Growing the lay apostolate

Catholic Bible School is at the heart of the Diocese of Knoxville’s Hispanic evangelization

By Bill Brewer

August just wasn’t the same for Gladys and Juan Herrera. They missed the excitement of starting a new school year, reconnecting with classmates and all the possibilities that new learning brings.

But after graduating in May from Escuela Bíblica Católica, Gladys and Juan now find that students of the Diocese of Knoxville’s first Hispanic Catholic Bible School have become the teachers.

The Herreras aren’t your typical students. And at age 80 and 89, the married couple may seem unlikely candidates to complete a four-year study program on the sacred Scriptures.

But with certificates in hand and confidence from having successfully completed a college-level program, the Herreras are poised for the next phase of their lives: teaching the Bible to others in the diocese’s Hispanic community.

They are two of some 100 parishioners who initially expressed interest in beginning the Spanish-language program. Because of space restrictions, that number was trimmed by 15. So in 2011, 85 Hispanic parishioners ranging in age from 15 to 85 dedicated the next four years of their lives to Escuela Bíblica Católica, studying each book of the Bible in depth for the purpose of learning God’s word and Christ’s teachings well enough to instruct others.

After four years of intensive study, 54 students successfully completed Escuela Bíblica Católica and participated in a graduation ceremony May 16 at the University of Dallas. While not having earned a college diploma, the students are certified to lead Bible studies and act as facilitators in Scripture discussions.

Earlier, on May 2, Bishop Richard F. Stika presented the participants with their certificates during a special Mass at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus celebrated by Father Arthur Torres Barona.

The program, which would begin in August and end in May each year, was underwritten by Catholic Extension, the University of Dallas and the Diocese of Knoxville. Students paid for books used in the program and for any overhead, such as copies and other course materials, meals and travel expenses.

Students who finished all four years received certificates in “Advanced Biblical Studies.” Students who were only able to complete two years of the program received certificates in “Basic Biblical Studies.”

And now they are going back to their parishes, where they will work with pastors and associate pastors in forming Bible study groups within the parishes’ Hispanic congregations. As a second phase of the ambitious lay theology program, the Instituto Bíblica Hispano is in the early stages of development to continue formation of Bible study leaders.

For the Herreras, leading Bible study groups will not be a new experience. They have led a group at their parish, Sacred Heart Cathedral, for 12 years.

And they were avid Bible readers before that. But what was lacking, they felt, was a deeper understanding of the Scriptures to carry out their lay ministry.

Professors associated with the University of Dallas, a private Catholic college in Irving, Texas, taught the budding Bible scholars. One professor was assigned to the group each semester and would fly to Knoxville one Saturday a month for daylong instruction at the Chancery. Each week in between the monthly classes, students were responsible for a minimum of 12 hours of reading and other homework. Exams were given each semester that the students were required to pass in order to advance. Escuela Bíblica Católica is the brainchild of Lourdes Garza, director of Hispanic Ministry for the Diocese of Knoxville, who worked with Catholic Extension and the University of Dallas to bring the program to East Tennessee. Catholic Extension named the Diocese of Knoxville as one of three pilot programs for the Catholic Bible School. The two others were in the dioceses of Brownsville, Texas, and Las Cruces, N.M.

Together with Blanca Primm, administrative assistant for the Office of Hispanic Ministry, and input from Catholic Extension and the University of Dallas, Ms. Garza implemented the diocese’s program. Then, with Bishop Stika’s blessing, Escuela Bíblica Católica was launched in August 2011.

Ms. Garza and Mrs. Primm identified the 85 students who would be the Diocese of Knoxville’s first Escuela Bíblica Católica class. Looking for a diverse group to help ensure the program’s success, they selected younger, middle-aged, and older students originally from several Latin American countries.

The Herreras were a match. Mrs. Primm said it was vital to have students the age of the senior couple involved so they could lend their wisdom and experience.

“It is a great asset for them to know the Bible, and it is a great asset for us to have them teaching the Bible,” Mrs. Primm said. “They are mentors to others in the community.”

Gladys Herrera was especially impressed by the many young men and women in the class who had small children and worked two and three jobs but still took time to study the Bible.

“It meant a lot of sacrifice and effort on their part,” she said, lamenting the class coming to an end. “We miss the community and the teachings. It was a fraternity, and many people blossomed. It was great to see so many young men and women involved.”

Juan Herrera would have liked to have taken the class as a younger man. But as an older student, he sees how the Scriptures written thousands of years ago are relevant today, citing examples from the New and Old Testaments.

And he is reading Laudato Si, the encyclical from Pope Francis that was released in May and addresses care for the environment, “our common home.” Since completing Escuela Bíblica Católica and studying Laudato Si, he has a deeper understanding of Scripture that Pope Francis used to support his second encyclical.

“I’m re-tasting what I have already tasted,” Mr. Herrera said, wondering if instructing others in the Bible at his age is as effective as someone younger doing it. “I regret that I started studying at this age. I wish I would have started studying 30 years ago.”

Beginning Escuela Bíblica Católica at age 85, Mr. Herrera said – somewhat kiddingly – that he wondered if he would be around to graduate. Now approaching age 90, he is excited to begin leading Bible study groups with his wife. Professor Maria PÍa Septién led the Diocese of Knoxville students over a two-year period and was one of three teachers from the University of Dallas to lead the Escuela Bíblica Católica. The others were Professor Juan Rendon and Father Rafael RamÍrez.

After teaching the first year and the last semester of the fourth year, Professor Septién looked at a conference room full of students during one of her last Saturday courses in the diocese and remarked how the class had itself become a small faith community.

“This diocese is something very special and beautiful. This Hispanic ministry is outstanding and their love for the people is outstanding,” she said.

“This program is strengthening the students. The material touches the head, but goes to the heart. It goes to the mind and heart, but it goes deeper.”

Maintaining an attendance rate of at least 80 percent, keeping up with weekly readings and passing exams proved challenging to the students, but illustrated to the professors their level of commitment.

“It’s a very tough, in-depth certificate program,”

Professor Septién said. “They now share something very special, which is the Word.”

In his homily during the special Mass to award the Escuela Bíblica Católica certificates, Father Torres told the graduates they must become like St. Andrew, the patron of catechists.

“Why? Because the mission of the catechist is to bring others to know the Lord,” Father Torres said. “In the same way, you, brothers and sisters of the Catholic Bible School, have to become another Andrew. You have to become a true apostle – from being a disciple to becoming an apostle of the Lord to feeling that one has been sent.”

Father Torres also told the students their next step is to spread the word of God.

“You, with four years of Bible study, if you do not help others understand the mystery of the holy Scriptures, you will become inert men and women. For the Eucharist and the holy Scriptures are to be shared. The holy Scriptures are not for you to only retain what you have learned. I like what St. Dominic Guzmán says to his brothers in faith — the Dominicans: ‘We have to contemplate and then give what we have contemplated. I cannot keep this all to myself. If I do, I will drown.’”

Ms. Garza sees Escuela Bíblica Católica as a vital evangelization tool, using the Bible to make Hispanic Catholics stronger — and bolder — in their faith, rather than falling victim to proselytizing.

In forming the Bible school, the key to its success has been and will continue to be a solid theological foundation. Ms. Garza worked with Sister Mary Timothea Elliott, RSM, in developing the diocese’s program. Sister Timothea, director of the diocese’s Office of Christian Formation, is a renowned Bible scholar and has taught at the Denver Catholic Bible School, where the program originated in English.

The University of Dallas then took over the program and developed a separate Hispanic curriculum, from which the Diocese of Knoxville’s Escuela Bíblica Católica was a pilot program.

“I’ve overseen the program from the beginning with Lourdes,” Sister Timothea said. “I know that program well because it began at the Denver Catholic Bible School, and it was completely revised while I was there about 25 years ago.”

Sister Timothea believes the Escuela Bíblica Católica is an excellent program that fulfills a real need.

“It’s a solid, theologically based program. It’s distinctly Catholic and it gives people confidence to lead,” she said. “There’s such a hunger for it in the Hispanic community, which likes to share its faith among one another. These participants now have the education necessary to teach and facilitate.”

Mrs. Primm said the program already is sowing seeds of faith – and growth.

“There is interest in our community to offer the program again. We already are seeing the fruits of the classes. The students who completed the program already are facilitating Bible study groups in their parishes. And the Hispanic Bible Institute leaders held a meeting Aug. 1 to begin developing that program,” she said.

In addition to continuing the Bible study leaders’ formation, the institute also will be a resource of reputable material for the Bible study groups, according to Ms. Garza, who said plans for the institute are to present four workshops a year in each deanery that will be led by the Escuela Bíblica Católica grads.

Quoting from Farther Torres in his homily, Ms. Garza said, “You can’t be dead trees. You have to be a tree that bears fruit.”

“The Escuela Bíblica Católica participants were told from the beginning that the purpose of the Escuela Bíblica Católica was to train them to be Bible study group leaders. It was not for personal enhancement,” Ms. Garza said, adding that the group leaders, through the institute, promise enhanced participation in parish Masses, ministries and activities through faith-based development.

Ms. Garza said what is happening in the Diocese of Knoxville mirrors what is happening in the U.S. Catholic Church, with lay leaders leading discussions on the Bible, a trend flourishing across the country within Catholic Hispanic communities.

“The fact we are at this point in creating the institute gives me great hope for Hispanic diocesan members that this will deepen their faith and enhance their knowledge of the Bible,” she said. “As this continues through the years, we will see a greater participation of our Hispanic brothers and sisters in parish life.”

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