LOS ANGELES — One of the prime movers behind a massive upcoming gathering about Hispanic Catholics and the U.S. Church is warning that they are largely invisible to most American Catholics, and says that for the younger generation of Latino immigrants the question is not how they will integrate into the U.S. Church but whether they will remain Catholic at all.

According to Hosffman Ospino, one of the U.S. Church’s leading experts on Hispanic Catholics, the rest of the country must harness the potential of Hispanic Catholics or risk losing the future of the U.S. Church.

Ospino, who is Colombian born and a professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College, is deeply involved in the Fifth National Encuentro for Hispanic Ministry — a two year process designed to discern the response of the U.S. Church to the Hispanic and Latino presence.

For Ospino, this process is critical to the future of the U.S. Church, yet regrettably, many Catholics are oblivious that it is even taking place.

“The ignorance has to do with the fact that we in the Catholic Church are very segregated. We think that all matters Hispanic are only for Hispanics,” Ospino told Crux at the 2018 Los Angeles Religious Education Congress.

The Congress takes place each March in Anaheim California, and is organized by the nation’s largest diocese, which is largely Hispanic.

“If we don’t see each other as members of one Church, then all of the energy and efforts like the Fifth Encuentro are going to be missed by most people,” Ospino said.

The Encuentro process began in 1972 to raise awareness of the growing presence of Hispanic and Latino Catholics in the United States. Now, almost fifty years later, the Fifth Encuentro, which began in January 2017 and will conclude with a weekend long celebration in Dallas, Texas this coming September, is now reckoning with the fact that Hispanic and Latino Catholics will soon be the majority population of U.S. Catholics.

“There are many Catholics that I have heard, including priests and lay leaders, who ask ‘Fifth Encuentro of Hispanic Americans Ministry,’ why so much emphasis on Latinos or Hispanics. What about an Encuentro for us?,” said Ospino. “These people are missing the whole point. The only reason we are having a National Encuentro on Latinos is because we want the entire Church in the United States to grow in the awareness that the Church is becoming significantly Hispanic.”

Today, 60 percent of U.S. Catholics under the age of 18 are Hispanic. The Fifth Encuentro, according to Ospino, intends to ask how the Church is serving this population of young people and how, collectively, the Church can harness their potential to build “the Church of now and tomorrow.”

According to Ospino, the focus of this Fifth Encuentro will focus on three priorities: a stronger youth ministry for Hispanic Catholics, deeper parish faith formation and Hispanic and Latino leadership, and supporting their families.

“We need more Latinos who are priests and sisters and eventually more bishops and in leadership levels at chanceries who will be advocating from a higher level in the life of the Church for the Latino community,” said Ospino.

He told Crux that half of Latinos in the Church are under the age of thirty and that these individuals are raising kids and supporting families, yet many of them feel alone and underrepresented.

For many years now, Catholics have talked about the new evangelization — a phrase first coined by Pope John Paul II to describe a new way of proposing the faith to the modern world — yet Ospino contends that the reality of the new evangelization has long been second nature to Hispanic Catholics.

“The language of the new evangelization, before it became universal language — I mean, certainly Pope John Paul II did a lot of work in his writings on this and then the Synods that Pope Benedict led and now Pope Francis,” said Ospino.

“In Latin America, that’s the language that’s been used since the 1980s, for example the CELAM meeting in Santo Domingo, it was incorporated into Aparacedia,” he said in reference to the meetings of the Latin American bishops.

“For many Latin Americans, the new evangelization is something that you do because you are called, you are baptized, and you have a missionary spirit. That language for other people sounds like novel language today, in Latin America, it’s language that’s been used for decades.”

In the United States, however, he believes that the lived reality of the new evangelization means different things depending on whether one is an immigrant to the country or whether one was born here.

For those who immigrated to the United States, he argued that the new evangelization means how to bring the practices, traditions, and convictions of their countries of origin and reconcile them with the mainstream forms of Catholicism.

Yet for those born here to Catholic families, the challenge of the new evangelization will mean whether or not they remain in the Church.

“They’re growing up in homes where they were baptized, but in their attitudes toward religion they’re more Americanized than they are Hispanic,” Ospino told Crux. “It’s not that we have to coerce them to be Catholic, but we have to find a language to reach these young people, and the Fifth Encuentro was launched precisely with that goal.”

While Ospino said he would like to see the U.S. bishops and pastoral leaders who gather in Dallas this September make a pact before the entire Church that they will no longer ignore the realities of Hispanic and Latino Catholics, he said that such an outcome is unlikely.

“I would love to see a pact that says we cannot move on with evangelization in the way that we were unless we sincerely invest in pastoral outreach of Hispanic Catholics.”

Five years after the election of Pope Francis, Ospino said that Hispanic and Latino Catholics in the United States are feeling a new sense of belonging in the Church, including in the United States.

“I think what Pope Francis has done is he’s allowed the Church to realize that Latinos are not invisible and that’s been very clear,” Ospino said.

“His papacy has been an invitation for Hispanics to know that they want to be protagonists for evangelization,” he continued. “People want to work, they want to be engaged and they use the language that Pope Francis uses because it’s household language for many of us.”

Looking ahead to the conclusion of the Fifth Encuentro, Ospino said that the U.S. Church must address how to provide the support and resources to turn those aspirations into reality — and not just in terms of lip service, but with real teeth.

“When Pope Francis speaks of being missionary disciples, that word mission is second nature for many Hispanic Catholics,” Ospino reiterated. “You don’t have to defend it or explain it. People just ask ‘what do I have to do?’”

“There’s a generosity that resonates and just echoes what Pope Francis has asked us to do,” he concluded.