Looking for hope and the next generation of Latino leaders at Encuentro

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The sunny weather was calling many of Washington’s
20-somethings to rooftop pools, outdoor bars and bicycle rides, just as nectar
calls birds to flowers, but Francisco Hernandez, 26, and Flor Diaz, 24, decided
to spend the summer afternoon and early evening of June 24 in the church
basement at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington.

Sometimes the two
danced or talked in front of a crowd of about 50, trying to keep the conversation
going during their parish meeting marking the first stages of the Encuentro, a four-year-long process of meetings and gatherings aimed at figuring out the needs of Latino
Catholics in the U.S.

Around the country, parishioners in many Catholic churches
with healthy Latino populations, such as the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, are
hosting similar events, which they hope will yield not just information about
the up-and-coming group in the church, but also Latino leaders, missionary
action and a zeal for Catholic identity in the fastest-rising ethnic population
in the church.

Such meetings with Latino Catholics have taken place in the U.S.
Catholic Church before and they began as far back as 1972 as a way for the country’s
bishops to figure out how to better serve Latinos. However, this one seems to
be particularly focused on young Latinos such as Diaz and Hernandez.

“We have to tell (the bishops), ‘This is what we need’ … but
we also have to say, ‘This is how we’re going to help,'” said Carola
Cerezo-Allen to those gathered, as she was leading the late June gathering. “We
have to make concrete commitments.”

Capuchin Franciscan Father Moises Villalta, the church’s
pastor, said he sees hope in the process but also would love to see more

“It’s yielded new leaders and that’s good,” he said.
“They’ve taken the first step … but I also think about those who haven’t
responded to the call.”

If all goes well with the Encuentro process, which
organizers call the “V Encuentro” because it’s the fifth time it’s taking
place, church officials hope it will yield an increase in vocations of Latinos
to the priesthood, religious life, permanent diaconate, an increase in the
percentage of Latino students enrolling at Catholic schools, and create a group
of Latino leaders for the church, as well as increase Latinos’ sense of
belonging and stewardship in the U.S. church where their numbers are rising.

A 2016 report by the Center for Applied Research in the
Apostolate at Georgetown University commissioned by the U.S. bishops showed
that more than half of millennial-generation Catholics born in 1982 or later
are Hispanic or Latino. Though there is great promise in the number, at the
fall 2016 meeting of U.S. bishops in Baltimore, Boston Cardinal Sean P.
O’Malley expressed concern that the younger generations of Latino Catholics
“is a demographic that is slipping away from the church and I think we
have a window of opportunity and the window of opportunity is closing.”

Many are joining the rank of the “nones,” said Cardinal
O’Malley, referring to the growing number of Americans who are choosing to be
unaffiliated with any organized religion, and he urged action to retain them.

Pastors on the frontlines, such as Father Villalta, agree
and also see a particular urgency in reaching the group. There’s always
discussion about secularism and the lure of materialism, and certainly those
are issues, Father Villalta said, but he also sees an attack on minority youths
from authorities and that, in turn, makes them feel less welcome.

“There’s a great distrust of them,” said Father Villalta
about the minority youth. “People paint them as invaders, gang members … and that’s
not true, there are a lot of good stories. … Today, here at Sacred Heart, we had a lot of
(young Catholic Latinos) come in their caps and gowns. They graduated from (The
Catholic University of America), other universities, high school. They go to
school, work two jobs, help their families. … Those stories are not told. People
shouldn’t say they’re out there doing bad things.”

During the Encuentro sessions, Father Villalta has found
time during an otherwise busy schedule to reflect on the stories of young
Latino Catholics. He hears about their struggles, including separation from
their families, immigration woes, domestic violence and family abuse, he said. It
helps him figure out way to better tend to them pastorally, but also to reach
out to those who aren’t in the pews.

In them, he sees part of his past as a participant in the
third Encuentro in Washington in the mid-1980s, which he attended as a young man in his 20s. Back then, he had ended up in Washington, fleeing from the war in his native El Salvador.

“I’m a product of the third Encuentro, that’s why I’m happy
to see the young people here today,” he said, recalling that the views of youth
weren’t necessarily listened to as much then as today. But what was clear back
then was the bishops’ interest in extending a welcome and seeing what they
could do to help Latinos, particularly immigrants like him, in an environment
that somewhat resembles a bit of the backlash Latinos are experiencing today, but
one in which church leaders expressed welcome. That provided great comfort, he

With the Encuentro back then, the bishops wanted Latino
Catholics to know “that they were thinking about the community, that they saw
the community as a blessing for this church. … It was an openness to Latino
ministry,” said Father Villalta.

“And now it’s our turn to support this new group of youth,
to support them as they face challenges and attacks,” he said. “We’ve made
great strides, but we have to see what we can do so that they become Catholics
full of joy, happy to be active participants in the church.”

Flor Diaz, who was attending the meeting, said the process
had helped her find motivation, particularly to help others, especially because
she’s experienced what it’s like to be helped by the church.

Even though the church had been important to her as a child,
as an adolescent, she had grown distant from religion, she said, until two
religious sisters came to pay a visit when she found herself at an
immigration detention center in Florida.

“They came to tell me of the love of God, that I was not
alone,” she told Catholic News Service.

When she left the detention center, she became determined to
return to the church but also to help others as she’d been helped. The Encuentro
process has provided a way to do that, she said, because it encourages
missionary action as a way to deepen her faith. She said she wants to help
other Latino youths who are no longer active in the church and might be facing

“It’s given me a way to be part of something,” she said.

Francisco Hernandez, too, said he was eager to help,
particularly after hearing of the struggles others like him face, and said he
wanted them to feel the “joy of returning” to the church, the relief and happiness
found in the word of God, he said.

Father Villalta said the process has helped the parish
community reflect about what’s needed to tend to help younger generations of
Latino Catholics — inside and outside the parish.

“We need a new evangelization,” he said. “And there’s an
urgency. That evangelization will only be possible if we decide to get into the
game, to stop being spectators. We have to participate and take that first

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Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina.

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