WASHINGTON, DC - Pope Francis will bless a five-foot tall wooden cross, known as "the Cross of the Encuentros" in Philadelphia later this month. The cross symbolizes the journey of faith of Hispanic/Latino Catholics in the United States. The blessing will take place Saturday, Sept. 26, upon his arrival to Independence Mall.
"The blessings of the cross will be a very symbolic moment that will uniquely crystalize Pope Francis' stated desire to encounter Hispanic Catholics during his pastoral visit to the United States," said Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church. "In this cross, the pope will be blessing more that the object itself. He will bless a people, a process, a history, a shared journey of faith."
Encuentro is a three-year ecclesial process of missionary activity, consultation, leadership development and pastoral discernment in parishes, dioceses and episcopal regions that culminates with a national event. The process is convened by the U.S. Catholic bishops and a primary outcome of the Encuentro process is to discern pastoral practices and priorities to impact the quality of ministry among Hispanic Catholics.
Hispanics represent nearly 40 percent of all Catholics in the United States, and more than 50 percent of Catholics under 35. "We find in Hispanic Catholics a renewed hope for families that are evangelizing and missionary, promoters of vocations, attentive to the existential peripheries, defenders of the poor, and who claim their right to live out their faith in liberty and with justice, in this great nation of many cultures and peoples," said Bishop Gerald Barnes of San Bernardino, California, chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs. "The symbolism of this blessing occurring in the cradle of liberty and independence in our nation should not be overlooked."
A symbol of past and future Encuentros, the cross blessed by the pope in Philadelphia will be the banner of the Fifth National Encuentro on Hispanic Ministry, set to begin in January 2017 under the theme of Hispanic People: Joyful Disciples in Mission. The cross will travel to dioceses throughout the United States, as parishes, dioceses and episcopal regions undergo their own local Encuentro process. It will then preside over the national Encuentro gathering envisioned for the fall of 2018. Echoing Pope Francis' emphasis on mission and evangelization, the Fifth Encuentro sees Hispanic Catholics as "missionary disciples" to the Church in the United States and beyond.
Although American Catholicism has strong, centuries-old Hispanic roots, in the South and Western areas of the United States, the Encuentros have s been a key element in the growth of Hispanic ministry across the country in the last 50 years.
Convened by the U.S. bishops, the process takes place under the leadership of the diocesan bishop aided locally by numerous lay and religious leaders and Catholic organizations. "It is fundamentally a process of the people," said Bishop Barnes. "Always walking in communion with their pastors."