ROME— Mexico-born Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio, Texas, was in Rome this week to present to Pope Francis and various Vatican offices plans for the V Encuentro, a two-year process of Hispanic/Latino missionary activity, consultation, leadership development and pastoral discernment in parishes, dioceses and episcopal regions.
He was one of four U.S. bishops, together with a group of lay people, who were in Rome these days taking a pilgrimage to bring the symbol of the Encuentro, a wooden cross, to Rome.
Crux spoke with him on Sept. 27 about the project, the impact of Francis’s visit to the US-Mexico border, as well as the November presidential elections and their aftermath.
What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
Crux: What is the Encuentro for Hispanic ministry in the US Chruch?
García-Siller: [It’s a process through which we’ll determine] how we are going to face the challenges and opportunities to develop pastorally our ministry to Hispanic Catholics. And with the hope that this process, which is not an event or a one weekend thing, but a few years, will produce missionary disciples in the Catholic Church in the US. At the end of it, we hope to have at least 20,000 new leaders, as fruits of the process.
This Encuentro that is building up from the bottom up, from the grassroots, is to foster new venues of bringing people to the Lord, to their communities. We already see the fruits. We’re already on the way of the Encuentro, it’s been two years of preparation.
But in January, we will begin the work from the parish level, with a process of five different sessions, knowing that each one of them has to lead the faithful to the mission, then we celebrate. Then we will do five sessions at a diocesan level, with each step leading people to the mission, and a diocesan celebration.
Then we go to the 14 regions of the US bishop’s conference, where the teams are already at work and they will lead the process towards mission and celebrate. And finally, the walk towards the national Encuentro, which will be in Fort Worth Texas, with about 3,000 delegates from all the dioceses of the United States.
Then, a national celebration, and a two-year follow-up process, until whatever happened during that process is in place in order to lead, to guide our plans as bishops in the United States. [The process] will actually modify structure. That’s the hardest thing. You can have programs and initiatives, but they don’t modify structures.
That’s why we have in the Church structures that were very good at one time and have since become useless, but they stay there. And we don’t know what to do [with them] and we become maintenance people.
The Encuentro is happening in every diocese in the United States, not only in those with a big Hispanic presence?
Correct. This initiative, or moment of the Spirit, has been embraced by all the bishops in the United States. Not all the bishops are in the same place, but our hope is that in the walking, we’ll all end up walking together.
You had an interview with Archbishop Jose Gomez, who’s in a very Hispanic church, as is mine, or Florida and Chicago. It used to be that only those four or five places were considered to have a Latino presence in the United States, but now Hispanics are in all the states, including Alaska.
50 percent of millennial Catholics in the United States are Hispanics …
That’s correct. And if you go to eighteen or younger, it’s 60 percent. They don’t necessarily speak Spanish, because they’re second or third generation, but they have the flavor, the roots, the culture, the faith, the family.
The other piece is not only how we’ll tap into the Latino population to help them realize who they are and what they’re called to, how they can be better people and better Christians, but also help them realize how they can contribute to the rest of the US Church, how to be involved in politics, in science, in professional work, volunteer work.
Another aspect in being missionary disciples is reaching out to the peripheries. Not just where the poor are, or where there is violence. There are also intellectual peripheries, in our own families, in our pews. We sometimes don’t reach out to universities or particular groups. This is the opportunity to do this. Being missionaries is not the end of the Encuentro, but part of the process.
What can the Hispanic community add to the Church in the United States?
In the context of the US, there’s a contrast of cultures. The foundational culture of the north was Anglo-Saxon, although from the very beginning there were Hispanics and French too. Hispanics brought a different flavor, very family oriented, very religious. They also have a natural hospitality. There’s also the economic contribution, [through] labor. And the Hispanic culture is tolerating and we endure, we never give up.
It’s been a year since Pope Francis visited the United States. But you in Texas had him close when he visited Ciudad Juarez at the end of his trip to Mexico in February. What would you say was the impact of that visit?
It was a big grace. Because we had been asking the pope in different ways to come to the border. He wanted to come in September, we invited him. But Pope Francis’s strategy, when he went to New York, Washington and Philadelphia, was to talk to the leadership of the United States. And a stop in the border then, would have been a distraction.
And then in his visit to Mexico, he took the way of the migrants, who don’t go from North to South, but from South to North. And he very meaningfully connected the two cultures.
The impact that it gave to the people on the side of the United States was that with all the push that was already there about building walls, separating people, profiling people, we were invited to unity, relationship, communities.
It’s a reminder that we’re brothers and sisters.
Did you get to see Pope Francis while you were here?
Yes. Last night I was trying to think how many times, and I think it was nine, because we were staying in Santa Marta [the hotel within Vatican grounds where Francis lives]. But there were some meaningful times in the name of the delegation. One was when I was able to talk to him about the V Encuentro.
He understands the term, there’s no need for us to explain it to him. But I told him about it being in the US, and what was going to happen. And he said “Adelante, Adelante, Adelante,” [“Go ahead!”], and he did so with joy. It was a beautiful moment, I knew we were in communion, felt like he understands me, us.
Another night, a woman from the delegation and I were dinning in Santa Marta, and we were the only ones beyond four priests at another table. Suddenly the pope enters with another priest, he waved at us and blessed us. We could see him all the time, as he was serving the wine. He was a host welcoming a friend, which we later found out was a friend from Argentina.
An archbishop who was providential in the preparation for our trip told us as we were coming out to wait for the pope, and to bring the Cross, symbol of the Encuentro closer to the door. So when the pope was coming out, I approached him and said: “Your Holiness, could you bless the cross of the V Encuentro?” And he blessed it, and then touched it, with a lot of reverence and piety.
And then, on the following day, we gave him a replica of the cross, symbol of the Encuentro. And he said: “Oh, the cross from last night!” And when I told him it was for him, he said: “I don’t need another cross, I have enough crosses, I need Resurrection!” He pulled it up from the briefcase where we had it and kissed it.
One last question, which has become mandatory: What are American Catholics to do this November?
Take pain pills and sleeping pills! In all seriousness, it’s an important question, and we need to face it. This campaign has played a tremendous role in the lives of the people in the United States, in an almost uncomfortable way. Usually we’re excited about the elections, and [when they’re done] we move forward.
This time it’s uncomfortable, and not only for Catholics. It’s very difficult for most of the people to make up their minds as individuals when voting.
We need to live and face the elections from the perspective of faith and the values that we hold, as an opportunity for us to exercise our freedom, but above all our faith.
[The campaign has] led us and a lot of people outside the US into a kind of a war: division, anger, violence, profiling. For us there’s an opportunity, with the Encuentro being one of many ways, to be people who contribute with peace, hope, decency, bringing communion and standing for the values that we have received as Americans. The very beautiful values that shaped the United States, and also the ones we have as part of our Catholic tradition.
Regardless of who wins, there’s going to be a lot of work needed to heal those divisions…
Yes. And hard work. Always in the aftermath of a campaign there’s some work that needs to be done, but this time it’ll have to be some fairly intentional, very focused work. Because we’re divided inside of us. When I hear some of the comments from our politicians… [I] start experiencing anxiety, anger … families are divided because of the elections.
It’s almost as if you were at war with yourselves …
Right. With ourselves, within our families, as a nation. And this shows how decadent our society in the United States is. We have very good, foundational values, but after the sifting and moving, we have now clear signs of decadence.
All the centers of this campaign are based on the economy. And the economy won’t bring about compassion [or] decency. It can help, but it’s become the center. The idea of becoming the firsts again, one nation. But there are good people all around the world, good nations around the world, and violence is all around the world.
[We need to define] what will be our perspective, our contribution as Christians, our real work as followers of Jesus Christ in the mission? Months ago I thought, “It’s the right time for the Encuentro. It’s prophetic.”