By MARY REZAC     5/2/2018

Denver, Colo., May 1, 2018 / 07:00 pm (CNA/EWTN News) – In 2015, the average American Catholic was a middle-aged white woman married to a Catholic spouse, according to sociologists researching Catholic demographics.

But in a few years’ time, changing demographics mean that the average American Catholic is likely to be younger, less likely to be married, and will probably be more devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe than to Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Patrick of Ireland, or St. Bridget of Sweden.

In 2016, the Hispanic population in the U.S. reached 58 million, comprising 18 percent of the population and the second-largest ethnic group behind whites. As the Hispanic population of the nation changes, the makeup of the Church will change too.

Hispanics made up about 40 percent of the Church in the United States in 2016, with especially large representation among youth and young adults: 50 percent of Catholics ages 14 to 29 are Hispanic; and 55 percent of Catholics under 14 are Hispanic. Though immigration rates from Hispanic countries have begun to slow in recent years, the percentage of Hispanic Catholics in the US is expected to continue growing during the next decade.

In response to these shifting demographics, the U.S. bishops have called for a meeting called the V Encuentro- Fifth Encounter- a national gathering of U.S. Hispanic leaders and ministers held in order to consult with Hispanic Catholics and respond to their pastoral needs. The first Encuentro was held in 1972, and the most recent was held in 2000, with a related youth meeting held in 2006.

According to a letter issued by the U.S. bishops’ conference, the V Encuentro is an opportunity “to listen with profound attention to the needs, challenges and aspirations that the growing Hispanic/Latino population faces in daily life. It especially prepares us as a Church to better recognize, embrace, and promote the many gifts and talents that the Hispanic community shares in the life and mission of the Church and in the society.”

Over the past several months, local and regional meetings have convened to prepare for the national V Encuentro (Fifth Encounter), to be held in Grapevine, Texas Sept. 20-23.

“The main objective (of Encuentro) is to find new ways of responding to the Hispanic and Latino presence in the Church, and for Hispanics and Latinos to better respond as missionary disciples in service to the entire Church,” Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, Assistant Director of Hispanic affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said in a video message produced by the bishops’ conference.

The themes of these meetings have centered on encountering the needs of Hispanic Catholics, and empowering them to become missionary disciples.

They have also particularly focused on reaching out to young Hispanics, especially second- and third- generation Hispanics who have inherited their parents’ Catholicism but have been immersed in the culture of the United States for their whole lives. An estimated 60 percent of Catholics under the age of 18 are Hispanic.

“That means that the Catholic Church in the U.S. really needs to invest in this population, because whatever happens with these young women and men will have an impact in the life of the church,” Dr. Hosffman Ospino, assistant professor at Boston College, said in the video message.

Many of the regional Encuentros took place in March and April, in preparation for the September gathering. Areas of pastoral concern raised at the gatherings included the evangelization of youth and young adults, faith formation for families, and immigration, among other concerns.

Delegates from numerous regional encuentros said they were optimistic about the national meeting following the regional gatherings.

Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis attended the regional gathering of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota in April.

“I was so impressed with the spirit of the people here and their enthusiasm, especially for ‘going out.’ …To see the enthusiasm and their fire for that is so encouraging,” Cozzens said, according to The Catholic Spirit.

Cozzens said that after the meeting he wanted to focus specifically on strengthening families, youth formation and evangelization. He encouraged attendees who have had an encounter with Jesus Christ to become missionaries to others.

“Sending out missionary disciples is not just changing the lives of others. It is changing our own lives, the lives of our fellow parishioners and also of the lives of the people we meet,” he said. “When we have these types of experiences, we feel that Christ is with us, and these moments are so important because we can experience exactly what the disciples experienced. We can be, in these important moments, prophets of hope that the world desperately needs.”

Abelardo Hernandez, a delegate from Rhode Island at the Northeast regional gathering in March, told Rhode Island Catholicthat what struck him about the gather was “that everything flowed with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. We could feel the love of God that manifested within us as we shared with brothers and sisters from different parishes in dialogues focused on continuing our evangelization.”

Fr. Michael Tobin of Kentucky said in an editorial for The Record that the regional gathering in Florida in March brought “forward the voices of the faithful. Our hard work to advise our bishops on what is flourishing in ministry and what is lagging will promote fresh action across the southeast and the entire country.”

Pope Francis also issued a video message for the national V Encuentro, and said he had been “impressed by the vitality and the diversity of the Catholic community,” in the United States that he witnessed during his 2015 visit to the U.S. for the World Meeting of Families.

“Throughout history the church in your country has welcomed and integrated new waves of immigrants…they have shaped the changing face of the American church,” he said.

Not only does V Encuentro seek to “acknowledge and value the specific gifts that Hispanics have offered and continue to offer to the church in your country”, he said, “it’s more than that. It’s part of a greater process of renewal and missionary outreach, one to which all of your local churches are called. Our great challenge is to create a culture of encounter which encourages individuals and groups to share the riches (of their culture).”

He assured Encuentro participants of his prayers for the meeting and commended the work to Mary Immaculate.

“I ask you to consider how your local churches can best respond to the growing presence, gifts and potential of the Hispanic community,” he said. He also prayed that the Encuentro would “bear fruit for the renewal of American society and for the Church’s apostolate in the United States.”