Hope, energy and the drive to unite to share the Catholic faith filled the Visalia Convention Center, as nearly 1,300 delegates -- including laypeople, priests and 21 bishops -- gathered for a regional encuentro.

"This is the moment when the church is listening to the Hispanic community in an effort to understand us better, but also in the hopes that we will become missionary disciples and become more active in our own faith," Benito Medrano, Hispanic ministry coordinator in the Diocese of Fresno, California, told the delegates during the April 27-29 event.

The gathering served as a prelude to the Fifth National Encuentro, or V Encuentro, set for Sept. 20-23 in Grapevine, Texas.

The multiyear encuentro process, which includes similar regional gatherings across the country, seeks to discern the needs, aspirations and faith practices of Hispanic Catholics in the United States. Hispanics represent 40 percent of the U.S. Catholic population. Given the continuous growth of the number of Hispanic Catholics, the encuentro also is expected to identify thousands of new pastoral leaders.

"It's a pastoral approach, an effort to involve the grass roots in reflecting about the realities that affect the life of church," said Jesuit Father Allan Figueroa Deck, a theologian and expert on Latino studies at Loyola Marymount University. "These encounters are a great contribution to the vitality of the U.S. church."

In his keynote address, Father Deck emphasized that contributions of Hispanic Catholics go beyond growing numbers and the youth of its members. He listed four ways Latinos contribute to church life: a family and community-oriented spirit; a "living faith that is experienced at home and society;" a supportive attitude to the church's preferential option for the poor; and a joyous spirit emerging from the presence of God in people's hearts.

Delegates came from California, Nevada and Hawaii, which encompass the U.S. church's Region XI.

Prayer also was central to the weekend, with bishops celebrating Mass daily. The opening Mass included a procession of symbols from the 15 dioceses in the region, along with candles listing the names of Hispanic ministry pioneers.

Delegates also discussed findings from consultations at the parish level. Concerns, ideas and hopes in 10 ministerial areas were collected to update a regional working document, which will be shared at the national encuentro.

"We are hoping to participate and make our contribution for the future of the U.S. church," said Father Nicolas Sanchez Toledano, pastor of St. Patrick Church in North Hollywood, California. Surrounded by more than 50 parishioners who joined him, the priest said that parishioners started a family catechesis program after their parish encuentro.

Reminded that Hispanic Catholics total 9 million of the 14 million Catholics in the region, attendees were asked to unite as a prophetic voice, expressing their needs while committing to work with church leadership.

Questions about social justice, solidarity with undocumented migrants as well as the need to focus on families, support young people and provide formation for new leaders were central themes at the gathering.

"A lot of people felt their voices were going to be heard," said Juan Andres Villa, 21, who went parish to parish to train people in the Diocese of San Bernardino. "We saw it as our beacon of hope and change."

For young Latinos, having a ministry they can belong to can be life-changing, said Claudia Rivera Castaneda, 19, a youth minister at Immaculate Conception Parish in Colton, California. Rivera, who migrated from Baja California, Mexico, when she was 5 years old with family members, remains in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. She said that juggling college studies with parish service and involvement in the encuentro was worth the effort.

"Even though there is a lot of areas where I don't have a voice, where my vote is not even an option, there is still something like V Encuentro where I can be heard, where we could be part of the priorities," she said.

Sister Ana Rosa Guzman, a member of the Eucharistic Missionaries of Mary Immaculate, said the encuentro also encourages people to be "missionary agents."

As part of her work in migrant ministry, Sister Guzman visits farmworkers in the Diocese of Fresno who live in fields and vineyards and cannot attend Mass because of a lack of transportation, work schedules and, at times, fear of deportation.

"They are very much interested in preparation for the sacraments like first Communion, confirmation, sometimes marriage," she said. "They feel they have a place at church."

Maripaz and Eduardo Ramos, who lead marriage preparation programs in the Diocese of Reno, Nevada, said they saw a deep need for encounter and accompaniment.

"We tried to include everyone at the encuentro," said Maripaz Ramos, who is director of ethnic ministries in the diocese. "We saw how young married couples were a neglected group. After participating at the encuentro a new diocesan group for young marriages was formed."

The couple explained that the small community set up of the encuentro process empowered parishioners to gain confidence in their ability to lead others. This, coupled with a "servant heart," encouraged parishioners to undergo formation for catechetical formation and leadership in their parishes.

"That is what I envision as the result of the V Encuentro, that people would take ownership, become leaders in the church and also share their faith," Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez told Catholic News Service.

During his homily at Mass April 29, Archbishop Gomez reminded delegates that they "are united to Jesus to give fruits in his church."

Reflecting on the words of Blessed Oscar Romero of El Salvador, Archbishop Gomez asked attendees to live their faith intensely and to be "microphones of Christ" who bear fruits in their own life vocation.

"Our Lord asks us for a new evangelization and Pope Francis gives us the example of the 'Joy of the Gospel,'" he said. "Let's renew our commitment to be missionary disciples 'always forward' and to be convinced that our mission starts by serving those who are most in need."

Copyright ©2018 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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