Encuentro: An experience of belonging

Photo by James A. McBride
Andres Arango, member of the national leadership team of the V Encuentro and Bishop’s Delegate for Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Camden, addresses participants in the Regional Encuentro at Saint Bellarmine Co-Cathedral in Freehold, N.J., on April 28.

FREEHOLD — Andres Arango, the Bishop’s Delegate for Hispanic Ministry, quickly caught the attention of the more than 350 Hispanic clergy and laity just settling into their seats here at the Co-Cathedral of Saint Robert Bellarmine on the morning of Saturday, April 28.

“It should be Jesus who is the center of our lives. When we really fall in love with him, our lives change,” he challenged his audience.

“How do we make him the center of our lives? Cultivate a personal encounter with him. And be a true missionary disciple — be a person who opens up to others, making it possible for them to have an encounter with Jesus Christ. We should never stop communicating how amazing Jesus is,” Arango pressed.

The Hispanic ministry leader, along with 49 others from the Diocese of Camden including Bishop Dennis Sullivan, traveled to Freehold at the end of April for Region III’s V Encuentro gathering.

Bringing together clergy and laity from all of New Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania, the day-long gathering was the continuation of a four-year process for Hispanic Catholics to discern best practices on such important topics as immigration, outreach, leadership, and missionary discipleship.

Hispanic Catholics young and old, including clergy, religious and laity, merged at tables to discuss ways to strengthen themselves, their community, and their church.

“It’s been wonderful to connect,” remarked Sister Veronica Collado, of the Misioneras de Maria Formadora religious community at Hammonton’s Saint Mary of Mount Carmel Parish.

Having made the bus trip to Freehold with another sister, Mother Dulce Cruz de María, and other South Jersey Hispanics, she found the day productive, and came back refreshed and with new ideas for her youth ministry work at her parish, specifically on how to improve “the religious formation of youth, through such programs as retreats, and educating them on the importance of prayer,” she said.

Estrellita “Star” Martinez, at 24 one of the youngest members of the Camden delegation, was pleased to meet “others from Region III, who are just as excited (about Hispanic ministry and the V Encuentro) as I am; it’s great that the young church is getting a voice.”

From Divine Mercy Parish in Vineland, she is a leader with the church’s Catholic Millennial Ministry, which gathers young adults on Fridays for prayer, socialization and faith-sharing.

In between the inspiring presentations and table discussions, Mass was celebrated with Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, and concelebrants Bishop Sullivan; Bishop James F. Checchio of Metuchen; Auxiliary Bishop Manuel A. Cruz of Newark; Bishop David M. O’Connell of Trenton; Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Deliman of Philadelphia; and Bishop Joseph Bambera of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

In his homily, Cardinal Tobin wished that the occasion of the Region III’s V Encuentro would be “an encounter that fills us with joy, an encounter that invites us to a new time of evangelization … and that guides the church in the coming years.”

This fall, Hispanic Catholics from around the country will continue the conversation at the national V Encuentro in Texas.

“For me, the Regional Encuentro was an ecclesial experience, that is, an experience of belonging to our Catholic Church,” remarked Bishop Dennis Sullivan.

Explaining the process that his diocese and others have been undertaking, he said that “the delegates were gathered with their bishops. Those from our diocese had participated in the Encuentro process for the last two years. First in the small groups in their own parishes; then, in our Diocesan Encuentro with representatives from 24 of our parishes.”

However, “at the Regional Encuentro (in Freehold) the circle was wider. Each gathering builds on the previous gathering which is part of the process of the Encuentro. It is designed to get conversation going among the participants as they reflect on their experiences of church and respectfully listen to one another as sisters and brothers in Christ. All to strengthen church life, particularly for Hispanics in our country.”

Bishop Sullivan called the Regional Encuentro “a dynamic and encouraging ecclesial experience for the participants.”

The Holy Spirit, he emphasized, was moving among them.