This weekend the news agency EFE carried the story of Margarita Flores, a Mexican American woman, who last year became one of a growing number of pastoral associates in this country -- lay people who manage parishes in the absence of priests or who handle the administrative functions so that the priest can devote himself full-time to pastoral work. Flores serves in Sagrado Corazón parish in Compton, California. We have translated Iván Mejía's article about her into English.
The lack of Catholic priests to tend to the growing Hispanic community in southern California moved the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to name a Latina lay woman as the Parish Life Director of a church in Compton.
"The Spirit of God is opening paths with the same urgency with which we see the need for more priests in the Church," Margarita Flores said to EFE. Flores, 49, is the new Parish Life Director in El Sagrado Corazón de Jesús parish, a position that used to be held exclusively by ordained priests.
Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, and mother of six children, Flores is the only Hispanic among the seven lay people who began to serve as Parish Life directors in seven churches in the Los Angeles Archdiocese last July 1st.
These changes are part of the "Serving Shoulder to Shoulder" project, through which the Archdiocese will involve more parishioners who are devoted to the Church, to deal with the lack of priests.
"The Hispanic community is growing throughout southern California, but in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles alone we are losing 30 to 40 priests a year whether through retirement, death, or because they leave to serve in another archdiocese. And in the seminaries we only have 3 to 5 candidates a year," Flores explains.
"I have served the Church for 25 years," she said. "In 2003 I entered Fuller Seminary in Pasadena to study for a Masters in Divinity. In addition to theology, I graduated prepared to lead a church pastorally," she revealed.
Flores will be responsible for administering El Sagrado Corazón de Jesús parish in Compton where, in addition to managing the church's resources, she will be able to help with preaching [Trans. note: This is what the article says, but I'm not sure it's correct unless we have a different understanding of "predicación"], but when the time comes to give the sacraments, such as the Eucharist, she will be assisted by an ordained priest.
"The role of parish life director is a very small responsibility; but it's a beginning so that there will be other changes in the Church, which needs to continue to innovate with respect to the needs that move us to review our theology and our pastoral activities," Flores stresses.
Father John Woolway, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, blessed Flores today in a rite at Sagrado Corazón de Jesús during which he said that there is still resistance in the Church to seeing a woman serving in the roles that priests have always performed.
With respect to the lack of men wanting to be priests, the priest told EFE that "in the United States young men want to live the American dream and this means a lot of interest in climbing the ladder of economic prosperity, and this is why the priesthood doesn't interest them much."
"There are other factors (for the lack of motivation) too, such as the celibacy vow, because we priests cannot get married," Woolway said.
Among the 20 or so parishioners who came to support Flores at her presentation was Mercedes Moreno, 60, a member of the community organization Mujeres Unidas de Los Ángeles (United Women of Los Angeles).
"If it's because of the lack of priests that they are putting a woman in this role, it's about time, because it's discrimination that only [male] priests can serve in the priesthood," Moreno said to EFE.
"Women in the Catholic Church have always been undervalued; but now they realize women's wisdom and strength, therefore I hope this example will be imitated in all the churches in Latin America and throughout the world," she concluded.
Photo: Margarita Flores and other pastoral associates on the day of their commissioning by Cardinal Roger Mahony.