By Joanna Gardner
VINELAND — As the cantor listed various Hispanic countries, cheers erupted from the crowd that packed into pews and, standing, lined the walls of Divine Mercy Parish in Vineland.
More than 800 people gathered for the Camden Diocesan Celebration of Hispanic Families held on Sept. 28. The annual event is designed to bring together the diocese’s Hispanic Catholics during Hispanic Heritage Month, celebrated from Sept. 15-Oct. 15.
This year’s family theme anticipates the World Meeting of Families to be held in September 2015 in Philadelphia and expected to be attended by Pope Francis.
“Latino families are a prophetic voice for unity, for love, and for worship of God together within the church,” said Andres Arango, the bishop’s delegate for Hispanic Ministry for the Diocese of Camden. “We want to celebrate that today.”
The celebration included a Mass in Spanish celebrated by Bishop Dennis Sullivan.
“This is a great opportunity for us to come together as a diocesan family,” said Bishop Sullivan in his homily. “The church is made up of families…And through the family and through the grace the Lord gives us we come to know who we are as sons and daughters of God.”
Of the 68 parishes in the diocese, 24 offer Hispanic ministry. A representative from each of those parishes processed up the center aisle before the Mass carrying the parish’s standard as their names were called.
Anthony Marte carried the banner for his parish, St. Anthony of Padua in Camden. He immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a teenager and is involved in his parish as a Eucharistic Minister and altar server.
“Without the family, there is no church. Our future priests, our future bishop, come from families,” Marte said.
“Hispanic families bring their culture, a new way of celebrating the Eucharist. So we learn something from every culture,” he added.
The Mass was concelebrated by nine priests, and several deacons assisted. There are 22 Spanish-speaking priests in the diocese, and several were present at the Mass.
Vibrant music was a highlight of the celebration. The Diocesan Hispanic Choir, directed by Damaris Thillet, and an instrumental ensemble — composed of guitars, piano,
flute, violin, percussion and a Puerto Rican stringed instrument called the cuatro — directed by Diego Correa provided the music during a 30-minute musical prelude and the Mass. They were joined by the Hispanic children’s choir from the Parish of the Holy Cross in Bridgeton.
“This music is part of their heritage. You need to have a connection between your roots and the music to praise God,” said Thillet, who is also the associate director for the diocesan Office of Worship, Music and Christian Initiation. “This is especially true for immigrants. We left a lot of things behind us…and [this music] is crucial to the Latino community for them to feel welcome. It’s an expression of faith for them.”
Before the Mass began, groups representing different types of families processed up the center aisle. Among the types of families represented were conventional families with father, mother, brothers, and sisters; a group of male and female religious representing the religious family; single-parent families; families separated by distance because of immigration; and inter-generational families, where parents or grandparents grew up in another country and have children born in the United States.
As the groups passed and a prayer read for each, many in the congregation had tears in their eyes.
“We are a church of immigrants,” said Brother Juan de la Cruz Turcios, O.F.M., of St. Anthony of Padua, Camden. Brother Juan immigrated to the United States as a teenager from El Salvador and said he discovered his vocation to religious life in the United States.
“Latino families are some of the youngest families in the Catholic Church in the United States. It’s especially important for the bishop to address that group today because I would say they are the heart of the church right now in our country, especially in our diocese.”
“It’s also an opportunity to invite more people to discover vocations within the Latino community,” he added.
After the Mass, ushers at the church’s three exits handed each person a bagged dinner with a sandwich and traditional flan dessert, along with soda or water. People gathered on the church grounds to eat or took food home with them. Many paused to take photos and pray at the parish’s shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“This day is important because the family that prays together, stays together,” said Esmeralda Gonzalez of St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral in Camden. “It keeps our community united.”
Lucy Santiago said the celebration was an important way for families to stay connected to their Hispanic heritage.
“It’s a call for the families this year to connect with the church and what the church has for them, as family, as Catholics, as Hispanics,” Santiago said. “It brings everybody together in God’s love and God’s presence, and you can feel the warmth when we gather. You can feel the heat of the Spirit when the Hispanics gather.”