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Betsy Florez of St. Patrick Parish in Fremont, above, leads a discussion Oct. 15 at an encuentro session at St. Patrick Auditorium in Fremont.

Hispanics prepare for national encuentro

Betsy Florez said she wants to help Hispanic Catholics feel more comfortable answering God’s call to reach out to others, share the good news of Christ, and welcome people to encounter Jesus in the church.

That’s why the 30-year-old parish council member at St. Patrick Parish in Fremont is among the hundreds of Hispanic Catholics gathering in small groups across the Archdiocese of Omaha to discuss how Jesus encounters others – using his example in the Scripture passage about the road to Emmaus in the hopes of imitating it in their own lives.

"I think it’s a good thing that we’re meeting and getting to talk about reaching out to those on the periphery that we don’t necessarily talk to or approach very often," said Florez, who is a table leader at the gatherings in Fremont.

It’s all in preparation for the archdiocese’s Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry set for Nov. 18 at St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha, with Archbishop George J. Lucas. Between 100 and 150 people are expected at the event.

In addition to St. Patrick in Fremont, other parishes holding five, 90-minute encuentro sessions include Holy Name, Assumption-Guadalupe and St. Francis of Assisi, all in Omaha; St. Bonaventure in Columbus; Sacred Heart in Emerson, with people from Wakefield; and Sacred Heart in Norfolk.

Sessions will continue on the regional level in preparation for the Fifth National Encuentro – an initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – next September in Texas.

Previous national encuentros were held in 1972, 1977, 1985 and 2000. They addressed such topics as articulating a clear direction of the church’s response to the Hispanic presence; welcoming all cultures and races that make up the church in the United States; and listening to the voices of Hispanic/Latino youth and discerning the best way to respond to their needs.

U.S. census estimates show that about 29.7 million Hispanics/Latinos in the United States identify as Catholics, which represents nearly 59 percent of the total Hispanic population in the country. Among millennials, Hispanic Catholics represent 54 percent of U.S. Catholics born in 1982 or later.

The purpose of the encuentros is to reach out to those at the margins through evangelization, listening to their concerns while at the same time promoting consultation and preparing future ministry leaders, said Mariana Flores-Chavez, coordinator of Hispanic Marriage and Family Ministries for the archdiocese.

The discussions are guided by five themes inspired by Pope Francis’ call to foster a culture of "encounter" found in "The Joy of the Gospel," she said. The themes are being called to a loving encounter with Jesus; using words and actions; walking together with Jesus; bearing fruits of new life; and celebrating the joy of being missionary disciples.

The sessions, which are drawing nearly 60 people each week at St. Bonaventure Parish in Columbus, are centered on Jesus’ appearance after the resurrection and how he encounters his disciples on the road to Emmaus, said Rocio Adame, coordinator of Hispanic ministry at the Columbus parishes.

"He walks with them, listens to them, listens to their cries and doubts, and then guides them from hopelessness to celebration," she said. "This is what we are called to do with the people out in the peripheries. Our mission every week is to go out and follow what Jesus did with the Emmaus disciples: Go and encounter people, walk with them in their doubts and worries, give them hope, nourish their faith and invite them to have an encounter with Jesus."

At the same time, session participants are to ask people about their dreams and worries, what they expect from the church, and how the church can meet their needs, Adame said. The answers will help generate a report to the archdiocesan team of accompaniment, which will then go to the regional and national teams, and eventually to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"When the church in the United States embraces the challenges to respond better to the Hispanic presence and strengthens the way in which Hispanic Catholics respond to the call to the new evangelization as missionary disciples serving the entire church, it experiences communion," Flores-Chavez said.

"Many Hispanics/Latinos throughout this process will be closer to Christ, while bringing countless benefits to the entire church in the United States," she said.

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