As V Encuentro national conference nears, local leaders reflect on what they’ve learned

| September 7, 2018 | 0 Comments
A Latino couple talk and pray during “Encuentro Familiar,” or Family Encounter: The Family in the Plan of God

A Latino couple talk and pray during “Encuentro Familiar,” or Family Encounter: The Family in the Plan of God, Aug. 4 at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Ricky Gonzalez was initially hesitant to embrace his parish’s new evangelization efforts aimed at the Latino community. He described prospect of sharing his Catholic faith with strangers as “scary.”

“It was because as a Catholic Church, we’re not used to going out, like with me standing outside the stores waiting for people to come out, so we can talk about our faith,” said Gonzalez, 34. “We prayed to Jesus Christ, and we know that this is our mission to do, so that gave us more strength to do it outside the store.”

Gonzalez ultimately joined 19 fellow parishioners of St. Alphonsus in Brooklyn Center in a sidewalk evangelization effort as part of V Encuentro, a nationwide faith-building process for Latino Catholics.

Spanish for “fifth encounter,” V Encuentro was designed to equip Latino Catholics to live as missionary disciples, accompany fellow Latinos on a path of conversion and “respond with more fidelity and enthusiasm to the Hispanic/Latino presence in parishes and dioceses,” according to its website. In the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, 16 of the 24 parishes that offer Mass in Spanish have participated in the process, with 160 Latino Catholics formally involved.

Initiated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs, V Encuentro began in local parishes last year. Twenty-two delegates from the archdiocese, including Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens, plan to be among the anticipated 3,000 attendees at a national conference Sept. 20-23 in Grapevine, Texas.

Inspiring new leaders

Estela Villagrán Manancero, director of the archdiocesan Office of Latino Ministry, said V Encuentro has helped Latino ministry leaders identify priorities for evangelization and responding to Latinos’ needs. She said she hopes the national delegates will leave the conference “energized.”

“They are going to have this opportunity to network with the rest of the country,” she said. “People all over are trying to do this ministry.”

The first U.S. Encuentro was held in 1972 to engage Latino Catholics in the U.S. to live as disciples and respond to the needs of Latinos outside the Church. Four Encuentros have occurred since.

Deacon Ramon Garcia of St. Stephen in Anoka, who participated in the last Encuentro in 2000, has been working with Catholics at his parish to reach beyond the church walls. The process, he said, has brought forward eight new leaders who visit with people at trailer parks, laundry mats and stores to share the Gospel and introduce them to St. Stephen.

South of Anoka in Brooklyn Center, Gonzalez’s outreach has meant going with a fellow parishioner 6 p.m. every Tuesday to a Latino supermarket in Crystal to visit with passersby, sharing about their faith and parish.

“A lot of people didn’t know that it was a Catholic building,” Gonzalez said of St. Alphonsus. “They thought it was a government building. When they knew that this was a Catholic church, they were surprised, and some people, they commented that they would come to this church.”

Meanwhile, Gonzalez sees the need to help Latino Catholics grow in knowledge of their faith. Since starting the V Encuentro process, he started taking theology courses at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. He said there’s a tendency in Latino communities to focus on belief and good works but not really learn the Church’s teachings.

“I think mainly as a Hispanic community, we need to have more theology …. and education,” Gonzalez said.

Luz Zagal, St. Alphonsus’ director of Latino ministry, said she’s seen an increase of 30 families in faith formation, higher than any recent year. She attributes the spike to her parish’s participation in V Encuentro, especially through Masses held in Latino parishioners’ homes as a way to reach people in the neighborhoods.

In Hopkins, Hispanic ministry coordinator Teresa Mendez said V Encuentro revitalized the Latino community at St. Gabriel the Archangel. She had considered it a “dying” community before V Encuentro, with low Latino participation at Mass and in parish programs. V Encuentro changed that, she said, with the growth of leadership and “strong missionary activity.” There’s been particular interest around growing the parish’s youth group.

“I can say now they are really maturing in faith, and they are prepared for the future,” Mendez said of the youths. “Now, they know they are the future of the Church in our country.”

Volunteer boost

V Encuentro’s initial five parish sessions helped parishioners get to know each other through sharing testimonies and learning about each other’s gifts. Then parishes held parish-wide events to build on the five sessions. Next, almost 300 Latino Catholics met for an archdiocesan V Encuentro gathering in August 2017. Then, in April 2018, more than 190 people from around the region attended a V Encuentro gathering in Alexandria.

Dora Mata, the Latino first Communion coordinator and faith formation facilitator at Divine Mercy in Faribault, said V Encuentro has boosted volunteer involvement at her parish. Nine Divine Mercy parishioners participated in V Encuentro outreach training.

“I think it’s really going to help us to see where do we need to do the evangelization with our families,” Mata said.

Deacon Garcia also sees that benefit at St. Stephen through his work with parishioners who have done evangelization outreach. He said there’s a large number of younger Latino couples and families in the Anoka area with children who haven’t received the sacraments and don’t know about St. Stephen.

Meanwhile, St. Stephen’s Latino community has also made an effort to strengthen the relationship between its Latino and non-Latino members with bilingual liturgies and the annual Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration in December.

Effort to continue

In Minneapolis, Viviana Sotro of St. Stephen sees V Encuentro as building on parish efforts already underway, including forming missionary disciples to reach the broader community.

The executive director of the Sagrada Familia Apostolate at St. Stephen, Sotro said one V Encuentro catechesis participant reached out to a co-worker after learning of the person’s family struggles. The catechesis participant invited the person to join the catechesis sessions and attend Mass. Soon, the whole family got involved in the parish.

As the national conference approaches, Deacon Garcia said that there’s more that can be done to support Latino Catholics in the archdiocese. He hopes the conference will inspire local leaders to continue to try to reach fellow Latinos where they are at.

That’s what Gonzalez hopes he’s been doing on those Tuesday evenings outside the supermercado.

“My hopes [is that] we become more aware of proclaiming the name of Jesus in … the family, and the whole household and in the streets — that [it’s] not only when we come to church, but also when we got out and do our jobs in the community,” he said.

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