By Christopher White and Ines San Martin
FORT WORTH, Texas (Crux) — On Twitter, he goes by the name “amigo de Frodo,” because Frodo, the great character from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, was “a little guy who made great sacrifices, and I want to be a friend to people like that.”
For Bishop Daniel Flores, who shepherds the border Diocese of Brownsville in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, he spends much of his time serving those who have made great sacrifices and travel great distances in hopes of crossing the United States border for a safer, more secure life.
Speaking with The Tablet on the first morning of the V Encuentro – the culmination of a four-year discernment process in parishes, dioceses and episcopal regions in the United States on the future of the Hispanic Church in this country – Bishop Flores highlighted elements of the particular Hispanic contribution to the Church in the United States, and also enumerated its ongoing challenges, including:
- How Hispanic Catholics can help other U.S. Catholics rediscover popular devotions and recover the tactile reality of the faith.
- The fear many young, undocumented immigrants have of exportation and the ongoing frustration over a lack of a DACA fix.
- How Hispanic Catholics are aware of the current sex abuse crisis in the U.S. Church, but why they don’t believe it should paralyze the Church from continuing in its mission.
The Tablet: We’re here in Fort Worth for the V Encuentro, which is described as the culmination of a four-year long discernment process taking place in parishes, dioceses, and regions. What’s the build-up been like in the diocese of Brownsville?
This is a process designed to try and capture the voice of people on the ground and the realities in which they’re living their faith. Some of them are very involved in Church through catechism and things like that and then some of then aren’t. It’s been a long process and it takes a lot of commitment – the busload from Brownsville left at 5 a.m. for their 10-hour drive to get here in time for the kick-off.
The reality is that every diocese is different. There’s not a one-size fits all solution for how me move forward on missionary discipleship and how we move forward on organization and how we move forward on leadership development.
Leadership development is a big deal, and we need to find the vehicles to help the Hispanic community help us. There’s a cultural, educational dynamic that we need to try and address in terms of how we develop a leadership that has a lot to offer to the wider Church. It’s not about how do we help the Hispanic community speak only for itself, but rather it’s more outward looking.
When we say ‘Hispanic,’ it’s a varied reality. My diocese is predominantly Mexican descent – sometimes first generation, sometimes fifth generation, so we have to try and figure out how do we address these different dynamics and it’s very local. I’d suspect that here at the Encuentro, we’re going to try to cull a lot of that information that’s coming out that respects that fact that there’s a lot of regional, cultural realities that have to be addressed and then there are some national things we need to do here.
How were the delegates of your diocese chosen to come participate?
Most of them step forward. We have a substantial delegation coming, but it was really hard for people to take time off work to come, and also, financially… we had a lot of help, such as scholarships from Catholic Extension that sponsored some people to come. It’s also a lot of time. A lot of people really wanted to come, but for practical reasons couldn’t, because they couldn’t leave their children. We knew we were asking for a sacrifice, and I’m happy with the number of people who were willing to come. A lot of people were involved in the diocesan process, because it was more doable, and also the regional process in San Antonio.
This summer, a delegation of U.S. bishops traveled to your diocese to see first hand the reality of families being separated by the Trump administration at the U.S. border. Now, we have the Encuentro – one of the largest events to take place in the U.S. Church in recent years – here in Texas, as well. What’s that been like for Hispanic Catholics to have the Church come near to them – has that been felt?
It has been felt. When the bishops’ delegation came, it was the epicenter of the separation of mothers and children and a lot of people in my diocese were very much involved in that and we were trying to make the rest of the country aware of what was happening.
I think we certainly have felt supported and encouraged in terms of the local work that goes on. The diocese is poor, but the poor understand the plight of the poor. One of the messages that we’re trying, hopefully, to articulate, is that we have to discover the freedom of that kind of poverty – the freedom to be available to people.
The issue of the Central American immigrants is a major one that is a humanitarian tragedy that begins in Central America, and the dimensions of it are incredible. But there are the other realities of young people who are second generation who can’t seem to get the DACA thing fixed.
I think the visit from the bishops certainly helped other bishops see what we deal with all the time.
You just mentioned DACA and we haven’t heard mention of that in months, when earlier this year it was all we were hearing about in national discourse. Then, we had the crisis of family separation that led the bishops to go to the border. In the lead-up to the election in 2016, so many Catholics in your part of the country spoke of the fear they felt if then candidate Trump was elected as President. Have those fears been substantiated? Worse than expected? Better?
Fear is felt, certainly among young people in the diocese. Families, if they have anyone undocumented, are very cautious about what documents to take with them in case they’re stopped. So much of our focus is helping people get the right information on what they can do if they’re stopped and what are their responsibilities.
A lot of law enforcement is on the border, but for the most part, people do their jobs, they go to work, and it’s just a presence. It’s a friendly place, but the Valley feels like everyone thinks that this is just the worst crime zone in the world or something and it’s really not. Life goes on and people are generally friendly, people generally help each other, there’s a great camaraderie there. There is the DACA issue, and then there’s the wall, which is likely to go up in one of the counties in my diocese, and that all kind of contributes to the mentality that you have to be careful, because if you get stopped, you have to be prepared to answer questions and deal with courtrooms, immigration judges, and there’s just great anxiety that we live with.
You recently mentioned that one of the key elements of the Encuentro is to foster leadership in the Hispanic community. How is that done with the laity and not just bishops, and how does the Church in the United States guarantee that these people are not just leaders for the Hispanic community for the Church as a whole?
I think you’ve hit the issue exactly right. We have to foster vocations, of course, but I think that lay leadership is key. I see already that there’s already an awareness where we can’t say “Hispanic ministry is over here, and catechesis is over here, and family life is over here, and we’ll let Hispanic ministry take care of family life for Hispanics.”
The reality now is that in the whole Church, we have a variety of folks that we need to form and realize that our own family life offices need culturally astute leadership that knows how to move from one language, one cultural context from another in doing the overall formation. It needs to be part of the pastoral plan for the whole diocese. Instead of saying “over here, we’ll deal with the Hispanics because they’re all the same. And, it’s not just the Hispanic community, it’s the Asian community, it’s the African American community, and the question of how do we bring forth the gifts that God has already given to the community but is looking for a way to share it with the rest of the community?
We also need to be aware, especially in the United States, that when it comes to leadership we almost require a degree. But we have to ask ourselves, is that somehow making it very hard for certain cultural dynamics in the country to actually get to that point?
Within the Hispanic community, we rarely see the separation between family life and personal life in the same way in which much of the United States operates. How can Hispanic Catholics help the Church in this regard?
You’re touching on a cultural dynamic that I think we in the United States are not very well aware of, which is because when you’re in the middle of it, you’re not as aware of it as much.
We are not as aware in this country as to how we have accepted the paradigm that all relationship is voluntary. A more traditionally, cultural Catholic sense is there’s a connection there with your folks, nephews, and kids, that’s bigger. The United States is the cutting edge of where secularity is going and it’s going to the purely voluntary relationships. Catholicism starts with relationality as a given. I think the immigrant community can help us be more self-aware as to how much we let purely voluntary perspectives determine whether we get involved or not. The pope talks about it. We have become a spectator culture, we watch other people suffering, but don’t really feel like it’s particularly our issue.
I also think devotional life is a big thing the Hispanic community has to offer the larger Church. I think it helps the United States to recover the tactility of Catholicism, you have to be able to touch Christ [in] some way.
I’m just aware because I live in different worlds in my head and in my diocese, and am aware that it’s slipped away in your average, very successful diocese in the United States that sense of procession, or the kids during Holy Week doing the Passion, but it’s a way of passing on the faith that’s very important. You have to touch Christ, otherwise He’s just an idea – Benedict talked about that, Francis talks about that – the idea that we don’t get it until we see it.
Seeing that the clerical sexual abuse crisis is occupying so much of the reality of the Church, how much is this affecting the people in your diocese?
It’s hard to gauge. I talked to people in the parishes, and I think obviously people are aware of it, and they talk about it. I do think that there’s a sense though that the Church can’t be paralyzed.
We need to deal with it and find the right way to deal with it. But the Church can’t be paralyzed in her mission, in addressing other issues. I’m encouraging people to stay involved. If you’re a catechist, continue being a catechist. We’re still getting 300 mothers and children a night coming to our center, and we put them in the basilica if we don’t have room left.
We need to keep working on the mission of the Church, especially in outreach.
And there are many issues, such as the epidemic in schools of 14 and 15-year-olds committing suicide.
Yes, people are aware of the sex abuse crisis, but I don’t think it’s paralyzed people. They’ve spoken with their pastor, they’ve spoken with me about it, but they realize that we also have other things to do. And we can’t let that stop. God has chosen this time for a great purification of the Church, but it’s not necessarily the time to stop doing everything that we’re supposed to be doing.