Participants clap during a hymn at a June 22 retreat for Latino youth and young adults hosted by Holy Innocents Parish in Philadelphia. Sponsored by the archdiocesan Office for Hispanic Catholics, the gathering drew more than 135 attendees for an all-day program that included Mass, confession and eucharistic adoration, as well as talks on the spiritual and social challenges faced by Latino youth. (Photo by Gina Christian)

More than 130 Hispanic youth and young adults gathered to celebrate their faith, language and culture at a June 22 retreat hosted by Holy Innocents Parish in Philadelphia.

Sponsored by the archdiocesan Office for Hispanic Catholics, the all-day program included Mass, eucharistic adoration, confession and worship music. Presentations, breakout sessions and fellowship over breakfast and lunch rounded out the event, which was entitled “Do you know who is calling you?” (“¿Sabes quién te está llamando?”).

Participants, who ranged in age from 18 to 35, hailed from parishes throughout the archdiocese, including St. Patrick in Norristown and Philadelphia parishes such as St. Veronica, St. William, St. Martin of Tours, Holy Innocents and the St. Joan of Arc worship site.

“All too often our young people are labeled as egotistic, selfish and without belief in God,” said Father Thomas Higgins, pastor of Holy Innocents. “And yet on the second day of summer, 135 young adults defied those labels, singing and praising God at this beautiful retreat.”

Father Higgins added that the participants’ “goodness and strong faith” served as a “great witness” for fellow believers of all ages.

Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Deliman said that the retreat was designed to “continue the work of the V Encuentro,” the U.S. bishops’ fifth national conference on Hispanic and Latino ministry, which took place in September 2018.

(Related: Read a Q&A interview in Spanish with Fray Manuel Avilés, O.F.M.Cap., on the challenges faced by Latino youth and young adults.)

“One of the priorities of the V Encuentro was the church’s ministry to young adults,” said Bishop Deliman, who oversees the archdiocesan Office for Hispanic Catholics.

According to Sister of St. Joseph Linda Lukiewski, the retreat addressed a vital need at a critical moment.

“Nothing like this has really been offered here to young adults in the Latino community,” said Sister Linda, who serves as the evangelization and Hispanic minister at St. Joan of Arc. “Many of them are bilingual, but a lot only speak Spanish, especially if they’ve recently arrived in the United States, and they all need spiritual nurturing.”

Spanish-speaking youth often have something of a spiritual advantage, said Jesus Burgos, who leads young adult groups at St. Veronica, St. Hugh and Holy Innocents Parishes in Philadelphia.

“I’ve always said to the young people, ‘You live your Hispanic heritage, but you live it even more when you come to church,’” said Burgos, who is studying for the permanent diaconate at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood. “I would even say it’s in our DNA, because it’s already embedded from grandmom and grandpop going to church. And so that tradition still continues.”

Liturgical composer Giovanni Morales (left) leads members of the archdiocesan Hispanic choir during a June 22 retreat for Latino youth and young adults hosted by Holy Innocents Parish, Philadelphia. Sponsored by the archdiocesan Office for Hispanic Catholics, the event drew 135 attendees from area parishes for a daylong program that included Mass, confession and reflections. (Gina Christian)

However, such tradition can easily — and quickly — be eroded by the surrounding secularized culture, warns Sister Linda.

“A lot of these youth are becoming enculturated in American society, where church attendance is down across the board,” she said. “There’s a shift going on, and we really have to pay attention to this or we going to lose a great group of people for our church community.”

A major challenge for youth of all ethnic backgrounds is the use of technology, said Capuchin friar and priest Fray Manuel Avilés, the retreat’s keynote speaker.

“Technology is a great medium, and we need it, but if we create an absolute dependence on it, we forget our dependence on God,” said Fray Avilés, who serves at the Capuchin Center (El Centro Capuchino) in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For Latino youth, issues with immigration, education and economic advancement compound this challenge to spiritual development, said Fray Avilés.

“The majority of the youth feel like second-class citizens, with many doors often closed to them,” he said. “Latino youth do not have the same educational opportunities as the rest, and many have to give up continuing their advanced studies.”

In response, he added, the church must “defend the immigration rights” of Latino youth, while encouraging their personal and spiritual growth.

Fray Avilés suggested that parishes offer “more youth retreats so that participants can discover their full potential.”

He noted that there is also a need for “more Masses in Spanish at which youth can assist and feel part of the church in an active manner.”

Liturgical composer Giovanni Morales, the choir director for the retreat, said music has tremendous power in spreading the Gospel.

“As a young adult Catholic, the way that I feel the Holy Spirit, the way that I feel God, is through music,” said Morales, whose hymns blend traditional Latino rhythms with elements of pop and rock styles.

Morales said that the retreat served to bond and uplift youth who are already “evangelizing as best we can in our communities.”

Attendee Azaria Rodriguez agreed, saying that she welcomed the chance to share her faith with like-minded young adults.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Why do you go to church? Why do you go to confession?’” said 28-year-old Rodriguez, a parishioner of Holy Innocents. “I go because what I feel when I’m in church, I can’t explain, but I am so happy. And just to be able to see that I’m not the only one, that’s beautiful.”

Kathia Arango, director of the Office for Hispanic Catholics, observed that the retreat was also an occasion for the church itself to encounter Latino youth.

“We need to be with them, right where they are at,” said Arango. “We have to know them, but so often we don’t know them.”

Providing young adults with resources for faith formation is essential to the church’s outreach, she added.

“Sometimes they’ll say to me, ‘I want to organize a prayer group, but I have no idea what to do,’” Arango said. “So our main job is to assist them, because they are the present and the future of the church in this country.”

Morales pointed out that the role of youth and young adults is ultimately one shared by the entire church.

“The hope is that we will work, and not get discouraged, and continue to spread the word of God,” he said. “We are all called to be missionary disciples.”