Local News Archive
Print Issue: January 6, 2000
El Paso Project Proves Vital In Formation Process
BY GRETCHEN KEISER
ATLANTA--A unique immersion experience for Atlanta seminarians in El Paso, Texas, inaugurated in 1999, has been affirmed as vital to their formation and will be intensified based upon an evaluation of the pilot year.
The bilingual and cross-cultural reality of the Catholic Church on the Mexico-Texas border helps prepare men who will be future priests in the Atlanta Archdiocese, the vocations director said in an interview in December.
"The men who grew up in small, monolithic churches have to know that the church of Atlanta is a much more complicated church with many cultures that incarnate the faith," Father David Talley said.
"The Catholic Church is made up of lots of different types of people and we see it every day -- Vietnamese, Koreans, Thai, Africans ... It will be a church of many colors, like Joseph's coat."
The El Paso experience immerses seminarians in Spanish and in the Mexican and Mexican-American culture, a focus which is designed to prepare priests to minister to the huge Hispanic population already in the Atlanta Archdiocese. Bilingual priests are critical to the church now; more are needed and, in the future, to be bilingual and fluid in different cultures will be essential.
In cooperation with the El Paso Diocese, Atlanta sent one of its pastors, Father Frank Giusta, to serve as pastor of an El Paso parish for several years. That parish serves as a base for the seminarians who come for eight weeks in the summer and Father Giusta is in charge of the formation program. When his assignment concludes, another archdiocesan priest will be sent to continue the process.
The initial El Paso experience included classes in Spanish and theology for seminarians, meetings with El Paso pastors and lay leaders who minister in a thoroughly bilingual environment, field trips to see rural and urban neighborhoods, including the poorest colonias, and a day spent with a family. The seminarians lived together for the eight weeks in order to begin to form a brotherhood among the future priests.
After the first summer's experience concluded, Father Talley held a meeting for all priests who minister to Hispanics in North Georgia, and invited Father Giusta and the program's El Paso architect, Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas, a pastor and Hispanic theologian, and Gonzalo Saldaña, head of the archdiocesan Hispanic Apostolate. The meeting was to report on the first summer and to dialogue with priests here about strengthening the program and applying it to the challenges of ministry in North Georgia.
"Each year we hope it will become a more cohesive program," Father Talley said in December. "We're mandating Spanish for all our seminarians for whom English is the primary language. Every seminarian will go down to El Paso for that experience."
Based on the recommendations of archdiocesan priests, the program for the summer of 2000 will have two tracks, Father Talley said.
The first-year track will send eight to 10 seminarians to St. Charles Borromeo College in El Paso for five weeks where they will live together and study intensive Spanish.
The second track, for two to six men who have already been in El Paso the prior summer, will place the seminarians in a parish in Juarez, Mexico, for eight weeks for a total immersion in the Mexican culture. Juarez is just across the border from El Paso.
The two groups will get together two days a week for community and fellowship. After five weeks in El Paso, the first-year group will also move to Juarez for three weeks, living in a home provided by the local bishop, Father Talley said. If funding permits, the two groups will end the summer with a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, Father Talley said, since devotion to Mary under this title is at the heart of the Catholic faith of Mexico and much of Latin America.
In the September meeting with archdiocesan priests, clergy agreed that future priests must become capable of moving out of their own culture and into a pastoral role with people of many cultures.
Father Guyma Noel, a parochial vicar at Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta, said in his first assignments there and at Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City he has ministered to Cubans, Colombians, Guatemalans and Mexicans. "I had to challenge myself to be multicultural," he said.
"The primary goal has to be to inculcate an appreciation for other cultures," said Father Paul Williams, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Griffin, a Georgian who has learned to celebrate Mass in Spanish.
While the El Paso program is providing immersion in one Hispanic culture, that of Mexico, the fluidity to move out of one's own cultural experience to better understand and serve others is what is essential, priests said. Father Jaime Barona, a parochial vicar at St. Benedict's Church, Duluth, said, "It is important for Hispanics also to be able to move in other cultures ... to serve the people of God."
Those observations were taken to heart by the program's designers, Father Talley said in December.
"We are hoping to build classes that show men how God uses cultures to make up our universal Catholic Church," he said, so that seminarians can "learn ways of understanding Christ through the lenses of different cultures."
"This year should be better with the immersion in Juarez," he said. "(Seminarians) should have a clearer taste of Mexico and the cultures of Mexico."
Father Talley said he, his administrative assistant Kirial Gamboa, Saldaña and Father Giusta continue to work on aspects of the program. The archdiocese currently has 56 men in various seminaries.
The 13 seminarians who went in the summer of 1999, who ranged from 18-year-olds to men in their fourth year of theology, came through an intense and sometimes difficult experience in a way that surprised and pleased their mentors.
"El Paso is not ... U.S. culture. It is not Mexican culture. It is a mixture of the two," Father Giusta told archdiocesan priests. "The seminarians went through a culture shock which, in the long run, was very productive ... Almost to my amazement, because they complained all the time, the seminarians had their lives transformed."
Msgr. Bañuelas said one of the strengths that became clear after the first summer was the community aspect of the El Paso experience for seminarians, who study at a variety of seminaries in different states.
"They liked the experience of being together in community. They bonded ... The struggles were very healing. They got to a deeper level ... It was very difficult, but it was very powerful. The experience of being away together was very powerful."
A third-generation Mexican-American who was born in El Paso, Msgr. Bañuelas said the community is an advantageous place for immersion because it is completely bilingual, more Hispanic than non-Hispanic and Catholics are a majority of the population. The reality of the church in El Paso today will become more and more the reality of the church in the United States, he observed.
"The Catholic Church is Hispanic. It will not get less Spanish-speaking. It will get more Spanish-speaking."
In an interview following the meeting, Msgr. Bañuelas said the archdiocesan program, while architects agree it needs strengthening, is "unique and I think it is visionary."
"We lose about two million Hispanics a year in the Catholic Church and one of the reasons is lack of pastoral care," he said. "The archdiocese (of Atlanta) has looked at this situation very concretely by having seminarians learn the language and the culture and how to respond to the pastoral needs of Hispanics ... Then to have the pastors here ... it makes the program even stronger."
He also expressed appreciation that Archbishop John F. Donoghue had visited El Paso while the seminarians were there, making it clear the importance of this training to the future of the church of North Georgia.
-- Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas, standing, pastor of St. Pius X Church, El
Paso, Texas, addresses an audience of Atlanta priests who minister to Hispanics
in North Georgia during a meeting about the El Paso immersion program’s
first summer experiences. Looking on are Gonzalo Saldaña, center,
director of the archdiocese’s Hispanic Apostolate, and Father David
Talley, chancellor and vocations director for the Archdiocese of
FROM THE HEART -- Father Jaime Barona, parochial vicar at St. Benedict’s Church, Duluth, is concerned the program does not limit itself to one culture, but lends itself to the many different cultures that make up the Catholic Church. Giving their attention in the background are Father Paul Williams, pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Griffin, and Father Luis Zarama, pastor of St. Mark’s Church, Clarkesville.
PASTOR AND FORMATION DIRECTOR -- Father Frank Giusta serves as pastor of Santa Lucia Church, El Paso, Texas, where Atlanta seminarians participating in the El Paso immersion program are based for eight weeks in the summer.