CINCINNATI – Expressing solidarity with Guadalupanos around the world, young adults of a new lay movement embarked on a chilly December pilgrimage through the streets of Chicago to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines on Wednesday night.

For young Catholics like Vicente Del Real, founder of Iskali, the annual multi-mile walk is a time for prayer, song, and community building, inspired by the rich traditions surrounding the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“So what our parents did in Mexico, we are keeping that tradition. Instead of being on roads in the country, these are roads in our city. We are walking on sidewalks, on highways,” Del Real told Crux.

Wednesday’s urban pilgrimage was the most recent manifestation of Iskali’s ongoing commitments to community-building efforts with young Latinas and Latinos in Chicagoland. Roughly 200 young adults participate in Iskali’s weekly small faith communities and nearly 1,000 people connect with Iskali’s ministries in some form each year.

As Catholics continue to hear troubling statistics about a steady flow of young adults away from the Church, Iskali’s story charts one possible path forward for the Church in the United States.

“Little by little”

Del Real started Iskali – an Aztec word for resurgence – at his parish in 2010 as a faith formation group for his fellow young adults.

“I noticed that a lot of the people that were in the young adult group at my parish were all gone. They had no commitment to the Church, none to social justice, so I said you know we need to do something about this,” explained Del Real.

Del Real’s group of 20 or so began meeting to discuss faith and justice. They were soon invited to facilitate similar discussions in two other parishes. Feedback from these groups in turn led them to develop what he described as “faith awakening retreats” for young adults in those three parishes.

“After we came up with the retreats that young people were responding very positively to, we said we need to form communities right after these retreats so they don’t leave, so they continue to meet,” said Del Real. “So, we started forming communities.”

It was at this stage that Del Real and his community of young leaders started to realize that something important was beginning to take shape.

“I’d be a liar if I told you I had this vision at that first meeting of Iskali,” said Del Real. “It was kind of something that God was revealing to us little by little, and now we have a very good understanding that the ministry that we do with young Latinos is a huge need in the Church,” he added.

Sources of support

From Del Real’s perspective, common laments about young people’s lack of interest in the Church overlook a deeper reality that Iskali has unearthed.

“From what I have seen, young people are eager to give their lives to something bigger than theirs, eager to make a positive change in the world, eager to be transformative leaders in our community,” he said. “But we as a church have not given them the opportunity.”

He continued, “We invest millions of dollars in formation for seminarians and church staff, and we invest in buildings, but we’re not investing enough in forming strong young leaders.”

Iskali’s story illustrates what can happen when eager young Latino and Latina Catholics do receive some support from their church. When Del Real’s community started to realize that Iskali was developing into something larger than expected, members of the church’s leadership stepped forward to help.

For example, Del Real credited Rick Moreno, Vitality Coordinator for Vicariate IV of the Archdiocese of Chicago, for helping Iskali reflect on its origins and pinpoint its common vision.

“When he saw Iskali, he said that he thought a new charism was being born here, and that we really needed to pay attention to what’s happening here,” said Del Real. Moreno now serves on Iskali’s board.

Earlier this year, Iskali opened its Bishop John R. Manz Center in Maywood, Illinois. The building features six small group meeting rooms, a library, and an adoration chapel that’s open 24/7 for Iskali’s young adult communities. Donated to Iskali by two Chicago-area doctors, the revamped center is the product of 7,000 hours of volunteer work over the past year.

The center’s name recognizes another source of support for young Latinos and Latinas in Iskali’s area of Chicago, Auxiliary Bishop John R. Manz. “No biography I can give you will do justice to what he has done for Latinos, for Hispanic people,” explained Del Real.

Pope Francis’s vision in action

Entering 2020, Iskali’s range of ministries now includes retreats, small groups, sports evangelization, mentoring initiatives, and more. According to Iskali’s director, the nonprofit has a clear ally in the current pope.

“Look at Pope Francis in Christus Vivit,” he said referring to the pope’s document released earlier this year on young people and the faith. “He literally says that the founder of the Church is a young adult and highlights the fact that young adult ministry needs to be led by young people,” said Del Real. He added that he believed that Francis’s vision of a church that accepts, encourages, and loves is precisely what Iskali does its best to embody.

“We try to listen to Pope Francis as much as we can, but he’s always ahead of us!” said Del Real with a deep laugh.

Throughout the course of its journey from a small parish group to a thriving non-profit ministry, Iskali has also attracted attention from experts who study the dynamics of the growing Latino and Latina presence in the U.S. Church.

For example, Dr. Timothy Matovina, Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and author of Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church, has joined Iskali’s board of directors.

“Iskali is doing what I research and write about. It’s an honor to be accompanying these dynamic young leaders in their vocation as missionary disciples,” Matovina told Crux.

“Iskali is one of the most Spirit-filled youth movements I’ve encountered in our church, but it is by no means the only one. Many other Latina and Latino young people have experienced the personal encounter with Jesus Christ that gives birth to such movements,” he added.

“I pray to God that many youths will form groups with one another and work with their pastors to spread the Gospel. If they need some direction on how to get started, I urge them to contact the leaders of Iskali,” Matovina said.

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