ramirez "to get to know God more profoundly."
According to Luz Zagal, 47, director of Latino ministry at St. Alphonsus in Brooklyn Center, the St. Thomas program already has benefited her ministry at the parish, which has 800 Latino households. It has helped her approach people more pastorally, better recognize their needs and build a "more close-knit community with our fellow Anglo and Spanish-speaking community," she said.
Latino lay minister Patricio Pena from Assumption Parish in Richfield also graduated from the St. Thomas program. She sees the catechetical and formation challenges facing his evangelization work with Latino Catholics.
"There's deep needs," Pena said through an interpreter. "First, we have to be brothers to them, accompany them, to walk with them in their journey."
It took sacrifices for the students to complete their Tuesday night courses and homework, as many had to give up time with family.
"It has been a sacrifice, but it's all been well worth it," Zagal said, "because I have not only been able to reach out to my community, but also to my children, to teach them about the way that God wants us to live in a more, better quality (of) life as well as connectedness with our parish and our community."