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Encuentro 2000 a time to address pressing issues


The government pleads for accurate census data. It needs to know who is in the nation so officials can address their concerns equitably.

It’s something the church struggles with too, though church census taking -- more like a look around the congregation and neighborhood -- seems less precise. Its goal is more significant, however. For the church, the issue is more than a fair use of resources. It is a matter of passing on the faith, building up community and feeding the spiritually hungry.

One way for the church to gather vital information will be through Encuentro 2000: Many Faces in God’s House. The event is slated for July 6-9, at the Los Angeles Convention Center. It will be hosted by the Hispanic community and gather Catholics of all backgrounds, including European, African, Asian, Pacific Islander and Native American. Church leaders want to know what today’s Catholics are thinking. Church groups need to hear one another’s concerns.

A look over the last half-century shows a rapidly changing church. Right now, in fact, current immigration statistics suggest that the church in the United States is growing at about 300,000 persons a year -- the equivalent of a mid-sized diocese. This has implications for parish schools, religious education and social services.

We all worship the same Jesus Christ, of course, but how we come to know Jesus is influenced by everything from styles of art and interpersonal relationships to devotions learned at home. What is vital to one group can mean little to another. For example, celebrations to honor St. Patrick, while culturally significant to the Irish, do not hold similar meaning to other Christian groups. Celebrations of Our Lady of Lavang mark the Vietnamese community but are not well-known beyond it. One hopes that those who attend Encuentro 2000 will be reinforced in the pride they feel in their own religious heritage and come to better appreciate the religious sensitivities of others.

Encuentro 2000 also will let parish leaders explore local concerns with the wider church. It’s one thing to feel tension over parish groups with differing concerns. It’s another to know that people in other parishes and other parts of the country share similar experiences. It is even better to see how some parishes have addressed the challenge of integrating separate groups into one community.

In recent days, several church leaders have asked forgiveness for the failings of individuals and groups within the church. In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony cited several offenses, including those against religious women. In Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law also asked forgiveness for his own and Boston Catholics’ offenses against a number of groups, citing, among others, slaves and women. In Rome, Pope John Paul II made headlines when he asked forgiveness for instances of anti-Semitism in the church.

At Encuentro 2000, the church in the United States will have the opportunity to look at these and other areas for which the church needs to express contrition.

Encuentro 2000, however, is more than a moment for talk and atonement. It is a Jubilee Year event that calls for celebration with prayer, music, dance and feasting. Ours is a glorious church! Many of us grew up when this country viewed itself as the melting pot where people of different nations merged into one America. Today, the Catholic church in the United States has gone beyond being a variation of this melting pot and has become a microcosm of world society, where people of many nations must learn to live as one community.

The church in the United States has the opportunity to exemplify how such a community can flourish and how differences can complement one another. It can show by example that such growth does not come easily because it involves some degree of conflict and at times the creation of new structures. It may give a message to people of Bosnia, where ethnic strife keeps people apart. It may have a message for the Middle East, where Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups struggle over land sacred to all.

Encuentro 2000 will be the time to address several questions. Among them:

  • What does the parish of 2000 look like and what will it look like in 2020 and in 2050?
  • What is happening to lay leadership almost 40 years after the Second Vatican Council’s call for a renewed understanding of lay people in the church?
  • Do the priesthood, religious orders and the diaconate mirror the ethnic makeup of the church in the United States?
  • How can parish prayer combine the structures of the universal church with the expressions of local cultures? How do differences enhance our spiritual lives?
  • How do Catholic schools and religious education programs reach out to the new immigrants pouring into the church right now?
  • How do Catholics stand together as one people in the face of abuses of charity and justice directed at some of the family -- recent immigrants and people of color -- simply because they seem “different?”
  • How does the church welcome people into its midst?

These are pressing issues now. My hope is that at Encuentro 2000 we start to address them.

Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, Texas, is president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2000