On a Saturday morning, Clarigsa Peña-Llorens chatted with a woman while both were in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Wethersfield. When she learned that the woman had a daughter who had not received the sacrament of confirmation, she mentioned an adult confirmation class at St. Augustine Parish in Hartford and shared her contact information.
“I’ve made myself not so afraid to talk about my religion,” Peña-Llorens said. “We should not be afraid, if we do it respectfully.”
Peña-Llorens would be the first to say it’s a conversation that never would have occurred a year ago. However, over the summer she and many other Hispanic/Latino Catholics in the Archdiocese of Hartford went forth as “missionary disciples” to the peripheries of the Church and of society, bringing the Gospel message to others in the Hispanic/Latino communities.
The missionaries fanned out through their local communities, approaching friends with substance abuse issues, work colleagues who had experienced a death in the family, employees at the local car wash and hair salon, parishioners who were new to their church and those who attended Mass sporadically.
Armed with a cheat sheet of thought-provoking questions to guide them, the missionaries asked other Hispanics/Latinos about their faith, their worries, their hopes and their dreams.
According to early reports from the field, some missionaries were greeted with tears, with surprise that anyone cared about the aspirations of those on the peripheries and with an outpouring of gratitude for God and for the Church.
“It was different from what we thought it was going to be,” said Griselle Cirio, a member of Christ the Bread of Life Parish in Hamden. “We were not selling our church. We were just showing God’s love for people.”
Cirio said she was equally amazed by how deep the casual conversations grew, by the aspirations people shared, by the faith they revealed and by the soul-to-soul connections made.
“What I’m learning,” she said in June, halfway through the evangelization activities, “is that people want to be heard. They have a lot of people around them, but now here’s someone who will really listen.”
Archdiocesan encuentro slated for September
All of this grassroots missionary effort and fact-finding has been preparation for the upcoming archdiocesan “encuentro,” or “encounter,” to be held on Sept. 16 at the Archdiocesan Center at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield.
The archdiocesan encuentro will draw Hispanic/Latino Catholics from more than 20 established Hispanic/Latino communities in parishes throughout the archdiocese.
The full-day event will be an opportunity to reflect on the realities of the larger Hispanic/Latino community, propose practical responses to their needs and aspirations, and commit to the New Evangelization.
The archdiocesan encuentro is part of the “V Encuentro,” or “Fifth Encounter,” a national initiative called by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in which the Catholic Church gathers with Hispanic/Latino Catholics, the fastest-growing Catholic community in the United States.
The bishops’ goal is to get to know and better serve the Hispanic Catholic community and, at the same time, to increase Hispanics’ sense of belonging and participation in the U.S. Church.
“The primary purpose,” explained Archbishop Leonard P. Blair, “is to bring Catholics together, especially our Hispanic/Latino members, to be inspired by the Holy Spirit for greater fidelity and enthusiasm in living the Catholic faith and bearing witness to Christ in today’s world.”
The V Encuentro is a four-year, fourfold task of intense missionary activity, consultation, leadership development and identification of best ministerial practices. The process starts at the parish level and works its way up to the national level, all carried out in the spirit of the New Evangelization. (For national objectives, see below.)
Thousands of parishes across the country are participating in the missionary activities, which began at the grassroots level earlier this year.
Archbishop Blair said the V Encuentro process is very timely for the archdiocese since it is occurring in conjunction with the implementation of the archdiocese’s pastoral plan.
“Our goal of ensuring a vibrant and sustainable future is not ultimately about buildings, personnel or finances, but about rekindling the gift of the Holy Spirit for the sake of ‘missionary discipleship,’ to use the phrase of Pope Francis,” Archbishop Blair said.
“This starts at the parish level,” he added, “when individuals commit themselves to work and pray together for a way forward amid today’s challenges to faith and practice.”
Core team trains parish facilitators
To get started here at home, the Archdiocese of Hartford created a committee to oversee and facilitate the V Encuentro process within the archdiocese.
Core team members include: Father Carlos Castrillon and Father Mauricio Galvis; Ana Maria Alstrum, director of Hispanic catechesis; Miriam Hidalgo, director of youth and young adult ministry; Arturo Iriarte, a coordinator in the Office for Catholic Social Justice Ministry; Martha Pezo-Marin, Hispanic family ministry coordinator in the Office of Family Life; Clarigsa Peña-Llorens, administrative assistant in the Office of Family Life; Sister Clare Millea, director of the Office of Faith and Culture; and Sister Mary Grace Walsh, Ph.D., provost of the Office of Education, Evangelization and Catechesis.
Sister Mary Grace cited the cross-agency approach as a highlight of the initiative. “The collaboration between the priests and employees across the archdiocesan offices has provided a great deal of energy during the encuentro process,” she said.
“These individuals have been working diligently and accompanying the parish leaders during the weeks of formation and outreach and in the planning for the parish and archdiocesan encuentro gatherings,” she said during the summer.
Back in February, the core team members trained parish coordinators and others in how to organize parish-level evangelization and reflection activities. They also provided leader’s guides and mission and consultation journals, and later traveled to support the parish teams through five weeks of sessions.
Missionary disciples ask deep questions and consult
The theme of the V Encuentro at every level is “Missionary Disciples: Witnesses of God’s Love.”
In parishes, both lay ministers and parishioners responded to the call for “missionary disciples.” Groups of seven to 10 people met for five sessions. They received a crash course in how to listen attentively without judgment, genuinely befriend others as Jesus did, reach out to people on the peripheries of the Church and in society, and invite newcomers into the parish community and to a parish encuentro.
Using guidebooks, they initiated casual conversations and asked soul-stirring questions, such as:
• What obstacles prevent you from achieving your hopes and dreams?
• Do you consider yourself Catholic?
• How has God accompanied you during challenging times in your life?
• What can the Catholic Church do to welcome you and accompany you in your life?
When they got home, they recorded the responses on forms as part of a nationwide collection of data on the Hispanic/Latino community. They were also asked to reflect on what they learned about their local community and were encouraged to make written recommendations to the Church on how to better serve the people they encountered.
All of the data was compiled by the archdiocesan core team and submitted to the USCCB. The recommendations were also included in parish working documents and will be combined into an archdiocesan working document.
Core team members reflect
In addition to serving on the archdiocesan core team, Peña-Llorens is coordinator of the V Encuentro process at her own parish, St. Augustine in Hartford. There, she and Eduardo Torres jointly facilitated meetings with members of a Community of John XXIII group who volunteered to be missionary disciples. She became a believer in the process as soon as she saw the guidebooks and mission journals.
“I said, ‘Wow, this is what we need to prepare ourselves to go outside to bring in the people who are not here and to be more welcoming,’” she said.
Peña-Llorens advised the missionary disciples to get to know people first and to develop a true, caring connection, providing them with whatever they need, whether it’s food, clothing or spiritual support. “The point is to actually encounter them, and through that friendship bring them to Jesus,” she explained.
Peña-Llorens thinks the process is also a great way for longtime parishioners to get to know people who are new to the parish as well as those in the surrounding neighborhood. Greater local knowledge, she said, can lead to regional solutions that can then be passed on to Church administrators.
“Maybe the Hispanic community in Hartford has needs that differ from New Haven, Waterbury or Enfield,” she said.
Arturo Iriarte, originally from Chile, also serves on the archdiocesan core team. He said, “It’s been a very exciting and inspirational experience for me.”
Iriarte said he witnessed a transformation in all of the parishes he supported over the summer, especially among the missionary disciples themselves.
“It’s a beautiful thing. The ones who are reaching out are receiving the whole thing,” he said. They returned with new insights about others and about themselves, he explained. They reflected, recorded the information and made recommendations.
“It’s beautiful, but it requires a lot of preparation, reading and understanding,” he said. “It’s important to bring the heart of God into the process.”
All in all, he thought the parish-level evangelization and consultation portions of the V Encuentro process were inspired. “This is a great opportunity for the Church,” he said.
Missionary disciples reflect
The missionary disciples themselves had unique perspectives on the evangelization component of the V Encuentro.
Edilberto Ortiz, 24, a missionary disciple of Guatemalan heritage who attends St. Augustine, said he appreciated the evangelization training, even though he had previous experience inviting other young Hispanics to the Catholic faith.
“I see it as an opportunity to develop ways to evangelize better, especially with young people,” he said.
Ana Torres, who was born in Puerto Rico and belongs to Christ the Bread of Life in Hamden, explained why she wanted to be a missionary disciple. “God made me stronger,” she said, “and I want to bring that to other people.”
As a Catholic and a social worker, Torres applauded the Catholic Church for its outreach effort to Hispanics. “This is one of the best things the Church could think of because it’s needed,” she said. “Many don’t have anyone to listen and to tell them there is hope. God is the only one who has the last word.
V Encuentro: a national outreach and call to Hispanic/Latino Catholics
The “V Encuentro,” or “Fifth Encounter,” is the fifth time the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has encountered, or sought input from, the entire Hispanic/Latino Catholic community since the First Encuentro was held in 1972.
The current V Encuentro process throughout the country is comprised of a multi-year slate of meetings that began with small-group evangelization and reflection activities at the parish-level in the spring and summer of 2017.
It progressed to parish encuentros, or consultative gatherings, in the summer that will lead to diocesan encuentros this fall. Regional encuentros will be held next spring and will result in a final Fifth National Encuentro Sept. 20-23, 2018, in Grapevine, Texas. There, 3,000 delegates from dioceses throughout the United States will gather as the voice for Hispanic/Latino Catholics.
Participants’ efforts will culminate in the publication of a final post-national encuentro working document and other related resources, all offering creative ways for dioceses to implement what was learned during the process.
Through the V Encuentro process, national Church leaders are hoping to accomplish the following five objectives:
1. Call all Catholic leaders to become authentic and joyful missionary disciples by encountering their Hispanic brothers and sisters to give witness to God’s love, thereby embracing the cultural diversity of the North American Church;
2. Promote a vision of the Church in mission that calls Hispanic Catholic youth, young adults and families to live out their baptismal vocation, including vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life;
3. Invite Catholic leaders to engage and accompany Hispanic Catholics, particularly the most vulnerable and those on the peripheries of the Church and society;
4. Identify and promote opportunities for Hispanic Catholic pastoral leaders to serve at all levels of the Church and in the larger society, and increase the number of lay and ordained ministers directly engaged in the New Evangelization; and
5. Stimulate a new wave of faith formation and leadership development initiatives that prepare Hispanic Catholics to share and celebrate the good news of Jesus Christ.