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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Dr. Deborah. Armenta

Dr. Knight: Could you tell us about your background, how your family is so much a part of that background?

Dr. Armenta: I am a cradle Catholic and raised in an Irish/Italian family in New England, the middle child of 7 all born within 9 years. We were a large and busy family. My parents were firmly rooted in the Pre Vatican II Catholic Church. My Catholic faith and my connection to God is part of my earliest memories and upbringing. I attended Catholic School as a child and sensed a close and palpable relationship with God in my earliest memories. However, as I left Catholic School and entered public Junior High and public Highschool, my identity as a Catholic and my intimate awareness that I was loved by God beyond measure radically shifted. Those years of adolescence and early adulthood were fraught with much anxiety and disconnect from the truth of who God created me to be. My early childhood experiences were profound. My later journey was a searching time with profound moments of God exploding through amidst much struggle. But God held on as God does. My background rooted me. God sustained me.

Dr. Knight: You have worked for and in the Church for many years what stands out for you as meaningful?

Dr. Armenta: In my work over these last 3 plus decades, what most profoundly touches my heart at the people with whom I have been blessed to work. My heart and my love go to those that are most disconnected in our societies and our parishes. I have been blessed to work with beautiful people suffering in their spirit with incredible brokenness. I worked with persons dying of HIV back in the ’80s in California at the height of the Aids Crisis. I worked with a person struggling to immigrate to this country in the mid-eighties in one of the poorest Spanish speaking parishes in San Jose, CA. I was blessed to journey with persons with profound and severe developmental disabilities that together with their families were reaching out to be accepted and fully initiated into the Catholic Faith in spite of terrible opposition, isolation, and marginalization. As a DRE and a Pastoral Associate, I always reached out trying to bring those on the margins into the center of the conversation of parish life. This includes persons again with disabilities, physical or cognitive struggles, those unable to attend Mass, those less “desirable” than many of the fortune 500 folks that are chosen to lead parish renewal or transformation. These wonderful folks make no statements about themselves or their isolation. But to me they are the greatest prophets of all, witnessing in their suffering and often in silence waiting for the gift of presence from someone who will sit with them and be the face of Jesus Christ to them. I worked with persons with Alzheimer’s, Dementia and many in hospice that was dying from so many different ailments. In each encounter, I was repeatedly humbled and blessed by the incredible fortitude and grace present. This is where I most profoundly experience God…in those least jockeying to be a “model” for the rest of the Church. God is profound in this way.

Dr. Knight: You seem to have a great love for the future Church especially with Seminarians what sticks out for you? Could you tell us about that?

Dr. Armenta: In spite of the horrific tragic (and ongoing) revelations of abuse from the last 40 years, in many ways, I have strengthened my resolve and my love has grown for our Holy Mother Church. I see so many pressing needs that at times I have to take a step back and know that God is God and I am not. But I do believe that our beloved and beleaguered Church is the truest hope for humanity. I believe this more than ever.

Regarding the seminarians, I assist with placing nearly 200 men in parishes in 4 dioceses for long term pastoral training in the parishes. The longer I am engaged in this work, the more I realized in the depth of my heart that this is precisely where the “rubber meets the road.” The seminarians must be formed in their human and spiritual formation in the parishes, not as a quick fix to a shortage of catechists or because a pastor wants some diaconate help. The world is hungering and crying out for signs of hope, symbols of sacred, and most frequently there is a lack of awareness for that deepest hunger for which our world and societies groan. Humanity, in my awareness, groans for the deepest awareness of God's Divine Mystery that is the core of each human being. And yet in this narcissistic, secularized and over-sexualized culture, so many have left the church for complex reasons, out of anger, out of a sense of betrayal, or just a sense of being lost with little to no relevancy. The seminarians, if they are to become the totality of who God calls them to be, as parish priests, they must seek and pray to fearlessly give their lives. This is where their lives can be a source of hope for which our world starves. I believe this in the deepest part of my heart.

What is crucial is that the seminarians immerse themselves in the lives and relationships of the parishioners. It is too often easy in parish work to remain on the “outside” of any real challenging situations. Our seminarians have heavy course loads. This can become the voice that says, “skip the parish and stay and study.” Or “Don’t engage….you have too much to do.” And… “if you show up for Mass you are doing your duty in the parish so don’t engage.”

Former Rector, Teacher, Author and Vicar for Priests, Fr. Daniel Cozzens writes that it is in the parish community that a parish priest is formed in his spirituality. The lives of the parishioners are the “raison d’etre” a priest should be seeking to become a parish priest. I once had a gentleman state to me that his only accountability was to his Bishop. He felt no accountability to the parishioners in the pews. I tried to gently remind him why he was becoming a parish priest. He was called to serve, live, suffer, grieves, and walk with the parishioners. I grieved at his perspective, but trust God will lead. Because God calls parish priests to martyrdom for the sake of the parishioners in the pews. While of course, Bishops are the guiding shepherds of the men in the presbyterate, if there is no sense of who is in the pews, their stories, their sufferings, their joys, then the parish priest remains outside of the very person and dynamic to which he was called to serve.

I believe in my life as a wife, mother and lifelong woman working in the Church, I believe that authentic transformation of the parish priest can only come about through a radical integrated life of prayer, and authentic engagement in which seminarian and parish priest is not afraid to reveal the vulnerability of their spirit in those (even frightening) moments of vulnerability of the parishioners. I believe that through these two dynamics, the clerical and often power-driven mindset of our Church leaders that has so plagued our Institutional Church can be renewed.

Dr. Knight” As a woman involved in building the future Church how do you bring your faith to what you do in your workplace?

Dr. Armenta: I struggle with this concept of “bringing my faith” because, for me, my faith in God and my love for the Church is my whole reason for being. I begin my day with prayer at home, usually very early (My husband has painfully early started to his workday). I come to Mass daily, either here at the seminary or a neighboring parish if that is more convenient. I try to take time in my day for even 15 minutes of prayer before the blessed sacrament. I seek out the sacrament of reconciliation regularly, aware that without the grace of the sacrament nothing will change inside of me. It is where I go to have God “fill the well.” I am also a committed weekly adorer for the nearby Shrine in the 24 hours of Eucharistic adoration schedule. None of these components are “add ons” but are the starting point of trying to live my faith. I know that without God I am a miserable failure. I know with God, I fail, but consistently, sometimes moment by moment, invite God into my awareness for clarity, wisdom, and forgiveness of sins. The reality is that I am nothing without God's presence and grace guiding and holding me. That is my starting point to work in this difficult work of our church.

Dr. Knight” Do societal changes affect/effect what your faith means to you in a global sense?

Dr. Armenta: Yes. I see so many changes. Recently I spent 10 days in Rome attending a conference with the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. I was blessed to deliver a paper with about 30 other theologians that attended from around the globe. Individuals from around the globe shared insights and wisdom on the grassroots grappling taking place daily in the lives of Christians around the world. It was a hugely humbling encounter for me. As I listened to women discuss what it means to work with Sudanese refugee children, or what Spiritual Direction means in Australia and how do our experiences of God within our cultural contexts reveal the complex face of God daily…I am more and more acutely aware of the complexity of our work that is before us – in terms of evangelization for a global community.

In our US context, the face of Catholicism has changed and continues to change at a remarkable rate. And unfortunately, some church leaders still refuse to acknowledge these shifts. And yet in the volume “The Changing Face of American Catholicism” recently published presenting views from top Theologians, it is undeniable we are amid seismic shifts of what it means to be Catholic in the US. The largest exit out of the Catholic Church in the US is from the cradle Catholics of Western Europe. The largest growth area is within the Latino@ communities in the US.

Even within the seminary community, our seminarians must be brought in to this realization. In many ways, many of them are aware of it. However, at times there can be questions as to why men are placed in urban parishes if they will go back to a rural diocese. But the changing face of our Church affects every single diocese throughout the US if not the world. In the US and Chicago, as we continue with the much needed “Renew My Church” efforts that are merging parishes, pastors are now contending with multiple properties and communities either by themselves or with one associate in most situations. In rural dioceses, it is not unusual to see changing parishes that are part of a circuit of 5 to 6 parishes. Various communities are not predominantly English speaking.

Each of these situations reveals the changing global face of our Church and God calls us to respond to every situation with bold holy honesty.

Dr. Knight” In what ways do you try to focus on bringing your deep faith of the Eucharist to all?

Dr. Armenta: This is a difficult question. In many ways, I think less is more in that fewer words and more actions are the key to inviting people into a transformative encounter. I pray daily and when I receive Eucharist pray that it truly transforms me so I can be bread broken and shared. This sounds nice and poetically pious, but the reality is much more brutally difficult than that. It’s a brutal reality. When I walked the Stations of the Cross today on our beautiful campus grounds and I look at Christ carrying the cross and Christ says, pick up your cross and follow me… he does not say it will be easy. He says do as I do. Love as I love. And when I receive Eucharist – daily now for many years, it can be disheartening if it is too self-focused to see the reality of sin and struggle. But – in the pascal mystery the sin and struggle are not the finalities. Consuming Eucharist is the healing of sin I hope and pray. And then Jesus can be bigger and me and faults smaller… receiving Eucharist it is the truest means of conversion and transformation…Consuming Jesus Christ. And in this conversation, day by day, only then can I bring the reality of Jesus Christ crucified, died and buried to those who are most in need.

Dr. Knight: How is the Catholic Church helping young people to stay connected to Christ and His Church?

Dr. Armenta: This is perhaps one of the deepest griefs for me. I see a total disconnect between what our youth and young adults are experiencing and how the Church is responding. Recently I had a seminarian discuss what he was going to do – to “straighten out the church” and bring the youth back. But I reflect on my young adult sons (I have four) and three of them no longer attend any Church. I know about their lives and relationships and the Catholic Church is far removed from the reality of these struggles. Our millennials, the generation from 20-30 is exiting the church at an exponential rate. The mindset that if the Church “just goes back” then all will be well, and our young adults will return is in my thought arrogant at best and damaging at its worst. I know young adults that have committed suicide, that struggle with gender identity, that struggle with depression, loneliness, isolation. And the Church seems to be blind on these – youth groups that are stagnant and not reaching out, narrow theologies that will only evangelize with on viewpoint, these are not fruitful and in many ways are driving our youth. The “hook up” culture is the most pervasive part of the young adult culture in our society. The Church does not address this at all. I grieve and I worry, and I feel this is one of the largest areas for growth in our Church that is not addressed correctly.

Dr. Knight: Do you think that the focus of our worship should be on the Word and the Eucharist? As well as on Evangelization?

Dr. Armenta: Worship should be the integration and intersection of all three of these elements. The word feeds our spirits and the Eucharist feeds our entire psyche and soul, and all of this must lead to radical self-emptying evangelization in a world starving for God.

Dr. Knight, What seems to be the hardest aspect of raising a family in light of your faith?

Dr. Armenta: Both my husband and I have worked hard to raise our sons in the faith. However, as many parents who are our ages will agree, they no longer see the “relevancy” of the Church and no longer attend. It is a painful disconnect for us. My sons respect the faith and traditions of my husband and me but they also state their frustrations with betrayals from the hierarchy. This has been most difficult for us and me. In some sense, they do not understand my commitment to continue to work in the Church. But I do believe that if in some small way I can help to heal our Church, then I remain committed to giving what I can as God calls me to give and to be present.

Dr. Knight” What are the most difficult responsibilities you have had in your work? What are some of the most pleasant responsibilities?

Dr. Armenta: Some of the most difficult responsibilities in my work have been walking with people who have suffered from leadership in the Church or suffered as a result of changes from leadership in the Church and from those most marginalized and seemingly ignored. This has been one of the most painful reminders to me that while change is inevitable, how it is handled and how individuals are treated during these changes is critical.

I have worked in parishes where leadership has changed, and long-time leaders have been let go. I have worked with parishioners grieving the changes in their parishes when parishes are merged, staff layoffs and names of communities are changed. It is as if a part of their identity- their Catholic identity is known from their earliest days in a parish that has been forcibly removed.

I have also had the painful opportunity of listening to those whose children suffered from clergy sex abuse. There are no words to hold this type of suffering. And one family, when attending a form hosted by their bishop, felt doubly betrayed by the lack of compassion exhibited when families came forward in this forum to express their grief and anger.

Also, I have walked with families and clergy struggling to make sense of what different sexual orientations look like in parishes.

Some of the most rewarding opportunities I have been blessed to experience are when things come full circle by God's grace and a parishioner feels embraced. Or a person dying feels re-united to the Church. Or loved ones who have long left the Church and request help for a suffering loved one. And they are grateful for the time and the prayers the Church has for them and for those who are sick and suffering. When I see amazing moments of God’s grace beyond any human failings, this is what draws me in to be so grateful and blessed to be a part of God's huge vision for humanity.

Dr. Knight: What mantra do you have about your parish that you would like people to remember?

Dr. Armenta: Recently, I have shortened my mantra to two phrases. First I pray: God guard my thoughts, guard my mind and my heart. Help me to keep damaging thoughts at bay.

And second, I constantly quote in my mind, Lord let me treat all as a god after God. As the desert Monks taught us 1600 years ago. My prayer is to be mindful that all ARE created in God’s image and likeness. Ang God calls me to love every human being. I fail but return again and again, praying for the grace to be consumed in totality for the sake of all of humanity.

Dr. Knight: What other issues would you like to bring up about being a woman in a male world today?

Dr. Armenta: Even despite significant strides made in identifying the gifts of a woman and their contribution to the Church, there is a long way to go. Often, in a male-dominated environment, there can be an inbred sense of elitism if not clericalism that diminishes the gifts that women bring to the table. I have experienced that often in a male-driven environment, and I think it is often due to fear, that the male culture diminishes if not ignores the very giftedness of women that not only strengthen but can help the institution thrive. I have seen on multiple occasions in various settings, the sometimes sterile analytical mind often held in high esteem by men, dismiss the relational and lifegiving creative energy of women. Without embracing, cultivating and honoring the gifts of women, our institution remains a diminished parody and will never come to realize and live its true identity in the fullness of the beautiful Body of Christ.

Dr. Knight: The hour is coming has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling..” (closing message of the Second Vatican Council).

Dr. Armenta: We have yet to appropriate this into the psyche of our institution. It is not an “either/or” but must be a “both / and” by embracing the giftedness of all of humanity to bring healing and hope to this world.


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