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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bishop John C. Wester presides during the Mass and Blessing of Lay Ecclesial Ministers at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, Saturday, August 9, 2014. Eighty-five lay Catholics were commissioned Saturday by Wester.
Dozens of Utah Catholics answer call to join ministry
Religion » Most speak Spanish to help serve the diocese’s growing Hispanic population.
First Published Aug 09 2014 05:14 pm • Last Updated Aug 11 2014 06:29 pm

It was no small thing for Maria Rodriguez to commit one weekend a month for four years to an endeavor of the mind, heart and soul.

And on Saturday, it all came to fruition in a joyful Mass at Salt Lake City’s Cathedral of the Madeleine.

At a glance

A new class

The Salt Lake City Diocese has not decided when to begin new four-year classes to train lay ecclesial ministers. But more than 30 Catholics already have expressed interest.

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She and 62 other Spanish-speaking and 22 English-speaking Catholics were commissioned as lay ecclesial ministers. They now are equipped to be leaders in parishes and missions throughout the Salt Lake City Diocese. They cannot celebrate Mass, but they can conduct a Communion service, prepare Catholics for marriage or baptism and manage parishes.

Rodriguez, 36, has four children (including a 3-year-old born during the program) and so it was not easy to attend all those classes and spend countless hours beyond as well, learning about theology, developing a prayer life and cultivating leadership skills.

"It took a lot of family sacrifice and it was quite challenging," says Rodriguez, an immigrant from Mexico 17 years ago. A member of St. Francis Xavier Parish, she lives in West Valley City.

But, Rodriguez says, it was worth it to prepare herself to serve as a bridge between the burgeoning population of Hispanic Catholics and the much smaller population of other Utah Catholics. "Our community needs us."

Lay ministry is an outgrowth of the 1960s’ Second Vatican Council, which called for rediscovering the role of the lay person in the church, says the Rev. Wayne Cavalier, director of the Congar Institute for Ministry Development in San Antonio.

The Congar Institute, named for Yves Congar, a cardinal and influential theologian at Vatican II, helps U.S. dioceses "form," or teach, lay ministers. It helped the Salt Lake City Diocese create its four-year program and sent experts on everything from canon law to ethics in ministry to teach classes in Utah.

Cavalier was one of the priests joining Saturday’s Mass with Bishop John C. Wester, leader of Utah’s Catholics, who commissioned the lay ministers.

"You are being recognized as leaders, but this recognition doesn’t set you apart, it draws you in," Wester told the 85 new ministers, who stood as their names were called, and later surrounded the altar and together recited a promise of service, first in English and then in Spanish. The cathedral was filled with hundreds of the family members and friends.

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"Ultimately, this is not about you and me," Wester says. "It’s about Christ."

Commissioning such ministers is no stopgap response to the priest shortage, Wester says. But "it certainly is a great help."

"By baptism, they [all Catholics] have a call and a right to take a leadership role in the church," he says. "We need lay leaders who can get out there and bring Christ to people."

Mission country • It’s remarkable that the Salt Lake City Diocese, which covers all of Utah and is considered mission country because of its dearth of Catholic culture and institutions, could pull off the four-year formation of 85 lay ministers, says Joseph Boland, vice president of mission for Catholic Extension.

That organization raises money from donors for projects in rural or Catholic mission country. It provided $250,000 for the Spanish-speakers’ training here.

"Geographic distance really is a huge barrier to programs like this," Boland says.

It required extra planning and coordination, he says, to create a good learning environment and sense of community for people who live hours apart and have busy work and family lives.

"What’s even more impressive," he says, "is to keep it up for four years."

The diocese’s first class of lay ministers, commissioned in 2010, was comprised of 23 English speakers.

When the diocese’s director of religious education, Susan Northway, and director of Hispanic ministry, Maria Cruz Gray, were discussing launching another class, they realized they needed a separate program to serve the growing Latino population. An estimated 70 percent to 80 percent of Utah’s 300,000-plus Catholics are Hispanic.

Lay ministry students came from all over Utah, from Kanab to Logan, Wendover to Vernal.

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