BLOOMFIELD, Conn. (CNS) — Pastoral leaders of episcopal Region I South have taken to heart the encuentro call to be a church in mission that engages and forms Hispanic Catholic youth and young adults to live out their missionary vocation.
That was evident in young adults being invited to share their experiences at the region’s encuentro, or encounter, at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield May 12.
Reaching out to Hispanic/Latino youth and young adults has been a top priority of the U.S. Catholic Church’s multiyear process leading up to V Encuentro, or the National Fifth Encuentro, in Texas in September.
“Through the encuentro, I learned about my peers’ concerns and their willingness to give witness to Christ to others in need,” Jaquelyn Luna, from the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts. “As young adults, we experience difficulties in society, but we can show how living with Christ can make this journey more fulfilling.”
Luna, 24, was one of four young leaders from the Archdiocese of Hartford and the Bridgeport and Norwich dioceses, in Connecticut, and the Springfield Diocese, who shared their testimonies with 300 delegates.
Luna, whose mother was born in Puerto Rico, said that church leaders she met at her parish’s encuentro have supported her and other youth leaders by asking for their opinions, listening and offering ways to “pass the baton” of ministry.
“My experience with V Encuentro has been very informative and very transformative,” said Luna. She was hired as a program coordinator in the Springfield diocesan Office of Faith Formation in February, right before a diocese-wide encuentro.
“It was eye-opening to see so many of the parish communities felt the same way and how we could meet eye to eye where we should be looking toward,” she said.
She added that the encuentro provides pastoral ministers with resources to strengthen the faith of practicing Catholics and provide the tools to reach out to those who have left the church. “We can accompany them wherever they are in their journey if we reach out to them with compassion, understanding and openness,” she said.
For Leonidas Mateo, 28, from the Diocese of Bridgeport, V Encuentro also offers a helpful way to truly listen to other young people, especially teenagers who might be struggling with low self-esteem, and make them feel valued.
“I learned that many of us face great challenges in this country,” said Mateo, who used to work in youth ministry in his native Guatemala. “Some of the challenges young people face is discrimination, being ignored or misunderstood and how adults might dismiss young people as irresponsible.”
Encuentro is one of the ways young people’s voices can be heard.
“It’s a chance to have an encounter with the Father, but also an opportunity to share our testimony with our brothers and sisters,” Mateo said in a video testimonial he made for the Region I encuentro. “We can strengthen our faith in our youth.”
Like Mateo and Luna, Romer Santana, 27, was another young adult embracing a leadership role as a result of the encuentro. “The call to be missionaries in action really impacted me,” said Santana, a youth ministry leader at All Saints/Todos los Santos Parish in Waterbury, Connecticut, in the Hartford Archdiocese.
“Our parish is a fusion of six parishes, so we have a lot of work to do with the community,” Santana told Catholic News Service, referring to the parish merger that formed his new parish in July 2017. “We have a positive experience (with encuentro). … Our youth group is growing. We had a Lenten retreat were 80 young people participated.”
Santana, who was born in the Dominican Republic, said he would like more training to continue engaging other parish youths. “Encuentro is lighting a fire for people who were not really active in church and is making people get involved,” Santana said.
At the regional encuentro, Santana and the other young adults who gave testimonials worked in small groups to address issues concerning youth ministry.
“I enjoyed meeting people from other places who share my beliefs and common goals,” he said. “We are ready to implement some of the ideas that were mentioned.”
Inspired by her parish encuentro and reminded of how feeling loved and accepted by God changed her life, Jessica Rodriguez, 34, decided to revive a prayer group at her parish in the Diocese of Norwich.
“V Encuentro is about action and prayer. We need to be united and we need to lift up our ‘jovenes’ (youth) and not judge them,” Rodriguez said.
In a video testimonial, Rodriguez, a mother of three, told delegates why she drifted away from church. “I felt alone and misunderstood,” she said. “I did not come to church because was afraid of what people would say of me.”
Feeling like they belong in church, especially when they are struggling, can help young people who are seeking solace in God, she told CNS. But sometimes youth face only criticism based on past mistakes or are judged by their looks when they show up at a parish.
“They hear, ‘Why did you do that? You are not supposed to do that,’ instead of ‘Welcome,'” said Rodriguez. “People don’t know why that person came back to church and right there those questions turn them away.”
Through prayer to Mary, she said, she was able to encounter God and felt that God could forgive her sins. Now that her kids are growing, she added, she always tells them: “God loves you just where you are at right now.”
While working with young people at the Region I encuentro, Rodriguez said she is heartened by people’s willingness to reach out to others in prayer and to “let the Holy Spirit flow.”
“The church can accompany young people in their faith journey,” she said. “Just by listening without judgment and offering counsel is enough because God would do the rest.”
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