Detroit delegates express need to focus on youth at national Encuentro

Delegates from the Archdiocese of Detroit traveled to the Fifth National Encuentro, or V Encuentro, in Grapevine, Texas. The Sept. 20-23 event was a gathering of more than 3,200 Hispanic Catholic leaders and about 125 bishops from across the country. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Conference attendees tell bishops Church must accompany Hispanic families

GRAPEVINE, Texas — If the youth are the future, than the future of the Hispanic Church in America is now.

At the national V Encuentro conference in Grapevine, Texas on Sept. 20-23, leaders in the Catholic Church met to discuss the future role Hispanic Catholics will play in the mission of spreading the message of Jesus Christ, and primarily, the role young Hispanics have in fulfilling that mission.

“Seventy percent of the conversations in our groups were about youth and young adults in our Church,” said Marta Perilla, volunteer and parish leader at St. Christopher-St. Thomas Aquinas Parish on Detroit’s west side who was part of the Detroit delegation to the national event. “We were talking about what we need to do to integrate young people in our parish. But more than integrating young people, we were talking about integrating the entire family, the youth and the parents, so they are learning at the same time and welcomed to the parish community.”

Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda address the V Encuentro delegates during the conference in Grapevine, Texas. (Antonio Guzman Diaz | Archdiocese of Detroit)

The national Encuentro conference was the fifth such gathering in the nation’s history. With more than 3,000 delegates — and more than one-third of the delegates being youth and young adults — the conference served as a statement for the Church’s need to prioritize evangelization and formation of the young Hispanic community.

For four days, approximately 130 bishops, as well as clergy and laity from across the country, gave witness to the vibrancy of the Hispanic church and its needs when it comes to evangelizing young people, including allocating more diocesan resources to Hispanic ministry and standing in solidarity with migrants and Hispanic families.

Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda was taken aback at the number of young adults at the conference who offered constructive, insightful feedback.

“With our young adults, we have a generation of the faithful who are taking full responsibility as baptized people to move forward as leaders,” Bishop Cepeda said. “They want to bear fruit as leaders, they want responsibilities, they want to be missionary disciples. We need to be intentional about opening opportunities to give them a chance to be leaders, not only at the parish level, but an archdiocesan and regional level as well.”

For Hispanic Catholics, the future is now

According to recent studies from the Pew Research Center, Hispanics now comprise a little more than one-third of Catholics in the United States. With a majority of Catholics under the age of 18 being Hispanic, the Church's need to evangelize and connect with the Hispanic youth is of the highest priority, said Fr. Jaime Hinojos, pastor of St. Christopher-St. Thomas Aquinas.

Fr. Hinojos was a seminarian during the last Encuentro in 2000 and has noted the progressive journey of Hispanic Catholics and watched as their prominence in American dioceses has grown.

“We are now at a point where we need to talk about further formation and acknowledge the gifts and talents Hispanics can bring to the Catholic Church and American society as a whole,” Fr. Hinojos said. “There is a feeling that we have come a long way since the first Encuentro in 1972, but we all realize we have a long way to go.”

Fr. Hinojos said American dioceses need to do a better job offering opportunities for spiritual formation, particularly when it comes to encouraging Hispanic vocations and stewardship at Hispanic parishes.

Members from Region VI (Michigan and Ohio) pose for a picture on stage during the V Encuentro in Grapevine, Texas. (Antonio Guzman Diaz | Archdiocese of Detroit)

“We have this great need for ongoing formation in the Hispanic church, a need for leaders, both in Detroit and nationwide,” Fr. Hinojos said. “As a pastor, it is my job to tap into the potential of the people. The pastor needs help with administration, the buildings, the pastoral meetings, but we as pastors need to call upon the gifts and talents we have in the parish. We need to encourage people to study at the seminary, to consider vocations to the diaconate, to work with institutions where the laity can know more and do a better job with evangelizing.”

Creative approaches to ministry

Karla Flores, coordinator of Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said a big concern is that many dioceses lack young adult ministry and youth ministry options for Hispanic Catholics.

“Not all of our predominantly Hispanic parishes have a youth ministry director; it is usually the director of religious education or another person performing the job of youth minister,” Flores said. “With youth or young adult ministry, we have the challenge of integrating two communities, not only the language but the culture. It is possible for Hispanic young adults to be involved with general young adult groups, but it takes time. You can’t invite English- and Spanish-speaking kids to the same event without an introduction, without understanding the cultural differences between them.”

In an archdiocese as diverse as Detroit, it is critical for youth and young adult leaders to understand the differences and subtleties of different cultures and what it takes to bridge gaps that might exist between the English and Spanish-speaking communities, Flores said. While courses on cultural competency offered by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops helps, resources must also be developed at the diocesan level, Flores said.

“Here in Detroit, 20 to 30 percent of Catholics are Hispanic, but we don’t have the resources to that proportion,” Flores said. “At some of our parishes, there is a concern because they don’t have a Spanish Mass or a bilingual staff to serve the community.

“At one of the panels I listened to, there were bishops talking about Hispanic ministry at the national level,” Flores continued. “A bishop gave as an example that in many dioceses, you have 60 people who serve the English-speaking community, and one person serving the Hispanic community, when 40 percent of the community is Hispanic. We need to talk about how dioceses and archdioceses allocate resources so we can reach these people to create an authentic encounter with Christ.”

Delegates: Hispanic community needs accompaniment

In addition to increased resources for Hispanic ministry, delegates at the Encuentro signaled the desire to see greater signs of solidarity and accompaniment with the Hispanic community, particularly when discussing more highly charged issues such as immigration and law enforcement.

“As a Catholic Church, we need to recognize that the Hispanic community is struggling, and the Church needs to face this situation,” said Marcela Solis, director of religious education at Holy Redeemer Parish in Detroit. “The call to be missionary disciples is strong in the Hispanic community, but we need to reach out to them with hope and joy to carry out the Gospel. Our task is to let them know the Church wants them to be included. We need to let Hispanics in our community know that no matter where they live or if they have documents or not, we are in communion with them through the Lord, and we want them to come back to the Church. Not only do we need to transform the Hispanic communities in our parishes, we need those communities to transform the parish.”

Members from the Detroit delegation pose for a picture on the plane on their way to Grapevine, Texas and the V Encuentro conference. (Antonio Guzman Diaz | Archdiocese of Detroit)

Hispanic Catholics face many obstacles when it comes to living out their vocations, be it financial or legal, and there is a need for support from dioceses across the country, Solis said.

Bishop Cepeda said coming up with creative solutions to allow Hispanic Catholics greater formation opportunities, be it at Sacred Heart Major Seminary or with satellite classes throughout the archdiocese, will be a challenge he and his brothers bishops will need to tackle.

“We know there is a need to have continuing formation with young adult ministry, especially when it comes to being bi-lingual and bi-cultural,” Bishop Cepeda said. “The key is, we need to be creative in bringing those resources to address the areas that have been under-served. We need to take that risk to share our resources; our people are asking for them, they want to be formed.”

Even more than formal formation, dioceses, bishops and priests must lead parishioners of all backgrounds to welcome Hispanic Catholics and their contributions to the Church, delegates said.

“Right now, we have this great fire and joy to go back to our parish, our families and get them to know the Church better,” said Perilla of St. Christopher-St. Thomas Aquinas. “But whether we do a workshop or a program, we need to create an encounter with Jesus that breaks down the fear that Hispanics are being left out, or they don’t belong in our society. Because there is a real fear, whether it’s because they don’t have documents, or they don’t speak English all that well, that the Church here isn’t meant for them.”

Bishop Cepeda acknowledged that the Encuentro conference took place against a trying background for the Catholic Church in the United States and Michigan, as dioceses grapple with the fallout of the sexual abuse crisis. Even during times of trial, Bishop Cepeda reported that he and his brother bishops feel a sense of love and support from the faithful.

“As bishops, given the climate we are experiencing in the Church, (the Encuentro) gave us great hope,” Bishop Cepeda said. “We received a lot of support, and that gives us great hope for the future. There was a real eagerness at the conference to move forward, and I was really touched by that. We as a Church are not just here to complain, but to move forward as missionary disciples.

"There was a moment of grace, and all of us bishops felt very blessed to be there," Bishop Cepeda said. "To be a Church for everybody, preaching to everybody, the saving power of Jesus Christ.”