Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Hispanic Youth Recharged At Annual Easter Retreat

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published May 5, 2005

Malessa Páez had been mourning the accidental death of her half brother two years earlier and was angry at God and isolating herself, so when her mom encouraged her to go to church she repeatedly refused.

But one day she woke up and somehow decided to go to San Felipe de Jesus Mission in Forest Park, where there was registration for confirmation. She hesitantly signed up for that and, little did she know, for so much more that God had in store.

Her brother died when an old gun went off accidentally and shot him in the head, “and I blamed everyone and it was difficult to accept God back into my life.” But the youth leader invited her to youth group “and everything changed after that.”

“Don’t ask me why I went to church that morning. I just saw how people my age were coming to church and they hung around each other and they could go out to the movies and have fun,” Páez said. “I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t woken up that day and gone to church because I was just a mess, very anti-social even with my family.”

Several months later despite having a negative conception of retreats, she reluctantly decided to attend the 2003 “Pascua Juvenil,” or “Easter Celebration for Youth,” sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Youth and Young Adult Hispanic Ministry. The event transformed her life, as she gradually began to heal from her grief and to grow in her relationship with Christ. She became involved in many activities, including a monthly Spanish Mass, a mission trip to El Salvador, and a catechesis program.

“I just got closer and closer (to God). The archdiocese is now my second home,” said Páez, whose parents are from Mexico and who returns regularly to visit her family there.

This year the annual “Pascua Juvenil” was held April 16 at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, and Páez, now 24, was the lead volunteer organizer working alongside Leonardo Jaramillo, director of the Office of Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry.

By 8:30 a.m. on the sunny spring day she and some 600 other Hispanic young adults had already arrived at the grassy college campus for a daylong celebration of the traditional Hispanic event for young people, focusing on their “dignidad humana,” or human dignity, as God’s gift in the risen Christ and on his call for authentic love of God, self and others in order to experience abundant life.

Targeted at ages 18-35, the event explored topics ranging from self-esteem, one’s vocational call to love oneself and serve God, respecting one’s own dignity, and the reality of the AIDS pandemic.

The annual event this year was in memory of Pope John Paul II, who preached tirelessly around Latin America and the world on the subject of the dignity of all human life. Groups and individuals came from over 30 parishes in the archdiocese, from the Savannah Diocese, from Tennessee and even from as far away as Chicago.

Each person received a manila folder packed with a list of upcoming events sponsored by the growing and critically needed ministry to the Hispanic Catholic community, ranging from the recent bilingual fiesta fund-raiser at the Three Dollar Café for the second annual El Salvador mission trip July 2-9, to the next cycle of “Escuela Católica Arquidiócesena,” a six-cycle catechetical program.

The Spanish event began in the Oglethorpe gym with “the prayer of the creation of the world” where the lights were dimmed and those gathered sat on the floor. Father Francisco Estrada of Prince of Peace Church, Buford, read in Spanish from Genesis as volunteers circulated around the room, some wearing a T-shirt with a map of North and South America and a cross atop it with the words “Jesus, the summit of human dignity.”

“The old man who was in us has been crucified with Christ,” Father Estrada proclaimed and then, switching to the New Testament, said, “I am the Bread of Life … I will be with you till the end of the world … Today we are here to show the young people of Atlanta the joy of the resurrection, the joy of being your new sons and daughters.”

Father Tim Hepburn, Emory University campus chaplain, carried the Blessed Sacrament and led the procession of Spanish-speakers from the gym, across the tree-lined campus of stone buildings, as clusters of people occasionally broke into songs like “Alabaré al Señor.”(“I will worship the Lord.”) The priest placed the consecrated host before a fountain in a stone patio area outside of the auditorium as many knelt.

In the auditorium a large rosary with colorful beads was suspended above the stage and singers and musicians led the congregation in popular Spanish worship songs, which those attending sang while clapping and raising their hands. A large image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was also on the stage, as was a crucifix.

Jaramillo read a letter from Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory: “Always remember that our Church recognizes and cherishes the gifts of all people, but in the context of history and of accomplishment for the Faith, the Spanish-speaking peoples of the world have been especially generous to the many good works performed by our Church in the name of and for love of our Lord.”

Father Estrada gave the opening talk in which he affirmed that God’s love for each human being is reflected through the incarnation of his Son Jesus, who came to redeem them. He spoke of the struggle many face as they escape poverty and try to find a better life in the United States. He affirmed that whatever hardships they face, even without citizenship or legal status, they must never lose their sense of dignity. “And in reality we have our dignity as human beings because we are created in the image and likeness of God … We are the presence of God in the world,” he said. “We are dehumanized in some ways, but we aren’t going to lose our dignity.”

He spoke of low self-esteem, low self-worth and of being negatively influenced by the culture of death, but affirmed that “we can live with great self-esteem based on how we are made in the image and likeness of God, that we are temples of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul said to the Galatians that there are neither Jews nor Greeks, slaves nor free, men nor women; we are all equal. It doesn’t matter if one has or doesn’t have a green card, or whether one speaks English or not; whether we’re Hispanic or our skin is dark or white, you are children of God. Through baptism we participate in the dignity of Jesus Christ.”

As children of God, Catholics are called to be in his service and to live with dignity, helping others to discover theirs as well, through their example, their witness and how they treat others, he said.

“There are many people who need to know what their dignity is as human beings. They need to love themselves as people. We need to love ourselves. We know many people in this world, poor and rich, in environments we live in. There are many people who need to discover their dignity,” he continued. “You as the church need to help others to recover their dignity.”

He challenged them to reflect on whether they authentically love themselves, and live accordingly. “How much do you value yourselves? … How is my behavior in relation to my dignity? … What are my priorities in relation to my dignity? How is my self-esteem? How do I love myself and value myself? And if we have a negative answer, ‘I don’t love or respect myself’ and ‘my behavior isn’t compatible with my dignity,’ the good news is that you’re very valuable,” he said. “If I value my dignity I’m able to know, accept, value the dignity of other people, to see them as the image and likeness of God, that you have your dignity, your rights that I have to respect.”

“How great and important we are in the eyes of God,” he concluded.

Angelica Gonzalez, a parishioner at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta, and Mexico native, appreciated and was uplifted by the theme of personal dignity.

“I believe in God and I want to be a better person, not just for me but for everybody around me in my job, and be better every day,” said the Kroger employee. “The first thing, if I can love myself, I can love everybody. I think that dignity is the most important thing in my person and I can do good things if I have dignity.”

Gonzalez, 35, moved to Georgia from the western United States four years ago and has found it more challenging to adapt, experiencing a slight sense of prejudice and that it’s more necessary to learn English. She’s always struggled with self-esteem, particularly after her divorce from a man she married at 16. She’s found strength in her faith, and attends the weekly catechetical study program sponsored by the Hispanic YAM.

“A lot of times I feel like I’m not a good person or not doing the correct things and I feel bad. I think especially when we move to another country with a different language and problems, sometimes we feel on the outside,” she said. “But this makes me feel good and feel better about my life … I feel happy to be here.”

Those gathered played soccer, volleyball, basketball, tennis and squash during a break. Afternoon speakers were Father Fabio Sotelo Peña and Father Guillermo Cordoba. The young adult group from St. Joseph’s Church, Athens, led a tribute to Pope John Paul II, reviewing his teachings on life and human dignity, which concluded with the praying of a rosary for his eternal rest.

After the talks, an evening Mass was celebrated by the director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry, Father Jose Duvan, along with Father Sotelo and Father Sebastian Andrade. They and seven others heard confessions.

Páez said that the final Mass was her favorite part of the day.

“It was just amazing how (Father Duvan’s) Mass just woke everyone up and made you really think about where you are now and where you want to be,” she said. “What I got out of this year’s event is there are so many more people (coming). We need more volunteers so we can get more people involved. I saw how the youth reacted to this Pascua; they just had that feeling of how they were satisfied. It just reminded me of how I was back in their situation. We’re having this (fund-raiser party) today and I’m just so excited and ready to go” and encourage others to get involved.

She said that attending the Pascua and other retreats, where she always helps with first aid, have “given me that extra push” to prepare to apply to medical school. She’s also looking forward to this year’s El Salvador trip, plus going to World Youth Day in Germany. There are many in the ministry from across Latin America, and some who are undocumented, who risked their lives to come here, which led them to dedicate their lives to Christ and the church, Páez said.

“Everyone is trying to find a place. It’s always there for us and we should trust in God … (Newcomers) see other youth out there and they care enough. It’s so much positive reinforcement.”

Carolina Barona, 30, was manning another table selling religious objects to raise money for the mission trip to El Salvador. Pascua Juvenil is very important to her as well.

“It’s everything. To see all these young people coming together in Christ, it’s really great. To feel everybody united in Christ, it helps (us) to grow in faith together and share with them,” said the native of Colombia. “We need to make sure the young people have dignity and if you’re living in Christ you’ll have a good life of dignity in the way of Christ.”

Barona said this year the mission team will be returning to the orphanage and building a new building for them. Barona went on the El Salvador mission trip last year, as she had been looking for a service opportunity and “God just gave it to me like a gift. It was great and even more than I hoped for … We went expecting to give, but they gave to us; they shared with us everything they have. They’re poor people and don’t have material things, but they try to give you love and everything.”

She, too, is grateful to be part of this young adult community, and said the majority are ages 18-30.

“I can see a lot of young people. Every year you see more and more and more. You can tell we’re growing.”

Jaramillo believes that the Pascua Juvenil will help Hispanic young adults to live with dignity, noting that many went to confession for the first time in years.

“It was a good opportunity to work for unity in our diversity and it was a good day to reflect on our own dignity, on the response that (we) must give to God. It was a very good day to reflect on their vocation,” said the director, who since then has been quickly back to work meeting with 100 Hispanic youth leaders regarding local activities for the first national conference on the Hispanic young adult ministry in June 2006 at Notre Dame University.

“The Pascua Juvenil turned into a profoundly spiritual event and also a fellowship among Catholics from around the Archdiocese of Atlanta,” he said.