How do we describe our Hispanic Community? We characterize the community by typical labels of language and race. We say that Hispanics are all Spanish-speaking and brown-skinned immigrants.
I put these labels to a test while participating in the Southeast Regional Encuentro in Miami Feb. 22-24, that included participants from 30 dioceses comprising Episcopal Regions V and XIV of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
This endeavor, sponsored by the Southeast Pastoral Institute, continues a process beginning at the level of parishes and then dioceses across the United States. Four delegates from Louisville who had participated in parish-level and the archdiocesan-level encuentro were invited to join delegates gathered in Miami for this Southeast Regional Encuentro.
According to its leaders, the Encuentro “is a process of evangelization, consultation and mission to discern ways for the church in the United States to better respond to the ever-growing Hispanic presence, and to help Hispanic Catholics to strengthen their Christian identity and their response as missionary disciples for the entire church.”
I saw that participants arriving in Miami were largely bilingual but not all. Some Hispanics speak English as their first language and struggle with Spanish. I refer to children and adolescents born in the United States who prefer English. But in fact there are Hispanic immigrants who use their own Native American tongue rather than Spanish, such as some people from Chiapas in southern Mexico. At the encuentro, I saw persons whose skin color ranged from dark to pale.
Given the false assumptions we may hold about language and race, a better way to characterize the Hispanic community is to see Hispanics as parish members. The inspiration for this idea came from the location of the encuentro in Miami. We gathered not at a civic center or a hotel ballroom like other conferences I have attended. We held the encuentro at the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This is one of the newest parishes built in Doral, Fla., a suburb with an influx of Venezuelans.
If we visit one of our parishes in the Archdiocese of Louisville on a Sunday, we will see the diversity of the Hispanic community displayed. Participating in this encuentro confirmed what I observe each Sunday from the pulpit. It was a privilege to join our Archdiocese of Louisville delegates in Miami. Our efforts to promote vocations to the priesthood are paying off, with seminarians, such as Fermin Luna from St. Rita Church.
We are fostering the ministry of pastoral leaders such as Eva Gonzalez, who is serving the archdiocese in the Office of Multicultural Ministry and is a member of the Church of the Annunciation in Shelbyville, Ky.
Jackie Ortiz from St. James Church in Elizabethtown, Ky., volunteers weekly to empower a growing Spanish-speaking part of her parish. She best mirrors the majority of the lay faithful who bring life to our parishes as good stewards of their time, talent and treasure.
According to the Apostolic Nuncio from the Holy See in Rome to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Hispanic Catholics of the U.S. are a people destined to be prophets. They come from a line of prophets, he indicated, just like the Bible’s chosen people led by Moses were called to prophesy.
He said, “The church of America’s future is present today here in this encuentro.” He refers of course to demographics illustrating the identity of the Catholic Church tending toward majority Hispanic in the coming generations.
The nuncio then pivoted away from statistics to passionately teach us about our calling. We are first disciples and then missionaries. The sequence matters. The truth is we are touched by the Holy Spirit and become disciples, and then we share the Good News as missionaries.
While a few of our parishes attract large Hispanic populations like my own in Shelbyville, other parishes serve smaller numbers of Hispanics.
Large or small there are successes and challenges in parish ministry. Nevertheless, our clergy and lay leaders are striving to fulfill our mission as church at every parish. Our American bishops applaud our efforts and are responsible for supporting them.
This regional encuentro brings forward the voices of the faithful. Our hard work to advise our bishops on what is flourishing in ministry and what is lagging will promote fresh action across the southeast and the entire country.
Father Tobin is pastor of the Church of the Annunciation in Shelbyville, Ky., and St. John Chrysostom Church in Eminence, Ky.