Why do Hispanics leave the church? The Encuentro project aims to find out.

Mark Gomez, a lay leader of Encuentros Juveniles in the Miami Archdiocese, listens during the Encuentro gathering on Feb. 23 in that city. (CNS photo/Tom Tracy)Mark Gomez, a lay leader of Encuentros Juveniles in the Miami Archdiocese, listens during the Encuentro gathering on Feb. 23 in that city. (CNS photo/Tom Tracy)

Listening. That is the word Genaro Romo, a parishioner at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in West Valley, Utah, used to describe V Encuentro, a four-year national initiative by the U.S. bishops that seeks to better serve the growing Latino community.

“Our people are leaving the church,” Mr. Romo said, expressing a common concern at the regional Encuentro meeting in Phoenix on Feb. 23-25. The regional gatherings are happening throughout the country this spring and summer.

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Two by two, Encuentro participants have been going to the peripheries of the church to reach out to those who do not feel welcomed. They include family members and friends who have fallen away from the church.

“We didn’t go to judge anyone, but to listen,” Mr. Romo said. “It’s working, thanks be to God. Just by [our] listening, people are already coming back.”

On seeking out those who have left the church: “We didn’t go to judge anyone, but to listen.”

More than 450 representatives attended last week’s gathering in Phoenix; another 340 attended a similar gathering in Miami during the same week. A larger gathering this September will bring 3,000 Latino ministry leaders from across the country to the city of Grapevine, a few miles northwest of Dallas. The V Encuentro project will continue through 2020, sharing the fruits of consultation.

In 1972, the first Encuentro, which means “Encounter” in English, led to the formation of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Subsequent Encuentros led to the creation of regional offices for the secretariat and other resources to serve the growing Latino community.

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While approximately 57 million U.S. residents identify as Latino or Hispanic, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reports that only 30 million Hispanics identify as Catholic. About 70 percent of U.S. Latinos identified as Catholic in 2006, but today the number is closer to 57 percent.

V Encuentro is inspired by Pope Francis’ “Evangelii Gaudium,” and the pope’s call to missionary discipleship was evident during the Phoenix session attended by Mr. Romo, where lively discussion centered on the role of young adults in the church. Alejandra Bravo, the Hispanic youth ministry coordinator for the Archdiocese of Denver, said young adult Catholics just want to serve.

“We just want to be welcomed in the church,” she said in an interview with America. “We want to feel welcomed in the church. [Encuentro] lets us know we are welcome.”

About 70 percent of U.S. Latinos identified as Catholic in 2006, but today the number is closer to 57 percent.

Ms. Bravo said young Latinos face many problems today, sometimes including challenges related to their immigration status. Others simply do not feel that they belong in a parish.

“These challenges allow us to grow and find God’s love,” she said. “I understand [U.S. Catholics] don’t always agree on ideas. But we do have something in common, which is God’s love. At the end of the day, we have one mission—to build the Kingdom of God.”

If Catholics focus on what they have in common as brothers and sisters, they can see past divisions, Ms. Bravo said.

Young Catholics were also a primary focus during the Saturday evening bishops’ panel in Phoenix, which consisted of nine bishops from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

“It’s the relationships that are important,” said Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, N.M., during the panel discussion. “Young people have this ability to know when you’re being authentic or inauthentic. It’s nothing to do with age. It has to do with your heart.”

The archbishop encouraged regional representatives to share their “faith and struggles and doubts” with young people.

“If you go into the church these days, it looks like a convention for senior citizens,” said Bishop Oscar Solis of Salt Lake City. “The young people aren’t just the future of our church, they are our church right now.”

Jaquelin Medrano, coordinator of the Encuentro group from St. Monica Church in Tucson, Ariz., lives in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood. As part of Encuentro, she and other parishioners have gone out to places like prisons, colleges and supermarkets to reach out to those outside the church walls.

“If you go into the church these days, it looks like a convention for senior citizens.”

“We are not going with a Bible verse, but to speak with them about their day-to-day lives. Neither their level of education nor their religion matters. We come with open hearts, and that brings down walls,” Ms. Medrano said.

“There are many needs, including family needs. Those with whom we speak say they need more support from the parish,” she said. “They want to be accompanied and listened to.”

The bishops are here to listen, too, according to Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo Nevares of Phoenix. He said the Encuentro could be the beginning of a friendship and said he, like Ms. Medrano, is familiar with a variety of challenges Hispanic families face.

“The family is essential for the well-being of society and the church,” he said, noting that when both parents work, it can be a strain on the family. He suggested families reconsider whether they truly need two incomes.

“Maybe we can do with less so that Mommy or Daddy can stay home,” he said. “Our children are our treasure, especially for us Hispanics. And don’t let anyone tell you one child is enough! That is not of God.”

Ruby Hernandez, youth coordinator of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Hobbs, N.M., came to the United States when she was 9. The 21-year-old said youth ministry can fall into “more labor than spirituality,” where young people are asked to do physical chores. This can deflate the enthusiasm of young Catholics who want to be more involved.

“I really like the teens. They are so full of life. They make events lighter with laughter,” she said. “They’re the salsa to our nachos. Some of them are spicy, some are not. They’re all different.”

And each person has a role to play, said Hosffman Ospino, an associate professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College, at his presentation in Phoenix. Through baptism, every Catholic is called to evangelize, he said; the Gospel must be proclaimed “in good times and in bad, and the Holy Spirit makes it possible.”

“If we let the community speak, the Holy Spirit will speak through them,” he said. “When part of the Catholic community says it does not feel welcome, we need to look for a new way to be church.”

Catholic News Services contributed to this report.

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Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Phil Jackson
9 months 2 weeks ago

Frankly, why Hispanics leave the Church is really of no concern. Should I cater to theirs socio-economic desires? If their faith is not strong enough to provide them enough spiritual sustenance, then what must I offer them? Their religious fervor must be either one of faith or of one of opportunity. One cannot have it both ways. If their faith sways to “what benefits me” then what would I have to offer. The belief in the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, our Lord and Redeemer must’ve paramount. If they cannot realize this truism, then what? Simply, if they are unable to keep the faith......

Dionys Murphy
9 months 1 week ago

You are why Hispanics leave the Church. Because under your self-righteous meanderings about how people should behave sits a well fed monster we call racism in modern society.

Mike McDermott
9 months 2 weeks ago

I think some conscience-pricking Catholic guilt is needed. Not just for Hispanics, but for all cultural or ethnic Catholics who don’t practice the faith:
- Don’t you care about Jesus?
-Don’t you care about your eternal soul?
-Don’t you love your.children enough to help them get to Heaven?
- If grandma were still alive she would be so disappointed in you!

Enough of these fruitless listening tours.

Time for some tough love evangelism. We need more Catholic Billy Graham’s and more old fashioned Catholic grandparent# to bring these truant souls back to Holy Mother Church by the scruff of their necks.

Vince Killoran
9 months 2 weeks ago

" If grandma were still alive she would be so disappointed in you!"

Hilarious--keep that sense of humor! Who doesn't make choices about their faith life based on not wanting to disappoint a deceased grandparent.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will continue to listen, be inclusive, and learn from others. That is what draws people to the Faith in the first place.

Kevin Murphy
9 months 1 week ago

Is that what draws people? I thought it was Jesus' message on how to live a moral life and form a relationship with God, thus gaining eternal life. I prefer to first learn from Jesus than from others. The idea that people join a church because of "inclusion" is ridiculous.

Dionys Murphy
9 months 1 week ago

"The idea that people join a church because of "inclusion" is ridiculous." You really should do some basic research on what the original word for 'Church' is, along with what communion means. They are spot on about what draws people to Church. Especially about opening up silence and space to listen. Something you could certainly learn from.

Dionys Murphy
9 months 1 week ago

"bring these truant souls back to Holy Mother Church by the scruff of their necks." They are not unruly children. They are beautiful grown adults.
"Time for some tough love evangelism. We need more Catholic Billy Graham’s a" Jesus, no. What we certainly do not need is more neo-evangelical neo-Christianist gobbedlygook leaking into the Church.

Vincent Gaglione
9 months 1 week ago

The Catholic Church in the United States is an immigrant church. The Catholics that were here prior to and immediately after the revolution were few and far between and the subject of numerous anti-Catholic laws and prejudices.

This article reminds me of a story told to me perhaps 3 or 4 years ago by a member of a local parish council. The pastor was thinking of instituting a Spanish Mass, not substituting for an already existing scheduled Mass, but instituting a new one. The issue was how the rest of the parish would react!

I grew up in the 1950’s in a west Harlem NYC parish to which a Jesuit, Roberto Ricci, SJ (Argentine I believe), was assigned to meet the needs of Spanish-speaking parishioners. For some parishioners it was their clue that the neighborhood was “changing.” For those of us who remained it was just an immigrant church welcoming new immigrants. It is abundantly obvious to me why so many of today’s Latin immigrants are abandoning the Catholic Church in the United States. They are the clue that the USA is changing and the xenophobes among us resent them.

Dionys Murphy
9 months 1 week ago

Thank you. You have said it beautifully.

Michelle Rodriguez
9 months 1 week ago

So, I wanted to comment on this because I feel it’s important for the Catholic Church to be aware. I am a young, 22 year old, Hispanic who identified herself as Catholic. Throughout very much of my young Catholic life I devoted myself to helping out the church in any way that I could. When I was about 6 or 7 I began doing plays at the church for different seasons. I was blessed to have done all my sacraments by the age of 15. I was a youth group leader from the time I turned 15 and also began teaching CCD classes. I both passed and participated in about 3 or 4 Encuentros retreats and worked various confirmation retreats at my Parrish. I was a lecture in mass and even sometimes the commentator for mass. Then I also began to serve in mass as well. About a year and a half ago. I came out to my family and friends and I was judged for my sexual orientation. I was told I could not participate in reading in mass, teaching CCD, doing retreats, or anything else for that matter in my Parrish. They pretty much told me I could be a bystander. This is why I don’t necessarily identify myself as Catholic anymore. You have a young Hispanic girl, who despite being gay, devoted herself to God and to her brothers and sisters in God and she was pushed out of the Catholic Church. You can’t blame the individual for that one.

Mike Theman
9 months 1 week ago

You were one that showed all the signs of a true devoted Catholic, doing all the things that good Catholics do. And then the Devil came and tempted you with same-sex attraction. You were presented with a challenge and choices. You chose to accept your sexual attraction as your identity, "coming out" as a sort of secular, homosexual sacrament, rejecting any Catholic teaching with respect to your being a man's partner and embracing the sinful temptation to engage in acts that the Church expressly reveals as sinful. How's the old saying go about the Spirit being willing but the flesh....?"

The weakness of the flesh was recognized by Jesus, but it didn't make him very happy when his faithful fell asleep during his hour of need. Don't blame the Church for reacting to a decision that you made. It's not too late to reject your same-sex attraction and continue the life of a good Catholic.

Dionys Murphy
9 months 1 week ago

"And then the Devil came and tempted you with same-sex attraction." -- No. Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on you.

And then she realized she was created in the image of God, just as she is and recognized her inherent self as it was and is. People like Mike are exactly why many leave the Church, shaming people for being the beautiful humans they are created in God's image while letting others who are struggling with different challenges or 'sins' go without comment.

It's not too late, Mike, to try and understand Christ's teachings and start living the life of a good Catholic.

Vincent Gaglione
9 months 1 week ago

Wait, wait...who was it who said, "Who am I to judge?" Apparently not your parish and some of the crowd writing comments here!

Tony Chow
9 months 1 week ago

Michelle, to serve God is to do it on His terms, not on ours.
Before we even serve, the first thing He asks of us is Keep the Commandments (see Mark 10:17-20).
There is nothing to do with you being gay.
You may argue that you're born gay. By the same token, I can say that I am born promiscuous, or born adulterous, or murderous.
We're all subject to God's commandments nonetheless, required to live a chaste life at our respective stage, whether we're single, married, celibate, or dating.
Fornication, adultery, debauchery, homosexual acts, people who commit these sins canNOT inherit the Kingdom of God, gay or straight.
A divorced/remarried person without annulment canNOT serve either, there is nothing against you being gay.
If we straight people need to struggle to keep the Commandments, what makes you think that you needn't? Aren't we all equal?

Mike Theman
9 months 1 week ago

It saddens me to read about people who put their ancestry ahead of their country of residence. There's an old hokey recording from the movie star John Wayne called "The Hyphen" that laments the tendency of some cultures to describe themselves as part Americans, e.g., Italian-American, Afro-American. People of Hispanic descent go one further (perhaps just taking the lead of their divisive Leftist leaders) and call themselves "Latinos," not even hyphenated American. So against assimilation is this mentality that parts of the country have adopted bilingualism to accommodate their refusal to adopt the de-facto American language that all other immigrating cultures have adopted.

So it is ironic that despite their tendency to not assimilate, the "Latinos" are assimilating to American secularism, or at least American Catholic rejection of Catholicism. To me, the issue is not about Hispanics, per se, the issue is how powerful anti-Catholicism is in this country, even to upend the strong-held beliefs of a group of people who generally hold on to their culture.

Dionys Murphy
9 months 1 week ago

Quoting a racist like John Wayne isn't the best idea. The beauty of America and the beauty of Catholicism is that both have welcomed people from all ancestries and understand that their culture is to be honored, not whitewashed. Taking pride in culture and pride in education to speak well in multiple languages is not shameful. To force others to assimilate, to whitewash their culture, to steal their language and replace it with one inferior -- that is shameful.

James Haraldson
9 months 1 week ago

The fact that the Church is run almost entirely by Catholic anti-Catholic bigots these days might have a lot to do with it.

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