National program’s focus is to strengthen cultural communities, identify and develop more lay leaders
By Bill Brewer
At Pope Francis’ urging, the Catholic Church is embarking on a four-year program to create a culture of encounter that calls on all Catholics to share their heritage with each other, remove barriers to growing closer as brothers and sisters, and build bridges to achieve togetherness.
The program, called V Encuentro, or the Fifth Encounter, is underway in the Diocese of Knoxville, where the Hispanic Ministry is taking the lead in bringing Encuentro to every parish, mission, and school.
According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs and the national V Encuentro leadership team, Encuentro is “a process of ecclesial reflection and action that invites all Catholics in the United States to intense missionary activity, consultation, leadership development, and identification of best ministerial practices in the spirit of the New Evangelization. The process has been proposed as a priority activity of the USCCB’s Strategic Plan for 2017-20. The V Encuentro starts at the grassroots level and calls for the development of resources and initiatives to better serve the fast-growing Hispanic population in dioceses, parishes, ecclesial movements, and other Catholic organizations and institutions in light of its theme: “Missionary Disciples: Witnesses of God’s Love.”
“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. The Church in America, as elsewhere, is called to ‘go out’ from its comfort zone and to be a leaven of communion; communion among ourselves, with our fellow Christians, and with all who seek a future of hope,” Pope Francis said in a message to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which delivered reports on the V Encuentro and cultural diversity in the Church at the USCCB fall assembly Nov. 14-16 in Baltimore.
The U.S. bishops heard about the Church’s preparations for the V Encuentro and a study that finds there are nearly 30 million Hispanics in the U.S. Church. That rapidly growing community is having a profound effect on many parishes across the country.
Bishop Richard F. Stika has launched the V Encuentro in the Diocese of Knoxville. Church leaders from across the Province of Louisville, of which the Diocese of Knoxville is part, met in Knoxville in November to formulate strategy and plan training.
“Encuentro, an encounter with Jesus by coming together more closely as a Catholic community, is an important process that will bring all communities in the Diocese of Knoxville together as part of the New Evangelization,” Bishop Stika said. “Pope Francis is asking us to be missionary disciples and witnesses of God’s love. And I am asking our diocese to take an active role in Encuentro. What better way to do that than by evangelizing and inviting all cultures making up our diocese to get more involved in missionary activity, living the teachings of Jesus, and then being the face, the hands, the feet, and the heart of Jesus through a closer encounter with Him and those in our community.”
Earlier this year, the Diocese of Knoxville’s Office of Hispanic Ministry identified a team of diocesan leaders to head the East Tennessee effort, and this team was formed in October. They are gathering Saturday, Dec. 10, at All Saints Church in Knoxville to provide training for parish teams to ensure a smooth beginning for parish Encuentro sessions that will begin in January.
Blanca Primm, interim director of Hispanic Ministry, said 2016 has been the year of preparation for the V Encuentro, which actually took root in 2014. She said the plan is to introduce Encuentro to parishes in 2017, where parish leaders will carry out the Encuentro process and then share their findings at the diocesan Encuentro. Then, in turn, these findings will be shared and assessed at the regional Encuentro. And finally, these findings will be shared at the national Encuentro in September 2018 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Father Julian Cardona, associate pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Lenoir City, said diocesan priests are anticipating the arrival of Encuentro. Father Cardona is Bishop Stika’s delegate for the V Encuentro process.
“Right now all pastors are being informed about forming their parish leadership teams,” Father Cardona said. “It’s all part of Pope Francis’ call for the New Evangelization. We’ve called people from every group in our diocese.”
Brittany Koepke, coordinator of Pastoral Juvenil (Hispanic Youth & Young Adult Ministry), a branch of the Office of Youth & Young Adult Ministry, noted that the 36 members of the Encuentro leadership team represent a variety of ministries such as youth, Cursillo, marriage encounter, and jail outreach.
Mrs. Primm noted that while the V Encuentro is being organized by the Hispanic community, the process is open to all the faithful, including every ethnicity and background.
As the Catholic Church continues its growth around the world, studies show that in the United States, the Hispanic community is reshaping dioceses, prompting many U.S. parishes to look for ways to bridge the cultural divide.
So, just what does Encuentro involve?
According to the USCCB and the national Encuentro program, its main goal is to discern ways in which the Church in the United States can better respond to the presence of Hispanics and other communities, and to strengthen the ways in which these communities respond to the call of the New Evangelization as missionary disciples serving the Church.
All leaders in dioceses, parishes, lay ecclesial movements, and other Catholic organizations and institutions are invited to participate by encountering Hispanic/Latino Catholics, particularly those living in the periphery, through the missionary process of evangelization and consultation of the V Encuentro.
The objectives of the V Encuentro are:
■ Call all Catholics in the United States to become authentic and joyful missionary disciples that give witness to God’s Love with a prophetic voice in a culturally diverse Church;
■ Provide a renewed ecclesial vision that develops effective pathways to invite, engage and form Hispanic Catholic youth, young adults, and families to live out their baptismal vocation;
■ Invite all Catholic leaders to engage and accompany Hispanic Catholics who find themselves in the peripheries of the Church and society, particularly those who live in at-risk situations and are not actively involved in their faith community;
■ Identify and promote opportunities for Hispanic Catholic pastoral leaders to serve at all ministerial levels of the Church and the larger society, and increase the number of protagonists in the New Evangelization;
■ Stimulate a new wave of faith formation and leadership development initiatives that prepare Hispanic Catholics to share and celebrate the Good News of Jesus Christ and to become leaven for the Reign of God in society.
Five themes inspired by Pope Francis’ call to create a culture of Encounter are:
■ Be called to a loving encounter with Jesus;
■ With words and actions, “Do it”;
■ Walk together with Jesus;
■ Bear fruits of new life;
■ Celebrate the joy of being missionary disciples.
Encuentro leaders in the Diocese of Knoxville and within the Louisville Province are receiving training from the Southeast Pastoral Institute (SEPI), a regional office of bishops of the Southeast for Hispanic ministry.
SEPI was established in 1979 from a recommendation of the II Encuentro and now serves 30 dioceses with a population of more than 5 million Hispanics.
“Bishops have come to realize that the merging majority of the faithful in the Church in the United States come from Hispanic backgrounds, not just from recently arrived immigrants, but we’re talking about the big numbers of U.S.-born Hispanics, second- and third-generation Hispanics who need to be evangelized, and the Church has not really done a great job,” said Father Rafael Capó, executive director of SEPI, who led the regional V Encuentro training.
“The bishops have seen this need in response to Pope Francis’ call for evangelization in his letter, The Joy of the Gospel and his call for missionary discipleship; the bishops have realized that we need to give a response to this moment that mirrors how the Church began in the United States 500 years ago, when the first evangelizers came from Spain and the Church began with a Hispanic face. Now 500 years later, the Church in the United States has this Hispanic face once again, and we need to respond to this moment,” he added.
Father Capó emphasized that the point of Encuentro is more about preparing Hispanic brothers and sisters to evangelize for the Catholic community and to become leaders in the Catholic Church in the United States.
“It’s one Church with different faces. But they have to realize that they have to become evangelizers as well,” he said.
“This process of the V National Encuentro convened with the intention for Hispanic ministry, wanting to arrive at pastoral responses for the Hispanic community, but it’s not just for the Hispanic community. It is a process of evangelization by the Catholic Church in the United States as a whole, having the leadership of Hispanic communities, but realizing that our Church is a culturally diverse Church, we walk as one Church in Christ, one faith, one baptism, all brothers and sisters culturally diverse as was the Church when it began at the time of the apostles. We are a reflection of those apostolic times and we need to evangelize as one Church in different languages with different faces, with different cultures but as one body in Christ,” Father Capó said.
Father Capó wants to ensure that the V Encuentro is successful in forming new leaders within the Hispanic community to serve all the Church at every level. A successful Encuentro also must reach all Catholic youth in effective ways.
Mrs. Primm emphasized the goal of Encuentro to develop leadership, including at the youth level and noted that will be a key element in making participants missionary disciples, especially in the Hispanic community.
“The reality is our Church has a large Hispanic community. The bishops are asking if we serving the needs of the growing Hispanic community effectively. The Encuentro process is primarily focused on assessing the needs and aspirations of the Hispanic community, but the aim is to benefit all the communities that make up the Church overall,” Ms. Koepke said. “The one-size-fits-all ministry model does not work because there are not just linguistic differences to consider, but cultural and educational aspects as well.”
The Encuentro leaders agree that current efforts to reach all these communities are not enough and that more needs to be done.
Ms. Koepke pointed to new statistics by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate that show 60 percent of all Catholics under the age of 18 are Hispanic and questions if that large number of Hispanic youth is visible in U.S. Catholic churches.
“It is urgent that the Catholic Hispanic youth be the focus of evangelizing activity in the U.S. Church. More than half of Catholics under 30 are Hispanic,” Mrs. Primm said, adding that part of the V Encuentro’s focus will be making sure youth educational needs are being met, such as bilingual resources and English as a Second Language programs.
“The V Encuentro is designed to develop leaders in the Church and within the education environments. As pastors, we need to continue efforts to do more things to reach Catholic youth,” Father Cardona said.
One of the diocesan leaders in Encuentro is Sedonna Prater, director of curriculum and instruction for Diocese of Knoxville schools and former teacher and principal at Sacred Heart Cathedral School.
Mrs. Prater said the Encuentro committee needs school representation.
“It’s important to remember that Encuentro means an encounter with Christ,” Mrs. Prater said. “This is to help everyone know Jesus. It’s about awakening the fire as Catholics to reach out to our communities.”
Another diocesan Encuentro leader is Sacred Heart Cathedral parishioner Chester Pun-Chuen. Mr. Pun-Chuen is looking forward to “interfacing” with other communities within the diocese as part of the Encuentro process.
“We need to be inclusive of the total community,” he said. “The Encuentro, or encounter, is for communities to embrace each other as one Church, as the universal Church, as we believe the Catholic faith is the universal Church. There are many faces of God in one house.”
Mr. Pun-Chuen hopes Encuentro will lead to openness, acceptance, and embracing among the different communities to form the whole Church community.
“We are one family,” he said, noting that many in the Hispanic community are second- or third-generation who have been born in the United States.
Mr. Pun-Chuen will help introduce the V Encuentro program at Sacred Heart and work to develop this movement throughout the diocese.
Mrs. Primm said Encuentro will be introduced to each parish in the diocese in January, and the parishes will hold five sessions that will incorporate the goals and themes of the V Encuentro during the year.
The results of the parish sessions will be compiled and passed on to the diocese, which will report to the region, which then will be presented to the V National Encuentro in Fort Worth.
Bishop Stika is excited about the possibilities of Encuentro and the fellowship it can foster among communities, leading to a more unified Church.
“With all parishes in the diocese taking part in Encuentro, I see all the communities that make our diocese so special joining together in God’s love to become one faith-filled Catholic community,” Bishop Stika said. ■