Nearly two dozen representatives from the Archdiocese of Washington will join with more than 3,000 Hispanic Catholic leaders from across the country for a Sept. 20-23 meeting in Texas to address how the Church can better serve Hispanic Catholics and how it can utilize the gifts they bring to the Church.

“The Church (in the United States) is majority Hispanic in make-up, and we need to figure out what this means for the future, our leadership and the broader identity of the Church,” said Javier Bustamante, the executive director of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach.

The meeting in Grapevine, Texas – titled V Encuentro – culminates a several-year nationwide effort to discern the needs of Hispanic and Latino Catholics, address how to best minister to them and how to better foster their engagement with the Church. The first four Encuentros were held in 1972, 1977, 1985 and 2000.

“V Encuentro is bringing together leaders from the Church all over the nation to unite us as one,” said Carolina Turcios-Sorto, a parishioner of St. Catherine Labouré Parish in Wheaton and one of 21 archdiocesan representatives to the national event. “V Encuentro will ensure Hispanic Catholics all over the nation that the Church listens to the Hispanic community and our needs.”

She said the gathering will focus on “information about parishioners, their needs, and their worries to be able to help them.”

The national gathering – including representatives from all states – “makes a statement. We are everywhere in every part of the country,” Bustamante said.

In the Archdiocese of Washington, there was a three-step process leading up to the meeting in Grapevine: parish level consultations, diocesan level discussions, and then a regional gathering where diocesan-level ideas were shared and discussed.

The archdiocese’s more than 620,000 Catholics include 230,000 Hispanic Catholics, and almost 40 of its 139 parishes offer Masses in Spanish. The diocesan Encuentro consultative effort drew the participation of 30 parishes and gained the insights of 6,000 people in church communities, neighborhoods, places of work and other public spaces.

“The intention is to bring all the voices we have listened to at the local level and hear them on a national level, to empower Latinos to take ownership of the Church so they feel not just accommodated by the Church, but protagonists in the Church,” Bustamante said.

Among the Archdiocese of Washington representatives to V Encuentro is Deacon Rafael Pagán , also of St. Catherine Labouré Parish. He said that the gathering of Hispanic Catholics and those who minister to them “will be an opportunity to share what is working and what is not.”

“I am confident that this Encuentro will give our Church leaders the tools to help us serve these member of our parish communities better, but more importantly discover ways to help these members feel at home and not as guest in our parishes,” he said.

A recent Pew Research Center poll that found that 55 percent of Hispanics in the United States identified themselves as Catholic in 2013, down from 67 percent in 2010. That poll also found that about 16 percent of Hispanics who left the Church joined an Evangelical church, another six percent joined other Protestant denominations and about 18 percent affiliated with no church or religion.

There is an irony in the results. Even as the number of Hispanics and Latinos leaving the Church is increasing, they constitute the fastest growing population of Catholics in the United States. About 60 percent of U.S. Catholics age 18 or younger are Hispanic, according to research from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Bustamante noted that while Hispanics comprise the majority of Catholics in the United States, “that does not make the Church (in the United States) Latin American. There’s a Latin American flavor to the Church, but we are pretty rooted in the culture of the United States.”

“If one looks at the number of Catholic youth and young adults in the United States one finds a majority are of Hispanic/ Latino heritage,” Deacon Pagán said. “Therefore it is important to nurture future leaders and servants of our Church from among them.”

He said that V Encuentro “is not just about Spanish Masses and religious education, most of the youth and young adults are very comfortable with the English language.” He added that the gathering “is a process whereby the Church is learning to better minister to those in our parish communities who come from Spanish-speaking cultures and how they can be better incorporated into our parish life to better serve our parishes and our Church.”

Bustamante noted that for some delegates attending the V Encuentro “is a sacrifice they make. They are away from their families, using vacation days and missing work to attend. We are invested in Encuentro because of our children. We want them to inherit and embrace the faith which is so entwined with the Hispanic culture. That is critical to us.”

Deacon Pagán called V Encuentro “a win for our Church and for Hispanic Catholics in the United States” because “I believe the evangelizing spirit of the Hispanic culture will help our Church to grow stronger.”

“The Hispanic faith experience – how we express and live our faith for example – has anecdotes to some of the problems we face in the broader culture in the United States,” Bustamante said. “Devotion and sacrifice are gifts we give to the whole Church. If the Church embraces – not just accommodates – the gift of the Hispanic presence, that can have a transformative effect on our broader culture.”

After Encuentro V, Bustamante said, “the national team will power through the results, reflect on the conversations we had and develop guidelines and pastoral strategies that can be used in dioceses.”