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J.D. Long GarcíaAugust 14, 2023
Sister Leticia Salazar, ODN, Father Ivan Montelongo and Wyatt Olivas will be the 20 representatives from the United States that will be voting during the Synod on Synodality on Rome in October. 

Wyatt Olivas is a student at the University of Wyoming and a music intern at St. Paul’s Newman Center there. He is also one of 20 representatives from the United States who will be voting during the Synod on Synodality in Rome this October.

America spoke with Mr. Olivas and other Latino Catholics from the United States who will be at the synod. Their participation is important: Recent polling data suggests that more than half of U.S. Catholics under 30 are Latino. Overall, Latinos make up more than 40 percent of Catholics in the United States.

“It hurts our feelings when people don’t want to listen to us and when people push us aside and make us ‘tomorrow’s church’ and not part of our universal church,” Mr. Olivas said, adding that the topic came up often during the synod listening process. “The youth feel pushed aside and not getting bigger responsibilities because it’s not ‘their turn.’”

The Pew Research Center released a study in April documenting the steady decline of Catholic Church membership among U.S. Latinos. Today, approximately 43 percent of Latinos identify as Catholic, a dramatic drop from 67 percent in 2010. Much of that change comes from the escalating number of religiously disaffiliated Americans, who now make up 30 percent of the Latino population.

Reaching young Catholics was a common concern expressed by participants at various stages of the synod, according to Mr. Olivas and others who spoke with America. He believes the synodal process is already turning things around.

“It made my heart feel so good that young people had the opportunity to speak about their church,” he said. “It made my heart full of joy just to see that people want to listen to the young people.”

This summer, Mr. Olivas served as a missionary with the Catholic youth program Totus Tuus, sharing his faith with young Catholics across Wyoming. “There’s even younger people than me!” he laughed, explaining that the missionaries spent a lot of time with children.

“It made my heart feel so good that young people had the opportunity to speak about their church.”

“We called them ‘besties in Christ.’ That’s how we could get to the little kids,” Mr. Olivas explained. “Friends in Christ? Yeah, that was O.K. But ‘besties in Christ,’ they got that.”

The message—that the kids were just as much a part of their faith community as anyone else—got through. “No matter who sits in the pew next to you, say good morning and give them a smile,” Mr. Olivas told the kids. “Once our young people start doing that, the older people will be like, ‘O.K., these young people are ready to start doing more things.’”

Once younger generations begin to take ownership of the church, things will change, Mr. Olivas said. And simply being present and interacting with Catholics from older generations can create an opening to more responsibility in the church.

“Eventually someone is going to let you in,” he tells younger Catholics. “Something is going to work.”

Leticia Salazar, a Company of Mary sister and the chancellor of the Diocese of San Bernardino, Calif., moved to the United States from Mexico in 1980 when she was 17. In October, she will be joining Mr. Olivas and other U.S. Catholics at the synod.

Every generation of Catholics has something to give to the church, and every generation also has something to receive, she said. While the church usually aspires to be a voice for the voiceless, the synod encourages something different, she said.

“Now we are not the voice of anybody,” Sister Salazar said. “Everybody has a voice. So now I need to listen more, even to the softest voice that we have in the community.”

“The synod will end, but synodality doesn’t have to end. It keeps moving, and can continue transforming and opening doors.”

From the early listening phases of the synod, young Catholics challenged older generations to live their faith more authentically, she said.

“It wasn’t judgmental,” she explained of what she heard from young people during various synodal gatherings. “It was almost like crying out for testimony—for people to be role models. ‘How can I live a Christian life in these uncertain times? With all the crises, the polarization in the church, how can we live more like Jesus?’”

The synod, she said, is like an extension of the V Encuentro, a multiyear initiative from the U.S. bishops that sought to better understand the growing Latin American community. Sister Salazar participated in a number of the Encuentros since she was a teenager, noting that they called on leaders to be gente puente, “bridge people.”

“There is a need for all of us to listen, from one culture to another. This is the next step the Holy Spirit is calling us to,” she said of the synod. “The Holy Spirit is also working in other realities. The point is not to ask for permission to be a church. We are a church. But the Holy Spirit is always calling us to do more.”

Personal agendas contradict the spirit of the synod, Sister Salazar said. Issues specific to groups within the church, like women’s leadership in the church and welcoming L.G.B.T. Catholics, will certainly be a part of conversations. But, she said, the synod is more about a paradigm shift.

“The synod will end, but synodality doesn’t have to end. It keeps moving, and can continue transforming and opening doors,” she said. “The reality of the universal church is to really feel we are more complete when we are together.”

Like Sister Salazar, the Rev. Ivan Montelongo immigrated from Mexico as a teenager. He is now the director for vocations and the judicial vicar for the Diocese of El Paso, Tex.

While he is representing North America, Father Montelongo believes he will be able to share the particular experience of the borderlands with other synod participants.

“We walk between two realities,” he said of El Paso, which is just north of Ciudad Juárez, in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. “People live on one side of the border and work on the other. It’s a constant crossing. This enriches both our human and Christian perspectives.”

“Where sometimes we let political divisions divide us as a church, coming together under the same tent can only be healing.”

Catholicism on the border is informed by both the church in the United States and in Mexico, he said. “It’s a mestizo theology,” Father Montelongo said, crediting the Rev. Virgilio Elizondo with the concept that underscores the convergence of cultures in the region.

“Where sometimes we let political divisions divide us as a church, coming together under the same tent can only be healing,” Father Montelongo said. “Synodality is precisely about allowing the spirit who lives in all the baptized to speak up.”

The synodal journey, he said, has been a time of renewal not only in his own ministry, but also for all who have chosen to participate. The synod has given the church the chance to demonstrate its desire to accompany and listen to people, Father Montelongo said.

Father Montelongo said he did not have any specific expectations for the synod, though he did say he had great hope for what is to come. Rather than doctrinal issues, which he acknowledged some Catholics are focusing on, he believes the synod will focus on becoming a synodal  church.

And being a synodal church has an immediate application in the United States, he said, where Latinos account for much of the church’s growth.

“We must come close and listen to people’s experiences and dreams, in particular of Latinos,” Father Montelongo said. “There are many different stories, including migrants and their journeys, second-generation Latino Americans and their experience of belonging or not. First of all, just listen to them.”

Listen first, he said. But then act.

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