Encuentro: Reflections on becoming America’s prophetic voice

By Father Bruce Nieli, CSP
Guest Columnist

As the Secretariat on Cultural Diversity in the Church of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops states: “The V Encuentro is a four-year process of ecclesial reflection and evangelization that invites all Catholics in the United States to intense missionary activity, consultation, leadership development, and the identification of best ministerial practices in the spirit of the New Evangelization.”
Notice the inclusion “all Catholics!” 
The very first objective of the V Encuentro is to “call all Catholics in the United States to become authentic and joyful missionary disciples that give witness to God’s love with a prophetic voice in a culturally diverse Church.” 
The V Encuentro is all embracing. Its call echoes that of Pope Francis, who, in the first sentences of his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” exclaims, “The Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness, and loneliness … I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.” 
Here in Central Texas we recognize those initial sentences from the Holy Father as the words introducing our own diocesan Pastoral Plan, “Encounter that Leads to Transformation.” Notice the common word “encounter” –– our diocesan Pastoral Plan, the V Encuentro and Pope Francis’ entire pontificate proclaim the “New Evangelization,” connecting our “encounter” with Jesus to our becoming his Spirit-filled “missionary disciples.”
My first “encounter” with the living Jesus Christ occurred in my mother Vivian’s arms, when, as an asthmatic toddler, I would hear her sing to me a song she learned as an evangelical child: “Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so!” I knew by those words, sung with motherly affection, that I was loved by Jesus and that I would be OK. The inner music of the Holy Spirit has been my lifelong comforter. I trace my vocation as a Paulist priest to that encounter and I consider myself a missionary disciple.
As such, I have been a participant in the Encuentro Movement from its inception in 1972 to the present day. The movement has embraced four large assemblies of Hispanic Catholic leaders (in 1972, 1977, 1985 and 2000, with an additional and highly successful Youth and Young Adult gathering at the University of Notre Dame in 2006). It has incorporated detailed processes of formation and follow-up before and after each event. The V Encuentro will include parish leadership development between January and July of 2017, a diocesan Encuentro assembly in the fall of that year, a regional Encuentro in early 2018, and a National Encuentro in Grapevine in the fall of 2018. Continuing formation in evangelization will follow through 2020.
One of the main reasons we single out Hispanics/Latinos is that they are rapidly becoming the majority of Catholics in the U.S., already exceeding 40 percent and more than 60 percent of those under the age of 35. Youth and young adult ministry in our church is hugely Hispanic with more than 65 percent of Catholics in our own diocese being Latino. Sheer numbers call us to action!
But we are also called to accompany our Hispanic brothers and sisters in solidarity with their movement similarly to when we were all called to accompany our black brothers and sisters during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. 
What characterizes the entire Encuentro movement is a passion to affirm Hispanics/Latinos as a prophetic voice (in Spanish it is “voz profetica”) for evangelization, intercultural solidarity, community building and healing of an increasingly polarized nation. St. John Paul II, in his talk at San Antonio’s Plaza Guadalupe in 1987, spoke of the Hispanic heritage of the Southwest as “very important for the church. Spanish was the language of the first evangelizers of this continent, precisely in this region.” He went on to challenge Latinos, “It is your turn to be evangelizers, of each other and of all those whose faith is weak or who have not yet given themselves to the Lord. May you be no less zealous in evangelization and in Christian service than your forbearers!” Make each parish, he urged, a “family of families.”
Here in the Diocese of Austin we have already experienced, in a dramatic and historic way, the power of the Hispanic prophetic voice. In 1957 Latino young men introduced the Cursillo Movement to the U.S. at St. Francis Parish in Waco. The subsequent impact on the wider church was astounding! From the Cursillo came the experience of small Christian community and then movements like ACTS (Adoration, Community, Theology and Service), CRHP (Christ Renews His Parish), TEC (Teens/Together Encounter Christ), the awakening retreats and much more.
What Hispanics have always brought and continue to bring to the church and society is the evangelizing spirit of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of America. Her image has been carried by indigenous people in their struggle for freedom, by César Chávez and the United Farm Workers in their struggle for labor rights, by immigrants and refugees, members of a church without borders, and by pro-life advocates praying and counseling before abortion clinics in order to save the lives of innocent children. 
Fifty years ago I bought an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe for my evangelical mother Vivian, from the Basilica in Mexico City, which was erected on the site where Our Lady appeared centuries before. Fifteen years later I received my mother into the Catholic Church, and I consider that no coincidence. As St. John Paul wrote in 1999, “Through her powerful intercession, the Gospel will penetrate the hearts of the men and women of America and permeate their cultures, transforming them from within.”
Let us accompany our Hispanic brothers and sisters in making this happen for our entire nation.