As the proposal was being voted on, a young priest ran up to the podium and whispered something into the ear of one of the bishops—and it was all over. The vote did not continue. Zapata and Tarango are unsure if the proposal would have received the necessary votes, but the optics couldn’t have been worse. When I spoke with them, both hermanas seemed to think that the order to ignore the vote came from the Vatican itself, though who made the decision or even who that young priest was remains unclear. What is known is that the scene immediately turned chaotic. According to testimonies of those present, even people ambivalent about the measure stood up in the pews to protest and call for a fair vote.
After the Encuentro organizers closed the session for the day, Las Hermanas gathered at the back of the church. More people than expected showed up because, Tarango says, this was a moment of “consciousness raising.” People came to Las Hermanas looking for them to do something. “It was funny, because people wanted to go back to the hotel and grab sheets to cover Mary, you know, as symbolism,” Tarango said, laughing at how funny that mildly disrespectful idea would have been. Eventually, though, it was Tarango who came up with the idea of praying the rosary at the Basilica instead: “Something more powerful, but you can’t get arrested for praying the rosary.”
Part of the reason many were upset by the flouting of the established procedures was because the Third Encuentro had been organized as a conference with a lot of procedures. It began in local dioceses almost two years before the actual gathering. It was systematic in reaching out to Hispanic/Latine Catholics across the United States, consulting with about six hundred thousand people before the conference even began, according to reports from the time. Paredes, in his history of the Encuentros, describes a meeting in Illinois that produced a twenty-six page document about how the consultations ought to take place, which groups of people were to be consulted, and how the final reports should be written.
Indeed, by many accounts, the Third Encuentro could be too organized. While Paredes admits that the twenty-six page outline of diocesan participation was “a very serious guidebook,” he believes it also became a “kind of straitjacket that risked strangling spontaneity and inspiration.” Perhaps this could be understood as a response to the Second Encuentro, in which the laity really took control of the situation. According to Medina, Las Hermanas publicly criticized that Encuentro for being taken over by the bishops rather than run by and for Hispanic/Latine leaders. In the Second Encuentro, groups like Las Hermanas were allowed to send formal delegates to the gathering, but the Third Encuentro did not reserve places for representatives of grassroots movements.
Despite these disappointments, the Third Encuentro did push the bishops to write a “National Pastoral Plan of Hispanic Ministry.” In Prophetic Vision: Pastoral Reflections on the National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry, Sr. María Soledad Galerón, RMI, writes that the plan acknowledges “the prophetic function of the People of God whom the Holy Spirit sanctifies and directs.” Still, it was not well implemented and, by the 1990s, many of its proposals came to be entirely ignored. In this, Paredes finds an “obvious” parallel to the Second Vatican Council—both, in certain ways, have yet to be truly implemented. But, he goes on to add, the writing of the National Pastoral Plan, like the Council, nevertheless “has changed the course of Church history.”
The plan’s very existence, however much work remains, is due to the hard work of an entire ecclesial community. The Spirit moved through the Hispanic/Latine peoples at the Third Encuentro, and it couldn’t be entirely resisted. That success owes a great deal to the presence of Las Hermanas there. The group modeled a way of being Church that was not fearful of conflict, and understood that their role was to help lift the voices of the marginalized rather than to make bishops comfortable. They used their experience of being part of a grassroots movement to organize Latina women in local dioceses throughout the United States and to hold bishops to their commitment to the Third Encuentro’s robust process of consultation. Consuelo Tovar, a member of Las Hermanas who later served as the group’s national chairperson, has observed, “Many of the bishops who called for it may not quite realize what they have by the tail.”
In one of our discussions, Tarango and I talked at length about the meaning of synodality. She cautioned me that the idea that the Encuentros were a “synodal process” is a bit of an anachronism, given that synodality was not a concept well known or used by many of its participants. It’s a fair point, but I replied that the Encuentros still seem like a useful example of how the Church could be more participatory and horizontal. That set us off talking about other models from history. She brought up the conference of Medellín. I had recently read Christian Smith’s Emergence of Liberation Theology, and recommended she read his chapter on Medellín in which he brings to light some of the more political, and decidedly less synodal, parts of the conference. The next day, I scanned the chapter and sent it to her. She responded, “Thank you, it is very familiar and brings me back to the ‘heady’ days of liberation theology activism.”
The theme chosen for the Third Encuentro was “reflecting on a model of the Church as missionary and participatory.” Those two words—“missionary and participatory”—have also been chosen by Pope Francis to describe his hopes for the “synod on synodality.” They suggest the Encuentros can give us hope that synodality will be a promising way forward for the Church. However flawed, they allowed those in our Church who previously felt unable to speak to be heard, and with each Encuentro, a new channel of participation was created. But has any of this actually changed the culture of the Church, or are they mostly empty gestures? Hispanic/Latine peoples in the U.S. Church largely remain, as Brett Hoover recently argued in Commonweal, “unaccommodated.”
When I asked Tarango what she believed the greatest impact of the Encuentros was, her response surprised me. She said that it was not only a time for the bishops to listen to the laity, but also for the laity to listen to the bishops. Tarango was reminding me that the lived experiences of all People of God should be equally valued. The work she and others in Las Hermanas did should convince us that, for synodality to be effective, we all must undergo a process of conversion and be genuinely open to discerning the signs of the times and creating the Church we want, together. For Tarango, the prophetic aspect of the Encuentros was not the laity “sticking it to ‘the man.’” Instead, she said, it was when everyone was allowed to say “I am Church, too.”
Tarango now focuses much of her time on her local community in San Antonio. After many conversations via Zoom, I met her in person for the first time in November 2021. Just as I had imagined, she has a permanent smile on her face. As a part of my visit to San Antonio, Dr. Horacio Vela invited both of us to attend his course on Our Lady of Guadalupe. Tarango thanked the students for including her friend Ada María Isasi-Díaz on the altar for the Day of the Dead. One young woman presented on Lara Medina’s work. When Dr. Vela asked for my commentary, I told the class that Medina’s first book was about Tarango and that they were in the presence of a true feminist of the 1970s and 1980s. She laughed and looked around at those of us in the classroom, all young Latina women, and said “And now we’re counting on you all to carry the torch.”