“Encuentro 2000” — a celebration of diversity



LOS ANGELES — “Encuentro 2000: Many Faces in God’s House,” held here July 6-9, had a definite Palmetto State flavor. With representation of 64 delegates from 26 parishes, the Diocese of Charleston was among the leading dioceses in number of participants at the City of Angels event.

“Encuentro 2000,” the only national jubilee year celebration for the church in the United States, featured activities including prayer, cultural celebrations to highlight participants’ origins, ethnic music, dance and food festivals, lectures by church figures and small-group discussions on issues facing today’s church.

The large South Carolina contingent, which included Bishop Robert J. Baker, seven priests and five women religious, could perhaps be attributed to the series of statewide listening sessions conducted this past spring by Mercy Sister Lupe Stump, director of Hispanic Ministry.

These meetings were used to prepare for the national gathering. According to Sister Lupe, the delegates now plan to utilize information from the Los Angeles meeting in the diocese and parish level. (More on these meetings will appear in future editions of The Miscellany.) That task will be extensive, as diocesan representatives at the California gathering came from Conway to Hilton Head and Aiken to Greenville. All ages were featured as well, including a group of four teen-agers from St. Mary Magdalene in Simpsonville.

Questions asked at both the diocesan and national meetings focused on the spirit of hospitality:

 When have you felt welcomed in your faith community?

 What are some difficulties that people of different cultural, ethnic or linguistic backgrounds might experience in your faith community?

 How can your faith community become a more welcoming place?

Encuentro 2000 was never envisioned as an end in itself, but a beginning and as an “opportunity to look honestly at where we are today and set a direction for the future,” said Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles at the event’s final Mass July 9.

The challenge for parishes and dioceses is to “welcome the gifts and talents, the wisdom and experiences, the joys and sufferings of our people,” he said.

“We must cultivate not just tolerance, but genuine respect, for our sisters and brothers from other racial and ethnic communities,” the cardinal added.

“We must seek to build a relational culture in our parishes where recognition and respect are enfleshed in a deeper sense of community,” said Cardinal Mahony.

At an opening-day press conference, Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala of Los Angeles, chairman of the Eucuentro organizing committee, told journalists that the multilingual approach produces tensions.

“Bi- and trilingual Masses take energy. But first we have to share our stories. We have to share our individual stories and our corporate histories,” he said.

Encuentro is a Hispanic word for encounter or gathering. “Encuentro 2000” was primarily organized by the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs of the U.S. bishops.

The president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, asked, “What must we do to avoid creating religious communities where Africans, African-Americans, Asian and Pacific islanders, Caucasians and Hispanics pray separately?”

He then asked how Catholics from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds can unite to combat mercy killing, abortion, capital punishment, hunger, poor education and inadequate health care.

Bishops Fiorenza and Zavala both said that multicultural liturgies are a way of bridging the ethnic gaps at the parish level.

The opening service on July 6 was called a gathering rite and featured worship aspects of different cultures to demonstrate that the church’s diversity finds a common thread in the Catholic faith.

Rhythms of a mariachi band with violins and singing in Spanish escorted the delegates into the large hall as they settled into their seats.

The concluding Mass on July 8 also was sprinkled with liturgical ceremonies indigenous to groups in the church in the United States.

The choice of Los Angeles  with its diversified population  as the venue was in keeping with the multicultual theme. About half of the population of greater Los Angeles is white and it has large Hispanic, African-American and Asian communities marked by distinctive Japanese, Chinese, and Korean neighborhoods.

Encuentro participants listed more than 150 countries of family origin. About 5,000 representatives from 150 U.S. dioceses were present in the Los Angeles Convention Center for the four-day gathering. Among the delegates were 82 bishops and several from Latin America.

Many breakout sessions, or workshops, had participants wrestling with problems and tensions that have arisen at the parish and diocesan levels because of immigration. These include language barriers, unique forms of liturgical expression, different traditions and customs, and lack of knowledge about each other.

One workshop featured Bishop Baker, along with Co-adjutor Bishop Thomas Olmstead from the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., speaking on “Call to Communion.”

In his talk, Bishop Baker focused on symbols and how important they are. “The symbols and language we use are so critical. We need to touch those symbols and examine them to see who we are as Catholics and Christians.”

The bishop cited the example of water as the Jewish symbol of regeneration. “Our baptism unites us with Christ, the church, and one another,” he said.

Bishop Baker asked the people to look how symbols relate to reality as well as the context in which they use symbols. “Symbols touch realities, meaning, and situations. Be a symbol conscious people. Only choose symbols which unite and bring together. The devil tries to pull apart unity. Never choose a symbol which alienates us from one another.”

Representatives from different groups that have suffered discrimination told memories of how they had been humiliated and uplifted by the Catholic Church and its members in a July 7 reconciliation ceremony.

As each came down the aisle to deposit a candle after giving testimony, an African-American singer sang a Negro spiritual: “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”

Bishop Donald E. Pelotte of Gallup, N.M., told of growing up with a Native American father. Now, the bishop said, he is seeking reconciliation with Native Americans as a representative of the church in a diocese with a majority indigenous population. Reconciliation efforts are working “slowly, but surely” and require church involvement in justice issues such as land and water rights, use of sacred land and helping eliminate drug and alcohol abuse, he said.

Oblate of Providence Sister Mary Paul Lee, an African-American, said her grandfather was a slave owned by the Jesuits in Washington.

Her personal experiences included having to leave her native Philadelphia to fulfill her vocation because no female religious order in the archdiocese would accept African-Americans.

“When I went to the Diocese of Charleston, I had to be paid less than a white religious teaching in the schools there. Many African-Americans were skipped at the Communion rail, relegated to the last pew in church, denied a Catholic education, were barred from seminaries, and denied service in Catholic hospitals,” she said. “In fact, one of our sisters was critically ill in Charleston and was refused treatment in the Catholic hospital there. Another sister who was a novice in my group was admitted to a Catholic hospital in Baltimore and placed in a large cupboard instead of a room.”

On the positive side, said Sister Lee, there are now African-American bishops and numerous organizations for African-American Catholics.

K. LaVerne Redden, president of the National Council of Catholic Women and an African-American, described discrimination against women.

“I grieve when women tell me that they are not permitted by pastors to serve in ministries in the church which are open to them,” she said.

As signs of hope, Redden cited Pope John Paul II’s criticisms of sexism in statements by bishops urging incorporation of women’s gifts into the church.

Union organizer Marciela Frutos told of entering the United States illegally from Mexico 21 years ago and working hard as a seamstress to save money to bring across the two daughters she left behind.

She also recounted how parish priests helped her organize food service workers threatened with job loss.

Mary Jane Owen, executive director of the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities, was the last speaker at the service.

Owen said she shared the frustration of parents who are told by priests before their disabled child is born not to have abortions but then find no room for the handicapped child in the parish school and in church.

At the same time, “more doors are being opened every week,” she said. “We have been recognized as a disability culture.”

On July 8, African-American Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., said that “‘Encuentro 2000’ is an expression of the greater joy that we find in embracing cultural and racial diversity as expressions of God’s design for humanity.”

And Pope John Paul II, in a message to delegates, expressed hope that the meeting would foster a greater witness to the Gospel by bringing together the “rich cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity which marks the Catholic Church in the United States.”