FORT WORTH, Texas – While over 100 Catholic bishops descended onto Texas this past week for the closing event of a four-year discernment process that took place in every diocese in the United States, the more than 3,000 Hispanic Catholics who were on hand made one thing clear: Their presence — not the ones wearing Roman collars — represented the future of the Catholic Church in this country.

Closing out the final Mass on Sunday, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles said, “This moment in the Church is the hour of the laity.”

“He is calling the lay faithful to work together with the bishops to renew and rebuild his Church,” Gomez continued. “Not only in this country, but throughout the continents of the Americas.”

Walter Mena from the youth pastoral network of the Archdiocese of Boston concurred, telling Crux that the four-day long V Encuentro “has been like the parable of the lost sheep, but in reverse.”

“I believe that here, we have the one sheep — or one percent of the Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. — and we’re going to go out looking for the other 99,” Mena said. “We need to realize that there are 99 sheep that are missing, and we need to find pastoral creativity to bring them home.”

For Mena, a majority of those 99 sheep missing are young people, and the Church has to go out and look for them where they are, “not just wait for them to come to us.”

Considering the fact that Hispanic Catholics soon will represent the majority of Mass-attending Catholics in the United States, reaching out to those 99 sheep is not optional.

“Our Latino brothers and sisters are really the future of the Church and that’s very clear,” said Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network that works towards abolishing the death penalty and told Crux that she was on hand because “we’re not going to do this if we don’t do it together.”

“I’m really excited to see the excitement, the depth of spirituality, and commitment to building something new that I see with our Latino brothers and sisters,” she added.

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso told Crux that an event like the Encuentro, where the energy and diversity that Hispanic Catholics bring to the Church throughout the country — and which he experiences first hand through the laity in his diocese — could be shared with the larger Catholic community was “my dream for a long time.”

“I was on the Committee for Hispanic Affairs early on as my time as a bishop, and it seemed to me and to many that we really needed to grab hold of this moment in the life of the Church and give a voice to the growing community of Latino members here,” Seitz said.

For this border bishop, the choice is simple: The Church in the U.S. either welcomes the Hispanic community and grows as a result, “or we leave them outside and lose them and lose our own souls.”

“Those are pretty stark choices in my opinion,” he insisted.

“The fact is that we as Catholics are not welcoming the stranger, not welcoming the new people who are coming to us — I mean, they’re coming to us and Jesus told us to go out but they’re coming to us — if we’re not welcoming them then we lose our soul,” he insisted, and failing to do so means not becoming the people that “God has called us to be.”

Seitz has worked with the Hispanic community in the United States for decades, and according to him, they have something that the Anglo-European community has forgotten and lost: “Their sense of family, community, and the faith that is just rooted in the culture, the joy of life — some of these things we’ve kind of lost touch with.”

The bishop went on to say that Hispanic Catholics are “a gift that God has sent the Church in this country to revive something that is fundamental for our own lives and our own relationships with God.”

Where does the Encuentro go from here?

Victoria Rodriguez, one of the Encuentro delegates from Boise, Idaho, defined the Fort Worth experience as “amazing,” as it provided her with several resources and new ideas for her ministry. She was invited to participate in the Texas gathering because of the work she does in her parish.

When the lights were turned off and the time came to go back home, she was going to focus her ministry on young adults and youth ministers to give them the resources to meet the needs on a local level.

Among the many goals of this four-year process was to identify and train thousands of new lay Hispanic leaders who will eventually work in parishes and dioceses, not only in the “Hispanic ministry offices.”

Uruguayan layman Guzman Carriquirry, who flew in from Rome to participate in the event and was tasked with delivering the keynote remarks on the last day of the Encuentro, said that after this four year “synodal process” that was a reflection of what “Pope Francis wants for the Church,” the question of what happens now that all is said and done is key.

He told Crux that in order for the experience to remain fruitful, participants must keep in mind that many of those who came before “have lost their roots and had their Catholic tradition absorbed by the consumerist society, or because they were left alone, or because they were tempted by the warm communities and integration offered by Evangelicals and Pentecostals.”

Carriquiry also said that part of that Hispanic engagement must mean U.S. Catholics must be united in combatting the fear and discrimination against immigrants.

The “soul of the nation is at stake” in the national immigration debate, he noted, adding that the Church in the United States can no longer function divided in “stagnant ethnic Catholic compartments.”

Instead, he said, “the different forms of enculturation of the faith need to find each other, hear each other, and be enriched and fertilized by one another, to achieve a fuller Catholic synthesis, comprised by people who share the same faith and are in Communion with one another.”

Hopes for an end to the divisions

Joel Rodriguez, director of Hispanic ministry in Fort Worth told Crux that his hope is that everyone leaves the Encuentro with a “conversion of heart, to convert as one Church and one body.”

“Anglo, Hispanic, Filipino, African American or Asian, this is not to say ‘We Hispanic,’ there’s no dual Church,” he said. “The message has to be that we are one Church, working together. The Holy Spirit calls us to that unity, not division. My hopes and prayers are that we’ll continue this pastoral mission in conjunction with everyone.”

Rodriguez said that he “hopes and prays” that not long from now, his office will no longer be necessary, or that if it is, it’s only for translating documents. “That should be the goal of the Universal Church. Within the diversity, unity.”

To guarantee lasting fruits from the Encuentro, however, the past four days must be seen as the beginning of a movement, not the conclusion of an event.

As a matter of fact, the directors of Hispanic ministry of Rodriguez’s region are meeting this week, with a daylong retreat on Monday followed by two days of work to develop a pastoral plan that brings unity among cultures and among dioceses.

The past four years, he said, have helped the Church in the U.S. to identify over 20,000 Hispanic leaders, but they need to be defined and given room to do so.

“And it’s a perfect opportunity for catechesis, because leadership within the Church is different from leadership in the secular world, and with the proper formation, I believe we’ll be able to have a Church that is at service of others,” he said.

Rodriguez also said that he thinks the Encuentro was a “beautiful oasis” for the over 120 bishops who participated amidst everything that is going on: “Receiving the love of the young people, and in breakout sessions, I’ve seen them listening and actively participating. I think this is a start for catechesis and a catalyst for bigger things down the road.”

“I think it’s important to take the term Catholicism, what does that mean: We’re the universal Church,” said Francesca Frias, assistant coordinator of the office of youth, young adult and family ministry of the Diocese of Allentown.

Realizing that universality, the fact that in “unity there’s togetherness, and coming together and realizing that everyone should be welcomed and acknowledged, and that there needs to be leaders from every community, with diversity in ethnicity but also both men and women, will hopefully be one of the outcomes of the Encuentro.”