ALBANY, New York — As a delegate to the Region II encuentro held recently in Albany, Daniel Solares echoed a message youth ministers have been sharing around the country during the process leading up to the National Fifth Encuentro to be held this fall.
“This is the time to listen to young people. … And, without losing sight of the Church’s teachings, adapt to their needs,” said Solares, a member of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Troy, New York.
Delegates to the June 22-24 regional highlighted the fact that 60 percent of Catholics under age 18 are Hispanic. So the Church needs to reach out to them, welcome them and prepare them to lead, they said, because young people are not only the future but the present of the Church.
Speakers at the encuentro also pointed out statistics showing an increase of Hispanics joining the ranks of the “nones” — a term for those who claim no religious affiliation.
“We have to approach them, listen to them, see what they need,” said Solares, one of 300 encuentro delegates.
He was one of the youth ministers on a panel underscoring the importance of engaging young people.
At his parish, he said, he learned the importance to be open to “discover” young people and listen to them — without being weighed down by preconceived notions about them.
One of the initiatives that came out of his parish encuentro, Solares added, was to host a crash course for young people to foster dialogue and understanding with their families. “The needs of young people are often the need to be heard,” he said.
Panelist Krismely Garcia, a youth leader at St. Elizabeth Church in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, talked about the need to support young people — even those who might seem like they don’t need help.
Garcia, who moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when she was 12, spoke about the differences between youth ministries in young migrants’ countries of origin and the need to accompany young people during their transition.
“There is a cultural shock because you are battling to learn the language,” she said. “They might feel alone but would say they don’t need help.”
The region’s youth ministers shared ideas about the ways they foster the support of young people at breakout sessions across the eight ministerial areas prioritized at their regional encuentro. They also talked about how their parishes’ encuentros were a good opportunity to engage the young people who are not typically in the pews.
At Garcia’s parish, many young people who were on the peripheries become part of the parish youth group as a result of the outreach they did during their parish encuentro.
“Many young people did not know they had a church nearby,” Garcia said. “Many have decided to prepare for their sacraments.”
Panelist Christopher Rivera, a youth minister and director of religious education at St. Teresa Parish in Manhattan, said the parish reached out to youth “who walked away from Church.”
His focus, he said, was not why they left but “how we accommodate and invite them into our parish life without judgment.”
“Whatever life they have been living, we need to let them know that Christ is greater than any difficulty that they are living through,” Rivera said.
Rivera also talked about the issue of mental health. He just received a master’s degree in social work from Jesuit-run Fordham University and plans to volunteer at his parish offering individual and family counseling.
He encouraged dioceses and parishes to increase the understanding of general mental health needs and how they affect young people nationwide. He encouraged the region to help the community to have access to appropriate resources.
“We need to meet young people where they are and we cannot just say that we provide faith formation and not the mental health support,” Rivera said.
Catechetical and leadership formation also is important, the delegates said.
“We need formation as Hispanic leaders,” Garcia said in an interview with Catholic News Service. “We need to show that Christ is alive in our hearts.”
Rivera also encouraged parishes to create bilingual programs like Jornadas de Vida Cristiana (Journeys of Christian Life), a movement where young Latinos can deepen their faith development and hone their leadership skills, so they can become peer ministers and youth ministers.
“We need to open doors for youth and young adults who have been prepared to be trusted to lead,” Rivera said.