Gathered in Miami for three days of intense reflection, 300 Catholics, mostly Hispanic, pondered problems and offered solutions to challenges faced by people in their communities. The Diocese of St. Petersburg had 34 delegates representing 20 parishes at the Regional V (fifth) Encuentro, which was the second largest contingency of participants. Bishop Gregory Parkes and Monsignor Robert Morris, Vicar General of the Diocese of St. Petersburg also attended.
In all, 30 dioceses were in attendance from nine southeastern states. It was a prelude to the big event: the national V Encuentro for Hispanic Ministry set for Grapevine, Texas, in September.
Many issues were discussed during the event on Feb. 22-24, including those relating to families and religious education, raising children in the faith, vocations, and immigration. They spoke in Spanish and English. They prayed and sang in both as well.
In the end, they summed up their work in two words: hope and commitment. These words describe both the impact the Encuentro process has had on participants and the ongoing work that lies ahead.
“I hope that the V Encuentro will create in us an attitude of greater listening, openness, and action by the Church to respond to the spiritual, vocational and service needs of our Hispanic youth and young adults,” said Gustavo Facio from Corpus Christi Parish in Tampa and Coordinator of Pastoral Juvenil.
Carlos Flores, director of Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, has been helping to organize the Encuentro Process since August of 2014.
Flores says the V Encuentro has offered Catholics in our diocese the opportunity to live out their baptismal call to evangelize and that often means going outside the walls of our churches to bring God’s love to others.
Seventeen parishes completed the reflection process of the V Encuentro with 1,000 participants reaching out to over 800 people encountered in our peripheries. They formed communities and prayed and reflected on how they can go to the peripheries and accompany our brothers and sisters who are not currently connected with the Church or have fallen away from the faith. Encuentro participants have been learning a new missionary process, which involves recognizing their own need for God’s love and mercy and then bringing this hope in Christ to others.
“We talk a lot about evangelization. There can’t be evangelization without encountering others. We can’t evangelize from the pews. We must get up and go out to encounter the people who need to hear about God’s love. My hope is that this is just the beginning for our diocese in reaching out to all who live in our 5 counties…to meet them like Jesus met the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, to welcome them, to walk with them, to lead them to Christ,” said Flores.
MILLENNIAL AND BILINGUAL
More than 50 percent of Hispanic Catholics are younger than 27 and a similar number were born in the U.S., according to figures cited in the Encuentro working document. They’re fluent in English but learned to pray, and still speak Spanish, at home.
“They like hamburgers and they like tacos,” said Marthamaria Morales of the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama. Moreover, “they are Catholic by tradition but not by conviction. So we’re trying to find a place for them in the Catholic Church.”
She said giving millennials a task, a sense of mission works because “they’re seeking some sense of belonging … a purpose in life.”
She also advocates for bilingual Masses on special occasions, such as Christmas, confirmations and special feast days, as a way of helping Hispanics and English-speakers get to know each other better.
“I don’t want to see two communities. We need to be one community,” said Barbara Romani, a non-Hispanic delegate from Miami who grew up in New York, amid fellow Italians but also Germans, Irish, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Dominicans. Then she moved to Miami and watched as the city absorbed wave after wave of immigrants, first from Cuba and then from every country in Central and South America, as well as Haiti.
“You have to work to incorporate, to do things to get people together,” Romani said. She added that the whole Church community — not just Hispanics — needs to support the Encuentro process.
Planning for the V Encuentro began in 2014. The nitty-gritty of parish and diocesan meetings took place last year, and the process will not conclude until 2020. The U.S. bishops will spend 2019 reviewing the national Encuentro’s conclusions and writing some type of pastoral plan. In 2020, those recommendations will make their way back to the dioceses for implementation in the parishes.
“This continues a tradition of Encuentros that has helped the Church not only recognize the need but engage in the solutions,” said Vivi Iglesias, Region XIV coordinator for the Encuentro. She was the previous Hispanic Ministry Director for the Diocese of St. Petersburg who recruited volunteers, assembled the diocesan team and coordinated the training for parishes and other diocesan directors.
“The emphasis that we see coming up is the youth, vocations, the young families and leadership development among Hispanics, and immigration, ” Iglesias added.
Father Duvan Bermudez, director of Hispanic Ministry for the Palm Beach diocese, said the greatest needs are to continue strengthening the Hispanic communities and raise awareness among the clergy, not just about the presence of Hispanics, but of people of other nationalities and ethnicities, including Filipinos, Brazilians, Vietnamese and Haitians.
“We need to be able to take the Gospel to these people,” Father Bermudez said, adding that it’s understood that in the U.S. people have to speak English. But “it’s also important to respect the culture.”
Speaking to the delegates as they concluded their reflections, Father Rafael Capó reminded them that “with great gifts comes great responsibility. So with hope comes commitment.”
Father Capó directs the Southeast Regional Office for Hispanic Ministry, the anchor institution for the Southeast Regional Encuentro and itself a result of the reflections — and ultimate implementation — of the II Encuentro, held from 1975 to 1977.
On opening night, he told the delegates, “You are called to be a leader in the evangelization of the U.S.”
It was a theme Archbishop Christophe Pierre, papal nuncio to the U.S., picked up at the closing Mass Feb. 24. Speaking in Spanish, he called the Encuentro a means of rebuilding the Church and invited the delegates “to have this dream … that we are going to transform our reality.”
In the U.S. Church today, Encuentro “is one of the most dynamic things that can exist,” he said, “because it is an encounter … a meeting of those who, in the socio-political context of this country, are rejected.”
Harking back to Moses and the prophets, Archbishop Pierre said today’s generations are similarly displaced. “There is an uncertainty about our identity.” Parents find it difficult to transmit their faith and values to their children. “The world is lost, people are lost.”
But in the midst of these changing times, God “makes a convocation to make a new people … the people of God,” the archbishop said. “Not to form a small sect, not to form a small world of the elect,” but to put into practice the supreme law of the kingdom of God, the law of love.
“We must reflect. A discernment … You must see what we can do in this new world,” he said. He suggested that the answer lies in the theme for the V Encuentro: “Missionary disciples. Witnesses to God’s love.”
The phrase is taken from the document published by the bishops of Latin America — including a cardinal from Buenos Aires who would become Pope Francis — after their meeting in Aparecida, Brazil.
“Our church must be, must be! the place where people can have the opportunity to meet Jesus,” Archbishop Pierre said. “If those people are disciples, in the context of today you have to orient them to be missionaries … The sequence is to be disciples first and missionaries as the consequence of discipleship.”
“I encourage you,” he concluded. “You have a great responsibility.”
Thank you to Ana Rodriguez-Soto and the Florida Catholic for contributing to this article.