BLOOMFIELD, Connecticut — Unity in Christ and respect for everyone’s gifts, cultures and traditions lead Catholics to share the faith as a stronger community.

That was the message Hispanic leaders from episcopal Region I South heard when they met May 12 to discern challenges and opportunities in the church at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield.

“Our roots and traditions keep alive the sustenance that is Jesus Christ,” Father Diego Jimenez told nearly 300 delegates at the regional encuentro. “Christ guides us to build the Church, to joyfully announce the Gospel from our personal realities.”

The regional gathering was one of several meetings taking place as part of the National Fifth Encuentro, or V Encuentro, which is a multiyear process to listen to the needs, aspirations and faith practices of Hispanic Catholics. Regional encuentros are the penultimate phase before the national encuentro, or encounter, planned for Sept. 20-23 in Grapevine, Texas.

Region I South is formed by the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, the dioceses of Bridgeport and Norwich, Connecticut, and the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts. Back in March, delegates from seven dioceses in Region I North — made up of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island and parts of Massachusetts, including the Boston Archdiocese — congregated for their regional encuentro.

With Hispanic Catholics making up 40 percent of the U.S. Catholic population, this initiative of the U.S. Catholic bishops also seeks to highlight the contributions Hispanics make to the Church and to encourage them to share their gifts and talents in the Church’s mission.

“We are stronger if we are together as a family, as a community that works united,” said delegate Josefina Duran from the Springfield Diocese, who is involved in the Legion of Mary, the Cursillo movement and other parish ministries.

The day started with prayer and words of encouragement from Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport and retired Auxiliary Bishop Peter A. Rosazza of Hartford, who thanked delegates for their presence and commitment.

“Christ needs you. That is why you are here,” said Rosazza, who participated in the U.S. Church’s National First Encuentro in 1972, when he was a parish priest.

Rosazza told Catholic News Service that he has seen how the U.S. Church has become more aware of the importance of including Spanish-speaking Catholics and being culturally aware. Rosazza also was part of the four-bishop subcommittee that helped draft a pastoral plan after the National Third Encuentro in 1985.

“Having a pastoral plan made a great difference,” he said. “I don’t think we would be as we are — I said ‘we’ because I have been working with these wonderful people for 50 years — without the encuentro process.”

Rosazza is hopeful that the V Encuentro will help the Church to work with young people, especially the large numbers of U.S.-born Hispanic Catholics, in addition to continue welcoming newly arrived immigrants.

During the packed day, delegates distilled issues and concerns that arose from the previous parish consultation process. Both regional encuentros from Region I focused in 12 ministerial areas that included evangelization and mission, stewardship, catechesis, human development and youth ministry. The delegates’ suggestions will be incorporated into a regional working document in preparation for the national encuentro.

Ana Maria Alstrum, director of Hispanic catechesis in the Hartford Archdiocese, said the May 12 encuentro showed diocesan leaders that a united community can transform and enrich the Church. “This is not just an event and it is over. This is a seed that we need to cultivate so it continues yielding fruit for everyone,” Alstrum said.

Sister Mary Jude Lazarus, director of Hispanic ministry in the Norwich Diocese, said that the large numbers of Latino Catholics in the country are called to make an impact in the Catholic Church today, just as Irish and Italian Catholics did before them.

“It is our turn to make an impact. I think the Holy Spirit is calling us Latinos to wake up the Church, but we have to be woken up first,” said Lazarus, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady, Mother of the Church.

According to the V Encuentro statistical model, 52.4 percent of Hispanics, or just over 30 million, were Catholic in 2016 — up from 29.7 million in 2010, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The overall Hispanic population increased by 6.9 million.

One of the areas delegates discussed was stewardship, or “co-responsibility” in Spanish. “We need to welcome (parishioners) to become part of the community, not just weekly visitors,” Alstrum said. “That is going to happen when everyone really pitches in.”

The Church needs new catechists, people to help the hungry, and people to spend time with the elderly who feel alone and to help young mothers who are learning to raise children without tight-knit family support.

Ivelisse Concepcion said some strategies her stewardship group suggested included creating welcoming centers for Hispanic youth and fostering Hispanic candidates to the permanent diaconate. Another suggested strategy involved holding workshops for diocesan priests based on results of the encuentro “to help them recognize and invest in the gifts of Hispanics, so that they assume different responsibilities in their parishes.”

Paulo Lopez, who has been working at St. Mary of Westfield, Massachusetts, since 1970, said that his group focused on evangelization and the need to prepare programs for the youth.

Deacon Pedro Juan Rivera Moran, who recently became director of Catholic Latino ministry for the Springfield Diocese, said the encuentro can help parishioners go beyond activities to maintain the vitality of the Church.

“We need a process, a plan that allows for growth and evangelization,” he said. “I want to help parishes to come up with a pastoral plan based on the topics of the encuentro.”

Another group discussed social justice and global solidarity and suggested providing regional evangelization that includes visible actions tied to social justice in areas such as ecology, immigration, education, the pro-life movement and the fight against human trafficking. At the national level, the group suggested creating a national pro-life Hispanic movement to promote human dignity.

A sense of joy and community — along with reverence and devotion — permeated the daylong encuentro.

During Mass, Hartford Archbishop Leonard P. Blair commended the parishioners’ enthusiasm and encouraged them to continue answering the call to be missionary disciples in their local churches.

“We pray for the Holy Spirit to continue guiding this encuentro process,” he said. “Today is a true manifestation that we are brothers and sisters, members of one Church and that we are walking to encounter our Lord.”

Constanza Mueller, a delegate from the Bridgeport Diocese, said she was inspired by Jimenez’s homily, where he compared faith to the liquid of a “sancocho,” or stew, saying that even if it is not as visible as the chunks of meat or potatoes of the soup, the liquid is what carries all the soup’s nutrients.

“In this encuentro of evangelization, God has a ‘sancocho’ that includes us all,” he said. “Sometimes we are interested in what we can see, but the substance of our faith and the life of the Church is our Lord.”

The faith-filled regional encuentro concluded when Region I South delegates prayed over the diocesan delegates going to the National Fifth Encuentro, asking the Holy Spirit to lead them in September.