Aerial view of Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Mexico
Faith and Service

Confronting cultural change

Divinity students seek intercultural competency to improve ministry

April 17, 2023

Students in Notre Dame’s Master of Divinity program cited a visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe as the emotional highlight of their pilgrimage to Mexico City.

Seminarian Johnny Ryan, C.S.C., said getting to experience Mary’s maternal love for everyone was more powerful than he expected even though he was familiar with the story of Mary’s appearance before Juan Diego in a vision in 1531. He brought back prayer cards with the iconic image that thrilled his Latino students at Saint Adalbert elementary in South Bend.

Juan Miguel Alvarez said his wife and classmates were overwhelmed–often to the point of tears–at the opportunity to bring their praises and sufferings to the holy site. He discerned a powerful lesson that we often don’t know the pain other people carry in their lives.

Portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe against a tall wood wall The green roof and cement crosses of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe Masters of Divinity students stand in front of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Seminarian and lay students in Notre Dame's Master of Divinity program visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City in fall of 2022.

Julia King felt the “deep, popular piety” of the people of Mexico in joining other pilgrims at the most-visited Catholic shrine in the world. She said the experience forced the 23 students to ask themselves profound questions about their role as future ministers.

“How does this impact my ministerial identity?” King said. “How does this help me serve those who are the most marginalized and vulnerable? And how has this helped me to be able to reach out to more people or experience a different reality of the Church than my own?”

These reactions adeptly fit the purpose of a program designed to build intercultural competence among divinity students so they can better serve a multicultural Catholic Church as future pastoral leaders. With a Lilly Endowment grant, the program funds students in the M.Div. program to learn the Spanish language, experience summer immersion service along the border, and embark on pilgrimages like the one to Mexico City and Puebla during fall break 2022.

Two students stand outside the entrance to the Catholic Charities building.
Master of Divinity students Julia King (right) and Julia Greenwood did an immersion program last summer at Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in McAllen, Texas.

“We’ve built a program that has excellent intellectual, pastoral, human and spiritual formation–the top, really, in the nation,” said Todd Walatka, an associate teaching professor in theology and director of the Master of Divinity program. The influential QS World University Rankings recently ranked Notre Dame’s Department of Theology as No. 1 in the world, a list it has topped in three of the past four years.

“But we are in an increasingly diverse U.S. Church and global Church,” he said. “And so to prepare our students to minister in the Church of today, much less the Church of tomorrow, it demands greater intercultural competency.

“Our program is built about around helping students engage a new cultural context or a new population with a posture of receptivity, a posture of empathy–where you’re not coming in as the savior, but you’re coming in to be formed and then contribute and to be with the people.”

Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based philanthropic foundation created by J.K. Lilly Sr. and sons of Eli Lilly and Co., has a history of supporting theological education and training pastoral leaders, both Protestant and Catholic. A Pathways for Tomorrow Initiative phase one grant of $50,000 funded focus groups and pilot placements to identify needs and led directly to a phase two grant of about $1 million for cultural competency training. Another pilgrimage will go to Rome, Siena and Assisi this summer to experience the history of the Catholic Church.

A third phase called Haciendo Caminos provided $7.9 million to offer master’s-level theological education to young Latinos at 18 Catholic colleges around the country, with Notre Dame and Boston College as the lead institutions.

“The future of the Catholic parish in the United States is a multicultural parish where you’re going to have Masses in English and Spanish, so our graduates need to be able to enter into that kind of space with the competency to enter into dialogue.” –Todd Walatka, director of the master of divinity program

Walatka pointed out that more than half of U.S. Catholics under 18 are Latino, so the driving impetus of the third phase is lifting up the next generation of Latino leaders in the Church. “The future of the Catholic parish in the United States is a multicultural parish where you’re going to have Masses in English and Spanish, so our graduates need to be able to enter into that kind of space with the competency to enter into dialogue,” he said.

Alvarez was recently hired as the director of Haciendo Caminos, which will kick off in Boston at the end of April. Alvarez said they hope to identify young people with an interest and open doors for them at different institutions of higher learning.

“We accompany them throughout their formation in graduate school with opportunities for mentorship, networking and financial support,” he said. “We hope that 100 students will be served. Then they’ll go out and plug back into their communities and hopefully inspire more students in a rippling effect.”

Masters of Divinity students in Mexico
The pilgrimage group at the Monument of Independence in Mexico City.

Alvarez was born in Mexico but went with his family to work as migrant field workers in America every summer until he was 5, when they settled in Colorado. He got his undergraduate degree in theology at Notre Dame in 2014 and worked in Catholic high schools and parishes in Chicago.

But he returned for his master's in divinity to get more formation in his vocational call to serve low-income Latino families, where he saw extraordinary need. He helped plan the pilgrimage to Mexico and said he appreciated the enthusiasm his fellow students displayed.

“I’ve seen instances in the Catholic Church where cultural sensitivity or competence or familiarity could have been a lot better,” Alvarez said. “For me, it means a lot when someone who’s not Latino is taking an interest in the culture and getting the background to be able to then go into ministry and accompany people. A little bit of interest goes a long way. So to see my classmates trying Spanish, even speaking poorly, we welcome all that.”

Walatka said the Notre Dame master’s program in divinity integrates intense human, spiritual, pastoral, and intellectual formation. While he heads the intellectual effort, Becky Ruvalcaba leads pastoral formation and Stacey Noem leads human and spiritual formation.

A unique component of the program’s integration is training lay students and Holy Cross seminarians together, both in classrooms and in supervised field placements in ministry. Wrestling together with difficult pastoral situations, he said, addresses a major challenge in the relationship between clergy and lay people. The students seem to agree.

The Mexican flag flies on top of a building. Gardens. Master of Divinity students. Statues in a grotto.
Scenes from the Mexico pilgrimage including the Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City, a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the ruins of Teotihuacán.

Ryan, the seminarian, grew up in a Notre Dame family near Boston, with two parents who are alumni and teachers, and two brothers in the ACE program. He moved into Old College as a junior to prepare for the seminary, graduating in 2019.

He said forming deep relationships with lay classmates will make him a better priest and person. “To be able to have people I can go to who know me and who know what ministry is as well, to ask them what they think, but also to have a wide range of perspectives–that’s really important,” Ryan said. “In a very simple way, the majority of the Church are not priests, and we can’t be separate.”

Ryan said he fell in love with “the family business” of teaching when he taught fifth grade this summer. And the Mexico pilgrimage provided an opportunity to embrace the whole person.

“Included in that is someone’s culture, because you can’t really have a person outside culture,” he said. “There’s a way in which the Gospel can speak to each culture. Not necessarily that we’re changing the Gospel, but emphasizing how are we going to color the Gospel in such a way that it speaks to people.”

King, who is an assistant rector in Ryan Hall, grew up in Texas with a Mexican American mother and Irish German father–between both cultures but anchored in the Catholic Church. She began as a finance major at University of the Incarnate Word but switched to theology after getting involved in campus ministry. King will work as director of youth ministry at St. Adalbert’s after she graduates.

She agreed with Ryan that undergoing formation with future priests was crucial, especially because a female perspective is needed. “I have a classmate that just did her final presentation on breastfeeding and pregnancy and theology. And I know for the seminarians, they were like, wow, these are just things I never considered before.”

King did an immersion program over the summer at Catholic Charities in Brownsville, Texas, near the Mexican border. Even though she grew up in a Mexican American family, she said the cultural competency training was valuable because she had never confronted migrants before.

“I was able to encounter the deep faith that people have,” King said. “They’re displaced; they literally showed up without shoelaces. We were able to meet material needs but also provide some sort of spiritual nourishment. Just witnessing the hope that people have that God has a plan for their lives and that’s carried them this far–it was transformative, and I don’t think my heart will ever be the same after encountering physical people in the midst of their suffering.”

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