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Life Lessons Lead to Church Role

New lay minister has no formal seminary training but knows the congregation well.

September 08, 2003|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Salvadoran immigrant Arturo Lopez grew up too poor to acquire the university education typically required for professional lay ministers in the Roman Catholic Church.

But to his Dolores Mission Church community in Boyle Heights, his long years of walking with the people through shootings and deaths, religious festivities and peace marches offered rich evidence of his leadership credentials.

So when parish members found out earlier this year that Dolores Mission would lose another priest, thinning its clerical ranks to one, they turned to Lopez. On Sunday, they formally commissioned him to help lead the community as a pastoral assistant and hope he will serve as a model to nurture lay leaders for the fast-growing immigrant church.

In the ceremony's symbolic high point, community representative Claudia Martinon passed a crucifix to Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala, who passed it to Lopez. Then the bishop read a proclamation commissioning Lopez to serve in his new role, as the packed congregation erupted in wild applause.

"This ceremony affirms lay leadership and the skills we have," exulted Arturo Laris, 23, a church volunteer and seventh-grade teacher at the parish school. "It's like giving power back to the people."

For his part, the soft-spoken Lopez, 39, pronounced himself both humbled and excited by the challenge as he thanked the congregation alongside his wife and three daughters.

In his new role, Lopez will not conduct sacramental rituals such as Mass, which is reserved for priests. But Father Michael Kennedy, Dolores Mission's Jesuit pastor, said Sunday's ceremony invested Lopez with the authority to take full charge of parish business in his absence, guide the various church ministries and carry out the Jesuit vision of social justice.

"There is a lot of leadership in the immigrant communities, but because of language or lack of formal education, certain opportunities haven't been available to them," said Zavala, who presided over the liturgy with the ceremonial staff and miter of a bishop. "We need to find ways of forming them to be viable leaders and ministers."

In Zavala's San Gabriel Pastoral Region of 66 parishes, he said, more than two dozen are predominantly immigrant congregations. Although lay leaders from those parishes may be quietly emerging, he said, Sunday's ceremony marked the first time he has presided over a liturgy to formally commission an immigrant leader.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese operates a training program for professional lay ministers known as pastoral associates that requires, among other things, a master's degree in pastoral theology or a related field. Such graduate education is also required for deacons, who are ordained ministers allowed to assume some sacramental roles, such as baptisms.

But Kennedy and others are advocating an alternative training track based on an apprenticeship, for people who lack such formal degrees.

Lopez, for instance, holds a high school graduation equivalency degree for studies completed in El Salvador. But he has spent 16 years apprenticing with Kennedy and other Jesuits, largely working with Central American refugees and homeless people at three parishes in Los Angeles.

Lopez's commission comes at a time when the Roman Catholic Church is reemphasizing the need to empower lay leadership. The call for lay leadership has intensified in recent years, as clergy sex scandals have cast a spotlight on the shortcomings of the church's clerical hierarchies.

On Saturday, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony signed the concluding report of a multiyear process known as a synod to reexamine pastoral priorities in the Los Angeles church. Nurturing lay leadership was a major theme. The Society of Jesus, the world's largest religious order also known as Jesuits, also emphasized lay leadership in its convocation last month, bringing lay and ordained together to debate future priorities.

"This is the way the spirit is moving," Kennedy said. "We keep on talking about it, but it's time to do it."

But Lopez's commission is also grounded in ancient church traditions. According to Father John Coleman, a sociologist at Loyola Marymount University, bishops and other church leaders were chosen from the people and trained under apprenticeships for 1,500 years. In the mid-16th century, the Council of Trent decided to set up seminaries to give future priests more systematic academic and moral training, he said.

"Some of the apprentices were illiterate, and others were corrupt," Coleman said, explaining the factors driving the establishment of the seminary system. "But one disadvantage is that you get people who, after they are trained, parachute into a community they don't know anything about."

One of Lopez's greatest strengths, his community backers say, is his intimate knowledge of their needs obtained through hours of devotion to them.

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