ST. FRANCIS — The Mater Christi Chapel in the Cousins Center was almost standing room only March 10 with mostly Latinos before the 8:30 a.m. Mass began. There was a 12-piece band equipped with acoustic, nylon and bass guitars, singers and other instruments.

But this was more than just a Mass; this was the annual Hispanic Eucharistic Congress which brings Latinos from all over the archdiocese together to not only celebrate, but to provide workshops on faith, family and life.

popecubaA man walks past a poster of Pope Benedict XVI in Havana March 3 during preparations for his upcoming visit to Cuba. The poster reads: “Along with Christ’s cross we await the pope” and “From 26th to 28th March 2012.” (CNS photo/stringer via Reuters) As the Mass began, women holding flags with pictures of doves emblazoned on them walked down the isle, waving the flags that gave the illusion of doves flying. Bishop Donald J. Hying celebrated the Mass in Spanish.

“It’s a new reality for the Catholic Church,” said Mario J. Paredes, presidential liaison to the United Nations for the American Bible Society and keynote speaker for the event. “There is a segment of the church that is not white, that is brown. And it is beautiful to see one of the bishops celebrate the Eucharist and tell the audience, ‘You are welcome, you are home.’”

Paredes said each area treats Catholic Latinos differently but it’s good that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee accepts the Latino community.

“Thank God that the Catholic Church welcomes members of the Catholic family that are less fortunate, that are poor, that are marginalized but deeply Catholic,” Paredes said. “In some places the church has done a remarkable job in integrating Hispanic Catholics, and in other places the church simply ignored them because the church doesn’t know them.”

Those in attendance were a mixture of the old and young generations, each of whom has approached Catholicism differently in recent years. Paredes said the older generation has had a stronger faith than its offspring, but there are organizations that are slowly changing that.

“There are many initiatives around the country reaching out to young Catholics through the practice of ‘lecticio devina,’ through the study of Scriptures and through all sorts of new movements,” Paredes said, noting that groups like the New Ecumenical Way and Jornada de Vida Cristiana are “flourishing.”

Despite a strong tradition of Catholic faith, in some areas Latinos have been leaving the church.

“The Protestant churches, they have risen in membership, they have looked to the Catholic community and they have attracted them with marriage devotions and (services),” Paredes said. “Hispanic Catholics look for a more house-style worshiping setting.”

Paredes talked to the audience after the Mass about the importance of the Bible as a reference and the importance for Catholics to “go back to the basics.”

“Not only Catholic Latinos, but Catholics in general… we all lack closeness with the Scriptures,” Paredes said. “The more that we learn (from) the magisterium of the church, regarding the Bible, the better that it’ll be for us as a Catholic family. To come closer, to scrutinize the Scriptures, to read the Scripture in a prayerful manner.”

For centuries, Paredes said, the church was distant from the Bible but now under Pope Benedict XVI, the “wise theologian,” the church has made more of an effort to engage people with the Bible.

In a workshop titled, “The Word of God, Matrimony and Family,” the room was full.

“This is what the people need,” Deacon Jorge Benavente said. “You see the room full because the people need this. There needs to be more focus on families.”

Deacon Benavente coordinates Hispanic ministry in the archdiocese and has spent the last 12 months organizing the event, originally planned to accommodate 400 people. Instead, 535 came.

Along with workshops and speakers, the hallways were lined with Spanish-language Catholic publications and literature on different ministries.

Deacon Benavente termed the event was a success. He added it was good for Paredes to fit a visit to Milwaukee into his busy schedule.

Paredes said the Hispanic Eucharistic Congress is a “hopeful” sign that the archdiocese is moving in the right direction to address its Latino congregations.

“It tells us that the church is moving to welcome and integrate Hispanic Catholics in the life of the diocesan church,” he said.

Recently, Paredes was picked by the pope to accompany him on his first trip to Cuba March 26-28. It marks the second time a pope has visited the country as Pope John Paul II visited in 1998 and Paredes also accompanied him.

Paredes said things have changed since the last papal visit. After that, churches were filled and Catholic hierarchy became involved with the community.

“Before John Paul II visited, the church did not have centers for adult training, formation and education,” Paredes said. “Today, all over Cuba, you have centers of training and formation for adults – run by the church; that’s the difference. Before the church couldn’t do anything public.”

Paredes said the state of the world economy and the cost of petroleum will affect the visit. The total cost for a person to go to Cuba for five days in 1998, Paredes said, was about $1,200 people. Now, it’s around $3,000.

“It makes a very expensive propsition to go to Cuba,” Paredes said. “In 1998, I brought over 700 people to Cuba; today I’m only bringing 40 people.”