The Encuentro process of discerning how the Catholic Church can better respond to the needs of Hispanics and invite them to live and share their faith “is just the beginning,” Cardinal Wuerl said at the Archdiocese of Washington’s Oct. 21 celebration of V Encuentro.

“What we are doing is a response to what Pope Francis is asking us to do and to be… we’re asked to be missionary disciples who go out,” the cardinal said at the gathering, which drew 650 people to Catholic University’s DuFour Center.

The gathering’s theme, like that of the fifth nationwide Encuentro effort underway, was “Missionary Disciples: Witnesses of God’s Love.” The day culminated in a Mass celebrated by Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville and concelebrated by about 20 local priests.

The cardinal noted that words often used by Pope Francis – “go out, encounter, engage and accompany” – should guide the Church in its outreach, and guide Hispanic Catholics as they renew their faith and become witnesses to Christ’s love in their everyday lives.

“At the heart of discipleship…is the encounter with Christ. That’ the heart of who we are as Church, coming to know who Jesus is, and helping others encounter him,” the cardinal said, adding that might mean inviting and welcoming others who’ve drifted away from the Church, and letting then know “we want you to be part of us. You’re part of our family.”

The V Encuentro process in the archdiocese this year included consultations at 28 parishes involving approximately 6,000 Hispanics in those parishes and by going out to their communities to get input from Latinos not currently coming to those churches.

In August, 300 delegates from the archdiocese met to review the findings, which were presented to Cardinal Wuerl at the Oct. 21 gathering. The archdiocesan Encuentro report will serve as a launching pad to discern best practices and new strategies to serve Hispanic Catholics and engage them in fuller participation in the Church and encourage them to play a leading role in its evangelization efforts. Next year, archdiocesan representatives will participate in a regional gathering and then join the national Encuentro in September 2018 in Grapevine, Texas.

Cardinal Wuerl was welcomed to the V Encuentro celebration by Javier Bustamante, the executive director of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach who also chaired the archdiocese’s V Encuentro team.

“We left our parishes and went out to the margins,” said Bustamante, who noted that during the consultation process, volunteers also sought the input and insights of people at their homes, workplaces and neighborhoods.

Bustamante read the text of the preamble to the archdiocese’s V Encuentro report, which he had earlier noted served as the mission statement of the local effort, from consultation to discernment to implementation.

That commitment, he said, involved “the intentional and active accompaniment of families,” an effort to “listen and respond to the needs of Hispanic/Latino youth and young adults,” fostering an “active civic participation that raises its voice on behalf of the poor and marginalized” in the immigrant community, and “the ongoing formation of a community of missionary disciples, filled with the Joy of the Gospel, constantly going out to share God’s great love.”

The process, added Bustamante, could help the Hispanic Catholic community come of age, from being accommodated and integrated to ultimately being protagonists in the local Church.

The voices heard and ideas shared in the Encuentro process offer “hope for our Church, and beyond hope, there is a beautiful future, because the faith is alive in the Hispanic community,” Bustamante said.

The archdiocesan Encuentro report presented challenges that came forward in the consultation process, including from some Hispanics who said they did not feel welcomed by the Catholic Church and wanted the Church to be more outspoken it its support of immigrants at a time when many are fearful for their future.

Other Hispanic Catholics expressed appreciation for parishes’ outreach to them and the Church’s social services, but some requested more nearby parishes offer Masses in Spanish and urged efforts to promote lay involvement and leadership in their community and increase access to Catholic schools for their children. Participants in the consultation said Hispanics’ devotion to family, faith and community were gifts that they could offer to society and the Church.

The Archdiocese of Washington’s more than 620,000 Catholics include 230,000 Hispanic Catholics, and almost 40 of the archdiocese’s 139 parishes offer Masses in Spanish.

During his address, Cardinal Wuerl urged people to support a permanent legislative solution for the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program that has allowed “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, to go to school and work in this country.

“They need us and our voices,” the cardinal said.

During the gathering, two “Dreamers” shared their stories, and asked people to urge legislators to ensure the future of the DACA program. Brenda Medrano-Frias, who is now 19, was born in Bolivia and came to the United States when she was 3. As a young girl, she found out that she was not a U.S. citizen, and she felt frightened when she started school and fell behind as she struggled to learn English, later battling feelings of depression and anxiety.

When the DACA program was instituted, “it was as if a whole new door had opened up,” she said. “So many years I felt directionless and alone, and I finally had hope.”

Later in an interview with the Catholic Standard, Medrano-Frias, a student at Northern Virginia Community College, said she hopes to transfer to Georgetown University and someday become an immigration lawyer, to help people facing challenges like she has faced.

The member of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Fredericksburg, Virginia, said her Catholic faith gives her strength and hope for the future. “Every day, I’d say, ‘God, I’m in your hands. My future is in your hands,’ and God was with me every step of the way.”

That point was echoed by the other “Dreamer” who addressed the gathering, Daniela Belmonte, 23, a member of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Gaithersburg, who expressed gratitude for the support that she and her family have received from her parish, and she told the Catholic Standard she appreciated how Cardinal Wuerl has spoken out on behalf of the young people helped by the DACA program.

“I’m so glad he’s using his influence to help us pursue our dreams,” she said.

The native of Mexico was almost 12 when she came to the United States. After her father died of a heart attack, she worked at a restaurant and at nights in a factory to help support her mother and younger brother. The DACA program enabled her and her brother to attend college. Belmonte hopes to attend medical school some day, and now works in an after-school program for Montgomery County.

“I am hopeful” of a legislative solution for the DACA program, she said, encouraging people to contact their legislators. “They really need to hear from the community.”

The speakers at the V Encuentro gathering included Martha Fernández-Sardina, the archdiocese’s former director of evangelization, who encouraged participants to encounter Jesus in the Church and its sacraments and then share the joy of the Gospel. “We are called to be evangelizers… missionary disciples who, having experienced the love of God, go out and communicate that love to others,” she said.

Fernández-Sardina added, “God comes to encounter us in our brothers and sisters, especially the poorest and neediest.” She noted that, “Those who encounter Jesus are liberated from sin, sadness and isolation,” and then are free “to receive joy and give joy, to receive love and give love.”

That message of becoming missionary disciples and sharing the love of Christ with others was also emphasized by speakers Natalia Jiménez and Jorge Rojas, spouses and professional psychologists.

Another speaker, Luis Cardona – the administrator of Montgomery County’s Positive Youth Development program – spoke about the gift of immigrant families. Cardona, who attends St. Catherine Laboure Parish in Wheaton with his family, shared his story of surviving gang violence as a young man, and then devoting his life to helping youth. Afterward, he told the Catholic Standard that he is inspired by the enduring faith that he witnesses in immigrant families. “The most important lesson I get from them (is), they always help me renew my faith,” he said.