José & Digna R. López in California

Diocese of Stockton

One Couple Shines Light of Christ to Thousands

“Go to the margins, go to the edges of society, go to the people who have been marginalized in society and bring and proclaim and give witness to the good news of the Light of Christ in their lives.”

With this profound message, shared by Pope Francis earlier this year, Catholic Extension President Father Jack Wall presented the 36th Lumen Christi Award to a married couple in the Diocese of Stockton, California. Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton nominated José and Digna R. López to receive Catholic Extension’s highest honor. It was the first time the award was presented to a Hispanic couple.

“José and Digna personify the very essence of our mission,” said Father Wall. “They have journeyed from their immigrant roots and become inspirational leaders of the youth and Hispanic ministries in their diocese. Grounded in a deep faith, which has shaped their lives and ministry, they have inspired hope and effected real change in their community. José and Digna truly embody the ‘loving commitment to solidarity with the poor’ that Pope Francis is calling us to do in our society and our world.”

Since a young José and Digna first started volunteering at their church in 1979, they individually and together have touched and impacted the lives of thousands.

They have taught young people to believe in themselves, and have encouraged them to step up to be leaders in the Church instead of succumbing to lives of violence. And, with their personal understanding of the challenges in the lives of migrant workers, they have “brought great dignity to the farmworker and to the people in the Hispanic community,” said Bishop Blaire

José and Digna R. López, first and second from left, in one of the many lay leader formation
sessions where they bring the “Light of Christ” to thousands in the Diocese of Stockton.

Added Father Wall, “I have never seen a couple whose presence is felt more strongly throughout an entire diocese. Everywhere we went, people shared stories about how José, whom they fondly call Pepe, and Digna believed in them and brought them into the Church. They are role models and mentors to thousands of young people, many of whom they have trained, and they are advocates and beacons of hope to the poor, to those who live very tough lives and toil in the fields up to six days a week. For more than 30 years, this humble couple has been a bright light of Christ in Stockton.”

A place with challenges
The area has needed them. The Diocese of Stockton covers 10,000 square miles, including struggling urban areas as well as the San Joaquin Valley, where thousands of farmworkers harvest up to 250 crops annually. It’s been called the world’s most productive agricultural region. Rampant poverty in the area has led to a culture of drugs and violence, especially among young people. The need for the Church’s presence – and lay leaders like José and Digna – could not be greater.


Digna’s story
Digna is the diocese’s director of Hispanic ministry. Throughout her more than 30 years there, she has identified, developed and trained thousands of young adults who have gone on to lead all areas of Hispanic ministry. She also has worked with parish priests and leaders to address the complex needs of Hispanic Catholics, a population that has more than doubled in that time. Bishop Blaire calls her “an invaluable presence.”

Digna calls herself a “multiplier.” With so many needs across the diocese, she believes her calling is to inspire young people to believe in themselves and bring their talents to ministry.

José’s story
A natural leader, José first worked in youth ministry within the diocese, while continuing to work in the fields with family members. However, as Bishop Blaire explained, “When I arrived as bishop in 1999, José began telling me about the desperate, unmet needs of migrants, especially those of single men under 20 years of age. As a result, I invited him to leave the fields and work full time at the diocese by adding migrant ministry to his youth ministry responsibilities. The rest is history. Like Digna, José is sought nationally for his expertise as a leader in migrant ministry.”

A strong team
José and Digna, who married in 1991 and are the parents of three children, met at a parish youth group activity – a fitting beginning for their partnership. They run a Congreso Hispano each year, drawing more than 1,000 young people, many of whom credit the Lópezes with using their strong faith to steer them away from trouble. They also tap their renowned organizational skills to help produce the diocese’s Our Lady of Guadalupe procession and Mass, which draws 10,000 people annually.

Adriana Calderon credits their youth groups for helping her overcome numerous challenges and the insecurities she felt as a minority. She went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree and is now a social worker, giving back to her community by being a diocesan youth leader.

Arturo Chavez, Ph.D., president of the Mexican American Catholic College (MACC) in San Antonio, Texas, and a nationally known leader in Hispanic Catholicism, said José and Digna are in a league of their own when it comes to building and spreading the Catholic faith.

While their parents are out working in the fields, the children in migrant camps attend religious education classes, which are set up outdoors under the trees. The classes are taught by lay leaders inspired by José and Digna.

Supported by Catholic Extension and other grants for formation of lay leaders, José and Digna have each taken groups to MACC for training; when the groups they have recruited become too large, Arturo Chavez goes to Stockton.

While other weekend workshops run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., said Chavez, not so with José and Digna. “They know that for these young Catholics, this is their university, this is their only opportunity to go to college. These young people have a tremendous hunger for knowledge, for training, and José and Digna have made these opportunities available to them.”

José and Digna, he explained, understand that the Church must reach out to Latino Catholics and not simply wait for them to come. “For Latinos, being Catholic is part of our being, part of our identity. But, most Hispanic Catholics are not being reached by the typical ‘model’ in the U.S., which is ‘wait for them to come to us.’ Like Jesus Christ, we have to go out to them. José and Digna understand this in a profound way. They don’t wait, they go out to the people with the beauty of the Catholic faith and the message of Jesus Christ.”

The Mass of Thanksgiving
José and Digna accepted the award on behalf of the entire Hispanic community in the Diocese of Stockton. It was a special celebration, filled with people who had come to say thank you to a special couple who have inspired and transformed many lives.