By Armando Machado | Correspondent
Three months ago, Ninfa Lazo González managed to convince a distraught and pregnant young woman not to take her own life.
It was about 3 a.m., and González was a few miles from her Princeton home, in her pajamas, having driven to the young woman upon receiving a desperate phone call.
González, a social worker and Hispanic ministry coordinator in her parish, St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton, relied on her professional expertise and her faith-filled ministry experience to convince the young woman not to take her own life, or the one of her unborn child.
“It is important that we have ministry leaders who are well-prepared, so that they can help the young people, so that they can help married couples,” González said. “When we have strong families, we have strong children.”
González shared her story during the Diocesan Encuentro held Sept. 30 in the Holy Trinity Church gymnasium of Christ the King Parish, Long Branch. The daylong event, conducted in Spanish and sponsored by the diocesan Office of Pastoral Life and Mission and Hispanic Ministry Initiatives, drew more than 150 parish-level Hispanic ministry leaders, including many Encuentro delegates.
The gathering was an opportunity for delegates from parishes, apostolic groups and Catholic organizations to share – with the invited ministry leaders – their experiences of reflection, discernment, consultation and evangelization that were part of their parish community’s participation in the V Encuentro process.
A goal of the working retreat was to brainstorm, identify and discuss best ministerial practices. The V Encuentro – the fifth national “encounter” of Hispanic/Latino ministry since the first one in 1972 – is a four-year process of ecclesial reflection and action inviting all Catholics in the United States to intense missionary activity, consultation, leadership and development. It has been proposed as a priority activity of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Strategic plan for 2017 to 2020.
Gifts and Obstacles
Jorge Montana, a Hispanic Ministry coordinator in St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, said it was important to strengthen ministries in order to better evangelize. “We need to first know and strengthen ourselves and our homes spiritually, and we need to first know and strengthen our faith before we can evangelize the community.”
Among the main retreat activities: identifying best practices, or “gifts,” already in place and making sure they continue to be implemented and improved upon. Also identified and discussed were challenges, or “obstacles,” that should be addressed in parish communities and their peripheries – the sooner, the better. The retreat featured small group discussions followed by group representatives sharing with all in attendance the groups’ assessments and conclusions.
“This is all about celebrating and sharing the Word – Jesus is with us,” said Matthew Greeley, associate director for the diocesan Office of Communications and coordinator for Spanish-language communications, as the groups went to work. Greeley and Sandra López, diocesan coordinator of Hispanic Ministry Initiatives, co-facilitated the event.
“We are all here to work as a family,” López added.
Best practices included: times when ministry leaders and volunteers make a difference in someone’s personal life, such as González’s story; healthy and ongoing communication in some parishes, especially between ministry leaders and priests; sacramental preparations, especially when youngsters are getting ready for their First Holy Communion, and the spiritual guidance available to help improve marriages and family life.
The identified obstacles included: the need for improved and more frequent communication in some parishes between ministry leaders and clergy; more unity and camaraderie among all Latinos and less division based on national identity; the need to improve ways to attract more teens and young adults to ministry programs in order to prevent serious troubles such as drug abuse, and increasing awareness about what ministries offer, such as Bible study and prayer meetings.
The morning of dialogue concluded with lunch and continued fellowship. Even the lunch preparation was an experience of Encuentro, with people from different parishes contributing to the various elements.
Joy in the Journey
Following the meal, all were invited to Mass, which was celebrated by the parish pastor, Father Javier Diaz. The Readings were specifically chosen for the Encuentro participants, and Father Diaz honed in on the message that all are called to be people of faith.
“It is an honor for me to be with you, to recognize that you are answering the Lord’s call,” he said.
At the conclusion of Mass, the diocesan Encuentro delegates walked the Cross of the Encuentro for Region 3 – which is composed of the archdioceses and dioceses of Pennsylvania and New Jersey – to the altar for a blessing and sending forth. The congregation then processed out of the church back to the gymnasium while singing the hymn, “Alma Misionera” (Missionary Soul).
Earlier that day, the Chavez-Ruano family of St. Joseph Parish, Trenton, made the journey into Pennsylvania toward the Diocese of Scranton to meet representatives from its diocesan Encuentro to pick up the wooden cross. The family arrived with the cross, which is being shared around Region 3, right before the end of Mass.
“I am so grateful to God and to the Chavez-Ruano family for how the timing worked out,” López reflected on the day as a whole. Fighting back tears, she said, “God is so good.”
Lifted in Spirit from Mass, the diocesan Encuentro continued into the afternoon with two presentations.
Father Miguel Valle, parochial vicar in St. Paul Parish, Princeton, articulated how important joy is for the missionary disciple. Father Valle had the crowd reflecting on singer Celia Cruz’s “La Vida Es un Carnaval” (Life Is a Carnival) while they danced and laughed, adding personal objects to a pile in the front of the gym in an effort to show how the missionary disciple needs to move out of their comfort zones, and imagining being in the scene of the Road to Emmaus.
Walter Quiñones, diocesan Encuentro team member and parishioner of St. Joseph Parish, Trenton, then used original music and stories as he gave witness to the power of engaging in personal encounters with others as disciples of Christ. He challenged the delegates to deepen their faith experiences.
“We celebrate when a baby begins to try to speak. We wouldn’t celebrate an adult who was capable but never learned to communicate better than that. We need to grow as people of faith,” he emphasized. “We need to keep growing in our faith so we can act like adults in the faith.”
The voices of the parish communities at the Diocesan Encuentro will be documented, consolidated and sent onward to the Regional Encuentro committee. The parishes needs and possible responses will make their way to the national committee, from which the U.S. Catholic Church will receive direction as it moves forward to better recognize and walk with the Hispanic Catholic community.
Matthew Greeley, associate director for the diocesan Office of Communications and coordinator for Spanish-language communications, contributed to this report.