Evolving Catholic Culture

Latino Students Leading the Way

En nombre del Padre, y del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo. Amen. So begins the Mass for agrowing number of churches across the United States. As the population of LatinoCatholics rises, programs to minister to and educate Latinos also must expand. The Latino Leadership program, one of the programs sponsored by the Center for Catholic Studies’ new Leadership Institute, is helping form the next generation of leaders in the  Latino/Hispanic community.

The center began its outreach to Hispanic students through the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought in 2001 with the advent of the Latino Leadership scholarship program. Michael Naughton, director of the Ryan Institute, recalls that the goal was to “ease the financial burden of Latino students who wished to attend a Catholic university while providing an environment of support, spiritual formation and service.” Currently, Latino Leadership students receive scholarships through the John A. Ryan Institute and the Lilly Endowment grant project, Beyond Career to Calling.

The Latino Leadership program helps students understand their current studies and future professions in terms of their Catholic faith and the call to serve their communities. Students double major in Catholic Studies and another field of their choice. The program provides them with an education that is both faith-filled and intellectually rigorous. Sophomore Irma Montes, a double major in Catholic Studies andpsychology, expresses the effects of this goal succinctly: “I wholeheartedly believe that my education at St. Thomas is instilling in me the fundamental tools I will need to become an asset to this world and help lead the future Church closer to Christ.”

While they hold the scholarship, Latino Leadership students also work closely with afaculty advisor and commit themselves to sustained volunteer work in the Hispanic/Latino community, serving immigrants, the homeless or those seeking faith formation. For example, junior Jackie Bernal spent the past year volunteering at Casa Guadalupana, a house that ministers to Latino immigrant families in the Twin Cities. She remarks on the life-altering experience: “Every time I leave the Casa, I leave changed and more inspired to live life selflessly, and I know that is what God had in mind all along. It is because of Him and this scholarship that I have the opportunity to go to the  school of my dreams, meet people who have restored my faith and experience things that have forever changed me.”

Latino Leadership students draw upon their own deep cultural roots within the Catholic tradition and bring their experiences to bear as they reflect on issues facing the larger Hispanic community. Education is a priority for many. Freshman Angel Riera recalls his own difficulties in school: “When I came to Minnesota from New York seven years ago [as a teenager], I spoke very little English. Since I was a native Spanish speaker, I spent most of my summer days and nights reading and summarizing challenging books. But when I started falling behind in my high school classes, I was afraid no one would help me. I wanted to ask for help, but I was afraid to.” Now a member of the men’s varsity soccer team as well as a Latino leader, Angel wishes to help other Latino children: “I will follow my dream of teaching others. I would like to teach high school students the value of education and show them how lucky they are to be in school.”

Effective ministry to the growing Latino/Hispanic Catholic  communities in the United States will come through the support and training of young  adults. Through the Latino Leadership program, students combine academic study, faith formation and the vocational awareness that calls them to promote social justice in the light of the Catholic faith.

The Mass in Spanish ends with an exhortation to strength and peace. The Latino Leadership students understand that these qualities are necessary in their missions to serve. La alegría del Señor sea nuestra fuerza. Puedan ir en paz. May the joy of the Lord strengthen you. Go in peace.

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