Encountering the Future

History of the National Encuentrosby Mario J. Paredes

Paulist Press. 256p $27.95

In his book Practices of Dialogue in the Roman Catholic Church, Bradford Hinze of Fordham University skillfully explores various examples of dialogue within the church, including the pastoral letters on peace (1983) and the economy (1986) issued by the U.S. bishops following wide-ranging consultation. Hinze also focuses on the two-year consultation sponsored by the U.S. bishops that culminated in the national assembly Call to Action, held in October 1976.

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Hinze’s analysis, however, fails to mention the vast grassroots consultation—in total, perhaps as widespread as that of Call to Action, if not more so—sponsored by the U.S. bishops of the church’s Hispanic American population during this same time period. This consultation was divided into three different periods and resulted in national gatherings of U.S. Catholic Hispanics in Washington, D.C., in 1972, 1977 and 1985. The consultation process and the gatherings were called National Hispanic Pastoral Encuentros. Hinze’s oversight, while unfortunate, is not surprising, since at the heart of what gave rise to the Encuentros (literally, encounters) in the first place is the sad fact that U.S. Catholic Hispanics have often been underappreciated and underserved, if not worse, by society at large and the church itself.

This book by Mario J. Paredes is an important step in presenting to a new generation the Encuentros and their impact on U.S. Catholic Hispanics and the wider church, as well as their promise for them. Paredes is well situated to be our guide in this significant endeavor: as one of the delegates from Brooklyn, he participated in the first Encuentro and, as executive director (1976-2003) of the Northeast Catholic Pastoral Center for Hispanics, he helped organize the second and third Encuentros. The importance of this book is partly rooted in the fact that Hispanics are today present in more than a third of U.S. parishes and account for about 40 percent of all Catholics in the country and for 70 percent of the church’s growth in the United States. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is also currently in the initial stages of planning the next Encuentro.

The book is divided into three parts, one for each Encuentro, and is mostly Paredes’s summary of the many documents produced by each of these gatherings, like the working documents, agendas, plenary-session presentations, minutes and the recommendations approved at the three national Encuentros.

My own doctoral research on the Encuentros helps me to recognize the importance of providing a summary of these documents. Indeed, some of them are extremely difficult to obtain—more so now that because of budget constraints, the U.S.C.C.B. has made access to its archives virtually impossible.

Paredes also comments on each Encuentro and discusses the prospects for the next Encuentro, which will be the fifth of its kind since a fourth was convened in 2000 as the “Encuentro 2000,” though without the consultative dimension and pastoral aim of the previous three.

The idea to convene the first Encuentro (June 19-22, 1972) emerged in September 1971 in New York City and soon garnered grassroots support in the subsequent months. The primary aim of the first Encuentro was to begin “to develop a pastoral plan for Hispanic-Americans, who at the time made up 25 percent of the U.S. Catholic faithful.”

The second Encuentro (Aug. 18-21, 1977) was preceded by a concerted, wide-ranging consultation that began by focusing on la base (the grassroots, the base) nearly two years earlier. Throughout the country, different groups and dioceses organized local gatherings to take the pulse of U.S. Catholic Hispanics. In all, some 100,000 people participated in the second Encuentro’s countrywide consultation.

The third Encuentro (Aug. 15-18, 1985) was by far the best organized and most ambitious of the three. More than 100,000 people were consulted during the process leading up to the national gathering. The delegates at the third Encuentro also laid the groundwork for the National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry approved by the U.S. bishops in 1987. Although not consistently implemented, this plan remains the official touchstone for Hispanic ministry in the United States.

The delegates at the Encuentros approved recommendations related to education, social justice and intra-ecclesial matters such as co-responsibility, evangelization, a greater Hispanic role in the decision-making process and the type of church U.S. Hispanics wanted to form. The Encuentros’ most prominent ecclesial stress is succinctly expressed in this book’s subtitle, Hispanic Americans in the One Catholic Church. U.S. Catholic Hispanics could have favored the formation of a national church existing parallel to the established church. Instead, the “Spirit has called Hispanic Catholics in the United States to a far more difficult path: that of the Hispanic faithful’s integration, without assimilation, in the U.S. Church.”

As noted previously, Paredes’s book represents a significant step toward presenting the Encuentros to a new generation of Catholics. I nevertheless have a few quibbles with the author’s reflections and will mention two here.

First, Paredes does not include actual descriptions of what the mood was like at the Encuentros, nor does he address events of note that might have taken place outside of the official agendas. When describing the third Encuentro, for example, Paredes makes no mention of the raucous tension that arose over the ordination of women. A fair number of the women delegates left the plenary session in protest. This event, as well as the fact that all three Encuentros called for a re-examination of women’s role in the church, could dampen Paredes’s view that for Hispanics “ordination, power and competition are not in play nor does the subject produce an aggressive climate.”

Second, Paredes is disheartened by certain aspects of the Encuentros’s methodology, lamenting their use of insights derived from liberation theology that limit the flexibility of their recommendations. However, as with any example of inculturation, certain limits to any pastoral process of consultation are to be expected precisely because these endeavors attempt to balance our understanding of the Gospel within the context of a particular time and place.

Paredes’s book will undoubtedly prove a rich resource as the U.S.C.C.B.’s Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church brings to reality the fifth Encuentro, an ambitious undertaking that will require five years to complete (see www.enhave.org for more information). The current preparatory stage will be followed by a countrywide consultation culminating with the national gathering of the fifth Encuentro, presently scheduled to take place in late September 2018 in Dallas, Tex., followed by an extensive assessment period.

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