By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 13, 2006
Some 740 Hispanic young adults from 24 dioceses across the Southeast gathered March 24-26 at St. Andrew Church for a regional conference leading up to the first National Encounter for Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry to be held in June at the University of Notre Dame.
They exuded enthusiasm and found strength in fellowship as they crowded into the parish hall to explore and affirm their future in the church. Music groups from different regions performed dances and songs representing different cultures, such as those dancing to the Cuban salsa song, “The Memory of the Virgin of Charity.” During one song they spontaneously formed a dance train and jumped around the room, raising their arms in praise.
When Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory later entered the church for the closing Mass, they broke into applause, moved by the presence of the shepherd among them. Many expressed gratitude that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is making an intentional effort to listen to them as it plans for the future of the church.
The stage was decorated with a wooden boat, draped with multi-colored nets symbolizing evangelization, and surrounded by banners from different dioceses. People gathered in small groups where they prioritized the recommendations made during their diocesan encounters for improving parish Hispanic young adult ministries for those ages 18-35.
Those attending the event stayed in the homes of 218 area Catholics who served as hosts.
One of 76 participants from Miami, Chilean native Lorena Mavén said that she hopes the process will lead to more young adult programs as without them many in their 20s drift away. Now 28, she participates in the charismatic renewal movement.
“It’s very important we’re putting ideas together so the bishops can help us with our needs as Hispanics,” she said. “What we need is to grow and to create leaders to continue evangelizing these young adults. Otherwise, it’s a church without a future.”
The regional event is part of a national effort sponsored by the National Catholic Network of Pastoral Juvenil Hispana (Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry) that began last year in parishes in the archdiocese and around the country where gatherings were held focusing on themes of encounter—conversion, communion, solidarity and mission. In Atlanta the archdiocesan Encounter was held in January at St. Lawrence Church in Lawrenceville, and results of participant responses to ministry questions about everything from developing ministries to addressing illegal immigration are being compiled for a report due out in late April. The overall goals are to learn the needs and aspirations of youth and young adults, to evangelize, to learn best practices and principles for young adult ministry, to develop strategies, and to develop leadership.
The National Encounter will be held June 8-11 at Notre Dame, where an estimated 2,000 delegates elected at the regional events around the country will come together. About 50 young adults will attend from Atlanta, along with Archbishop Gregory and several priests. The U.S. bishops and the university are cosponsoring the event.
One of the regional conference leaders was Father Mario Vizcaíno, SchB, who is the director of the Southeast Pastoral Institute in Miami, which supports Hispanic ministries and offers training and formation programs. He began working with SEPI in 1978 when there were just two dioceses involved. Now there are 30. He hopes that this series of conferences will increase the overall awareness of the importance of this ministry.
“We are continuing the mission of Christ to establish the kingdom of God, a civilization of hope and a civilization of love,” he said.
There are an estimated 41.3 million Hispanics in the United States and an estimated 17 million of them are under the age of 25, accounting for almost half of all Catholics under age 25, reports the Hispanic Network. There are now about 60 churches in North Georgia with Hispanic ministries and 44 Spanish youth and young adult groups.
However, Father Vizcaíno reported that in the Southeast there are only two people working in salaried positions in Hispanic youth and young adult ministry; one is Leonardo Jaramillo, director of Hispanic youth and young adult ministry for the Atlanta Archdiocese. At the very least, Father Vizcaíno said, dioceses with only an English-speaking youth minister must be sensitive to the Hispanic cultures and be inclusive.
“Hispanics outnumber the American Catholic youth population, and we don’t have any kind of investment from diocesan points of view in Hispanic youth ministry,” said the seasoned Hispanic priest. “If we want these people to be Catholic in the future you have to invest in them more and take care of them pastorally. We hope to raise awareness in the Catholic Church about the importance of investing in (Hispanic) Catholic youth. They are Catholic and have tremendous faith that can enrich parish life. They have energy and enthusiasm. They love the church.”
In an interview, he said the regional encounter participants were taking the work very seriously.
“They are very enthusiastic. They have been working the entire day. They are very serious, very responsible,” he said. “Youth (and young adult) ministry has to be developed with the youth and by the youth and for the youth. … We need to be more creative to be able to reach out to youth.”
He believes the process will help to establish principles for all Hispanic youth and young adult ministry.
“We are going to identify best practices. We have to create a sense of community, having a common vision,” he said. “We’ll be able to develop a national pastoral plan for Hispanic youth ministry.”
In a small group session exploring Christ-like leadership, Father Vizcaíno challenged them to use their power to serve others with humility, love and open hearts, not by bossing them. His associate, Juan Jose Rodriguez, advised attendees to become better leaders through education, and also by planning, analyzing and then making decisions, while also recognizing their limitations.
Network president Jesús Abrego, associate director of Hispanic ministry for the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas, called out names of different countries represented, with Mexicans responding with the loudest cheers.
“Young Hispanics, we have the responsibility to evangelize the church of the United States, if for no other reason because of our numbers. Right now people are crossing the border. We must become true leaders who serve the Lord,” he said. “We have to do what Jesus wants us to do, not what I want, but what I need to do, not for my own benefit but for the good of the community.”
In an interview Abrego said the Network is already planning how to progress after the national conference and has found ample support from the USCCB.
“The bishops are listening to our kids. They are making all the necessary arrangements for them to be the voice of the church,” he said.
Manuel Peláez, director of Hispanic young adult ministry in Miami and a doctoral student in theology, has found that their parish and archdiocesan encounters have helped to unite and energize groups as they held fundraisers and discovered more talents to contribute within groups. Miami has 25 Spanish-speaking young adult ministries, plus other bilingual groups. The whole process has helped determine the key pastoral needs of their young people, who demand accompaniment on their journey to Christ.
“We were working side by side to reach the goal to get to Atlanta and now to Indiana and to bring a music ministry,” he said. “To see our young people support so generously and spontaneously this diocesan and regional process has been a clear example of what they clearly represent: surrender, confidence, generosity, contagious enthusiasm, desire to serve more, and commitment.”
It was a renewing experience for him as well. The process “has been a re-encounter with the true, living and always novel person of Jesus, who always knows to lead us (to) encounter Him and always surprises us. … Interacting with all the other young adults during the work sessions, concert and ice-breakers, as well as the adoration … allowed me to renew my dedication and service to Jesus.”
He is planning to establish an archdiocesan pastoral board for Hispanic young adult ministry, and a 45-hour formation program will be offered for young adults starting in July.
“We need to get back to the original Christianity to be theologically clear where we stand because society creates ‘truth.’ … That is not what the Gospel teaches us. The Gospel has truth that we need to discover.”
Event volunteer Melitón, a member of St. John the Evangelist Church in Hapeville, who only gave his first name because he’s undocumented, found the conference to be a spiritual respite from his anxiety over state immigration reform legislation targeting undocumented immigrants that is expected to become law in Georgia. Wearing a lime green volunteer T-shirt, the Mexican native said he now tries to drive as little as possible, mainly just to work and back home. But his faith has always been very important so he was glad to come to this joyful event. “You can make new friends from different countries and cultures.”
Vilma Velasquez is a parish youth leader in Miami.
“You can teach them to respect the values of this country,” she said. “It makes me happy to work for people who need help. Drugs are a big problem with young people. We go out into the streets to visit them and to talk to them about God.”
Along those lines, Sister Marta Lucia Tobon, MGSpS, of Palm Beach, said that she and others are working with the city to establish a community center for Hispanics where they can study, use computers and find work. It’s “so they won’t be out on the street,” she said, adding that “we are praying hard that immigration bills really help the people. They would love to be documented. They don’t want to break the law.”
She thought it was beautiful that Catholics in the Atlanta Archdiocese generously opened their homes to let participants stay with them, reflecting unity among the cultures in the church, and she was glad to see this opportunity for participants to become leaders.
“If the church isn’t welcoming them, it’s hard. Many other groups of religions are taking them away,” she said.
Mexican native Jorge Rosales of Lafayette, La., said his diocese has relatively few Hispanics, but he hopes to start a young adult group at his parish. He came because he wanted to learn from other dioceses.
“I’m interested in preparing myself to be a leader of Hispanic youth and young adults in my diocese and … this is a historic event,” he said.