“I dream of a Church that goes out,” said Pope Francis, and thousands of Catholics are doing just that. They are participating in regional meetings, or encuentros, on the way to the V National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Pastoral Ministry in September to make the dream a reality.
“They are going beyond their comfort zones and taking the time to hear those in need,” says Lily Morales, the Hispanic ministry coordinator of the Diocese of Austin, Texas, describing the change in parishioners involved in the process called V Encuentro (Fifth Encounter).
Morales was one of the 800 delegates who represented 18 Catholic dioceses in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas during the Episcopal Region X Encuentro in San Antonio, Texas, in April.
The regional meetings are the penultimate phase of this multi-year process to listen to and discern the needs, aspirations and faith practices of the growing Hispanic population in the United States, which now makes up 40 percent of the U.S. Catholic population. This initiative of the U.S. Catholic bishops calls the leaders of the Church to “listen with deep attention” to the Hispanic population and seeks to help all Catholics know the gifts and talents that this community “shares in the life and mission of the Church.”
The regional delegates focused on topics such as evangelization and mission, formation in the faith and catechesis, family and youth ministries, social justice, migrant ministry and leadership formation. Their recommendations will be presented at the V National Encuentro, which will be held September 20–23 in Grapevine, Texas.
“We hope that with our contributions we can find the best ways to meet the needs of new generations and those of us here right now,” said delegate Francisco Lariz, who was born in Mexico and is a volunteer in the youth ministry of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, where he now lives.
The theme of the meeting, “Missionary Disciples: Witnesses of God’s Love,” was inspired by Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” which reminds Catholics that they are missionary disciples since their baptism.
For Yvonne Dilling, a Maryknoll mission promoter and a delegate of the Diocese of San Antonio, this baptismal call goes beyond receiving the baptismal water: “When we are immersed in the love of God, we seek to share it with others, especially with the forgotten, the needy and the most vulnerable.”
The regional encuentros have given a “voice to all the challenges and opportunities and good strategies that are happening in the region,” said Dania Sánchez, of the Diocese of Dallas.
Isaac Cardenas, a 19-year-old delegate who lives in the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas, says he was afraid of going out to the periphery and thought he was doing enough by going to Mass weekly and helping in his parish. But when he participated in his parish encuentro, he says, the participants were told to go out to evangelize as “homework.” He and his girlfriend went to a park and found a homeless veteran in a wheelchair.
“We talked to him and I was surprised that even though he had no home or family and was in a wheelchair, he was happy,” says Cardenas. “He said: ’If I can wake up every day and give glory to God, I am happy.’ ”
Cardenas and his girlfriend continued to visit the veteran, who invited them to go to Mass. Meeting that man pushed Cardenas to be a missionary disciple and talk about the word of God with joy, he says.
By becoming more involved with Encuentro, he discovered the joy of going to the peripheries and now wants to be a volunteer counselor for those in need in his parish. “I want to accompany them and help them,” he said.
The organizers explained that the V Encuentro process seeks to empower at least 20,000 new pastoral leaders throughout the country.
More than 20 bishops attended the Region X Encuentro in Texas. “Let us start harvesting what the Lord is already doing by sowing the seed of the Gospel,” said San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller during the regional’s closing Mass. “The Lord wants us to rejoice and enjoy what He is already doing through his missionary disciples.”
Two weeks later, the same joy, energy, unity and hope were present at the Region XI Encuentro in Visalia, Calif., which was attended by nearly 1,300 delegates. Hispanic Catholics represent 9 million of the 14 million Catholics in Region XI, which includes the states of California, Nevada and Hawaii.
“In this meeting we have seen all the people coming together to talk about our joys, our difficulties,” said Andrés García, Maryknoll mission promoter in Los Angeles. “But we are not working alone anymore; we are working as a team, as a community. We are going to be heard and seen.”
In his keynote address, Jesuit theologian Allan Figueroa Deck emphasized that contributions of Hispanic Catholics go beyond their youth and growing numbers. He listed four ways Latinos contribute to church life: a family and community-oriented spirit; a “living faith that is experienced at home and society;” a supportive attitude for the Church’s preferential option for the poor; and a joyous spirit emerging from the presence of God in people’s hearts.
The attendees were called to join as the “prophetic voice” of the region, expressing their needs and committing to work with the leadership of the Church. Social justice, solidarity with the undocumented, the need to focus on families, support for young people, vocations and the training of new leaders were some of the central themes of this regional meeting. Each region decided on specific ministerial areas to focus on, based on surveys each diocese conducted at the grassroots level.
“To walk together in this journey of faith, companions in Christ, we have to stay open, we have to listen,” says Jesuit Father Eduardo Fernandez.
According to youth ministry leaders, supporting the faith of young Hispanics is important because, demographically, they are the present and future of the Church, with 60 percent of Catholics under 18 being Hispanic. “A lot of people felt their voices were going to be heard,” said Juan Andres Villa, 21, who went parish to parish to train people in the Diocese of San Bernardino. “We (young people) saw it as our beacon of hope and change.”
“The Encuentro process has the potential to revitalize parishes and dioceses,” says Kate Macan, a Maryknoll mission educator in Chicago. “I think the big question is what happens next.”
For young Latinos, having a ministry they can belong to can be life-changing, said Claudia Rivera Castañeda, 19, a youth minister at Immaculate Conception parish in Colton, Calif. Rivera, who migrated from Baja California, Mexico, when she was 5 years old with family members, remains in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. She said that juggling college studies with her commitment to parish service and involvement in the encuentro was worth the effort.
“Even though there are a lot of areas where I don’t have a voice, where my vote is not even an option, there is still something like V Encuentro where I can be heard, where we could be part of the priorities,” she said during the California regional encuentro.
Hundreds of delegates—including some of the 21 bishops present—engaged in missionary actions during the regional Encuentro, which included writing letters to legislators to support migrants and packing more than 10,000 bags of food for the hungry in Burkina Faso, through Catholic Relief Service’s “Helping Hands” program.
As in Texas and other regional meetings that took place this year, delegates at the California meeting presented and discussed the results of the consultation process that began at the parish level, which will be taken to the National Encuentro.
“We are starting from the reality of our families,” said Deacon Leonel Yoque, coordinator of the Hispanic outreach team at Maryknoll. Yoque led one of the small groups focused on family ministry. “Following the pastoral circle see-judge-act, we can see the difficulties of the family in our daily life,” he continues, adding that by reflecting on those challenges, parishioners can take action to support families as missionary disciples.
Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez reminded the delegates that they “are united with Jesus to bear fruit in his Church.”
“Our Lord asks us for a new evangelization and Pope Francis gives us the example of the ’Joy of the Gospel,’ ” he said in his homily. “Let’s renew our commitment to be missionary disciples ’always forward’ and to be convinced that our mission starts by serving those who are most in need.”
Note: This story has been updated. A version of this story appeared in the print July/August issue of Maryknoll magazine.
Featured Image: Mar Muñoz-Visoso, executive director of U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church, talks to delegates at the Region XIII Encuentro in Phoenix in February (CNS/U.S.)