V Encuentro takes center stage

Bishop Stika convenes diocesan session as part of national effort

By Bill Brewer

A yearlong effort to bring Diocese of Knoxville parishioners to intense missionary activity as part of the V Encuentro movement culminated in a diocesan-wide convocation Oct. 21 at Knoxville Catholic High School attended by nearly 400 people.

Bishop Richard F. Stika convened the diocesan-wide V Encuentro and headlined a list of speakers whose talks inspired those in attendance, mostly from the diocese’s Hispanic community, to fulfill the goals of St. John Paul II’s New Evangelization.

V Encuentro is a priority activity of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ strategic plan. Fifth Encounter started 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.

V Encuentro, a four-year 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, entered the parish-orientation and facilitator-training phase earlier this year.

The movement is taking place in every diocese across the country and will build toward regional Encuentros that will incorporate lessons learned at the parish level around the United States into national guidelines that will be presented at the national Encuentro in September.

V Encuentro began in 2014 with preliminary planning and continued in 2015 with formation and training of episcopal regional teams and leadership. In 2016, the formation and training got underway with a focus on diocesan and parish teams. Then, in 2017, parish and diocesan Encuentros were held. In 2018, the movement will crescendo with regional Encuentros around the country and then the national Encuentro in Grapevine, Texas.

Do you love Jesus?

Bishop Stika addresses participants during the diocesan-wide V Encuentro Oct. 21 at Knoxville Catholic High School. Joining Bishop Stika is Blanca Primm, diocesan director of Hispanic Ministry.

Bishop Stika opened the daylong diocesan V Encuentro on Oct. 21 by applauding those in attendance for their participation, encouraging them to continue their encounter with Jesus, and to share Jesus with anyone they come in contact with. He asked

them if they loved Jesus, and he challenged them to look for Jesus in every encounter they have. He also encouraged them to be courageous in the face of cultural and political pressures and to continue being the face, hands, and feet of Jesus.

The bishop celebrated the closing Mass and again addressed the participants.

Father Julian Cardona, associate pastor at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Lenoir City, was the concelebrant, with Father Rafael Capó, director of the Southeast Pastoral Institute in Miami, also concelebrating.

After Mass, Bishop Stika told the congregants that one of his favorite Scripture verses is the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus and His encounter with disciples who did not recognize Him.

“Remember when I asked earlier how are you going to recognize Jesus; in the breaking of the bread, the Eucharist, and the sharing of the Word, the teaching of Jesus? Jesus is here, and we’re on a journey. We’re going to be walking with Jesus. You know, the word Mass means to be sent forth. We want to follow the example of the apostles in the Diocese of Knoxville,” Bishop Stika said.

Telling them there will be times when he will lead them, and then there will be times when he will push them, Bishop Stika said that likewise there will be times when they will lead and push him.

“But we’re all going in the same direction. We’re going to Jesus, enflamed by the Holy Spirit, under the protection of the Blessed Mother. You see, God does not want us to fail. He doesn’t. He wants to strengthen us through the sacraments, by the Scriptures, by our prayer, and by our love,” he said.

Blanca Primm, director of the Diocese of Knoxville’s Office of Hispanic Ministry who has coordinated the diocese’s V Encuentro process, said she was pleased with the turnout, which consisted of representatives from 20 of the diocese’s 51 parishes and mission churches. Twenty-five parishes with Hispanic ministries and one parish with no Hispanic ministry have been taking part in V Encuentro.

She said more than 3,000 people have been impacted by the V Encuentro process.

“This was a time to share our missionary experience, our encounter with Jesus, in our small-group sessions. We also shared how we discovered our talents and our call to be missionary disciples,” Mrs. Primm said. “Bishop Stika urged us to love Jesus and make Him known. If we love Jesus, we have to share Jesus with others. We have to tell others about Jesus.”

Prioritizing concerns

Mrs. Primm and Brittany Koepke, who coordinates the diocese’s Pastoral Juvenil Hispana (Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry), said another aspect of the Oct. 21 V Encuentro was to discuss best practices among parishes to minister to Hispanic adults, young adults, and youth as well as to come up with diocesan priorities for supporting what already is happening at the parish level.

V Encuentro participants celebrate the Oct. 21 encounter with Jesus with a ceremonial balloon drop. The balloons contained seeds to spread the Word.

As the participants met in small groups, they were charged with discussing priorities in Hispanic outreach and also with making priority recommendations. Supporting families in crisis was a top priority recommendation. Transportation was another one, as was how to effectively minister to Hispanic youth and young adults, especially those who are not active in the Church, and get them engaged in the Church. Still another one was the importance of parish priests to be present in the lives of their Hispanic parishioners and better understand their cultural expressions.

“The Hispanic community understands that all priests don’t speak Spanish, but their presence and understanding of the culture and faith needs are important. Even if they don’t know Spanish, they can be present and involved. This says they care,” Miss Koepke said.

Sedonna Prater, a Sacred Heart Cathedral parishioner and director of curriculum and instruction for the Diocese of Knoxville school system, who has been working primarily with Hispanic youth in the diocesan Encuentro program, said five primary areas of concern covered in the Encuentro were faith formation, ministry of family, ministry of youth, immigration, and leadership. With youth outreach a major thrust, she cited statistics to justify the emphasis.

She said 63 percent of all Catholics in the United States under age 18 are Hispanic, and 95 percent of that group is second-generation Hispanic.

Mrs. Primm emphasized that V Encuentro is encouraging participants to leave their “comfort zone” by going out and talking to people who might be lonely or estranged from the Church, whether they are youth, young adults, adults, or seniors.

“They are discovering that they can be disciples,” Mrs. Primm said. “They want opportunities to serve. It is important for parishes to recognize these talents and their willingness to serve their parishes.”

In addition to concelebrating Mass, Father Cardona was among the speakers at the diocesan Encuentro. He spoke about what missionary disciples are and how they can continue to serve as those missionary disciples. Miss Koepke said many participants spoke about how meaningful it was for them to have a priest like Father Cardona who can speak to them in their primary language.

“Pope Francis talks about going out and meeting the faithful where they are in the circumstances they are facing. It’s not only talking about theology, it’s talking about the things they are dealing with in their daily struggles,” Father Cardona said.

Also among those taking part in V Encuentro is Chester Pun-chuen, a Sacred Heart parishioner and diocesan volunteer.

Mr. Pun-chuen said he has been touched by how the Hispanic community is so engaged in the Encuentro process, noting he is struck by the community’s “cry for help.”

Mrs. Primm, Miss Koepke, Mrs. Prater, and Mr. Pun-chuen talked of the Hispanic community’s desire for more opportunities to learn English as a second language, to celebrate Mass in Spanish, to be fully engaged in the diocesan community, to be more included in parish life, and the need for more Christian formation.

Father Julian Cardona, associate pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Lenoir City, gives the homily during the closing Mass for the diocesan-wide V Encuentro.

“They would love to see the entire diocesan community supporting them. They would like to see more English-speaking parishioners taking part in the Encuentro,” Mr. Pun-chuen said, noting that V Encuentro has borne fruit, not the least of which is identifying leaders to keep the process going.

“We’re all on this salvation journey, but we must tend to their corporal needs as well as their spiritual needs,” Mrs. Prater said. “I have great hope that the issues that arose in our diocese and were discussed here will emerge across the country, and I hope this will unify us. My prayer is that this process won’t stop, that it will keep going.”

Mrs. Primm described the task in front of V Encuentro leaders as “huge,” which means they must prioritize the concerns as they prepare for the regional and national Encuentros.

“We can’t answer everything at once. But we can work toward that,” she said.

Father Cardona said building community is critical to the success of V Encuentro. He added that growth of the Hispanic community across the Diocese of Knoxville is occurring, but there is a need to unify that community with the greater diocesan community despite the cultural differences.

“The Holy Spirit is leading us in this direction, and He is making it happen earlier rather than later,” he said. “This is the kind of love Jesus offered to everyone, not just the believers. Being able to be concerned about the Hispanic community in these matters is a connection with Jesus. This is a very real encounter with God.”

The Encuentro leaders agreed they would like to see all diocesan priests take active roles in the Hispanic community and be welcoming, whether they have large, small, or no Hispanic congregations.  According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 163 U.S. dioceses have engaged in the fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry. While this initiative is a process of evangelization, consultation, and mission that was officially launched last year to discern ways for the U.S. Catholic Church to better respond to the growing Hispanic presence and to help Hispanic Catholics strengthen their Christian identity and their response as missionary disciples, four other Encuentros have preceded it through the years dealing with other Church concerns.

In fact, III Encuentro recommended that each diocese implement Hispanic Ministry programs, a move that is spotlighted in V Encuentro.

The fruits of our labor

The Encuentros are bearing fruit. Since this grassroots Encuentro effort began at the local parish level in January, more than 250,000 missionary disciples have so far gotten involved, and more than 40,000 leaders have been selected as delegates to represent their parishes and Catholic organizations in diocesan Encuentros such as the one in Knoxville on Oct. 21.

As of Nov. 11, 88 dioceses had completed their consultation process and diocesan Encuentros to develop a working document for Hispanic ministry in each diocese. These working documents will aid in drafting reports for the regional phase and will culminate at the V Encuentro national event to be celebrated Sept. 20-23 in Grapevine, with approximately 3,000 delegates from dioceses across the country participating.

After that, a time for reflection on the findings, identification of good ministerial practices, and implementation strategies at the local level will follow.

Bishop Nelson Pérez, bishop of Cleveland and chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs, provided a report on V Encuentro to the Fall General Assembly of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore on Nov. 14. He noted that initial results counted 250,000 missionary disciples participating across the country, but that number will increase as more reports are submitted.

Bishop Pérez informed the U.S. bishops that more than 288 parishes have started Hispanic ministries as a direct result of V Encuentro, and participants now recognize their baptismal call to missionary discipleship, evangelizing beyond the parish grounds, and serving the whole Church. Many are no longer afraid to invite, give witness, and share their faith with others.

Father Rafael Capó of the Southeast Pastoral Institute, takes a selfie of V Encuentro participants Oct. 21 at Knoxville Catholic High School.

Diocesan Encuentros across the nation have expressed gratitude that bishops are becoming more engaged in the Hispanic community. Dioceses also have reported changes to staffing, with 35 dioceses hiring pastoral staff for Hispanic ministry, 52 dedicating more time to Hispanic ministry, and 21 hiring support staff. Dioceses reported a total of more than 300 volunteers — an average of about two per diocese — enlisted to help with communications and social media. Parishes also have benefited from the process, with 30 pastoral positions for Hispanic ministry created in parishes as a result of V Encuentro.

Bishop Pérez thanked his fellow bishops for the ways they have embraced and implemented V Encuentro in their dioceses.

“There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit has been quite busy and feeling very much at home in these diocesan Encuentros,” said Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio, who is chairman of the USCCB Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church, which is responsible for the V Encuentro initiative on behalf of the USCCB.

“There are plenty of stories and visible signs that the personal and pastoral conversion that our Holy Father speaks of in The Joy of the Gospel has been taking place in these gatherings in dioceses across the United States.”

Diocese of Knoxville parish teams first held V Encuentro training in December 2016. At that time, the parish teams organized V Encuentro parish orientation and facilitator training in preparation for the V Encuentro sessions that are the heart of this four-year process. Parishes held their own Encuentros to share the findings and results of their training sessions.

Every person who participated in the five training sessions at his or her parish was invited to attend the diocesan Encuentro at Knoxville Catholic High School on Oct. 21, leading to the strong turnout.

“Everyone was engaged and participated. Everyone was more than eager to go at it,” Miss Koepke said about the diocesan Encuentro.

Also as part of V Encuentro efforts in the diocese, the Office of Hispanic Ministry and the Office of Christian Formation organized a presentation by Father David Boettner, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). This presentation was held at St. Thomas the Apostle Church on March 11, and the funds raised were applied to V Encuentro expenses.

Spreading seeds of hope

Just before he concluded the diocesan V Encuentro with a symbolic balloon drop, Bishop Stika related a story about St. Teresa of Kolkata.

He said Mother Teresa once encountered a woman lying on the side of the road. As she reached out to the woman to lift her out of the gutter and take her to a home for the dying, the woman began screaming, “Leave me alone.” The woman was Hindu and was afraid Mother Teresa was going to proselytize her to Christianity.

Mother Teresa responded by saying “my” God wanted her to help this woman. As a Hindu who worships several gods, the woman looked at Mother Teresa and asked her what the name of her God was.

“Mother Teresa told her, ‘my God’s name is love,’” Bishop Stika said. “We live in a scary world, especially in the United States right now. There are a lot of people who are nervous. And if you are one of those people who are nervous, trust Jesus. Trust good Americans and bishops and priests, and sisters and brothers. Because we do together what we can’t do by ourselves. What we do together, we do with Jesus.”

Bishop Stika’s participation in V Encuentro was an inspiration to the diocese’s Hispanic community, which was uplifted by his remarks at a time of great uncertainty. He ended the diocesan Encuentro by starting the balloon drop. The balloons were yellow to symbolize hope, and seeds inside the balloons represented the Gospel to be spread.

“His presence and his words gave a lot of comfort to those in attendance. His words brought tears to some of the people and moved them. He told them to not be in fear, don’t be afraid. The diocese is with them,” Miss Koepke said.

For more information on V Encuentro, visit vencuentro.org or contact Blanca Primm at bprimm@dioknox.org.

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