Keynoter: To ‘encounter’ requires being open to God’s presence in every situation

There’s a quote by Pope Francis from the closing Mass of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family in 2014 that has been an inspiration to Christina Lamas, who will be the keynote speaker for Diocesan V Encuentro on Sunday, Sept. 24, at River’s Edge Convention Center in St. Cloud.

“God is not afraid of new things,” Pope Francis said. “That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways.”

Lamas said those words captured what she has been feeling for the last 10 years.

Christina Lamas

“I think those words have given me the energy and motivation to strive for the unknown and to try new things,” she said.

Last August, Lamas packed her bags on the West Coast, where she served as the associate director for the Office of Religious Education and division coordinator of youth ministry for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and headed across the country to serve as executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry in Washington, D.C.

The Diocesan V Encuentro — encuentro means “encounter” — is part of the national V Encuentro process, a priority of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is a four-year process of discerning ways in which the church in the United States can better journey with the growing Hispanic/Latino population.

For Lamas, the concept of encounter has been up close and personal.

“It’s been a discernment process. In a way, God has opened doors and put situations and people in my life that have guided me to the East Coast,” she said.

Her discernment began two and a half years ago when she participated in Catholic Relief Services’ Called to Witness program in El Salvador. Lamas said she felt a strong desire to leave her job and become a missionary but her spiritual director advised her to wait one year before making the commitment.

In the meantime, the position for the executive director of NFCYM was opening, which Lamas said she had never considered applying for.

But after conversations — more encounters — with mentors, colleagues and friends, Lamas continued to discern God’s call and eventually applied for the position. After interviewing for the job, Lamas’ spiritual director asked her how she was feeling.

“And my response to him was, ‘You know, there is much peace and joy in my heart,’” she said. “There was peace knowing that I said what I needed to say, regardless of if I’m offered the job or not. I know that what I said sparked curiosity and intrigued people to at least look beyond and above what they were currently looking for. If I’m not the candidate, that’s OK, because I know hearts and minds were stirred in that discussion. But if I am the candidate, I am ready to say yes.”

Less than 24 hours later, Lamas was offered the position and accepted it. She moved with her daughter to Washington in August.

“God can move mountains. It’s just a matter of us being open and willing to take that risk and saying yes. And not really even knowing what you’re saying yes to, but trusting that the ‘yes’ comes with love and comes with the assurance that you’re not alone,” she said.

Her experiences have encouraged her to help others recognize the value of encountering God in the world, which will be part of the message she will bring to the people of the diocese in September. In addition to her keynote address at the Diocesan V Encuentro, Lamas also will be a workshop presenter at Diocesan Ministry Day on Monday, Sept. 25, also at the River’s Edge Convention Center.

In an interview with The Visitor, Lamas provided insight about the Encuentro event. Her responses have been edited for length:

Q. You will be giving the keynote address at our Diocesan Encuentro event Sept. 24. Encuentro is the Spanish word for “encounter.” What does it mean to “encounter”?

A. The word “encounter,” when you begin to break it open, is an opportunity to feel, to experience, to see the way God works through you, around you, within you and through others. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be within a person, it can be in a situation, it can be in a conversation, it can be something intangible. We can encounter God in so many ways. One of my strong beliefs about what encounter means comes from a quote — that it is “a strong belief that God is in everything and everyone, all the time and in every situation.” So the opportunities to encounter God, or to encounter Christ, are endless.

Q. Why is it important for us as Catholics to be talking about “encounter” right now?

A. Pope Francis has a lot to do with why we’re talking about this at this moment. Here we have a leader who is very relational, who is also very practical and very clear in terms of working with one another — we have to see beyond what divides us and look at areas that unite us. And so the more that we can continue those conversations, we begin to build some bridges. I think too many times within our church there are many lines that separate us, whether it is ideology, whether it is groupings within parishes or at a diocesan or even national level. So many times we allow ourselves to be divided and not see the richness that we bring to the table.

Q. Why is it important for both Hispanic and non-Hispanic people to participate in the Encuentro process?

A. Everyone has a gift, something to bring to the table. I think it comes down to personal initiative, a desire to want to be a part of the community and part of the conversation. But also, there needs to be some sort of invitation that’s coming from someone whether that be leadership or whether that is someone, just as in my own life, who has invited me into this relationship. Someone needs to invite them into a relationship as well.

Another aspect is that sometimes we rely on others coming to us. Pope Francis talks a lot about the need to go out and meet people where they’re at. A lot of my work has been with youth ministry and that’s something that I’ve always advocated for. If we’re sitting here waiting for youth or young people to come to our programs, to come to the church, to come to us, there is a huge population that we’re not ministering to.

How do we challenge what we’re doing to bring the Gospel out to the street, to bring it out to the communities, to the areas in which they are currently living? That’s a challenge for all of us.

About Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is a multimedia reporter for The Visitor newspaper.

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