Walking with jóvenes who are discerning their vocation

Walking with jóvenes who are discerning their vocation

By Sister Ana Cecilia Montalvo F.Sp.S.


The author (second from right) with some of the young people she has come to know through her ministry.

The faces of the many young men and women I have accompanied on their vocational journey come to my mind and heart as I take up this topic of accompaniment of jóvenes (young people). I have met them in campus ministries, parishes, regional retreats and national encounters. I pray to the Holy Spirit, the Soul of Vocation Direction, for enlightenment for all of us who give guidance to the jóvenes that God keeps calling to build the reign of God.

I hope to share insights and movements of the Spirit that I have been integrating into my vocation ministry to Hispanic/Latino young adults, especially first, second, and third generations of jóvenes discerning their call. I am not pretending to offer a recipe or a manual. No ministry has a recipe. Rather I will share my own experiences, strategies, and processes that allow us to journey together.

Clarifying terms

Terms such as Hispanic and Latino tend to be used interchangeably when they refer to two different realities. In this article I consider the following distinctions: Hispanics are people who speak Spanish or are descendants from a culture that speaks Spanish, arriving from more than 20 different countries, and Latinos are those who trace their roots to Latin America. I will be referring to the “jóvenes” as both Latinos and Hispanics, aware of the diversity among them.

When I speak about jóvenes, I refer to a great number of men and women who seek to flourish and have a better quality of life than their parents. Jóvenes seek a place where they belong and are accepted for who they are, with all their cultural richness. For the majority of those I minister with here in San Antonio, Spanish is spoken at home, and it is the language in which they express their faith. However, at school and work, jóvenes tend to communicate in English or a mix of both, which we call Spanglish.

Signs of the times

Our country and our church are becoming increasingly Hispanic. “More than 40 percent of all Catholics in the country are Hispanic, and 60 percent of Catholics under 18 are Hispanic. Of these, more than 90 percent were born in the United States” explains Hosffman Ospino, Ph.D., and Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, Ph.D. in a report on Catholic schools and the U.S. church. The other 10 percent of jóvenes either are undocumented immigrants who came here as young adults, or they are “dreamers,” people brought to the U.S. as children and raised here but who never obtained documents.

The V Encuentro National Research team report tells us that the regions with a majority of Hispanic Catholics are in the Southwest and California. In recent years several religious congregations have settled in these areas to minister and to open formation houses because of this demographic reality.

This data shows the importance of being physically present and interacting with jóvenes in campus ministry and in the Pastoral Juvenil [youth ministry]. We need to come to know them better, journey with them, and cultivate relationships, including relationships that involve religious life discernment.

Looking beyond colleges and universities, we can find jóvenes in many places vocation promoters visit. The jóvenes we have encountered surely come into our moments of prayer and inspire us to ask ourselves: “How can we accompany them as Jesus would?” The poet Federico Garcia Lorca says, “There are souls that you lean toward, like a sun-filled window.” The souls of our jóvenes are open and manifest new horizons. Let us move to encounter them.

The signs of the times in the church of the United States are inviting us to open doors to the youth of other cultures, races, and nations, and especially at this time to open our doors to our jóvenes. Even though the predominant culture in our religious communities might be of European or Asian descent, it is time to prepare our communities to embrace those who may look and speak differently. The prophet Joel says, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” (Joel 3:1). The dreams we carry in our hearts and the visions jóvenes see, can breathe freshness to our charism and mission, helping us value new faces, novelty, and diversity. jóvenes enrich our communities with values such as solidarity, a desire to share life and faith, and generosity in both work and fiesta!

To better accompany and invite jóvenes, we must know something about their culture, a very large topic indeed, but let’s examine a few basics.

Family first

Family ties are very important for Hispanics/Latinos. The mother is critically important to the family because she has moral authority with both her children and grandchildren. Mothers summon and gather everyone to the table and to the altar. It is not unusual to see jóvenes attending Mass with their family or being present at family meals. For “the Mass and the table” give us fellowship that we celebrate as a family.

Motherhood is an important goal for women in Hispanic/Latino culture, and a mother is expected to sacrifice for her children and take care of elderly relatives. When we work with young women, we need to introduce them to spiritual motherhood as part of a Catholic sister’s wholeness as a woman. As a female pastoral minister, I see women (and here speaking specifically of Hispanic/Latino women) as having a maternal sensitivity that is much needed in today’s church and world. St. John Paul II, in his Letter to Women, talks about spiritual motherhood having an “inestimable value for the development of individuals and the future of society” and the church.

As we accompany jóvenes in their vocational discernment, working with their mothers and indeed the whole family is key. “Mi casa es tu casa” is a very popular expression among Hispanics/Latinos. Visiting the family in their own home, sharing with them at table, and getting to know them at a personal level becomes part of the vocation accompaniment.

In the Archdiocese of San Antonio, we tend to integrate family members into retreats and other vocational experiences. We offer the parents information and formation talks. This way parents learn about the process their children are taking part in. We involve the family by asking them to pray for their son or daughter attending the retreat and inviting them to the closing activity. The presence of the entire family, which comes to celebrate and congratulate the joven, always catches our attention. There are even times the family comes with a present.

Strong family ties are sometimes the reason an interest in religious life slows down. When a joven finishes his or her career preparation, especially when parents worked hard to help pay for college, there is a family expectation that the child will work to return that investment. For this reason some young people feel a duty to work and contribute economically to the family following their schooling. Once on a vocation retreat with jóvenes in their last year of college, I asked about their goals. A main priority was to work hard to help their families. It is here where the vocation director should walk patiently with the joven, so he or she may discover how to respond in a free and profound way to God’s call. For we know that God does not say “yes” and then “no”; God’s “YES” is permanent and forever faithful. At the same time, we should accompany the family, especially the parents, in a manner in which they can recognize that their adult child is not wasting his or her life and education or behaving ungratefully. We build a relationship so the family recognizes that their joven is accepting God’s invitation to love and serve as Jesus did. Indeed it is not an easy or quick task; therefore, prayer, closeness to the family, and help from the family’s pastor can be of great support.

El sabor of the Hispanic faith

For many Hispanic/Latino families, it is important to pass the faith down from one generation to the next. Different religious traditions are preserved thanks to the family, especially the grandparents. Religiosidad popular (popular religiosity) plays a significant role in the life of faith of many jóvenes. As we walk with them, it is important to understand the meaning they give to celebrations such as La Virgen de Guadalupe, pilgrimages, family prayer (especially the rosary), novenas, devotion to saints, and other celebrations. In the post-synod apostolic exhortation Christus Vivit (Christ is Alive), Pope Francis said that “the variety of the manifestations of popular piety attract young people who do not readily feel at home in ecclesial structures and represent a concrete sign of their trust in God” (238).

Likewise, it is fundamental to recognize that in some parts of the U.S. the majority of the younger generation, especially the first and second generation, have received their faith in Spanish. Some have even told me, “Sister, I speak with God in Spanish.” Research from 1995 showed 61 percent of Hispanic young adult leaders spoke at least as much Spanish as they did English. Although most of the jóvenes I encounter are English-speaking and grow up embracing many of the values of the larger U.S. culture, they are also influenced by the Spanish language and a faith mediated through Hispanic cultural narratives and symbols. We can say that their faith has sabor (flavor) and meaning in Spanish.

The reality of Hispanic/Latino Catholics is shifting as much as the rest of society. Vocation promoters must pay careful attention to the secularizing trends of U.S. culture. Secularization has certainly affected the Hispanic community. In a report about Hispanics and the American church Hosffman Ospino affirms that the secularization of Hispanics is a major threat to the future of the Catholic Church in America. He reports that only 10 percent of Hispanic Catholic children attend Catholic schools, and fewer and fewer Hispanics under 30 attend church. A whole generation of Catholics may be disconnecting from the church.

Hispanic vocation in the U.S.

Secularization trends aside, culture continues to influence our vocation ministry approach with jóvenes. The majority of the Hispanic/Latino Catholic families I know still respect and value the figure of the nun, priest, and brother. Among Hispanics/Latinos who have relatives in Mexico or Latin America, it is common to find some family member who has consecrated their life to God.

In the United States, religious life is no longer the white American enclave it used to be. Studies from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) report that newer entrants today are more likely to be non-Caucasian than in the past. Every year the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, working with CARA, releases an annual report on the new “entrance class” of those beginning formation. In 2019 15 percent of new entrants were Hispanic/Latino. These individuals could be born in the U.S., born elsewhere, be native Spanish speakers, or be native English speakers.

And they may or may not have citizenship papers. When it comes to citizenship documents, an important question vocation directors must ask themselves is: “How open am I to accompany all the jóvenes who walk in my door?” In process of accompaniment, we will encounter jóvenes with different migration histories and different legal statuses. Such situations can be overwhelming to a vocation director, as well as to a joven in discernment. However, our mission calls us to walk with them and become more familiar with the possibilities, so that a joven in discernment can find accompaniment when they knock at our door, instead of simply a no.

It is useful to know a little about migration law. We draw closer to their reality when we know the complications and consequences of lacking legal immigrant status and when we can offer possible options to them. The following options could work in some cases, but each case is unique and has its own risks and possibilities. We present options to the joven, being clear about both the possibilities and risks. In the end she or he is the one to make the final decision about how to proceed. Some possible options for the undocumented who wish to join a religious order:

• If a community has formation houses in Mexico or Latin America, the joven could begin formation there while his or her case is resolved.

• Sometimes a vocation director or diocese on the border to Mexico can arrange for formation there.

• The candidate might find a religious community or seminary in her or his own country of origin.

When a joven asks for a waiver, the process of legal status resolution tends to take between three to 10 years. Again each case is unique.

Room for improvement

No matter what the legal status is of jóvenes, our ministry of accompaniment is important, and therefore we must build up our ministry with them. The document that came out of the V Encuentro acknowledged that vocation ministry among jóvenes is weak, and there are insufficient intentional Hispanic vocation ministry efforts, as well as an overall lack of institutional support for Hispanic youth, young adult and pastoral juvenil ministries. There are also few opportunities for Hispanic culture vocation retreats at local and regional levels. This reality causes us to ponder that even though there is high respect for priests and religious in Hispanic families, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a true culture of vocations exists, allowing religious vocations to flourish. We still need to reach out to the families, especially the jóvenes.

We must accompany them, walk at their side, and create a vocational environment where they feel at home and can take vocation discernment seriously. A vocation director can understand and learn how to accompany a joven simply by walking with him or her and having the capacity to communicate and work across cultural boundaries. There is no other way.

To help orient ourselves for this, it is essential to connect with Catholic institutions that work with jóvenes, such as La Red, National Catholic Network of Pastoral Juvenil, Asociación de Hermanas Latinas Misioneras en America, El Instituto de Fe y Vida, and Mexican American Catholic College. Each of these groups can be located with a simple Internet search. These institutions can contribute with valuable resources and educational opportunities to enhance your knowledge of Hispanic/Latino culture, especially of jóvenes.

I believe all vocation directors should be familiar with the National V Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry, a priority initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. One of the aims of this Encuentro is to reflect on how Catholics can reach out, engage, and affirm Hispanic Catholic youth and young adults. For more information about the V Encuentro see vencuentro.org.

Finally we must not forget that our vocation ministry is one of sowing and cultivating. The fruits of our labors can take longer than we expect. It requires us to be proficient in accompaniment and to have faith in the Master of the harvest. We need passion to manifest the beauty of religious and priestly vocations and foster hope in a new generation. May the Holy Spirit, the giver of wisdom and understanding, the creator of communion and encuentros, teach us how to journey with our jóvenes—to embrace them in all their cultural richness, so we may see a blossoming of new disciples eager to serve the church and world.

Sister Ana Cecilia Montalvo, F.Sp.S. has been a member of the Congregation of Daughters of the Holy Spirit since 1996. Originally from Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico, her apostolic service has been mainly with adolescents and youth. Currently she is the assistant vocation director in the Vocation Office of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas.



Published on: 2020-07-31

Edition: 2020 HORIZON No. 3 Summer


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