The Catholic Church and American society should recognize the historic and current contributions of Hispanic and Latino leaders, said a U.S. bishop at the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, celebrated Sept. 15-Oct. 15.

This year, Hispanic Heritage Month is especially meaningful as the Catholic Church in the United States is concluding the four-year process of the Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry, said Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda of Detroit, who is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs.

The main goal of the Fifth Encuentro, or V Encuentro, he said, has been to discern ways in which the U.S. Catholic Church can better respond to the Hispanic/Latino presence and to strengthen the ways in which Hispanics and Latinos respond to the call to the new evangelization as missionary disciples serving the church and society.

The Fifth Encuentro and the four previous similar events have recognized how Hispanics and Latinos have been woven into the very fabric of church and society in the U.S. for many generations.

In preparation for, and during the most recent Encuentro gatherings, significant research was conducted about the presence of Latinos in the church and in U.S. society. One finding showed that from 1990 to 2016, the U.S. Hispanic/Latino Catholic population increased by about 13.7 million, while the overall U.S. Catholic population only increased by about 3.6 million.

Another finding was that the percentage of U.S. Hispanics and Latinos who were Catholic in 2016 was 52%, and just over half of the Catholics under age 50 were Hispanic or Latino.

"As the formal V Encuentro process transitions into its implementation phase, it is clear that the numerous initiatives emanating from it show the enthusiasm and vibrancy of the church," said Bishop Cepeda.

To help highlight this, the USCCB's Subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs will conduct a national V Encuentro event virtually Oct. 9-10.

"It is our hope that this event will help participants to visualize the future of Hispanic and Latino ministry both at the local and national level, and of Hispanic leadership and participation within their organizations," said Bishop Cepeda.

The virtual gathering is designed to help dioceses, parishes and Catholic organizations drive home the findings of the Fifth Encuentro and assist them in identifying, creating or fine-tuning their pastoral responses at the local level.

The national Encuentro in October 2018 in Grapevine, Texas, was the culmination of parish, diocesan and regional gatherings.

Out of those gatherings emerged dozens of pastoral priorities, which were synthesized into a concluding document that came out of the V Encuentro to be used by dioceses, parishes and national structures in drafting their own pastoral plans according to their own realities and priorities.

The ongoing health and economic constraints generated by the COVID-19 pandemic has kept many dioceses and regions from conducting in-person gatherings originally planned to complete the V Encuentro process.

"The V Encuentro process has showcased the deep faith and commitment of Hispanics and Latinos to the church,," said Bishop Cepeda. "At the same time, it has demonstrated their entrepreneurship, profound awareness and care about the social ailments of our society, as well as their strong commitment to social justice, including a wide range of life issues.

"Hispanics, and in particular Hispanic Catholics, are determined to be part of the solution to the current reality: the COVID-19 pandemic, the call for racial justice and the continuing impact of global climate change."

At the national level, these priorities include leadership development, particularly of Hispanic and Latino young adults; a focus on strengthening marriage and family life; evangelization and catechesis with a strong scriptural component; vocational discernment; educational attainment; and generating responses to the pastoral challenges generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected people of color, particularly Blacks and Latinos.