Encuentro 2000: Many faces in Gods house
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry was among some 50 Chicagoans who attended Encuentro 2000 in Los Angeles. Following are his comments on the event which this year was a multi-ethnic/multi-racial gathering celebrating cultural diversity in the church.
Bishop John Manz, Fathers Esequiel Sanchez and John Boivin and myself were among an estimated 50 Chicagoans who attended Encuentro 2000 in Los Angeles July 6-9. The Chicago group was composed of Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans and Caucasians representing parish leaders and faithful.
There have been three earlier Encuentros since the 1970s sponsored by the committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for Hispanic Affairs. This committee managed an ambitious fourth assembly honoring the new millennium by calling together the broader church to celebrate cultural diversity and reflect on the challenges of an increasingly poly-ethnic portrait of the Catholic Church in the United States.
Chicago, I understand, had been considered at one time, for the site of this Encuentro. Los Angeles won out, which practically guaranteed that the largest attending group would be Hispanic. But then, Encuentro (which means encounter in Spanish) belongs to the Hispanic community. And the Los Angeles site eased the strain of travel costs for many from the Western region who might not otherwise have been able to attend.
Hispanic leaders are to be applauded for their vision and generosity to include the larger church this fourth time around. This is the first such official multi-ethnic/multi-racial gathering of the Catholic Church in America that I know of. Staff of the National Council for Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference in Washington D.C. were on hand to offer assistance with welcoming and registration procedures, information and directions.
Not only were those of Mexican descent present, Latinos from all over the Americas were obvious participants, inclusive of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and even Argentinians. Filipinos, Koreans, Vietnamese and Chinese were visible as well as Haitians, Africans and African-Americans, European-Americans, Native Americans and Pacific Islandersall Catholics with 88 of their bishops.
It turned out a marvelous celebration of church amidst a sunny, dry season for California.
More than 4,000 of Gods people, children, young and old were the estimated numbers. They came with different colored eyes, different shaped noses, different hues of skin. It must have been reminiscent of what that first Pentecost in Jerusalem looked like when 3,000 were added to the Lord that day, (Acts 2:41).
And certainly, Pentecost is a blueprint for what church should be in its human portrait.
As Pentecost was hardly orchestrated by human hands, attention to detail was obvious in Los Angeles. One could sense reverence, camaraderie and genuine fellowship among the participants. There was a serious attempt to include all constituencies notwithstanding the small number of slots in an average liturgy plus maintain an uncrowded program of presenters. Stirring song led by some of the most talented Catholics around, ethnic dress, dance, prayer and praise highlighted the days.
Powerful testimonials featured Fridays reconciliation service led by Bostons Cardinal Bernard Law. A Native American bishop, an African-American religious sister, an Hispanic woman, an African-American woman and a European-American disabled woman delivered gut-wrenching personal narratives that provoked hushed silence and tears. Sympathy turned into applause for each persons obvious stamina and courage in the face of being ignored, cheated or abused by representatives of the church.
Additional sustained applause accompanied each narrators planting of a lit candle at the foot of a large cross. The service appeared designed to excite silent corporate judgment on each situation describing the ignoble side of the Christian community. But the lengthy service failed to punctuate the new sensitivity already valued by the attendees, and ended with merely the closing prayer and song. The catharsis was not adequately resolved.
For such a pivotal liturgy in the program it needed congregational articulation of forgiveness of that awkward and sinful past with statement of the desire to move forward to heal past mistakes and move forward to create a church for this new millennium more embracing of its human variety.
Breakout sessions offered candid presentations and discussion led by a variety of speakers including bishops treating the dogged realities of race relations and shared strategies for Christian witness.
Participants were heard to ask the obvious question throughout the week: What happens after this? What do we do next? It was suggested that Encuentro 2000 be repeated in the various dioceses. Whatever may be carried through in local churches probably will amount to important first and second steps. Participants went home realizing the challenges that lay ahead to buoy up a church more comfortable with its darkening complexion; realizing that what we want to do and know we ought to do often contrasts with the social patterning of American life.
We Catholics, like everyone else, live routinely in segregated pockets, portions of states, cities, communities and parishes that are totally Hispanic and/or Spanish speaking, totally white, totally black. And theres not much social mixing going on.
A diocesan event brings us together here and there with genuine efforts at inclusion realistically restricted to use of an Hispanic song here or a black face doing a reading or a Polish or Asian anthem there. Going home once church is concluded, we live and recreate and worship separately from one another. Hence, routine parish life and worship on Sunday is largely segregated.
School and workplace environments by reason of civil rights laws mandate some diversity in their areas while railroad tracks, boulevards, expressways, gated communities all interfere with what we want to do and ought to be as church. More troubling is the fact that this social patterning doesnt strike many as being strange. We think this is the way things ought to be premised on privileges of privacy, material means and choice. Economics or lack thereof, more often, dictate where we can live. Social separation of this nature does little to neutralize fear and racial profiling among different groups.
This social patterning makes preaching the Gospel a challenging prospect; makes hearing the social Gospel an even more difficult prospect. The kinds of lifestyle choices the Gospel would in spire us to in order to break down racial and ethnic barriers are among the most heroic Christian choices facing us for years and still confronting us in this new millennium.
Issues of race relations represent some of the most serious issues of American life. We understand the church should take the lead for sake of a renewed moral climate. Sober reflection reminds us that the church often reflects the society within which it exists and that the heroes and heroines in the arena of social relations are always few in number.
Encuentro 2000 was not designed to offer solutions to the enigma of race relations so much as affirm and encourage and sustain the good things that are happening multi-culturally around the country and amongst socially sensitive faithful. There is still much to be done to absolve centuries of racial and ethnic denigration and resultant stereotyping that sees majority citizens suffering fear in face of the encroachment of darker skinned peoples. There is much to be done to overturn the skepticism of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans that things can be any different than they have been for the previous thousand years.
We believe the church has a saving word for these problems. Racism manifests itself as one of the most indomitable traces of Original Sin.
But, for a first time, Encuentro 2000 was the Catholic Church in one of its finest moments; a significant historical church event starting the new millennium. Any gaps or awkwardness in the planning or execution of this grand assembly probably are reflective merely of the awkward state of race relations within society and our church at this time.