“If you are a baptized Catholic, then you are a missionary,” are words inside the handbooks for V Encuentro,
an initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to evangelize or “encounter” our Catholic brothers and sisters on the periphery of the church and make them feel welcomed.
The Hispanic Apostolate, as it has for four decades, leads the way for this four-year process themed “Missionary Disciples: Witnesses of God’s Love.” The program hopes to develop parish leaders of all ethnicities and help the church discern ways to discover and meet the needs of an ever-growing Hispanic Catholic population nationwide.
“Encuentro has happened five times already,” said Dominican Father Sergio Serrano, director of the Hispanic Apostolate. “The bishops put this together to help Hispanics have a voice in the United States Catholic Church.”
The Catholic Church’s recognition of Latino Catholic growth began with I Encuentro in 1972 with the creation of the Secretariat of Hispanic Affairs. II Encuentro (1975-77) established eight regional offices for Hispanic Affairs. The Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Hispanic Apostolate opened during this period.
A National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry and a Standing Committee of Hispanic Affairs ignited parish-level ministries for Latino Catholics in III Encuentro (1982-85). IV Encuentro 2000 opened the church’s eyes to its rich cultural diversity. Five years later, Catholic youth were recognized at a National Encuentro.
This Encuentro began in 2016 and continues through December 2020 with parish, regional and national meetings to develop and implement guidelines.
Began with priests
In February, the Hispanic Apostolate invited Southeast Pastoral Institute (SEPI) director Father Rafael Capo’ to share details about V Encuentro – and the need for it, first with parish priests having large Latino Catholic populations, then with 300 lay leaders.
Father Serrano echoed the findings that many Hispanics do not feel welcomed in the church and that the church is not prepared to receive this growing population.
“We don’t have groups in parishes to welcome them,” he said, and one weekend Spanish Mass doesn’t satisfy Spanish-speaking population needs, although it opened the door to preach to and evangelize Catholic Latinos.
Father Serrano stressed how the church is losing the “1.5” generation of young adults who may or may not have been born in a Latin country but have grown up in the Latino culture and don’t belong fully in either culture.
“That’s what Encuentro is for,” Father Serrano said. “We’re trying to reach the ‘1.5’ and go out and make them feel welcomed and a part of the church.”
Strides have been made in the Latino community with Encuentro. Father Serrano mentioned Bishop Patrick Flores, the first Latino bishop who died this year, as a direct outcome of Encuentro. But, he thinks every archdiocesan parish should be involved with V Encuentro.
“It is a process that is inviting people to come back to church,” he said. “We should welcome our brothers and sisters who are of the same faith, for if we lose them, we will close more churches.” He encourages teens and young adults to invite fellow Catholic classmates and friends.
So far, V Encuentro has caught fire at Immaculate Conception in Marrero, Holy Guardian Angels in Westwego, Most Holy Trinity in Covington, Ascension of Our Lord in LaPlace and St. Teresa of Avila and Mary Queen of Vietnam in New Orleans, Father Sergio said.
Pastors and leaders undergo a five-week evangelization process to discover who is neglected in the Catholic Church; what these individuals want and need; and how to walk with these individuals to welcome them to the Catholic Church – in line with Pope Francis’ urging to create “a culture of encounter,” and to celebrate, that by baptism, we are all missionaries expected to reach out to others with love.
“Catholic means universal,” said Daniel Osorio, assistant director of the Hispanic Apostolate, “and everywhere you go around the world, Masses are celebrated in the cultural heritage of that region. There are different ways that people express their faith (worldwide).”
Osorio mentioned the Mexican procession for their patron, Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“There is such intense and rooted expression of faith,” Osorio said. “Each culture has a different flavor.”
Osorio said the Catholic Church has forged a path with Hispanic newcomers but must continue to be present when Hispanics seek sacraments in their own language and culture.
Especially after Hurricane Katrina, the archdiocese realized that Latino workers weren’t the only ones moving here to help after the storm. Families eventually came and needed services.
Osorio stressed the 1.5 generation who mostly speak English but live in the Hispanic culture.
“How do we reach these Spanish-language speakers who are second generation and don’t feel welcomed in either culture?” he asked. “They feel that they don’t belong in the CYO and they cannot afford to attend our Catholic schools.”
He cited a recent statistic showing only 4 percent of Catholic students are Latino. “What happens when these youth need confirmation? The church needs to prepare this generation since they are the future. If we don’t, the Catholic Church of the future suffers.”
“V Encuentro is trying to reach out to those who are lost and discern what is lacking and needs strengthening,” Osorio said. “We want Latinos to know that they are not just a group within the Catholic Church. They are the church. Their numbers are no longer small, and we have to address this.”
Osorio said Archbishop Gregory Aymond is taking a leadership role in V Encuentro as president for the U.S. bishops’ Region V. Osorio mentioned bolstering the number of Latino evangelizers as another goal.
“Latinos have to be evangelizers, too, not only to the Latinos but to everybody,” Osorio said.
Parishes will share Encuentro results between October and December. Archbishop Aymond will then send delegates to V Encuentro regionals between January-June 2018, then a national Ecuentro in September in Grapevine, Texas.
“To be successful, we need everyone to get involved,” Osorio said. “This is not something we can avoid. We have to look at the future or it will haunt you later on … and be harder than today.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.