Similar to how the eyes of the disciples were opened when they encountered Christ on the road to Emmaus, it has been the mission of the national pastoral process called V Encuentro to lead faithful to having their own close encounters with the Lord on their journeys of faith.

Such was the focus Oct. 9-10 when 20 delegates from the Diocese of Trenton joined with their colleagues from 123 dioceses from across the United States for a Virtual Encuentro, during which they had opportunities to network, share their faith, hear keynote addresses and even a special video message from Pope Francis – who encouraged the delegations to focus on the Gospel as they explore and respond to the priorities and realities facing Hispanic Catholics in the United States.

The V Encuentro began in 2017 when episcopal regions began conversations about the realities faced by Hispanic Catholic communities in the Church nationwide. Those initial conversations filtered down to individual dioceses, including the Diocese of Trenton, and then to the parish communities themselves.

The Diocese of Trenton currently has 18 parishes designated as Centers for Hispanic Ministry, along with three named for Brazilian/Portuguese and Haitian ministries. The cultural communities of those parishes are the focus of the V Encuentro, looking at all they contribute to wider Church community, and how, or if, their specific ministerial needs are met.

“It means opening our hearts, ears and eyes to feel, listen and see the reality in which our brethren are living,” shared Sandra López, diocesan coordinator for Hispanic ministry initiatives and point person for the diocesan Encuentro delegation.

Especially considering the current pandemic, López pointed out, the Hispanic community “feels isolated, [there is] anxiety and fear given the economic strain this situation has caused, not to mention the racism and immigration system directly affecting our communities.”

The purpose of the national event was to complete the sixth milestone of the V Encuentro process: to visualize the future of Hispanic/Latino Ministry, help dioceses and organizations identify, create, or fine-tune their pastoral responses at the local level, rejoice in the fruits of the V Encuentro and the Catholic faith, be sent forth once again as joyful missionary disciples. Encuentro is Spanish for “encounter.”

The diocesan delegation focused on four specific priorities in articulating practical ideas for a future pastoral plan for Hispanic ministry – family life, youth ministry, leadership and pastoral formation, and immigration – with plans to continue the conversations begun during the Encuentro process.

Young adults in the Trenton delegation took part in conversations with bishops from around the nation discussing how to more successfully engage their age group in the life of the Church.

Amanda Kleinmann, delegate from St. Ann Parish, Browns Mills, participated in a virtual meeting with Philadelphia’s Archbishop Nelson Pérez, who has served on the national committee of V Encuentro from the start. Kleinmann admitted that while she felt disillusioned to hear other diocesan representatives dismiss the young adult population, she was pleased for the chance to speak up in her virtual group about her own experience as a young adult in St. Ann Parish, one that led her to feel more empowered and engaged. This, the Trenton delegate expressed, should be the norm, not the exception, for how parish communities see young adults and focus on young adult outreach.

Reflecting on her participation in the virtual diocesan Encuentro, Eneida Pérez of Jesus the Good Shepherd Parish, Beverly, said, “The reality that 2020 has lain bare is the vulnerability of humanity. We need to see with the eyes of Christ, listen with the ears of Christ and, if we truly want to live in communion with Christ and our neighbor, we need to remove the blindfolds from our eyes and let his love set our hearts on fire.”

Jorge Montana of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, said the local delegation took the conclusions from the previous Encuentros to heart and began to discern what responses within the Diocese of Trenton could look like. “I see our Diocese as having a fundamental role in designing plans of action,” he said.

“I was assigned to the working group on leadership development and pastoral formation,” Montana said. “We see that part of that should involve building intercultural competencies for ministers while keeping an eye on recognizing others’ gifts to breathe new life into the parish.”