Aaron Benavides, back row second from left, at the National V Encuentro in Grapevine, Texas
For the first time in 35 years, Catholic bishops from around the United States convened for the V National Encuentro — and Notre Dame sophomore Aaron Benavides had a hand in making the historic gathering a reality.
Benavides’ journey to Encuentro started in January 2018 with an application to the Institute for Latino Studies’ Cross Cultural Leadership Program. This opportunity immerses students in an eight-week summer service learning experience in Chicago, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C.
After a written and in-person interview, the political science and theology major found himself with an appointment at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington, D.C.
“Through my summer with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I had an opportunity to experience how influential youth can be,” said Aaron Benavides. ”CCLP has allowed me to recognize my gifts and how I can use them to work for greater justice for anyone who is marginalized in our community. This experience has definitely made me more grateful for what I have and even more aware of the importance for young people to be active and work for what they think is right.”
Benavides played many different roles during his time with the USCCB, including facilitating registration, creating social media campaigns, and conducting research relevant to V Encuentro participants. Preparing for the V Encuentro gave Benavides an in-depth view of not only how far reaching the Encuentro process is but also the importance and breadth of the work of the Catholic bishops.
“Due to the V Encuentro project being so significant and far reaching in the USCCB Aaron has been exposed to the full USCCB structure. Every single department is engaged allowing Aaron to interact with a number of people in other departments at meetings and at various levels of the conference,” said Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, assistant director of Hispanic affairs at USCCB. “I think those interactions added to Aaron’s experience and understanding of the complexity of the work of the bishops and I think he has shown an excitement and sense of welcoming the challenge.”
As the roars of the D.C. Metro turned into cheering football fans back on campus, Benavides continued his work in preparation for this monumental gathering.
In late September, Benavides put his books aside and traveled to Grapevine, Texas, to see his hard work materialize. The V National Encuentro gathered thousands of participants from around the country ranging in age and church affiliation. Those in attendance were eager to experience all the Encuentro had to offer and share helpful and concrete recommendations to the bishops on the needs of the Hispanic Community.
Aguilar-Titus was excited to have Benavides participate, not only to see his work become a reality but also because he represents an important subset the Church is trying to activate.
“The emphasis of the Encuentro is a process of consultation, mission, and community building, which, at its core, is made up of second and third generation Latinos,” Aguilar-Titus said. “Aaron is a living symbol of the population we are trying to reach through this process.”
One event during the V Encuentro was directed at just this group. The Young Adult Dinner allowed Church youth and bishops to break bread, pray, and discuss how the Church and young adults can better serve one another.
“One of my favorite experiences was the Young Adult Dinner, in which hundreds of young adults had dinner with bishops,” Benavides said. “These two groups came together in great dialogue about what the Church can do to better minister to young adults and how young adults can become more involved and be leaders in the Church.”
The summer experience and participating in the National V Encuentro has made an impression on Benavides in many ways. While riding the subway and city living may have been a highlight of the summer, greater time management skills, and a better discernment for his career path were crucial takeaways.
“My CCLP experience has made me more aware of my role as a young Hispanic person and really rethink what my responsibilities look like especially at a time like this in our nation,” Benavides said.
Benavides hopes to be able to return to the USCCB in some capacity after graduation and assist with this ever-important work of the Catholic Church.
“Given my political science and theology majors I would really like to explore a career in public policy with a foundation in Catholic social teaching,” said Benavides. “The bishops are already very active in this area in Washington, D.C. Currently, they are advocating for comprehensive immigration reform.”
“It has been wonderful to see Notre Dame grow in its awareness and commitment to the Hispanic Latino presence in the United States,” said Aguilar-Titus. “Having people from Notre Dame, especially young people, associated with the Institute for Latino Studies experience the work of the bishops is not only a benefit to what we do here at the Bishops Conference, but it also provides these interns a unique experience of the church at the national level.”
The V National Encuentro ended with a closing mass with homily by the Most Reverend Archbishop Jose H.Gomez, who was hosted by ILS at the University of Notre Dame one year ago.
“The type of experience Aaron had is exactly what ILS does at its best in giving our students experiences that enrich and expand upon their learning in the classroom,” said Luis Ricardo Fraga, Director of the Institute for Latino Studies and the Rev. Donald P. McNeill Professor of Transformative Latino Leadership and Joseph and Elizabeth Robbie Professor of Political Science. “Without a doubt, the Holy Spirit is guiding Aaron and all of us at ILS.”