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

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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: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.