GATES — To encourage youths and young adults to become leaders, they must feel like integral parts of their parish communities.
And that can happen when the adults in such parishes invite the younger population to participate and take on active roles as well as by offering special programs or retreats just for them, explained Walter Mena, director of formation programs for Instituto de Fe y Vida (Institute for Faith & Life) based in Stockton, Calif.
Mena led a two-day retreat, "Empowering Young Hispanics for Leadership in Church and Society," at the Bishop Hickey Conference Center Oct. 18-19. Fomenting such leadership through Pastoral Juvenil Hispano (Youth and Young Adult Ministry for Latinos) was the crux of the sessions.
"In the church, as in the community, we have the responsibility to let them be young and teach them how to be Christian," he said. "This is very important … to make room for them within the church."
To make such room, adults must see the gifts offered by the young people in their communities and invite them to share their talents, Mena added.
"The goal is to have these young people evangelizing to other young people," he said. "In that way, we can appreciate the treasure that we have in our church. We have to be open to the possibilities and not see them as problems."
Teenagers and young adults from Holy Angels Church in Buffalo and Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission at St. Gregory Church in Marion participated in the retreat alongside youth-ministry leaders from urban Rochester parishes, said Lynette Saenz, director of cultural diversity for the Rochester Diocese’s Parish & Clergy Services.
Katherine Mejia said that she is looking forward to taking the retreat information back to Buffalo and try to rekindle the kind of spiritual excitement among youths that she experienced during World Youth Day in 2008.
"It was an awesome experience," said the 23-year-old doctoral student at the University of Buffalo. "It lights a fire under you. It gives you hope to see so many young people involved."
Unfortunately, she said that the Latino community at Holy Angels is small and the young people there are not as enthusiastic as those she met in Australia or at her parish community in southern Florida where she grew up. But she wants to change that by encouraging young Latinos in Buffalo to become more involved in their parishes.
"They are the future," Mejia remarked.
And the focus is on Hispanics because they represent the future of the Catholic Church, said Mena. Currently, more than 35 percent of U.S. Catholics are Hispanic, according to http://old.usccb.org/hispanicaffairs/demo.shtml.
Saenz said that she invited Mena to Rochester after two local youth leaders attended a weeklong symposium on the youth development model offered by the National Catholic Network of Pastoral Juvenil Hispano.
The model is grounded in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral juvenil goals:
* To empower young people to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in the world.
* To draw young people to responsible participation in the life, mission and work of the Catholic faith community.
* To foster the total personal and spiritual growth of each young person.
"We’re going to try and establish a committee and this (model) will be our focus: to introduce it and bring it to parishes, in particular Hispanic parishes … and anyone else who is interested," Saenz explained.
The model specifically calls on young people to be the "protagonists," of their ministry, she and Mena said. It is not about adults imposing a theme or any other parameters on a group of young people in a parish, Saenz added, although parishes will play a part as advisers that will guide these groups, she said.
During the retreat, the participants broke up into groups and played out the roles of a small Christian community that Saenz said they can take back to their parishes.
"You identify your reality, your needs and the ministry is based on that," she said. "It is a beautiful model. … We’ve got to start somewhere. And I’m very excited about the possibilities of reaching this population that I know is out there."
Mena personally has lived that integration between church and community during his formative years having grown up in El Salvador in the 1980s, he said.
"The church was very important in the life of the people," Mena noted.
About 15 years ago he began traveling around the United States to present this model of youth leadership development. He feels an urgent need to spread the word about its value because of the times we live in, Mena added.
"God is not the most popular thing around," he said. "Young people have so many things to do. We have to be creative in the church to reach them."
But the church also needs to focus more on discipleship, he added.
"This is going to unite us in our efforts … because the reality of los jovenes (young people) is different."
To hear about the experiences of others was one 15-year-old Kenia Moreno’s reasons for taking part in the training, said the member of the migrant parish in Marion.
"I like to help a lot, and do what I can," she added. "I would like to be a leader."
EDITOR’S NOTE: The diocese’s Pastoral Insituto Hispano will offer a class on the Pastoral Juvenil Hispano beginning in January. For more information, visit www.dor.org/index.cfm/ministries/cultural-diversity1/training-development/instituto-pastoral-hispano.