For Father Gabriel Walz, the activities and discussions that took place in September 2017 at the diocesan V Encuentro gathering in St. Cloud have continued to “echo” in his heart, he said.
“Several of the Latino youth of our diocese formed two round-table discussion groups. From those two groups, a few significant points were made, which have helped me to understand their particular situation in a deeper way,” Father Walz said.
“[One] young lady, speaking on behalf of the larger group of youth, spoke of the need and desire to form groups of Catholic youth within the Latino communities of our parishes that meet the unique circumstances and needs of our Latino youth. Her words gave voice to a growing desire in my own heart to help the youth of our parishes.”
Father Walz serves as parochial vicar in the parishes of St. Mary, Melrose; St. Michael, Spring Hill; St. John, Meire Grove and St. Andrew in Greenwald.
Over 400 people participated in the diocesan V Encuentro (“fifth encounter”), a national process of discerning ways in which the church in the United States can better respond to the growing Hispanic/Latino presence.
In December, Father Walz initiated a youth group comprised mainly of Hispanic/Latino youth ages 10 and up. The group meets weekly following the Sunday Spanish Mass for prayer and open gym activities. The average attendance has been between 12 and 24 kids.
“We are still in the early phases of the group,” Father Walz said. “As we go along, I’m looking into more of a decisive focus. For now, I am just testing the water, helping them with experiences of prayer that are comfortable and just seeing what is going to work and what’s not going to work.”
Eventually, Father Walz hopes that others from the community will help lead the effort.
Diocesan director of multicultural ministries Mayuli Bales said that Father Walz has a special place in her heart as well as the hearts of many in the Hispanic/Latino community.
“He listened to the cry of the youth and he went back to his parish and decided to take action,” she said. “He used one of our pastoral strategies that we are practicing in our Hispanic lay ecclesial formation program — to see, judge and act. He encountered the youth, he listened with the ears of the Lord, he discerned the need and he acted. To me, that is a measurable impact of the diocesan Encuentro that we are seeing right now.”
A second outcome, Bales said, is that the Hispanic/Latino community felt that they had been “seen.”
“People say to me, ‘My bishop is humble. He invited me to Encuentro. I responded to the invitation. And he continued to listen to us. I exist. I’ve been counted.’ That’s what I am hearing from the Hispanic/Latino community,” she said.
Getting ready for Alexandria
On April 13 and 14, the Regional V Encuentro will take place in Alexandria. It includes delegations from the U.S. church’s Region VIII, which covers all of Minnesota and North and South Dakota.
Eight out of the nine Hispanic/Latino Catholic communities from the Diocese of St. Cloud will be represented, including nine couples, four minors (under 18) and 29 individuals as well as five priests: Father Oswaldo Roche, Father Tony Kroll, Benedictine Father Efrain Rosado, Father Gabriel Walz and Father Jeff Ethen.
“We have a good, strong delegation,” Bales said. “That can be another tangible result of the diocesan Encuentro. We would not have this response if we did not have such excellent hospitality and the quality of conversations we had there.”
The discussion at the regional Encuentro will center on five themes: family, youth, foundational catechesis, ongoing formation and social justice issues. Information gathered at the April conference will be passed on for use at the National V Encuentro gathering in September in Grapevine, Texas. Bales hopes to send six delegates from the Diocese of St. Cloud to the national meeting.
“One of the things they will ask at the national meeting is: How are we doing with Hispanic/Latino ministry in our diocese?” Bales said. “We will be able to say that we already have concrete actions. We have seen a transformation in our personal life, in our community life. This will not be the end of the process. I feel that we are [gaining] momentum. Many people say the church is in crisis. For thousands of years the church has been in crisis. I trust the Holy Spirit and our Lord to continue to inspire us.”
Bales said that everyone can be a visionary, and that means taking action and “allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.”
“There is a ripple effect and it will be more measurable as time passes,” she said. “If we look and see how many things are happening that weren’t happening before, to me, this is the light of the Holy Spirit. We have some synergy, some energy, that I haven’t seen before. I have a lot of hope.”
The goal of the regional Encuentro, she said, is discernment.
“It’s really about getting to know what are the lights in our ministries. I think that is the big discovery, that this is a movement of evangelization, and we are all a part of that.”
Father Walz will attend the regional Encuentro in Alexandria and hopes to be among the six delegates who will travel to the national event.
“My greatest hope for our Latino brethren is our Lord Jesus Christ,” Father Walz said. “I pray that more and more people will encounter him, and through that encounter, I hope that they will experience the freedom and joy and peace that comes only from him.
“Evangelization comes before catechesis,” he continued. “But once we’ve encountered the Lord and become convicted that he is the Way and the Truth and the Life, that catechesis is both the natural and the necessary ‘next step.’ This is true for all people, not only our Latino brethren. I’m excited that the Lord is stirring the hearts of his faithful.”