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Encounter of joy and solidarity in Texas
It was, by all accounts, a historic gathering for Hispanic Catholics in the United States. The V National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry, held in Grapevine, Texas, Sept. 21-23, gathered over 100 bishops and 3,000 delegates from 165 dioceses representing every region of the United States.
In his remarks during the opening ceremony of the V Encuentro, San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller said, “This is an event, but it is part of a longer process.”
Indeed, the V Encuentro has been years in the making, beginning with a planning process driven by a national team of leaders in Hispanic ministry and leading to consultations in local parishes across the country, 165 diocesan-level Encuentro meetings, and regional Encuentros in the 14 episcopal regions of the United States. From those meetings, delegates were chosen to be part of the national event.
‘Protagonists of our faith’
Four previous Encuentros were held in 1972, 1977, 1985 and 2000, and a national meeting focusing on Hispanic youth was held in 2006. But according to Veronica Rayas, director of the office of religious formation in the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, and a delegate at the V Encuentro, this gathering had a unique focus with its theme, “Forming Missionary Disciples.”
“What’s different about this Encuentro is that we’re not just trying to find space in parishes the way we were before, or hoping to get a Spanish Mass, those kinds of things,” said Rayas. “This Encuentro is about us being the protagonists of our Faith and our Faith formation and development in our parishes. It’s up to us now to take on that role, and to go back to our parishes and our dioceses and realize we have a great responsibility.”
Recent demographic studies of the Church in the U.S. highlight just how important that role and responsibility might be. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, over 38 percent of U.S. Catholics are Hispanic, and for those under age 30, that number rises to 54 percent.
Reasons for hope
Pope Francis greeted delegates at the V Encuentro with a video message, describing the V Encuentro as “part of a much larger process of renewal, of missionary impulse to which all the local churches, the particular churches, are called with their rich human and cultural diversity.” He asked delegates to the National Encuentro to consider how their local churches “can better respond to the growing presence, gifts, and potential of Hispanic young people and families, and of other cultures.”
With the Church in the U.S. experiencing great struggle and crisis, the Encuentro highlighted some reasons for hope and provided a sense of solidarity for Hispanic Catholics.
Javier Bustamante, executive director of the Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., said, “The most important thing is the spirit of familia that you feel when you are here. Being an immigrant myself, and coming [to the U.S.] as a young person, I went through a process of trying to figure out what my identity is. Many times, I did not feel at home in the Church. But then you come here [to the V Encuentro], and you know that this is the Church right here, and it brings me back to that family. … This is my home.”
Rayas felt the same sense of affirmation and belonging.
“One thing that has really stood out for me in the liturgies and discussions,” she said, “is to hear all of our bishops speaking Spanish. … It’s been fun to see the bishops be creative in using different dichos, or sayings … really preaching and connecting to people from the Hispanic experience.”
Bringing seeds home
The energy and enthusiasm of the Encuentro was also a source of encouragement for the battle-weary bishops in attendance.
“These days, our Church is passing through very difficult times,” said Bishop Michael Sis of San Angelo, Texas. “Gathering at the V Encuentro is like an oasis of joy for us, to step away from the routine of our work and to celebrate the gifts of Hispanic Catholics from all around the country. We have much to celebrate, and we also have much to do.”
That work to be done, said Bustamante, will include outreach to the peripheries, which Pope Francis has identified as a primary task of missionary discipleship. Bustamante said this should begin with “a mature process to identify the peripheries. The peripheries are very different in different localities. People are hurting in many different spaces. How do we help people see that?”
For Ana María Alstrum, archdiocesan director of Hispanic catechesis in Hartford, Connecticut, a primary task to follow the V Encuentro is outreach to parishioners that might feel marginalized by change in the Church. In Hartford, a declining Catholic population has led to parish consolidations.
“That transition was very hard on many people,” said Alstrum. She said parishes that participated in the Encuentro process found that it helped them organize the community, to promote communication between groups that formerly belonged to multiple parishes and were now in a single parish. However, some newly reorganized parishes opted out of the process for practical reasons, feeling like it was too much to take on in the midst of the upheaval they were experiencing.
“I would like to take the Encuentro process back to the parishes and keep it going by helping parishes that were involved in the Encuentro to serve as models for the parishes left behind in the original process,” Alstrum said.
Leadership development, said Rayas, will be a key task to follow the V Encuentro. She highlighted the importance of forming leaders who will use the goals and steps that will be identified in the final document that will result from the consultation process in order to bring growth and positive change to their local communities.
Citing an image from one of the keynote talks of a seed being planted, Rayas asked, “How do we make sure we don’t just take these seeds home? How do we plant? How do we use that to be missionary disciples?”
Joseph D. White is OSV’s national catechetical consultant.