Archbishop Alexander Sample, assisted by Deacons Félix García and Chuck Amsberry, prays during the start of Mass June 22 at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Southwest Portland. The Mass began a three-day regional gathering of V Encuentro and brought together delegates from five states. (Francisco Lara/Catholic Sentinel)
Archbishop Alexander Sample, assisted by Deacons Félix García and Chuck Amsberry, prays during the start of Mass June 22 at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Southwest Portland. The Mass began a three-day regional gathering of V Encuentro and brought together delegates from five states. (Francisco Lara/Catholic Sentinel)

In an unremarkable-looking conference room at a hotel in downtown Portland — a city known for its dearth of traditional religious practice — a gathering of Catholics from five states did the remarkable: Through discussion and prayer, and even a conga line, they united hard work and joy-infused faith to produce concrete ideas that will serve the spiritual life of Hispanics in the United States for years to come.

The June 22-24 gathering, hosted by the Portland Archdiocese, was a regional meeting of V Encuentro, a two-year process to discern the pastoral practices and priorities of Hispanic Catholics. It will culminate with a national event in Grapevine, Texas, Sept. 20-23. The nearly 180 delegates hailing from 11 archdioceses and dioceses came to share ideas that emerged foremost from their love of God.

“In order to be missionary disciples, we need to know Christ, know his love, know him as a real friend; that must be a core of our identity,” said delegate Jackie Nguyen, who works in Hispanic ministry at St. Henry Parish in Gresham.

Once filled with love for our Creator, “we will be inspired to share our love and knowledge of God with anyone and everyone who wants to listen,” Archbishop Alexander Sample said in Spanish during his homily in the opening Mass. The liturgy was held at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Southwest Portland, where Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of the Seattle Archdiocese, celebrated the closing Mass. Fellow Seattle Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg also attended the regional gathering.

Archbishop Sample spent a good portion of the weekend simply being present and sharing fellowship.

“The main reason I’m here is to listen,” he told the Catholic Sentinel. “I feel a great love for the Hispanic community — an incredibly important and vibrant part of our local church.”

Approximately 43 percent of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Portland are Hispanic; more than 45 percent are Hispanic within Region 12, which includes Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.

The meeting, conducted predominately in Spanish, covered seven main areas: evangelization and mission outreach, faith formation and catechesis, intercultural competencies, leadership development and ministry formation, Hispanic youth and young adult ministry, liturgy and spirituality, and vocations. Care for the environment also was addressed.

“We have a tremendous amount of work to do,” said Archbishop Sample in impromptu remarks to delegates. “But it’s going to take us together doing this — not just the bishops, not just the priests, not just the sisters. I would say the greater responsibility in our time lays with our laity, who touch the lives of so many.”

In response to the growing number of Hispanics in the U.S. church, the U.S. bishops called for V Encuentro, or Fifth Encounter, the national gathering of U.S. Hispanic leaders and minsters set for this fall. The first Encuentro was held in 1972, with the most recent in 2002. A related youth meeting was held in 2006.

The most recent Encuentro began at the parish level, with Hispanics and others discussing pastoral needs and priorities. The fruits of these discussions then were brought to diocesan-level gatherings across the United States — the Portland Archdiocese held its in January — where the priorities were further refined. At regional gatherings, delegates again prioritized and refined the issues, looking at both challenges and solutions particular to this geographic area.

“We had a working document and used that to meditate upon,” said Pedro Rubalcava, a composer and manager at Portland-based Oregon Catholic Press. He is co-chairman of the national liturgy team for V Encuentro and was busy providing English translations for the regional meeting, as well as music.

A list of recommendations from the weekend will be sent to the national V Encuentro to be presented in Texas.

“This is a process, this is not a program,” Bishop Elizondo said in Spanish during an opening talk. “This is a process … to discover with new ardor new forms of service and love — new ways to forgive and of course new ways to express ourselves spiritually and serve our community and the church in Portland, in Seattle, wherever we are, wherever God takes us.”

Following the bishop’s reflection, delegates broke into groups of approximately 10 people to address the seven priorities that emerged from the diocesan meetings. In between sessions musicians provided spirit-stirring music, which prompted dancing, clapping and the conga line.

After break-out sessions, representatives from different groups shared key findings with the entire gathering.

In discussions about children’s faith formation, delegates stressed the importance of the ongoing formation of parents. Some of the challenges to formation include divorce, the loss of authority figures in families and excessive technology use.

Peer-to-peer evangelization was offered as one of the most effective ways to reach young people. And delegates suggested teaching youths theology of the body to help them see the beauty and sacredness of their physical selves.  

Groups also discussed ways to unite Catholics across cultures — a recurring and central theme for the region. There is a need for bilingual individuals in parishes who can serve as bridgebuilders, a role young people often can step into if given the chance, said delegates.

Parish diversity clubs were presented as one way to unify. The clubs could share different cultural histories as well as diverse devotions.  

Although immigration-related concerns generally are not as acute as in other parts of the country, “there is still fear here, still uncertainty” in the region, said Deacon Félix García, coordinator of Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of Portland. He said immigration issues were discussed within other regional topics. “We trust in God, so within that fear the trust is comforting,” he said.

Deacon García was one of the organizers of the regional meeting and will join Archbishop Sample and 17 other delegates from western Oregon at the national Encuentro.

Between sessions, Salvador Carranza, from the Diocese of Boise, Idaho, said that in ministering to Hispanics and to all the faithful “it is important, as Pope Francis says, to encounter people wherever they are.”

“It comes down to not simply educating people but meeting them where they are and journeying forward with them,” said Carranza.

There are benefits beyond the final priorities of the Encuentro process, said Jesús Huerta, who works for Catholic Relief Service and is the co-chairman of the regional V Encuentro communications team. “People are hungry to network, to feel connected,” he said.

Alma Islas, a member of St. Anthony Parish in Tigard, said there are not many venues like Encuentro, “a process where Catholic Hispanics are listened to, others hear their voices, and then the process guides us into action.”

The regional V Encuentro allowed attendees “to experience the gift of the universal church,” said Deacon García. “They see that we are not alone in this process and that when we walk together it makes us better.”

Deacon García added that last weekend’s gathering also was a sign of how dedicated people are to nourishing the spiritual life of Hispanic Catholics in the United States. “We don’t always see the foundational work but coming and seeing this shows how hard we are working. I’m so excited for this process.”

“I hope you are emboldened by this experience,” Archbishop Sample told the delegates before he departed. “I hope you are excited, I hope you are energized by the Holy Spirit.”