U.S. Hispanic/Latino Catholics Protagonists in an Emerging Synodal Church

Ellie Hidalgo

A few days before the Working Document for the global Synod on Communion, Participation and Mission was released, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved its National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry. Taken together, the two documents can assist U.S. Hispanic/Latino Catholics to discern what is ours to contribute to renewing the Church’s mission in the third millennium. It is heartening that Catholics are being encouraged to listen for God’s invitation to contribute to the Church’s mission and thereby become protagonists in the present and future of our faith. Here are five areas for consideration: 

  1. Conversation in the Spirit 

This October when bishops, clergy, religious and lay men and women gather at the Vatican for the global Synod Assembly, central to their work will be the practice of listening and discernment as detailed in the Instrumentum Laboris (IL). In small groups, voting members will use the methodology of “conversation in the Spirit,” an 8-step process based in the practice of listening to one another’s experiences, discovering points of resonance and resistance, taking time to prayerfully reflect on what is being heard, discerning the authentic voice of the Spirit and growing in communion and a shared sense of mission (IL p. 13-16). Conversation in the Spirit reminds us of the joy of the Gospel in that, “whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God” (EG 272).

The “conversation in the Spirit methodology” will be used to deliberate sets of questions for discernment in 15 worksheets published in the IL. The questions focus on three priority issues for a synodal Church – communion, mission and participation. And index of themes and populations referenced in the IL is provided here.

For our global Catholic Church to become truly synodal, millions of Catholics will need to practice and build their capacities for engaging in conversations in the Spirit all over the world. The IL names this as a priority, “Formation for conversation in the Spirit is formation to be a synodal Church” (IL 42). In the U.S., Hispanic/Latino Catholics have decades of experience in the Encuentro methodology” which emphasizes listening, dialogue, discernment and accompaniment. We can become early adopters of the synodal method and can, with confidence, propose listening sessions in our parishes, schools, and Catholic institutions to gather in small groups and deliberate the synod’s worksheets to discern what is ours to do at the local level. We can even listen to members of our extended family. 

  1. Listening to our own Hispanic/Latino family members

As a Catholic child growing up in the U.S. with Cuban parents, I benefitted from a healthy sense of belonging to an institution that welcomed immigrants, refugees, and exiles. The Catholic Church was a place to stay connected to your family roots through an enculturated faith that valued our language, devotions, hymns, and foods. 

At the time, we could not have known that the next generation of young Hispanic/Latino Catholics would come of age with an institution reckoning with the clergy sex abuse scandal, along with many other challenges to include those on the margins. For many younger Catholics, the institutional Church has too often been a source of shame they are vulnerable to internalizing. 

According to a report by the Pew Research Center, as of 2022, 43% of Hispanic adults in the U.S. identify as Catholic, down from 67% in 2010. During the initial listening and continental phases of the synod many elder Hispanic/Latino Catholics said they feel the loss of family unity when grown children or grandchildren no longer participate in the Eucharistic liturgy and Sunday gatherings have to be renegotiated. 

Millennials who choose to stay in the Church often feel lonely; they notice that many of their peers are missing. As Catalina Morales recently wrote, “As a weaver, it's as if a piece of our fabric was torn off and the strings that are left hanging by themselves are those of us still in the pews — half there, half ripped apart.”

Despite these daunting challenges, in many places where the synodal methodology has been put into practice, Catholics experience a renewed sense of engagement and hope that faith communities can heal from past abuses. The IL also acknowledges the major role women play in transmitting the faith in families and asks how the Church can better recognize, support and accompany women’s considerable contribution as the Church becomes increasingly synodal (B2.3 Q1). 

The National Plan for Hispanic/Latino ministry asserts the need for new faith formation models and materials “that respond to the current diverse and generational reality of Hispanic/Latino individuals and families by welcoming and preparing them to share their gifts in the Church and society” (p. 27).  

  1. Engage Catholic Social Teaching – particularly on immigration 

About 2.3 percent of the world’s people — 184 million persons, including 37 million refugees — live outside their country of nationality. The complex migration issue, which is influenced by wars, violence and the changing climate, will continue to polarize civic engagement in U.S. and the around the world. The IL invites Catholics to shine the light of faith on these global concerns. The first worksheet to be taken up by the Synod Assembly asks broadly, “How does the service of charity and commitment to justice and care for our common home nourish communion in a synodal Church?” (B1.1). A more specific question asks, “How can welcoming migrants become an opportunity to walk with people from another culture, especially when we share the same faith?” (B1.1 Q4).

Hispanic/Latino Catholics have a depth of experiences concerning migration to contribute to local discernment conversations. And in addition to the IL and the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry, the Catholic bishops of Mexico and the U.S. published a joint pastoral letter earlier this year with guiding principles to inform our discernment. Our voices and our experience are needed in our local parishes, dioceses and in the public square. 

  1. Building bridges with the Latin American & Caribbean Church

U.S. Hispanic/Latino Catholics often maintain ties to our countries of origin which creates unique opportunities for Churches to walk together by creating links with Churches in the migrants’ countries of origin, something the IL encourages (B1.1 Q4). 

Earlier this summer, I journeyed to the Amazon region of Brazil to foster these links and to discern how we in the U.S. can grow in solidarity with faith communities in Latin America. 

Sr. Laura Vicuña Pereira Manso, vice-president of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon (CEAMA) told us: “We can’t renew the church if we don't also renew our common home. The best contribution we can make from the Amazon is to call the world to care for our common home.”

The IL acknowledges that “caring for our common home calls for shared action” and a commitment “of the whole human family” (B1.1). Many of our U.S. Hispanic/Latino young people are particularly concerned about sustaining a healthy planet. Supporting their efforts to be protagonists in this area can provide opportunities for encounter and collaboration between North America and Latin America and the Caribbean.

We also have much to learn from the Latin American Church and its robust engagement with the synod process. In reflecting on the Latin American synodal experience thus far, Daniel De Ycaza, SJ, and Mauricio López Oropeza recognize listening as a gift. Synodality throughout Latin America has worked best when acknowledging fragility, limitations, and sinfulness in order to experience God’s transformational grace. The central question for reflection is the following: “In what ways have we been transformed – personally, communally and as a Church – by the experience of encountering and listening to the God of life through the real voices of God’s people, especially the most ‘unlikely,’ and toward what new paths have we been guided?” 

If we in the U.S. have not yet experienced conversion of our hearts through the synodal process, all is not lost. Synodality as a practice is still a seed of potential in many of our faith communities. We can hear in the Latin American experience the invitation to see opportunities to listen as a gift and a grace, particularly to those at the margins. 

  1. Contribute to the re-imagining of ministry roles 

The IL encourages the faithful to imagine what kinds of ministry roles and formation are needed for a synodal Church. It is here that the vision for the renewal of the Church has its greatest potential by returning the Church to its roots of calling on all the gifts of the baptized. Numerous questions in the IL will be deliberated including possible changes in canon law to foster synodal practices among bishops, priests, deacons, religious and lay people. To highlight a few:  

B3.1 Q3 – What elements are necessary in forming Church leaders for the exercise of authority? How can formation in the method of authentic and insightful conversation in the Spirit be encouraged?

B3.1 Q4 – How can seminaries and houses of formation be reformed so that they form candidates for ordained Ministry who will develop a manner of exercising authority that is appropriate to a synodal Church? 

B3.2 Q2 – How can conversation in the Spirit, which opens up the dynamism of community discernment, contribute to the renewal of decision-making processes in the Church? How can it be drawn more centrally into the formal life of the Church and so become an ordinary practice? What changes in canon law are needed to facilitate this? 

The question of rethinking women’s participation in the Church has emerged as a central question during the synod’s diocesan and continental phases. It will be taken up at the Synod Assembly through worksheet B2.3 which focuses on two pages of discernment questions that would allow the Church to better recognize the baptismal dignity of women as the foundation for greater inclusion in governance and decision-making processes. 

This worksheet names remote places and challenging social contexts as places areas where lay and consecrated women are frequently the main agents of pastoral care and evangelization. A discernment question asks what new ministries could be created to increase the dynamics of co-responsibility and shared decision making between women in ministry and clergy (B2.3 Q3E).

The question about including women in the diaconate is also named, acknowledging that most of the Continental Assemblies and the synthesis of several Episcopal Conferences ask for women’s inclusion in the diaconate to be considered. “Is it possible to envisage this, and in what way?” (B2.3 Q4) 

Worksheet B 2.2 focuses on discerning what can be done so that a co-responsible, synodal Church is also an ‘all ministerial’ missionary Church. It is here that numerous questions are asked about encouraging the participation of the laity, including recognizing the charisms, vocations, and competencies of individuals as well as that of movements and associations. 

The National Plan for Hispanic Ministry affirms that the Encuentros of Hispanic/Latino ministry in the U.S. have embodied the synodal journey. For decades the Encuentros have formed Hispanic/Latino Catholics for their protagonism by mastering the art of accompaniment; in fostering a culture of encounter and going forth as gente-puente to reach out to the peripheries; and in developing co-responsible models of comunidades eclesiales de base and pastoral de conjunto which use an effective methodology of strategic planning in following the pastoral circle method of See-Judge-Act (also known as See-Discern-Act). 

Part of the synodal journey in the U.S. is the National Eucharistic Revival. Becoming a listening, dialoguing, discerning, reconciling People of God able to walk together into the future is not easy. More than ever receiving the Body of Christ in the Eucharist will provide the graces needed for the synodal journey. 

As we pray for the Vatican’s first Synod Assembly taking place in October, we are invited to keep discerning our call to be protagonists for a synodal, listening Church. Synodality offers hope for experiencing the healing our faith communities need, for imagining ways we can walk forward together, and for affirming one another’s giftedness rooted in Baptism. By strengthening our communion, sense of mission and participation, we can experience deeper conversion and bring the light of Christ to those most in need – including our families. 

Ellie Hidalgo is based in Miami and serves as co-director of Discerning Deacons, an organization that has been training synod animators and organizing synodal consultations across the US and beyond. Previously, she worked for 12 years on the leadership team of Dolores Mission Catholic Church in Los Angeles.