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Sister Marilu Covani, passing on the spirit of Encuentro

Sister Marilú Covani, center, helped coordinate the V Encuentro process for the Diocese of San Bernardino in California. Encuentro allows the “people of God” to participate and be heard by the Church.

It’s easy to see that Encuentro is Spanish for encounter. Dredging up what we know about Roman numbers helps us understand that V stands for fifth. Talking to folks involved in what was known as V Encuentro, I came away with a whole new understanding of what it means to be church. This decades-long series of gatherings started in 1972 with I Encuentro when the bishops who returned from Vatican Council II realized that, having described the church as “the People of God,” the people needed a way to make themselves heard. As the U.S. Hispanic population continued to grow, the Encuentro method of “see-judge-act-celebrate” was ideal for bringing their heritage into a new focus.

Encounter draws Sister Marilú

During the 1980s, Sister Marilú Covani, SP, at that time a widowed single mom active in her Pontiac, Michigan parish, put her energies into its III Encuentro activities. She recalls, “For me, it was the first of many ‘providential moments.’ I jumped in and loved the whole three years. And in June 1985 I participated as a delegate in the III National Encuentro in Washington D.C.”

The intensity of the experience and her maturing faith re-awakened the call to religious life she had felt as a child. Among her gradually expanding circle of friends was Sister Susan Dinnin, SP, who introduced her to the Sisters of Providence. Sister Marilú entered the Congregation in 1987. Her unique background was well-suited to her work in directing diocesan liturgy offices in Los Angeles and San Bernardino, where she ministered for 25 years.

As Sister Marilú reached official retirement, she was invited to coordinate the V Encuentro effort for the Diocese of San Bernardino. How could she turn down this offer? “What a gift! I really loved to work with this always-growing team of people of different backgrounds, ages, cultures, and nationalities,” she said.

Struggle and encouragement

The plan for parish groups leading toward diocesan meetings coincided with current events detrimental to the spirit of Hispanics. The intensifying controversy over immigration greatly affected families. Seeing and judging what was happening was an ever-stronger motivator to act, to reach out to young adults affected by DACA, to those being incarcerated and threatened with deportation, to offer a safe place to discuss the issues of the day.

Encuentro came full circle for Sister Marilú as she found herself encouraging others. Current participants were also passionate about the commitment they developed from their involvement.

Empowered

Sister Marilú speaks to an Encuentro group.

in the Church

“We knew what to do. We just didn’t know how.” Bruce Vouziers eagerly explained how the experience taught him to be a missionary disciple. “I wanted to really live my faith, but you can’t talk about religion at work. In a bank, we talk money, but people have a lot of other things on their minds and they need somebody to listen.” As he met with small groups in his parish, then with others in the sprawling 92-parish diocese, and then with others across the state of California, he became more comfortable in initiating an “encounter.”

Even during her college years, Berenice Villa felt her faith calling her and continued to stay active in her parish. As she began her career with a non-governmental organization (NGO), she was surprised at how many of her peers felt unwelcome in church settings. Inspired by Pope Francis’ urging to “take the first step,” she began inviting them to participate in retreats and even to take leadership roles. With V Encuentro’s priority of “passing the torch,” she stepped into the role of diocesan young adult ministry to reach out to parishes to ensure that they would find a place in the church — even a place to exercise leadership.

As for Maria Eva Hernandez, the call to include young people made her realize the need to shake up the surprisingly entrenched hold of “the way we do it” liturgical ministers in her parish. She recalled listening to Bishop Oscar Romero on the radio in her native El Salvador as inspiring her own youthful participation and commented that because “Bishop Barnes is behind us,” the energy of V Encuentro would continue beyond the event itself. The working document of practical suggestions the participants brought to the California-Nevada region was brought forward to September’s national event in Texas, where it was further adapted to diverse Hispanic situations across the country.

Above all else, the friendships solidified through sharing experiences of liturgy, prayer, study, service, and of course, fiesta, had become a seedbed of living faith.

(Originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Maureen Abbott

Sister Maureen is a member of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

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