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.
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.
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.