During a Jan. 17 Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, seven pastoral associates were formally commissioned to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, to serve side by side with parish pastors in leading RCIA classes, Scripture studies and other faith formation programs.

Archbishop José H. Gomez thanked the pastoral associates for their “generous response to the spirit” and presented each one with a certificate to mark the milestone moment. The newly-commissioned pastoral associates include Michelle Youssef, Deacon James Carper, Deacon Matthew Nguyen, Irene Oaxaca, Gilberto Cortes, Monica Hughes and Deacon Don Huntley (who was unable to attend and was commissioned in absentia).

The commissioned men and women have spent years in preparation for this responsibility. Each pastoral associate is required to hold a Master’s degree in theology or religious studies, and to work towards the position through prayer, formation and training.

Oaxaca, 61, is one of the seven newly-commissioned pastoral associates. She prepared for this role with 12 years of prayer and study.

“I am a full-time nurse so it took me quite a while,” she told The Tidings. Through part-time courses at Mount Saint Mary’s College, Oaxaca completed her B.A. and Master’s in religious studies while serving in various capacities at her parish, All Souls Church in Alhambra.

“This is a huge milestone. I am happy beyond words,” Oaxaca said during a reception for the pastoral associates. “I profess that by our baptism we are called to serve the Church and I want to serve my parish or any parish in the archdiocese to bring others to that acknowledgement that when they were baptized they were commissioned to go out and spread the Word and work for the Lord.”

Oaxaca hopes to initially work part-time for a parish. Once she retires from her work at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, she would like to work full time as a pastoral associate.

Her 30-year career of working with the mentally ill influenced her decision to work for the Church. “It’s a ministry to care for someone who is mentally ill, someone who is out in the outskirts that nobody wants to talk to, that nobody wants to look at, much less get their name to see how they are and who they are,” she said.

“I can see Christ in the faces of all the mentally ill.” This work, she said, made her “want to go out and do more.”

She has a special interest in working with the bereaved since she received so much support from her parish’s bereavement program while dealing with her mother’s passing.

“I came to All Souls in search of a parish when my mother was in her final stages,” she says. “I became part of their group and they really embraced me and I saw how much they provided and how much strength I got from their spirituality.”

Katherine Enright, director of the archdiocesan Office of Parish Life, said the program began after the Church recognized there was a shortage of priests. “There still is a great need for lay leadership,” she added, calling the program a “wonderful way to bring women into the heart of the Church.”

Women have a lot to offer, Enright said, noting that many women bring their experience as a wife and mother to family faith formation programs. “They understand the dynamics that are going on there. They understand it from a different angle than a priest would. And we need it all. It’s not either or. We need to all bring our gifts to the Church.”

Oaxaca encourages others to embrace their vocation of service. “Sometimes we go our own way and we miss the best part of our life because we don’t pay attention to where God is steering us.”

We need to remember, she said, “that the Lord always has need for us. If we listen to him, he will tell us where he needs us, but we have to stay open.”