Hispanic ministry leaders find hope, challenges in implementing new U.S. bishops’ pastoral plan

November 14, 2023

Daniel Cardinal DiNardo delivers the homily during the opening Mass on Oct. 10 for the National Catholic Association of Diocesan Directors for Hispanic Ministry’s annual conference in Houston. More than 250 diocesan and Hispanic ministry directors gathered for the annual event, which was last held in Houston 30 years ago. (Photo by James Ramos/Herald)

HOUSTON — Thirty years ago, a group of Hispanic ministry leaders from around the U.S. gathered in Houston to discuss plans and initiatives to minister to the Hispanic and Latino Catholics living in the U.S.

On Oct. 10 to 13, the National Catholic Association of Diocesan Directors for Hispanic Ministry’s (NCADDHM) annual conference returned to Houston, gathering 250 Hispanic ministry leaders from 109 dioceses in the U.S.

The national conference — which took place at the tail end of this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month, observed from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 — also gathered some six bishops, several of who lead U.S. bishops’ committees on Hispanic ministry and cultural diversity in the Church.

The NCADDHM conference focused on the new “National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry,” a new document approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in June that was developed through a process of consultation, discernment and leadership over multiple years.

The plan is a response to the Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry (V Encuentro) process to help Hispanic laypeople and Church leaders meet the needs of the fastest-growing demographic of the Catholic Church in the U.S.

At the Houston conference, Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, assistant director of USCCB’s Subcommittee for Hispanic Affairs and national coordinator for the V Encuentro, said the pastoral plan was a direct reflection and response to the “priorities, needs and aspirations” of Hispanic and Latino Catholics and has “the potential to transform the Church in the U.S.”

The Encuentro was a multi-year series of diocesan, regional and national meetings involving tens of thousands of Hispanic and Latino leaders that culminated with a national gathering in Grapevine, Texas, in 2018 and identified key pastoral priorities for Latino Catholics.

Among the 10 priorities highlighted in the pastoral plan were the engagement of youth and young adults, vocations, faith formation, accompaniment of families, ministry to the marginalized, and immigration and policy advocacy.

During the conference, leaders heard from speakers, bishops and theologians who talked about the implications of the pastoral plan. In addition to daily Mass and presentations, participants broke into small groups at different times to share how the new plan would look like in their ministries and their regions.

For Olga Lucía Villar, executive director of the Miami-based Southeast Pastoral Institute — which coordinates and assists Hispanic ministries in 30 dioceses of the Southeastern U.S. — and one of many speakers at the conference, the new pastoral plan could not come soon enough.

She sees the pastoral plan as helping the Church become more sensitive to the multicultural reality of the present Catholic Church in the U.S. “Especially at times where it is difficult, where there are more issues that might divide us racially, I think that the plan is placing us at a good point to continue healing the processes of reconciliation and focus on belonging and being sent off by Christ,” she told OSV News.

Villar saw a parallel between the Encuentro process and the more recent synod effort led by Pope Francis and said that “the plan walks us toward being a synodal Church.”

Since the first Encuentro was held in 1972, Villar said, the efforts have been bringing the Church together to reflect, dialogue and look together for ways to move forward as Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. That continues to be the case, although the demographic landscape has changed.

Since 1972, the number of Hispanics in the U.S. has increased sevenfold, from about 9 million to 63.7 million, according to 2022 U.S. census data. And even though there have been reports of an increase in disaffiliation, recent demographic data showed that about 31 million Hispanics and Latinos identify as Catholic.

“We are talking more as we belong to this Church. We’re not going anywhere. It’s our Church, too, and we want to be part of it,” Villar said. “And I think that the whole synod process, and the way that Pope Francis encourages (us) to move forward in that direction, we’ve been doing it in small steps throughout these 51 years.”

Lázaro Contreras, director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry of the Archdiocese, said he looks forward to seeing how each parish and Catholic community in the region will uniquely implement the pastoral plan.

“With this pastoral plan, I hope that people are motivated and encouraged to make it their own,” he said. “Hispanic ministry is a work that we don’t do alone. It’s a work that we all do as one church. That is why these kinds of gatherings are a constant reminder that, in that work of pastoral ministry of accompaniment to Hispanic Catholics, is done by the whole Church.”

Now that the pastoral plan is out in the hands of ministry leaders, Aguilera-Titus said that the plan emphasizes the importance of diversity and intercultural engagement and includes practical guidelines and resources for creating a sense of unity and belonging. He noted how a parish can thrive when it embraces diverse cultures present in a congregation through its shared Catholic faith.

“When they develop relationships with one another across cultures, they begin to develop a new sense of identity as a diverse Catholic community,” Aguilera-Titus said. “The plan has a language that is inclusive, engaging and is meant for not only Hispanic/Latino Catholics, but for the entire Church. We hope that it will bring new ways to bring the Gospel to life and create a more synodal and diverse Church.”