V Encuentro: Young Latinos and women are ready to lead. Will the church make room?

Edith Avila Olea, associate director for justice and peace in the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., speaks to delegates during the "Getting Involved" panel presentation Sept. 21 at the Fifth National Encuentro, or V Encuentro, in Grapevine, Texas. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn) 

It was a gathering where the stakes could not have been higher. As one young delegate said to me, “The church is living at an inflection point; these are truly urgent times.” This young Latino had just witnessed the close of the national gathering meant to culminate the “Encuentro” process of the past year. Conversations around tables and hallways witnessed to this historical moment.

One topic of conversation had dominated the headlines for months, only to be dwarfed recently by a second. The first, the relentless attack on immigrants and the animus toward Latinos in the United States, was on the mind of most delegates. But the second problem had pushed immigration out of the headlines. The hierarchy of the U.S. Catholic Church was implicated and under investigation in several states, with evidence piling up of unspeakable crimes of sexual abuse by clergy and those who covered it up. And so we mourned doubly: for the suffering of countless victims of sexual abuse and for the loss of the moral authority of our church to speak out on other issues.

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One young delegate said to me, “The church is living at an inflection point; these are truly urgent times.”

What would a national gathering of over 3,000 Hispanic Catholics, centered on Pope Francisco’s exhortation to be missionary disciples to the peripheries look like in this atmosphere? The delegates expected to deal with the painful reality and hoped to nurture their resolve for the hard work ahead, and in many corners of the Encuentro, this happened in conversation. A determination to serve and help was voiced often by delegates of all ages. We also heard often the rejection, followed by the hope that, at this moment of upheaval in the church and in our nation, the dones (talents and commitments) of Latinx Catholics will be accepted and valued.

Yet, as I spoke with my fellow participants and observed the events, what became clear was that, at times, the formal program revealed an institution still struggling to meet the needs of the moment. Drawing on these conversations and observations, I would like to suggest a few points that may help guide the ongoing conversation about the needs of the Latinx church.

Young adults are ready and willing to take on responsibility for and within the church. And many already have.

The feeling of sometimes being treated as children dismayed young leaders. One young woman with major responsibilities at her diocese and a master’s degree in theology felt that the meeting for the bishops and young adults was too focused on “music and chanting and an atmosphere that did not take us seriously.” The young adults I spoke with felt that at times their roles as lay ministers running offices and parish programs were not understood.

Young adults are ready and willing to take on responsibility for and within the church. And many already have.

Juan Pablo Padilla, the coordinator for youth and young adult ministry/pastoral juvenil for the Archdiocese of Chicago confronted the bishops in one of the few moments of candor. He urged the critical reorganization of power structures, especially at parishes, noting that “young people are often not even given a place to meet by resistant pastors.” Reminding us that the majority of young Catholics in the United States are Latinas/os, he asked the bishops to make budget adjustments and inclusion efforts in order to give lay Latinx Catholics the respect, autonomy and authority to do the work they have been trained to do.

Inclusion of women is critical to engagement.

Although some bishops are committed to nurturing Latinx lay leadership, this was not evident in much of the program. Despite the presence of exceedingly qualified lay experts and religious women, few had prominent roles as presenters of content or reflections. Similarly, during the Visperas and Laudes (morning and evening prayers) and Eucharistic liturgies, a total of seven worship celebrations, women were excluded from almost all of the liturgical ministries. Accustomed to being actively involved in the worship life of their parishes, this shocked many of the women present.

“One of the areas that still remains to be given serious attention is that of the inclusion of women in the life of the church.”

“One of the areas that still remains to be given serious attention is that of the inclusion of women in the life of the church and in society,” theologian Ana Maria Pineda, R.S.M., told me. “That came up in the III Encuentro, and no serious attention was given to how you address it.... The church is going to lose [women] if we don’t dramatically change our attitude toward [them].” Sister Pineda, who is among the leadership of the Sisters of Mercy, was the only person who was not a bishop invited to address the whole assembly. She holds the historical memory of the last three Encuentros.

The church needs concrete strategies and actions.

In the midst of what he described as the beautiful experience of “coming together and seeing the faith of the people,” Timothy Matovina, the chair of theology at the University of Notre Dame, also shared his concerns with me.

“We know what we have to do, calling forth our young people, walking with them, immigrants, women, people on the peripheries,” he said. “We knew this already, and the Encuentro reaffirmed all of that for us, but the real challenge of the Encuentro still lies ahead.”

“The energy, the joy, the willingness of participants shows the readiness of Latino/a ministers in our church to lead.”

Professor Matovina, who has presented exhaustive research on the prior Encuentros and other key historical moments in his book Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church, sees an urgent need to be practical. “What are the pastoral strategies in a world of great need that we can develop to truly address these needs?” he asked. “We have to move beyond saying the things that we already know. We need to do and develop concrete strategies that we can live out to actually accomplish these important tasks.”

“The energy, the joy, the willingness of participants shows the readiness of Latino/a ministers in our church to lead,” said Teresa Maya, C.C.V.I., a theologian who serves as past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. “My experience of the Encuentro made me realize that as ready as they are, our church is not quite there yet. I believe we stand on the threshold, now each parish priest, each bishop, each community we call church can open the door fully to the gifts of our Latino ministers.”

Lay leaders seek honest and frank dialogue with the church hierarchy.

In his much-appreciated homily for the closing liturgy, Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles was honest and eloquent. Recalling the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531 as the beginning of the history of the Latino peoples of these lands, he stated forcefully, “It is time to move beyond the Latino presence to the Latino leadership of the church.” He encouraged the community to be like Juan Diego and “go to the bishop.” Juan Diego was rebuffed by the bishop, but he was determined. Critiquing clericalism, Archbishop Gómez asked the community to be like soon-to-be saint Óscar Romero and find “the meaning of our lives and our joy in searching for what God needs of us.”

It seems to me that what God needs of U.S. Latino Catholics is to find the fortitude and voice to deal with the difficult issues honestly, to advocate for inclusion and, when needed, to shake things up in the never-ending work for metanoia, that transformation and eruption of the kingdom.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Phillip Stone
2 months 3 weeks ago

Dear sister, leaders TAKE the lead and do not ask anyone for permission and do not wait for others to put them forward.

If you have taken your beliefs from Feminism, you have been deceived and betrayed.

It would be of great service to the whole human race for Christian women to critique the secular swamp of atheist, humanist and materialist modern versions of ancient heresies.

There have been many amazing women in the last two thousand years, a study of the female saints seems in order: I mean a serious, intelligent, rigorous research project which might reveal the mind of Christ as He nurtured and strengthened and guided these women to heroic virtue. Pop your head into Genesis one more time and remind yourself " ... male and female he created them ...".
Ask yourself, Was that an accident, or a mistake or genius?

Dionys Murphy
2 months 3 weeks ago

Dear brother,

Don't tell women what to do. They are strong, intelligent and independent enough to discover their paths on their own.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
2 months 3 weeks ago

The Holy Spirit is blowing and doing wonders.

Quinnens Roy
2 months 2 weeks ago

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Nora Bolcon
2 months 2 weeks ago

Until women are treated and given the same exact sacramental opportunities as men have and the same educational opportunities and the same exact authority as bishops and cardinals and popes women will always be subservient and less as human beings in our church. It is not enough to give women greater roles. Equality demands exact same roles and treatment and ordination, and so did Jesus Christ in the Gospels command same treatment for all believers period. Women will continue to leave and become NONES or Episcopalians as long as we continue to abuse their human dignity without repentance or remorse. It is for the laity to demand complete change now - our church is literally on the line if we do not.

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