Examining the Encuentros

by Michael Sean Winters

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Some historians have a knack for imparting a sweeping interpretation of events in their books, but they fail to actually detail those events for both readers and future historians, and so their work has a strictly limited value: It may be brilliant, but it will always need to be checked to make sure the interpretation is more than plausible. Other historians get bogged down in a catalogue of the events they survey, producing works with no analytical significance, books that read like a grocery list. In his new book, The History of the National Encuentros: Hispanic Americans in the One Catholic Church, Mario Paredes avoids both extremes, offering the reader a detailed account of what actually transpired and a thoughtful and persuasive interpretation of what the Encuentros meant at the time and what they mean today. 

Additionally, this book is of more than historical interest because planning has begun for the next Encuentro, with initial planning meetings beginning in late 2016 or early 2016 and the big national event in 2018. The most recent issue of Origins has a fine “Pastoral Theological Vision for the Encuentro Process” by Boston College’s Hosffman Ospino, one of the brightest stars among the country’s next generation of theologians. Of course, the next meeting will take place against a vastly different ecclesial backdrop for the Church in the United States: The Church is increasingly a Latino Church as God sends more Latino children and more Latino immigrants to the U.S. Catholic Church in a last ditch effort to keep the Church from turning into an upper middle class club obsessed with moralisms, celebrating its latent Jansenism, drunk on the true American Creed – striving.   

The First Encuentro, like most such first time events, was a combination of grand hopes and prosaic challenges. There had never been anything like this before and, in the early 1970s, the Church was looking for new approaches to pastoral planning and still receiving the inspiration of the Second Vatican Council. Unsurprisingly, the idea was first floated by Father Edgar Beltran, an official with CELAM, the Latin American bishops’ conference. CELAM had begun its continent-wide meetings in the 1950s but its 1968 meeting at Medellin was the immediate model for the U.S. encuentros. And, more than the initial suggestion came from the Latin American Church: The encuentros would be characterized by the kind of deep consultation with which our brothers and sisters to the South were familiar but which was unknown, even unthinkable, here is the States. (Judging by the USCCB’s unimaginative response to the twin synods on the family, for some it is still unthinkable.) Other imports were less helpful, but we will get to those a bit later.

The domestic socio-ecclesial landscape was also unique. As Cardinal Sean O’Malley notes in his forward, the civil rights movement had encouraged a sense of hope for racial and ethnic minorities, yet the riots in the wake of Dr. King’s death occasioned fear and anxiety. The Church’s role in community organizing made church leaders aware of both the possibilities and the challenges they faced. “It was a time when people of good will who were trying to help others move ahead in life realized that the task ahead was very great indeed,” O’Malley writes.

Paredes details the preparatory meetings, the drafting of agendas and working documents, the relationship of different key actors in the bishops’ conference and at the diocesan level. It is clear that the emphasis would be pastoral, not doctrinal. He notes that the “Encuentro was not designed as a congress, but rather as a workshop, with strong emphasis on hands-on participation by the delegates in the seven areas of pastoral work.” Yet, when the 251 delegates arrived at Trinity College in Washington, the event was a bit of both.

Reading of the presentations and the resolutions adopted at the event is a trip down memory lane. Some of the items would prove remarkably prescient, as in the presentation by Bishop Raul Zambrano Camader of Colombia, which stated that “the ultimate goal of pastoral activity is evangelization.” This precedes by three years Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi and Pope John Paul II’s subsequent call for “a new evangelization.” On the other hand, the call for the establishment of ecclesial base communities, which never took root in the U.S., seems dated, as does much of the liberation theology influence at the time, to say nothing of the call for ordaining women to the diaconate. The Encuentro was not afraid to exceed its competence, a fact pointed out by the ad hoc bishops’ committee that ratified the conclusions after the event. Still, there is no denying that the event had placed the importance of Hispanic ministry squarely at the center of concern for the broader U.S. Church, even though the rapid explosion of Latino Catholics as a percentage of all U.S. Catholics would surely surprise all those who gathered for that first meeting. Concern for migrant and other workers also manifested itself, and remains a concern for the Church today. The need to focus on ministry to youth is clearly articulated and would remain a necessary focus even today, as was the integral role of social justice in the proclamation of the Gospel. Another theme emerged, the desire of Latinos not to be merely assimilated into the Anglo Church, that would continue through the second and third encuentros and is perhaps even more important today when the tiredness of the Anglo Church is so obvious when compared to the vibrancy of the Hispanic presence.

Paredes walks the reader through those second and third encuentros with a similar thoroughness. The events grow in size – 1,148 people attend the third event – and those priests who helped organize the first Encuentro are often bishops and archbishops by 1985 when the third is convoked. The methods of consultation become more deliberate and extensive, improving with time, while the bureaucratic and formalized emphasis of the recommendations tends to remain painfully in evidence. Nonetheless, the Encuentros not only helped focus attention on the needs of the Hispanic Catholic community, but the annual Social Ministry Gathering has a similar flavor and, I suspect, drew some of its inspiration from these events.

Now, as the next Encuentro comes into focus, with all the preparatory work that will entail, those charged with organizing it can look to Paredes’ book both for guidance and for inspiration. The dominant theme that emerges from these pages is that the Encuentros were ecclesial events in which the participants felt liberated to speak from their hearts about the call of the Gospel in the communities whence they came. The Church’s worst mistakes in the past fifty years have never been the result of too much consultation and deliberation! And, Lord knows, the Church in the U.S. cannot be reminded too often that its future will be in Spanish. That future can be better grasped, its possibilities better understood and its dangers avoided, by a careful reading of this careful book. Mario Paredes, who may be one of the most influential laymen in the history of the U.S. Church, has given many, many gifts to the Church and this book is but the latest.  




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