SAN DIEGO — Latinos are a gift to the Catholic Church in the United States.
That’s how Pope Francis and the nation’s bishops see this population that constitutes 39 percent of adult Catholics nationwide — and 60 percent of Catholics under age 18.
In January, a process begins in parishes across the country to discern ways the Church can better respond to this emerging majority and to strengthen Latino Catholics to not only expand their service to their community but to the entire Church.
This process is called “V Encuentro,” or “Fifth Encounter” in Spanish, and builds on four previous editions that fundamentally changed the way the Church responded to its Latino flock.
The nation’s bishops decided to convene this Encuentro during a meeting in San Diego in 2013. They have been planning it ever since, making it a part of their strategic plan.
This process is occurring at a time when many areas of the country have experienced a growth in their Latino population. This has both renewed many parishes that had been in decline but also profoundly challenged them. At the same time, these Catholic families are trying to fit into their new communities, including their faith one.
The Encuentro process, too, is occurring at a time when the country is being shaken by political and social forces, particularly along the fault lines of immigration, race and class.
Pope Francis seemed to be alluding to this era in his videotaped message to the nation’s bishops on Nov. 15, commending them for undertaking this process.
“Encuentro seeks to acknowledge and value the specific gifts that Hispanic Catholics have offered, and continue to offer, to the Church in your country. But it is more than that. It is part of a greater process of renewal and missionary outreach, one to which all of your Local Churches are called,” he told them.
“Our great challenge is to create a culture of encounter, which encourages individuals and groups to share the richness of their traditions and experiences, to break down walls and to build bridges.”
San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy noted that Latinos soon will constitute the majority of Catholics in the nation.
“Even more importantly, the Latino community brings with it a deeply spiritual culture rooted in Catholic faith, a tremendous dedication to family and the energy of millions of young people who are moving into adulthood. All of these elements are great gifts to the Church. These gifts are amplified here in the Diocese of San Diego because Latinos are already a majority.”
A group of directors at the San Diego Diocese has been working for the last 18 months laying the framework for the Encuentro process to begin at the local parishes in January. They represent virtually every department, including Evangelization and Catechetical Ministry, Marriage and Family Life, Permanent Diaconate, Social Ministry, Young Adult Ministry and Youth Ministry, all led by Rodrigo Valdivia, the diocesan chancellor. Roberto Rojas and Maria Arroyo of Catholic Relief Services and Father Emilio Magaña round out the team.
The heart of the process is the encounter itself. It’s a tradition rooted in Latin America where individuals come together to share their experiences and to promote a common agenda or activity.
Given that Latinos are a diverse population, from new immigrants to second- or third-generation U.S. citizens — the Encuentro process will be conducted in Spanish and English.
And it all starts at the parish level.
Pastors have recruited a group of parishioners to lead the encounters with fellow parishioners. These leaders have been trained by diocesan team members, who provided them with a detailed guide on how to conduct these conversations over a five-week course of consultation and evangelization. The parish encounters will be held from January to June.
The goal is to understand the parishioners’ lives and their needs and to discern ways the Church can help them. These leaders also are to reach out to individuals on the peripheries who don’t have regular contact with their faith community.
The leaders will organize a parish encuentro, where the findings from the initial conversations will be shared and fine-tuned.
In the second half of 2017, the leaders from all the participating parishes will gather for a diocesan encuentro, where the recommendations will be further debated and refined. The process will be repeated at 14 regional encuentros and culminate with a national conference in 2018 in Texas.
It’s predicted that around 1 million Latino Catholics will participate in this process, and at least 20,000 new pastoral leaders will be formed.
The nation’s bishops will reflect on the findings and recommendations and begin to roll out initiatives and resources in 2019.
Marioly Galván, the director of the diocesan Office for Evangelization and Catechetical Ministry, is a member of the team that has been tirelessly working to train parish teams across the diocese, including in the Imperial Valley.
Galván has noted a great interest among Latinos to further their education, pursuing degrees in theology and religious studies, which has led to more of them assuming leadership roles in the parishes, “but they are hungry to do more.”
The Encuentro process will provide them opportunities to learn how they can become more involved, not only at their home parishes but beyond.
In the trainings, Galván and fellow team members challenge the parishioners to assume the responsibility that comes with their numbers.
“The Church is all of you,” she tells them. “What are you going to do to maintain your home?”
For more information on the Fifth Encuentro, in both English and Spanish, visit www.vencuentro.org.