By Amanda Alexander
“Formation, for me, is the key.”
As he recently reflected on his 25-year Episcopacy, Bishop Gerald Barnes noted that Diocesan lay formation programs that have been created and expanded are at the top of his list of gratifying moments. And it was perhaps divine providence that the foundation for a strong ministry of lay formation was already laid when he arrived here.
When Bishop Phillip Straling was ordained in 1978 as the founding bishop of the Diocese, the need for diocesan-based ministry formation programs had already been made clear to him. He had served in the preceding years as the executive secretary of the Second Synod of San Diego (1973-1976), the purpose of which was to implement the vision and directives of the Second Vatican Council.
Among the recommendations that emerged from that Synod were two that would shape his own legacy: that diocesan-based ministry formation programs should be established and that the counties of San Bernardino and Riverside should form a new diocese, separate from that of San Diego.
Less than two years after being ordained the first bishop of the newly established Diocese of San Bernardino, Bishop Straling had established the first diocesan ministry formation program, the Straling Leadership Institute (SLI). Originally offered in what was then known as the Ontario and Riverside deaneries, the program had expanded within a few months to include the San Bernardino region as well and had over 100 active participants who met in small groups for classes in people’s homes.
Those who enrolled in the SLI committed to two years of formation, and it was hoped that many would decide afterward to pursue formation for the priesthood, permanent diaconate, or for parish-based ministries such as that of a master catechist, youth leader, lector trainer, parish council leader, or a minister to the sick.
While the SLI was offered only in English, the Department of Evangelization and Catechesis for Hispanics (DECH) also began to offer formation in Spanish through the Escuela de Ministerios. Concerns began to emerge, however, about a lack of parity between the two programs: a single course in the SLI, for example, cost $200, while a course in the Escuela de Ministerios cost only $12.
Bishop Barnes embraced the vision and mission of ministry formation and sought to build upon the work of his predecessor while also addressing emerging concerns. Shortly after his appointment as Bishop of San Bernardino in 1995, Bishop Barnes called for a renewed vision of bilingual ministry formation. After several years of planning and consultative work, the newly formed Ministry Formation Institute, which had replaced the Straling Leadership Institute, launched its first bilingual basic level formation program, known then only as “MFI.” This first parish-based ministry formation program was taught over a period of six months at St. Vincent Ferrer in Sun City in 1998. The program continues to be offered in each vicariate to this day: after nearly twenty years, the Parish Minister Formation Program (PMFP) has formed more than 5,000 parish ministers in their native English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and sign languages.
By 2001, the need for an advanced ministry formation program had become clear. Under the direction of Sister Alice Molina, R.S.H.M., and Sister Nadine McGuiness, C.S.J., the Ministry Formation Institute created a three-year formation program which integrated the intellectual and spiritual content of the faith with the pastoral and human skills necessary in ministry. Launched in the Fall of 2002, the advanced Coordinators of Ministry Formation Program was and remains innovative for three reasons: 1) it pioneered a model of contextual ministry formation, integrating the traditional dogmatic approach to theological training with a pastoral and ministerial focus; 2) it embraced technology in order to facilitate simultaneous distance learning groups, first using microwave television signals, then eventually video-conferencing and now online learning management systems; 3) it formed English and Spanish speakers together, offering the same level of advanced instruction in scripture, theology, and spirituality to all.
By partnering with Catholic universities, the Ministry Formation Institute has facilitated even more opportunities for theological and ministry formation in the Diocese. Both Loyola University in New Orleans and Santa Clara University have worked with the Diocese to offer master’s degrees in theology in San Bernardino. In addition, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles offers two of its certificate programs in the Diocese: the Catholic Bible Institute and the Certificate in Pastoral Care. LMU and the Diocese are also actively exploring the possibility of offering a bachelor of arts degree in Theology in the Diocese for those who have completed their associates degree.
Now under the direction of Maruja Sedano, the Ministry Formation Institute continues its tradition of innovation and excellence in the Diocese of San Bernardino.
“There’s a great deal of gratitude on the part of the people for what the Church here has offered through the years, and that is satisfying,” Bishop Barnes says, reflecting on the journey in lay formation. “When you can see what the years have done, that, with all its challenges, how healthy the Diocese appears to be.”
Amanda Alexander is CMFP Coordinator for the Ministry Formation Institute for the Diocese of San Bernardino.