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To be Hispanic and Catholic in the U.S. can mean many things that don’t conjure up the lessons of a traditional catechism class: daily rituals that are religious, but not fully understood; parishes with documented and undocumented immigrants; communities rich in faith, family and community values, but not in economic resources.

To minister effectively to such populations, pastoral leaders must first acknowledge the array of “lived experiences” of Hispanic Catholics today. “Lived theology” is also the starting point for the 28th annual Instituto Hispano, a two-week program of advanced theological education for lay or religious leaders, underway at Santa Clara University July 10 - 23.

The goal of the Instituto, a program of SCU’s Jesuit School of Theology, is to teach pastoral theology for the largest Catholic population in the U.S.-- the immigrant Latino community. The Instituto helps its students “see, illuminate, and act,” said Sr. Teresa Montes-Lara, O.P., the director of Instituto.

Teachers and students of the Instituto spend time sharing the everyday lives of their Hispanic Catholic parish members -- from gang members or prisoners served by student Jaime Torres of Arkansas; to Spanish-speaking families in Springfield, Mass., whom Sr. Rosa Torres, MPS, visits at home because there are no Spanish masses for them; to the fast-growing population of Hispanic Catholics in Oakland, Calif., whose children are led by Instituto student Oscar Mendoza.  

The Instituto then builds on that knowledge, accompanying the pastoral ministers as they come to a deeper level of pastoral theological study and experience.  Among the 17 professors at the Instituto are well-known experts in Hispanic theology, representing an international faculty that is talented and renowned.  

Armed with such “applied theology,” the students are then “sent away in mission,” said Montes.

“Applied theology requires a translation, a specific way of thinking,” said Arturo Araujo, S.J., an instructor at the Instituto. The students and instructors help “incarnate the theology into a different culture,” he added.

The 80 students in this year’s Instituto say they know of no other program that offers such a personal yet advanced theology, along with a community of peers to emulate, support, and enjoy year after year.  

“This Instituto has been a huge point of departure for me,” said Mendoza. “It has brought me a deeper formal education; it has brought me deeper in my faith, and deeper into traditions and ways to live a mature faith,” he said.  

Added Josefa Lopez, a volunteer CCD leader and minister in West Orange, N.J., “You have to understand your faith in order to put it into practice.”