MIAMI GARDENS | When Emily Lantigua was 19, she made her first retreat with Encuentros Juveniles, the official youth movement of the Archdiocese of Miami.
“I had just graduated from high school and I was looking for a community,” she recalled.
Encuentros Juveniles (Youth Encounters) welcomes young people between the ages of 14 to 25 to participate in weekly formation meetings, monthly projects and retreats, all geared toward creating Christian leaders in the community.
For Lantigua, it was also a family tradition, as her sisters and mom had participated in the movement.
“I remember thinking how cool and special it was that in Miami, where everything changes, I get to grow my faith in the same way my mom grew her faith,” said Lantigua, who now serves as the group’s general coordinator.
Since 1973, Encuentros Juveniles has helped young people grow in faith, serve the community, and spread the word of God. The movement began as an effort to promote the spiritual welfare of Hispanic youths in South Florida. But throughout the decades, members also have led retreats for young people in Orlando, Houston, Alabama, Puerto Rico, India and China.
This year, the movement is celebrating its 50th anniversary, a legacy of formation, and friendships forged along the way, which is on display in an exhibition inaugurated Jan. 31, 2023 at the Archbishop John C. Favalora Archive and Museum at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens.
The exhibit showcases photos, art, and memorabilia of the group. Archbishop Thomas Wenski, a former Encuentrista, celebrated the opening by celebrating a Mass with priests who have helped out in the movement, and about 35 Encuentristas of all ages.
“In the Encuentros, young people enthusiastically, without fear or shame, share the witness of their faith with their peers, and in doing so introduce them to Jesus Christ,” the archbishop said at the Mass.
Jose Ros, who completed his first retreat in the 1990s, said Encuentros is where he experienced a true conversion. At the time, about 100 or more members made up the group. “To me, it caught my attention that there were so many young people talking to me about Jesus back then,” he said.
And if talking about Jesus with people his age wasn’t enough of a conversion point, he also had the opportunity to live out his faith by portraying Jesus in a Passion play. Put on by the group around Easter time, Ros’ wife Claudia, also an Encuentrista, said it was one of the key moments in solidifying her faith.
“The Passion play was huge because it was something that got so many kids connected” and reflecting on the passion of Christ, said Claudia, who reminisced while looking at photos of the performance on display at the exhibition.
Other photos captured “romerías,” day-long carnival-like events celebrating Hispanic heritage; sporting events; their original home at the Youth Center located on the grounds of Immaculata-La Salle High; retreats around the world; Thanksgiving food drives; and even an encounter with St. John Paul II during his papal visit to Miami in September 1987.
As Father Jose Luis Menendez, pastor of Corpus Christi Church in Miami and a former chaplain to Encuentros Juveniles, viewed the exhibit, he could not help but laugh a little at his introduction to the group. He was 33, newly arrived from Spain, when Miami Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman asked him to take over as the group’s chaplain. He had no idea what Encuentros Juveniles was or what they were about, and if that wasn’t enough, he had never worked with youths or young adults.
“During his first retreat, he sat in the back observing and listening,” said Blanca Malagon, who was 17 at the time and an assistant director for the group.
Father Menendez quickly learned the power of youth leading youth.
“Who did the converting? They did. What did I do? Nothing. Nothing of what I said mattered. No matter how perfect it was theologically, it did not matter. Theirs, with all of its imperfections, was worth 100 times more,” said Father Menendez.
And now, more than ever, he said Encuentros Juveniles is a necessity, “because with this gigantic immigration of people who are not evangelized, no one will reach them unless by way of another young person.”
“They’ll know down the road in their lives that faith is the only thing that helps you,” Malagon said. “Encuentros stays with you for life, and you keep ‘encountering’ throughout the years. The community that you build is part of the legacy.”
From Encuentros #1 to the recent Encuentros #215, Encuentristas cannot help but feel grateful for the journey and the movement that brought so many of them together, and continues to do so.
“As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, we look at the past for inspiration, and the future with courage,” said Lantigua. “This exhibit is a great example of how each one of us, with God’s grace, can make an impact on our community and our world.”
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