V Encuentro, a balm for the Church in the United States

It was time to celebrate the faith and joy of the Risen Christ, even in the midst of the tribulations that the Church is currently experiencing.

This is how one can define the experience lived by many at the national V Encuentro of Hispanic Ministry that was held Sept. 20-23 in Grapevine, Texas.

“I have not found depressed, or sad people,” said Dr. Guzmán Carriquiri, Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, who came from Rome to be part of this event. “I have found disciples of God who have recognized his presence and company and have expressed all their joy and hope.”

Dr. Carriquiri defined the V Encuentro as a “balm” in the midst of a suffering Church. The event brought together around 3,000 Hispanic leaders from 159 dioceses in the United States and 157 bishops who listened to ideas and were encouraged by their people.

The National V Encuentro of Hispanic Ministry is the result of a consultation process that was convened in 2014 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops States (USCCB) and began in early 2017. The consultations were held on three different levels: parochial, diocesan and regional before reaching the National Encuentro in Texas. This process consisted of four stages outlined in Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: Taking the first step, being involved and supportive, bearing fruit and rejoicing.

I have found disciples of God who have recognized his presence and company and have expressed all their joy and hope.”

For Alfonso Lara, Hispanic Director of Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Denver, leading his delegation was “very positive.” The delegates traveled 16 hours to Grapevine, an experience that created a fraternal atmosphere among them.

“Having participated in V Encuentro has helped them identify the reality and needs of the Church in the U.S,” said Lara “We all experienced a beautiful Church event. We achieved the goal of being inclusive in this sense.”

There were days of hard work, conferences, panels, and regional and ministerial group dialogues in which Hispanic Catholics from around the U.S. had the opportunity to express their opinions, concerns, and proposals about Hispanic ministry. In the group dialogues, the delegates followed the See-Judge-Act scheme.

Many of the V Encuentro delegates and attendees were of Anglo descent, who were seen wearing headsets to hear simultaneous Spanish-English translation, seeking to better understand the Hispanic Community and to rejoice with them in faith.

Hope for the Church

There are 52 million documented Hispanics in the U.S., of whom 68 percent are Catholic. From those, 60 percent are millennials. If the uncertain number of undocumented Hispanics were to be included in this statistic, the figure would be greater, said Dr. Hosffman Ospino, a Colombian associate professor of Hispanic Ministry and Religious Education at Boston College and member of the organizing committee of the event.

We all experienced a beautiful Church event. We achieved the goal of being inclusive in this sense.”

Dr. Ospino described V Encuentro as “a wonderful experience. It has given us the opportunity to take the pulse of the Catholic Church in the United States. There is a lot of rejoicing and new voices are emerging from our communities,” he said in one of the panels.

On the other hand, Boston archbishop Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley said in a heartfelt homily during the September 22 Mass: “Love knows no borders. Disciples love the foreigners. They become brothers and sisters. We are not orphans. We have a Father who loves us.”

Attention to the Youth

A topic that was constantly touched upon was the need to offer creative ways to bring the Gospel to young people.

“We should be open to listening to young people’s ideas,” said Brittany Koepke García, Coordinator of Hispanic Youth Ministry of the Diocese of Knoxville, during one of the plenary sessions. For this reason, around 700 delegates under the age of 35 participated in a dinner with the bishops who attended V Encuentro Sept. 22.

“To be face by face with all the bishops was very emotional,” said Alejandra Bravo, Director of Hispanic Youth Ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver. “Not only did they listen to us, they also shared with us … knowing that they took time [to be with us] even after such a long day fills my heart with joy and hope and it urges me to be perseverant and to continue with the mission of evangelizing and loving others,” said Bravo.

Disciples and missionaries

One of the most exciting moments of V Encuentro was when the delegates saw a video message from Pope Francis at the opening ceremony.

“I am glad to see that V Encuentro, in continuity with the previous Encuentros, recognizes and values the specific gifts that Hispanic Catholics offer today and will continue to offer in the future to the Church in their country,” said the pontiff. “I know that the process of this V Encuentro comforted many immigrants who live in fear and uncertainty … it has given them a greater sense of community, friendship, support. It has also been an instrument of grace that led to the conversion of the hearts of many people.”

During his homily at the V Encuentro closing Mass, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles urged the attendees to follow St. Juan Diego’s example, who was a layman and to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe entrusted the mission of asking to build a church. “[She appeared] not to a priest, bishop or a religious order member, but to a layman like you,” he said.

In a similar way, Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas invited Hispanic people to not only be disciples, but also to evangelize in this country. “If we have experienced what it is to be accompanied, we can better understand the call to accompany others,” he said.

Thus, between songs, liturgical celebrations, conversations, conferences and panels, the V Encuentro was celebrated, and it was described by Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio, Texas and member of the organizing committee as “a caress of God. … These have been conversations from the heart.”

COMING UP: John Paul II, youth minister

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Pole that he was, Karol Wojtyla had a well-developed sense of historical irony. So from his present position in the Communion of Saints, he might be struck by the ironic fact that the Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” currently underway in Rome, coincides with the 40th anniversary of his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. What’s the irony? The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document. And the Synod leadership under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri seems strangely reluctant to invoke either his teaching or his example.

But let’s get beyond irony. What are some lessons the Synod might draw from John Paul II, pied piper of the young, on this ruby anniversary of his election?

1. The big questions remain the same.

Several bishops at Synod-2018 have remarked that today’s young people are living in a completely different world than when the bishops in question grew up. There’s obviously an element of truth here, but there’s also a confusion between ephemera and the permanent things.

When Cardinal Adam Sapieha assigned young Father Wojtyla to St. Florian’s parish in 1948, in order to start a ministry to the university students who lived nearby, things in Cracow were certainly different than they were when Wojtyla was a student at the Jagiellonian University in 1938-39. In 1948, Poland was in the deep freeze of Stalinism and organized Catholic youth work was banned. The freewheeling social and cultural life in which Wojtyla had reveled before the Nazis shut down the Jagiellonian was no more, and atheistic propaganda was on tap in many classrooms. But Wojtyla knew that the Big Questions that engage young adults — What’s my purpose in life? How do I form lasting friendships? What is noble and what is base? How do I navigate the rocks and shoals of life without making fatal compromises? What makes for true happiness? — are always the same. They always have been, and they always will be.

To tell today’s young adults that they’re completely different is pandering, and it’s a form of disrespect. To help maturing adults ask the big questions and wrestle with the permanent things is to pay them the compliment of taking them seriously. Wojtyla knew that, and so should the bishops of Synod-2018.

2. Walking with young adults should lead somewhere.

Some of the Wojtyla kids from that university ministry at St. Florian’s have become friends of mine, and when I ask them what he was like as a companion, spiritual director, and confessor, they always stress two points: masterful listening that led to penetrating conversations, and an insistence on personal responsibility. As one of them once put it to me, “We’d talk for hours and he’d shed light on a question, but I never heard him say ‘You should do this.’ What he’d always say was, ‘You must choose’.” For Karol Wojtyla, youth minister, gently but persistently compelling serious moral decisions was the real meaning of “accompaniment” (a Synod-2018 buzzword).

3. Heroism is never out of fashion.

When, as pope, John Paul II proposed launching what became World Youth Day, most of the Roman Curia thought he had taken leave of his senses: young adults in the late-20th century just weren’t interested in an international festival involving catechesis, the Way of the Cross, confession, and the Eucharist. John Paul, by contrast, understood that the adventure of leading a life of heroic virtue was just as compelling in late modernity as it had been in his day, and he had confidence that future leaders of the third millennium of Christian history would answer that call to adventure.

That didn’t mean they’d be perfect. But as he said to young people on so many occasions, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes possible in your life. You’ll fail; we all do. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation. But never, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”

That challenge — that confidence that young adults really yearn to live with an undivided heart — began a renaissance in young adult and campus ministry in the living parts of the world Church. Synod-2018 should ponder this experience and take it very, very seriously.