Diocesan News

Witnessing a New Era for the Church in America

Joel Peña and Laura Ramirez. (Photo: Melissa Enaje)

If two of the youngest Hispanic delegates representing the ‘Diocese of Immigrants’ at V Encuentro are a reflection of the pulse of the Church’s future, here’s what one might discover: whether they were born here or not, their identity as missionaries within the universal Catholic Church is as obvious as whether or not they want to attend either English Mass or Spanish Mass on any given Sunday.

For 23-year-old Joel Peña, a first-generation Dominican-American, his ties with the faith and Latino community are woven into the fabric of his every day life: He is part of the Latino evangelization movement, the Emmaus Brotherhood of NY and also as a catechist, sacristan and bookkeeper at St. Agatha Church in Sunset Park.

“What I’ve seen in the V Encuentro is how much they’re concerned about the Latino community,” he said, “and especially if we could just talk about the Diocese of Brooklyn – the Latino community is what’s keeping us here. They’re filling the churches, they’re doing all the jobs that we need. I feel like especially here in the Diocese of Brooklyn, we’re very concerned because we are concerned about immigration, the separation of families. We’re concerned about a lot of things that are going on.”

Over the course of the year, the issues facing his community and the bigger context within the Church, have met at a crossroads of sorts. He attended the diocesan Encuentro at St. John’s University in Jamaica, last April, and the regional Encuentro held in Albany during June. From Sept. 20-23, he will join thousands of other Catholic Hispanics from around the country at the national V Encuentro in Grapevine, Texas.

“It’s more about all of us bringing all our ideas together and somehow coming up with solutions to the problems we have,” said Peña. “I think whether you bring it back to your diocese or your parish … that’s the most important thing, that we’re bringing something back to our diocese, to our parish and to our communities.”

Peña’s storyline could read off as a cradle Catholic – being obedient to his single-mother’s request to attend Mass with her and going to Catholic schools most of his life. Yet those personal duties didn’t bear personal fruit, even after he graduated Xaverian H.S. in Bay Ridge. He eventually stopped going to church entirely.

While he was away from the Church, God’s plan for his life never faltered. When it was time for him to apply for jobs, he kept getting denied. Except for one place – St. Agatha Church. The parish had a job opening as a sacristan and invited him to work for the church. At first, he was hesitant to start the job, having no clue as to what it entailed, and more importantly, he didn’t want to go back to church. Nonetheless, in dire need for a job, he accepted. That ‘yes’ allowed God’s grace to work more intimately in his life once again.

“I think it’s crazy how so many things come into your life,” he said. “I wanted to be happy and I couldn’t find that happiness in the world. I found my happiness there, so that’s how I became so attached to my church and the faith.”

Being attached to the church is an understatement for the second delegate, Laura Ramirez, a 33-year-old Mexican green-card holder who is half superwoman, half supermom. A parishioner at Blessed Sacrament, Jackson Heights, Ramirez splits her time among three roles within the Church that doesn’t include being a wife or the mother of a newborn. It includes being director of religious education at St. Augustine, Park Slope, and youth minister at Sacred Heart-St. Stephen’s in Carroll Gardens, as well as youth coordinator of the largely Hispanic Charismatic Renewal for the Spanish community. Her insight into the Church juxtaposed with her day-to-day experiences within the Hispanic community she represents can be used as a tool for the Catholic community at large.

“In the Spanish household, the problem is not the faith, it’s the language and understanding of my culture,” she said. “For example, at St. Augustine how they can embrace the new people is by embracing their culture. But instead of you changing us, you need to embrace us and welcome our faith the same way as you implemented your curriculum to us. Instead of judging us, embrace us.”

On Catechetical Sunday, Sept. 16, these two catechists formally met for the first time. The banter exchanged between the duo was enlightening and refreshing, a hopeful sign that echoes the words of Pope Francis that calls on the universal Church to embrace a culture of dialogue.

Two completely different people from two completely different backgrounds. But their selfless service, fervor and love for the faith and their the Church was nearly identical – except for one peculiar thing: the language they prefer for Mass.

“Technically, I should be going to English Mass, I was born here, but I don’t,” said Peña, the native New Yorker. “I don’t have the connection there, so it’s weird. The organ kills me, I can’t.  (Spanish Mass) plays the guitar, the piano, the keyboard, and you know the song. I can never follow the organ – that’s like a professional singer, but when it’s a whole bunch of people playing the guitar, it’s like our culture.”

Ramirez said her husband, an immigrant from El Salvador, will also only attend Spanish Mass. But for her, she prefers otherwise.  “I wasn’t born here, I was born in Mexico, but I go to English Mass,” she said. Tracing back to the days she came to the U.S. when she was seven years old, Ramirez remembered a social norm tied to that preference: assimilating to American culture.

“Maybe because my mom was like ‘you need to learn English because that’s what I brought you here for’ so that became my motivation every year.”

The two delegates will bring to the Encuentro table a unique perspective of what life is like in Brooklyn and Queens as part of the growing population of U.S. Catholics and how the Church must be able to harness their potential in order to properly serve this population. Peña said that in his faith formation classes, his students know their prayers – but in Spanish. So when someone asks them to say the Our Father in English, it might be a struggle.

“We have a parish Mass with all the faith formation kids and it’s in English,” he said, “so they don’t know the prayers in English … They know how to pray, but they don’t know how to pray in the language they should know how to pray.”

Ramirez countered: “You’re not giving them credit just because they don’t know it in English,” she said.  “Faith is faith no matter what language. That’s what we’re saying, for us to grow, you need to embrace our culture. For the Mexicans and in general, its a part of our identity, it’s not a question mark, its just who you are.”

If this is truly a sign of what is to come, the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church will be revitalized and reenergized by a wave of loyal, bilingual and missionary-focused new-age apostles.

Also see: Encuentro: A New Era for US Church