Encuentro: Pastoral Juvenil is souls, not just numbers

By Angie Marino 
Guest Columnist

At a time in which the majority of U.S. Catholics under the age of 18 are Hispanic, Pastoral Juvenil, or ministry to Hispanic youth and young adults, is a priority for our bishops and for the V Encuentro. The V Encuentro is a four-year process of ecclesial reflection and action that invites all Catholics in the U.S. to intense missionary activity, consultation, leadership development and identification of best ministerial practices in the spirit of the new evangelization (for details see the Bishop’s Interview on Page 14). This process begins at the parish level and will then move to the diocesan level in the coming months.
Almost two-thirds of the Catholic youth in the U.S. are Hispanic, and the majority of them (93 percent) were born here, according to the National Catholic Network de Pastoral Juvenil Hispana (La RED). In the Diocese of Austin, 80 percent of our Catholic youth are Hispanic/Latino. 
However, the numbers do not tell the whole story. The church is not about statistics, it is about drawing hearts and souls to Christ. Ironically, while Latin youth represent 60 percent of all Catholic youth, they are also the group of people most rapidly ceasing to identify themselves with the Catholic faith. The majority of them receive sacraments of baptism and confirmation, but many don’t come back to Mass after receiving the sacraments. Why not? Maybe it is because they have never had a real encounter with God.
I am not an expert, but as I have worked for the church, I have come to realize that this trend is the result of a variety of factors. One, there is a lack of resources dedicated to the formation of these young people. Two, there is a lack of trained ministry leaders for this population. Three, there is a lack of understanding of the importance of Pastoral Juvenil.
In the Diocese of Austin, we are among the 20 percent of dioceses in the U.S. with an office devoted to Pastoral Juvenil. This low number is why Pastoral Juvenil has earned the name “Pastoral Fantasma” or “Ghost Ministry.” We know it exists, and we know it is for the youth, but we do not know much more. I think the V Encuentro parish process gives us all the opportunity to find out more.
Additionally, there are some misconceptions about Pastoral Juvenil. This ministry is for all Latino youth, no matter where they were born and no matter what language they speak. Regardless of their country of origin or their language of choice, they deserve our attention and we must reach out to them and evangelize them. All Catholic youth are members of the church right now, and we are called to form them so that they want to be part of the church in the future. 
The V Encuentro calls all of us to more than numbers. It calls us to have an encounter - to know every young person by name, to understand their challenges and to walk with them in a way that leads them to a personal encounter with God. The parish Encuentro process is a way to get to know the young people of the church, to interact with them, to discover why they are leaving and then do what we can to retain them and get them back.
I believe it is essential for Latino youth to take an active role in the V Encuentro process since their participation will not only benefit the youth themselves, but also the entire church. May we welcome them in our parishes, and support them with love and encouragement.