At bilingual Youth Encuentro, Hispanic youth share encounter with Jesus

Ale Ruiz (left) and Nancy Patlan (right) listen as Daniel Villar greets the group of 70 youth on April 27, 2024, at St. Michael the Archangel, Glen Allen. (Photo/D. Hunter Reardon)

In English, the word “encuentro” means “an encounter.” That was what 70 youth and youth leaders were seeking when they met Saturday, April 27, at St. Michael the Archangel, Glen Allen, for the Youth Encuentro, a bilingual event for Spanish-speaking youth across the diocese.

Pope Francis has spoken frequently about the idea of “encounters” with Jesus throughout his papacy, and he made it a theme of his homily during the opening Mass at the Synod on Synodality in 2021.

“[Jesus] is open to encounter. Nothing leaves Jesus indifferent; everything is of concern to him. Encountering faces, meeting eyes, sharing each individual’s history,” said the pope. “That is the closeness that Jesus embodies. He knows that someone’s life can be changed by a single encounter.”

Echoing Pope Francis’ direction, diocesan Office of Ethnic Ministries director Daniel Villar encouraged the youth to encounter Jesus in one another, at Mass and in the sacraments.

“To develop a relationship with Jesus, you guys have to find a place to connect,” said Villar. “God, through Jesus, wants to have a close, loving relationship with you.”

The days’ festivities included icebreaker games, a reflective exercise, a catered lunch from Chicken Fiesta, and a question-and-answer session.

After a morning bingo game that required the youth to ask each other questions, Villar led participants into the church, then directed them to go to the location within the church where they felt Jesus was calling them.

‘I need Jesus Christ in my life’

The 70 youth and youth leaders spread throughout the church, many congregating at key spots, like the altar, baptismal font, statue of Mary and choir loft. Others chose particular stained-glass windows or sculptures.

“Think about the place you went initially, the place that calls your attention,” Villar instructed. “That is where Jesus is trying to reach you.”

“If you went to choir loft, perhaps Jesus is calling you to a relationship with him through music. For those who went to the statue of Mary, Jesus is calling you through his mother,” he continued. “For those who went to the altar, Jesus is calling you to meet him here, at this table, in your heart.”

After giving participants a moment to share, one person from each group rotated and explained their choice to a new group.

“I chose the baptismal font, because of the sound of the water, the tranquility, the peace, and the renewal of baptism,” said Raquel Imbachi, from St. Jude, Mineral.

Josue Silva, from Our Lady of Lourdes, Richmond, said that he chose the stained-glass window of the Wedding at Cana because it illustrated the initiation of Jesus’ worldly ministry.

Admin Reynoso, from the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Blackstone, said he chose the altar, because, “I need Jesus Christ in my life. Here, all of our suffering goes away; here, I feel free.”

Nancy Patlan and Ale Ruiz, both from Our Lady of Lourdes, were both initially drawn to the large stained-glass window depicting the Bread of Life discourse in John’s Gospel. However, when they reached their destination, they turned around, and from their new vantage point, they could see an image depicting Christ’s baptism.

Patlan said that both she and Ruiz struggled at first to attend confirmation classes, but have since renewed their commitment. The picture of Jesus being baptized spoke deeply to both of them.

“Seeing that image of the baptism reminded us, ‘The doors are open. You’re welcome whenever,’” said Patlan.

Villar related to Patlan and Ruiz, discussing his experience as a young man and explaining that, when he was being confirmed, he felt compelled to do so by familial and social pressures. It wasn’t until he was older that he realized, “Jesus wants us to go to him when we are ready. He doesn’t want to force us into a relationship.”

“Young people need to have a point of connection with the Church and with God,” Villar later told the group. “We just need to find those doors and walk through them.”

‘Starting right now’

After a short break, Villar opened the floor to faith-based questions before lunch. He was met by a range of deep theological and historical questions: Do angels have free will? (Yes.) Does religion conflict with science? (No.) Does Mary grant miracles? (Only through Jesus.) Why do Protestants have seven fewer books in their Bible? (The answer came in a detailed history lesson.) Why are there “apocryphal” books like the Book of Enoch? (The answer led to an even more detailed history lesson.)

“These kids are taking me back to college,” said Villar, who holds a master’s degree in Catholic theology.

Everardo Sosa, a youth leader at Our Lady of Lourdes, said that the day was a successful opportunity for his group to connect with the broader diocese, and for him, personally, to stand in the shoes of the youth.

Currently, there is a group of 30 youth ushers for the Spanish Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes. Sosa says there is a need at the parish to form an organized Hispanic youth group that participates in other activities, too.

“In order to do that, I need to unite with what young people feel, what they think, what happens in their daily lives,” said Sosa. “I need to think like they think in order to choose the right words to give them guidance and advice.”

Cesar Rivas, a leader from Incarnation, Charlottesville, addressed the group, saying, “We are all vehicles. Let us not make the mistake of others who preceded us, who said, ‘When I am an adult, I will follow Jesus.’ Let’s follow him starting right now.”


Lee la historia en español.


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