A letter to all who want to change the world


By Brother Luke Henkel SVD

I am a brother in temporary vows in the Missionary Society of the Divine Word. I’m an SVD. I am a newly-professed brother. I aspire to boldly foster justice, but as much as I would hope to be another Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am not.

I know that might sound obvious. It is so glaringly obvious to me that the thought takes my breath away. It’s like being on a roller coaster when it starts the drop. Trying to emulate the lives of St. Teresa of Calcutta or Mahatma Gandhi can be overwhelming.

All my life I’ve heard that no one person can save the world. I try to remember what St. Therese of Lisieux said, that we’re not called to do great things, only small things with great love.

We can’t all be heroes; we can only be ourselves, and somehow that’s the truest heroism. All God asks of us is that we are our truest selves—the loveliest gift we can give back to God is our lives, lived authentically.

And yet some part of me rails against that idea. I say, “Sure, sure, yes,” but it’s not enough. I say, we’re all called to greatness, and we all have to be great, so let’s get to work!

We have to do our part and then some. We have to be tireless because there’s so much work to be done. We have to keep striving, going and working because the world is hurting and look at Mother Teresa. She only got four hours of sleep a night. I say, me too.

God despises the complacent and spits the lukewarm out of his mouth, right? So, the real danger isn’t in failing; it’s in never trying or in not trying hard enough. It lies in being complacent, lazy or sub-par. The danger is in not being our BEST selves.

And then I hear that inner voice. I hear the stillness. I hear silence—I suddenly feel silence—and that silence urges me to join it.

Be quiet. Be still.

Suddenly, amid all the clamoring to do something about this broken world, amid all my rushing around to try to save everyone—someone, something—I am motionless.

I notice my breath, and I focus on it.


Just breathe.

Breathe in, I am calm. Breathe out, I smile.

Suddenly, amid all the chaos of this broken world, I see how broken I am. I am trying to fix the world—to fix everyone else— and yet here I am so very broken.

Here I am trying to fix the world for others, to try and make the world a perfect place—to  be with the homeless, stop global warming, pray for the sick and dying, prevent gun violence from getting worse and to find out how to be a religious brother. I struggle to find out what it means to properly represent the Divine Word Missionaries as a brother, and in all of that motion, I have forgotten to breathe.

Or perhaps I have forgotten to be-reathe.

Now I return to my breath. I return to be-reathing. Breathe in, I am here. Breathe out this is the present moment.

In, I acknowledge my brokenness. Out, I smile to my brokenness.

In, I am imperfect and weak. Out, that is okay.

Weak, imperfect, letting go.

Gradually like a slow fade, I see that this brokenness isn’t something to judge. It isn’t something to be upset about, to label as good or bad, or to hide from. It’s not something to try to fix. It just is.

I am not Mother Teresa. I am not Dorothy Day. I am not a perfect brother. That’s a fact.

My breathing slows. I’m not as aware of my breath as I am of the stillness. I don’t know what you’d call it. Peace? A deep silence? A profound stillness?

At times, words are inadequate. For now, I am just breathing. I am not doing anything else.

Breathe in, breathe out.



Editor’s note: If you’d like to read more about Brother Luke and his journey to the brotherhood, click here.

Facing Fears

Author Jorge Zetino SVD (third from the right) professed religious vows with his novitiate class and trusted confreres on Aug. 6. They are (l to r) Divine Word Missionaries Hoc Tien Mai, Carl Gales, Luke Henkel, Hai Ngoc Pham, Derek Nguyen, Zachary Smith, Jorge, Theodore Vu Nguyen and Luis Panuco-Carmona.

By Jorge Zetino SVD

Wait, you still don’t have a driver’s license? What is wrong with you?

Over and over again, I heard these questions when people learned that at age 25 and still did not have a driver’s license. I understood their reaction. For many, not having a valid driver’s license is the eighth cardinal sin.

In a society that values freedom and independence, getting a driver’s license at a young age is a must. In fact, for most people, getting a driver’s license was the first taste of freedom.

To some extent, their reaction was justifiable. Contrary to the situation in my country of birth, Guatemala, here in the United States owning a vehicle and having driver’s license is a necessity—not a luxury.

In Guatemala, one can get around easily without owning a car. Public transportation is the most convenient and most affordable way of traveling. In this country, however, in order for one to get around one must own a car and have a valid driver’s license.

Unless a person lives in a big city like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, public transportation in the United States is not always accessible – and one can argue that in some places it is not the safest way to travel. Or, as my uncle once told me, “Nephew, if you don’t have your own car and your driver’s license it is as if you don’t have legs because both equal a lack of mobility.”

For many years, fear of driving has been my greatest fear and my greatest obstacle in life. I’ve been terrified to get behind the wheel. And there is a reason for it—the same one I’ve given over and over in the course of six years.

I was involved in two car accidents—one while I was the driver, the other while I was in the passenger seat. These two experiences left me petrified, especially after spinning on Interstate-290 and having our car crash into the concrete barrier in the middle of the highway twice.

So after many years, I decided that getting a driver’s license was to be one of my goals last year. The Divine Word Novitiate program provided me with the time and resources to set goals and work towards achieving them throughout the year—learning to drive was one of them.

A quote by Mark Twain inspired me: “Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain.” I became determined that I would not allowed this fear to have dominion over my life. The only way to conquer the fear was by facing it. I put this theory to the test in December when I began my journey to Bay St. Louis, Miss., with fellow novices.

While in the car with three of them, one suggested that I get behind the wheel. Although I had my driver’s permit and was with other licensed drivers, I was hesitant at first. But, with the encouragement of my fellow novices, I got into the driver’s seat for the first time since the two accidents happened.

The encouragement of my friends helped me realized that I could actually face my fear. The beginning of the death of my fear began that cold December morning on the country roads of Illinois. Since that day, I made it a point to not only face fear but to conquer it.

After years of fear, eight months of driving lessons with a certified instructor, and practice with friends, I passed. Hearing those four magical words, “You passed the test” has been the most liberating moment of my life.

Two lessons became clear to me the day I got my driver’s license. One, we can conquer any fear no matter how big or small it might be. Two, we need the help and support of others in order to conquer our fears. We cannot do it alone. If it weren’t for the support of my novitiate community, I would have not been able to find the courage to conquer my fear once and for all.

Canadian author Robin Sharma once said, “The fears we don’t face become our limits.” This is indeed true! For most of my young adult life, my fear of driving became my greatest obstacle in life. It was the only thing holding me back. The moment that I grabbed that valuable piece of plastic, I felt free. I promised myself that I would never, ever, allow a fear to hold me captive again.

So allow me to pose the following questions: What is your biggest fear? Who could help you conquer it? I hope and pray that you find someone in your life who—like my community members—can help you gain the courage you need to face it.

Divine Word Frater Jorge Zetino, who professed religious vows in August, is studying for the priesthood at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. This post is his fourth reflection in “Just Words and Divine Word Action.” To check out his other writings, click on Know thy desires, Do you want to be well? and Defeating death is a matter of faith.

Home: renewing family relationships


This piece continues Divine Word seminarian Marlon Vargas’s reflection on his recent home visit to the Philippines. After completing his second year of graduate studies at Catholic Theological Union, he spent part of the summer at home before leaving for his Cross-Cultural Training Program in Spain. While at home, he visited family and conducted retreats for youth, such as the group shown above. Here’s part two from the Philippines.

By Marlon Vargas SVD

My home leave would not be complete or as meaningful without spending quality time with my beloved family. I celebrated my first anniversary in religious vows with them. I enjoyed every minute that I spent with them. I felt great longing to catch up with them to fill up the five, long years we missed spending together, especially with my siblings. I had so much fun with my grown-up nieces and nephews. I now have a stronger admiration for my mom and stepfather who have persevered in their commitment of loving each other despite many challenges in their relationship.

I came to a deeper realization that, though I did not have the chance to choose the perfect family, I have many choices and chances to help my own family become a God-given blessing in my life.

All the learning experiences I gained while growing up with my family, such as values, behaviors, attitudes and abilities, have become gifts that I share with other families whom I serve in my ministry. My home leave gave me the chance to restore and renew my relationship with my family.

Coming home also was a completion of one of my missions in life—to meet and get to know my long lost biological father. T.S. Eliot once wrote that “we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Finally, after more than 30 years of longing to know my father, my searching has come to an end. It was the hardest event during my vacation. Honestly, I have wished that the first and only time I met my father could have been just a simple and ordinary event. But, for me—someone who had been through a lot of pain and sufferings in life—it was not easy to face a person who made a decision in the past that I thought caused my life to be different and difficult.

Reconnecting with my father was emotionally challenging. Thanks to a good friend who accompanied and supported me in doing this life-changing encounter with my estranged father, I deeply and strongly believe that my meeting with my father was a particular grace.

It was a grace-filled moment of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. I do still have unanswered questions, but I don’t have to rush addressing those concerns. For it is true indeed that God will always answer our prayers according to His divine time and plan.

Right now, meeting my father was a concrete experience of finding and getting the missing piece of my being. It was a spiritual experience of rediscovering my self-identity and reaffirming my faith that God, the merciful and loving Father, called me to serve others.

My home visit fulfilled my expectations and hopes. They are all now a part of my joyful memories and meaningful life experiences; not just hoped for events about which I worry. It was such a God-given gift to spend vacation with many wonderful people. They have moved on with their lives, but I am grateful for being able to reconnect with them in ways that were very meaningful for me, ways that I needed to experience with them personally.

The two-and-a-half month vacation in my homeland was a break from my formation. I am deeply joyful and grateful that I had opportunities to be reunited with people who have been part of my vocation; be blessed with learning experiences through visits to significant places in my life; be renewed and restored in my relationships with my family; and be rediscovered in my identity and rejuvenated in my vocation as a Divine Word Missionary.

I am sad to again leave my home, especially my family. I feel what Jesus felt in Luke 4:38-44 when people sought him and would have kept him from leaving them. My heart urges me that I “must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose

I carry with me the joy, gratitude and hope that my home leave has given to me—the essentials that I need to fulfill my God-given mission. Home is where my missionary journey begins.

To read part one of Marlon’s reflection, click here.


Home: where a missionary’s journey begins


Divine Word seminarian Marlon Vargas (front row, far left) completed his second year of graduate studies at Catholic Theological Union and has left for his Cross-Cultural Training Program in Spain. Before landing in Spain, Marlon made his home visit to the Philippines. While in the Philippines, he visited family, as well as conducted retreats for youth, such as the group shown above. In this blog, Marlon reflects upon his journey.

By Marlon Vargas SVD

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend vacation in my home country, the Philippines. I left the Philippines five years ago to seek greener pasture in a foreign land and to provide for my family’s needs.

Unexpectedly, I ended up joining the Society of the Divine Word’s Chicago Province in the United States to pursue religious missionary life. I did not ask my family’s approval, but I conscientiously considered them in my serious decision-making.

When considering the religious life, one of my major concerns was the idea of giving up or detaching myself from my family and friends. When I became a Divine Word religious missionary, I struggled with living far from my family, relatives and friends.

There were several times when I missed them terribly. I thought that I had to end my connections or relationships with them to focus more on my desire to serve other people in my ministry. I was wrong.

I learned that my relationships with family and friends change, but they never end. The Divine Word community recognizes and values the vital role and presence of our families as well as our friends not only in our formation but also throughout our religious missionary life.

As a matter of fact, each confrere in our community has the privilege of taking a home leave in his home country once during the years of formation in temporary vows. Every member is given the home leave opportunity to develop healthy and lasting relationships with his loved ones.

Personally, my experience of homecoming was very special, profound and meaningful. I experienced once again the life-giving presence of God, who continuously affirms and deepens my vocation.

During my vacation, I had the opportunity to attend and enjoy several reunions with old friends from my childhood years, classmates in high school and college, former colleagues during my teaching years, fellow Church ministers, mentors, professors and other significant people who have been part of my journey.

I met with my best friend and a few close friends who have been supporting and guiding me in all of my life’s endeavors. I was delighted to be with them as we recalled and reminisced about the memorable moments that we had in the past: joys, sadness, failures, misunderstandings, conflicts, adventures, mistakes, arguments and growth.

I was amazed how our paths had crossed at one point in our lives. Each of them made a unique and transforming impact on my life journey. They are people in my life who are not merely friends whom I “like” and “follow” on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They are friends whom God sent to me so that I can offer them my physical presence and let them receive my comments filled with love.

These relationships reaffirm my belief that God sends the people I need at the right times, occasions and circumstances. Through them, God teaches me various ways of building and establishing relationships that are integral and essential in accomplishing the ministry entrusted to me as a religious missionary.

One more thing I enjoyed much during my vacation was revisiting the beautiful and significant places that gave me memories and life lessons. These places reflect my life’s crossroads where I had relevant turning points in the past.

I went back to my former schools where I studied and earned my degrees. I went to my former workplaces where I, as a teacher, urge my students to make a change in society.

I visited several gardens, theme parks, malls and other places where I spent my childhood and teenage years. I attended Masses at parishes where I discovered my passion for serving God in the parish. I also made a pilgrimage to churches that have spiritual significance in my vocation discernment.

Going back to these places led me to realize that change is a relentless reality. The unending change in the physical surrounding in those places is the manifestation of continuous progress and development. It’s part of the progress of humanity.

In continuous change, God shows his unceasing initiative of making every individual a better person. I realize that those places serve as avenues for me to discover my own strengths and overcome my weaknesses, taking every opportunity that comes my way and risking the obstacles to overcome my limitations.

More importantly, I have developed and strengthened my desire to seek and trust God in places where I go. As advised by an elder Divine Word priest: in faith, God will always bring us to a place where the divine will of God will unfold. My visit to those places has led me to recall and realize the spiritual encounters I had with God in the past.

It invites me to encourage others to also find and seek God’s dwelling place in their lives. As I learn from the founder of the Society of the Divine Word, Saint Arnold Janssen, to let them believe that when things go against them, they have to remember that God the Lord in His great wisdom and love still guides and directs them. They can trust and have patience because God will bring good out of whatever happens.

Want to know the story behind the story? To read about the challenges and pain that Marlon overcame to get where he is today, click here.

OTP experience in Thailand has deep impact on Truong Le SVD


Seminarian Truong Le will return to Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union this fall to complete his final year of studies before ordination to the priesthood in the spring. As part of his formation as a Divine Word Missionary, Truong fulfilled his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP), or Overseas Training Program (OTP) as it is known in other parts of the world, in Thailand. CTP typically consists of two to three years of living and doing missionary work in a culture other than one’s own. In this article, which was orginally published on the Society of the Divine Word-Australia Province website, Truong reflects upon that experience.

By Truong Le SVD

Mission and culture are essential characteristics of an SVD, and with the two years Cross-Cultural Training Program, I was given a taste in different ministerial settings: teaching English at the local high school, working with Vietnamese migrant workers, visiting the poor, engaging in parish ministries, and helping HIV/AIDS patients, in particular, teenagers living with HIV at The Mother of Perpetual Help Foundation in Nongbualamphu, Thailand.

A sense of naïveté is inevitably attached to the intention of working with orphans, particularly those who are even more vulnerable, being HIV positive and/or living with disabilities. When seeing the children playing with each other at our center, I couldn’t help but ask what they have done to deserve this. They are branded and labelled since birth, and they have had to OTP experience_classroomcarry the burden that comes with the illness without fully realizing why.

Sympathetically, I pondered what I can do to help. My pondering was more in terms of how much can I compensate for what they have suffered–these unwarranted sufferings from the illness, witnessing the death of their parents and growing up without them, being unwanted by relatives, being rejected by society, and, most devastating of all, the feeling of being not good enough for others.

During the last few months of my CTP, I was assigned full time to Ban Mae Marie, which is a subsidiary of the SVD Foundation, caring for abandoned teenagers. The makeup of this place is quite diverse as we recently accepted elderly patients from the hospice due to an overflow.

Perhaps the best description of my work is a mix between a bus driver and a guidance counselor. I work primarily with the teenagers—driving them to school, to the hospital, and basically everywhere else needed. I began somewhat of a counseling session with them to touch base on their well-being and how they feel about living here. The idea behind this program is to build trusting relationship with the children.

This experience has stretched my understanding of love; that love is being generous in spite of trouble and ungratefulness.

Gradually, I became more involved with the daily lives of the teenagers. The basic necessities of food, shelter, and safety are provided for by the foundation. On my part, I tried to do as much as I could for the children.

On a weekly basis, I would take the children for ice cream or to see a movie. During the school breaks, we would go on vacation. Nevertheless, what I was called to do, as I came to realize, was not just give them their needs and wants but rather have the willingness to share my life with them. I had to consider and become attune to the needs of each individual, considering his or her physical and emotional needs, health issues and disabilities. The difficulty, or challenge, was having to open up and enter into the messiness of the whole ordeal, knowing full well of my own limitations and inexperience. What I can give them is, ultimately, myself.

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Disciplining a child is not an easy task, just ask any parent. Now, imagine a 28-year-old, ill-equipped religious missionary with no parenting experience having to care for an HIV-positive child with mental disabilities prone to epileptic seizures and frequent emotional outburst.

Working with this 16-year-old boy was uniquely challenging. At first, I was alarmed when he had a seizure because I was the only adult around. I did not know what to do.

Things became easier as I became more educated about the matter and learned to just let him be. Periodically, he would throw a tantrum, being unable to control his emotions. The staff would then call me to intervene, and my interpretation of intervening was, again, let him be.

I did not respond to any of his emotional uproars and sought to speak with him when he had settled down. To me, he’s quite an intelligent young man. He just needs someone to be patient and explain to him what is acceptable and what is not. Some have told me that he could not benefit from counseling due to his mental state, but I believe that we can help him to understand and practice healthy behavior to cope with strong emotions.

I would not be as naïve to say that caring for this sweet little boy with a tragic history is smooth, easy, and personally gratifying. With every situation or circumstance that came forth, I had to find a moment of calmness from which I can see that things will be fine despite the chaos and hesitancy. Things will always be out of our control, but how we deal with that is up to us. In my case, I pray, hoping that God will pave a way for us to get out of the mess. In looking back, we would always be more grateful for each other for being present for one another during tough times.OTP experience_gift box

Working with teenagers is not without all the dramas of adolescence–love, relationship, and the insistent need for personal freedom. Trivial or not, these are things that give them stress. If I don’t get into the messiness of their lives, they’ll give me stress later. So, I talked with them about everything–things that are happening in their lives.

Most importantly, I have to be interested. The children responded well as I talked with them about decision making. I helped them to consider the consequences of their actions or decisions and urged them to choose a fruitful path. This method works to a degree, but in the end, the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is in letting go. They will have to make their own decisions no matter how insistent you are on the “right” path.

This experience has stretched my understanding of love; that love is being generous in spite of trouble and ungratefulness. But isn’t this something that we all can relate to? Aren’t we all running away from something that is persistently waiting for us with love and tenderness?

The Word became flesh and hung upon the cross to say the same words that ache in my heart that night out searching for the child, that is, “come home.” That moment, as I reflect back, clarified for me Jesus’ mission—that is, hearing God’s aching heart calling each one of us to return from our wayward path.

I, too, have left and fallen into my own pit of destruction and sinfulness. Yet, in these very moments, I hear clearly Jesus’ voice calling me home to where I am loved and cared for. Jesus assures all of us of God’s love that through him we hear the silent whisper from God, “you are my beloved [child], with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22). God continues to wait eagerly and persistently for us no matter how far we manage to get away because in God’s eyes we are good and we are loved. This is the place to return to wherever we are in our lives, wherever we are in our restless journeys.



Hope and misery in Muisne, Part 3

Frater Benjamin Le SVD returns home this week after two years in Ecuador, satisfying the Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP) portion of his formation. A photographer by profession, Ben captured the life of the people. Today, we present the final of his latest three-part series.

By Ben Le SVD

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It is lunch time, and this little girl is getting her donated food. Like her family, she is homeless and lives in a tent close to our SVD chapel.

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The plastic sheets over the tents are used for protection from rain, which can sometimes be relentless.

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Volunteers cooked for the people.

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The most affected people are the children, but thanks be to God, nothing dampens their spirits, not even an earthquake; they play, sing, run, and sometimes they cry.

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People are starting to rebuild.

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There once were houses on this pier.

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The people make due with what they have.

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These children are deaf.  They make motions at the windows to see if we would give them cookies.  Unfortunately, I did not have any.

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These sisters coordinate relief effort for the camp around the SVD chapel. During their free time, they make rosaries to give away. Here, they are teaching a visiting priest how to make one.

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A water truck came, and everyone is happy. The water is donated by the town of Guayaquil.

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Messages of hope for the people in the camp.

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Life continues.

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Hope and misery in Muisne, Part 2

Frater Benjamin Le SVD’s three-part photo essay, taken during the last few weeks of his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP) in Ecuador, began yesterday and continues today.

By Ben Le SVD

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Most people do not have cars so to transport produce, they use animals.

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The chapel of the community, Sal Si Puedes, literally mean “leave if you can.” This building has been condemned as structurally unsafe for use.

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The community of Sal Si Puedes celebrates Mass in a small classroom uphill from the chapel.

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The Sal Si Puedes community is one of the few active communities in Muisne. The people are very active in their faith; everyone attends and participate in functions of the church.

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These women invited me to eat at their “restaurant.” There is only one table with two chairs and a roof. The open kitchen has two burners from a tank of gas and card board to cover the burners from the wind, but the fish, Corviche, that they made is heavenly and delicious.

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Chamanga is one of the worst hit areas of the earthquake. More than 70 percent of the houses there were destroyed. It shows as we approach the town…

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…and yet hope lives on. See how the people are working together to care for each other and rebuild. The third and final installment of Ben’s photo essay will appear on Monday.