LONG BRANCH, N.J. (CNS) — Some months ago, Ninfa Lazo Gonzalez managed to convince a distraught and pregnant young woman not to take her own life.
It was about 3 a.m. Gonzalez was a few miles from her Princeton home, in her pajamas, having driven to the young woman upon receiving a desperate phone call.
Gonzalez, a social worker and Hispanic ministry coordinator in her parish, St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral in Trenton, relied on her professional expertise and her faith-filled ministry experience to convince the young woman not to take her own life, or the one of her unborn child.
“It is important that we have ministry leaders who are well-prepared, so that they can help the young people, so that they can help married couples,” Gonzalez said. “When we have strong families, we have strong children.”
Gonzalez shared her story during the Trenton Diocese’s recent encuentro, held in Christ the King Parish’s Holy Trinity Church gymnasium in Long Branch. A goal of the working retreat Sept. 30 was to brainstorm, identify and discuss best ministerial practices.
The daylong event, conducted in Spanish and sponsored by the diocesan Office of Pastoral Life and Mission and Hispanic Ministry Initiatives, drew more than 150 parish-level Hispanic ministry leaders, including many encuentro delegates.
Delegates from parishes, apostolic groups and Catholic organizations gathered to share — with the invited ministry leaders — their experiences of reflection, discernment, consultation and evangelization that were part of their parish community’s participation in the process leading to the Fifth National Encuentro, or “V Encuentro.”
The four-year process of ecclesial reflection and action invites all U.S. Catholics to get involved in intense missionary activity, consultation, leadership and development. Parish encuentros are followed by diocesan encuentros, and next will be regional encuentros — all leading up to the Fifth National Encuentro next September in Grapevine, Texas.
At the Trenton diocesan event, Jorge Montana, coordinator of Hispanic ministry coordinator in St. Joseph Parish in Toms River, said it was important to strengthen ministries in order to better evangelize.
“We need to first know and strengthen ourselves and our homes spiritually, and we need to first know and strengthen our faith before we can evangelize the community,” he said.
Among the day’s main activities were identifying best practices, or “gifts,” already in place and making sure they continue to be implemented and improved upon. Also identified and discussed were challenges, or “obstacles,” that should be addressed in parish communities and their peripheries — the sooner, the better.
There also were small group discussions followed by a representative from each group sharing with all in attendance his or her group’s assessments and conclusions.
“This is all about celebrating and sharing the Word — Jesus is with us,” Matthew Greeley told the groups as they went to work. He is associate director for the diocesan Office of Communications and coordinator for Spanish-language communications.
Greeley and Sandra Lopez, diocesan coordinator of Hispanic Ministry Initiatives, co-facilitated the event.
“We are all here to work as a family,” Lopez added.
Best practices included: times when ministry leaders and volunteers make a difference in someone’s personal life, such as Gonzalez’s story; healthy and ongoing communication in some parishes, especially between ministry leaders and priests; sacramental preparations, especially when youngsters are getting ready for their first Communion, and the spiritual guidance available to help improve marriages and family life.
The identified obstacles included: the need for improved and more frequent communication in some parishes between ministry leaders and clergy; more unity and camaraderie among all Latinos and less division based on national identity; the need to improve ways to attract more teens and young adults to ministry programs to prevent serious troubles such as drug abuse, and increasing awareness about what ministries offer, such as Bible study and prayer meetings.
The morning of dialogue concluded with lunch and continued fellowship. Even the lunch preparation was an encuentro experience, with people from different parishes contributing to the various elements of the meal.
Afterward, all were invited to Mass was celebrated by the parish’s pastor, Father Javier Diaz. The readings were specifically chosen for the encuentro participants, and Father Diaz honed in on the message that all are called to be people of faith.
“It is an honor for me to be with you, to recognize that you are answering the Lord’s call,” he said.
At the conclusion of Mass, the diocesan encuentro delegates walked the Cross of the Encuentro for Region 3 — which is composed of the archdioceses and dioceses of Pennsylvania and New Jersey — to the altar for a blessing and sending forth.
The congregation then processed out of the church back to the gymnasium while singing the hymn “Alma Misionera” (“Missionary Soul”).
Earlier that day, the Chavez-Ruano family of St. Joseph Parish in Trenton, traveled to Pennsylvania to meet representatives from the Diocese of Scranton’s encuentro to pick up the wooden cross. The cross is being shared around Region 3, and the family arrived with it right before the end of Mass.
In the afternoon, Father Miguel Valle, parochial vicar at St. Paul Parish in Princeton, gave a presentation on how important joy is for the missionary disciple.
Father Valle had the crowd reflect on singer Celia Cruz’s “La Vida Es un Carnaval” (“Life Is a Carnival”) while they danced and laughed. They added personal objects to a pile in the front of the gym to show how missionary disciples need to move out of their comfort zones and to imagine a scene from the road to Emmaus.
Walter Quinones, diocesan encuentro team member and parishioner of St. Joseph Parish in Trenton, then used original music and stories as he gave witness to the power of engaging in personal encounters with others as disciples of Christ. He challenged the delegates to deepen their faith experiences.
“We celebrate when a baby begins to try to speak. We wouldn’t celebrate an adult who was capable but never learned to communicate better than that. We need to grow as people of faith,” he emphasized. “We need to keep growing in our faith so we can act like adults in the faith.”
Machado is a correspondent for The Monitor, newspaper of the Diocese of Trenton.