“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” wrote the 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope.
With statistics that show church attendance declining and interest in organized religion waning, hope — and a strong dose of prayer — seems to be what’s needed in the U.S. Catholic Church.
What kind of challenges does the church face? According to the Pew Research Center, people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics — religious “nones” — now make up almost one-fourth of the U.S. adult population. A closer look shows that 35 percent of Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) identify as “nones” and 78 percent of “nones” were raised in a religious home.
Fortunately, there are signs of hope: two initiatives that point to a renewed spirituality and encounter with Christ. The first is known as “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America,” sponsored by the U.S. bishops. The second initiative is called Encuentro, Spanish for Encounter, a grassroots process that seeks to evangelize and identify leaders in the Hispanic Catholic community.
The Convocation of Catholic Leaders is a gathering that will take place July 1-4 in Orlando, Fla. Each diocese has been invited to bring a small number of leaders to reflect on Pope Francis’s 2013 apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), particularly the emphasis on the church as missionary disciples.
According to a Catholic News Service report, the Convocation “is being called to examine today’s concerns, challenges and opportunities for action in light of the church’s evangelization mission.”
Playing a leadership role in this event is our own Julianne Stanz, diocesan director of the Department of New Evangelization, who will serve as one of the Convocation’s emcees.
While the Convocation’s genesis goes back only a few years, the second initiative, Encuentro, actually has its roots dating back to the early 1970s.
The first national Encuentro was held in 1972 with subsequent gatherings in 1977, 1985, 2000. The Fifth National Encuentro, also known as V Encuentro, is slated for Sept. 20-23, 2018, in the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas.
National Encuentros are the culmination of smaller gatherings, first on the parish/diocesan level and then on the regional level.
“The intent is for Latinos to have an encounter with the entire church and for the church to have an encounter with Latinos, understanding who they are, how they think, how they live their faith, so we can work together and move together and build a church together,” Mar Munoz-Visoso, executive director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Catholic News Service.
Carlos Hernandez, Hispanic ministry director for the Diocese of Green Bay, serves on the committee for V Encuentro. He has created a diocesan team that is working with Region VII Hispanic leaders who represent Catholics in Wisconsin, Illiniois and Indiana.
“We are now preparing for the first Diocesan Hispanic Encuentro in the spring of 2017,” Hernandez told The Compass in 2016.
Hispanic Catholics face the same challenges as non-Hispanics: losing young members who drift from the church.
“We have very few, relatively, Hispanics in our Catholic schools,” said Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley. “They’re underrepresented in our religious education programs, and I’m hoping that the outreach that is going to be done as part of the preparation for this ‘encuentro’ will make a difference.”
We live in a time when religious belief is questioned and religious persecution is common. Initiatives like Convocation of Catholic Leaders and V Encuentro are ways to infuse energy into the church, not unlike what Pope XXIII intended when he convened the Second Vatican Council, stating it was time to “throw open the windows of the church” and let in the fresh air.
Look for more coverage of these events in upcoming issues of The Compass.