Hearing Christ’s coming through our beating hearts

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Photo by Father Guilherme Andrino SVD

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Not too long ago, we began the Advent season. Now it’s almost Christmas! The celebration of the birth of Christ Jesus. With our hearts, minds, and spirits, we prepared ourselves for Christ so that we may be able to welcome Him with joy.

Christ is our hope at this moment when we are bombarded with social conflicts, injustices and violence. That gift especially struck me during Advent Sunday Masses at the Special Religious Education Development (SPRED) center, a community of people with developmental disabilities.

I found myself deeply moved by the participation of my friends from SPRED in the offertory and preparation of the gifts at Mass. Despite their limitations, my friends participated and engaged in the Eucharistic celebration.

A father and son walked together to the sanctuary. They slowly and patiently placed a purple linen on the altar table. A prayer pleading to Christ to cover our broken world with his mercy and love.

A mother and son went to the altar, carrying a lit candle. The divine light that we need to dispel the darkness in our society.

A mother and daughter brought a vase of beautiful flowers to the altar. A prayer to restore the beauty of creation so that we all may enjoy the nature that God has given us.

A family of four offered the bread to the table. An act that reminds all that the family that prays—asking God for their daily bread amid hunger, poverty, and daily struggle—stays together.

Then, another family walked to the altar, carrying the wine to be blessed and shared. A symbolic prayer of a family who sought Jesus to quench their thirst for loving protection against pain, depression, and spiritual crisis.

The way each person performed his or her task in the liturgy was touching. My friends didn’t let their intellectual and physical limitations hinder their participation in the celebration. They fulfilled their assigned roles with dedication and reverence.

People in the pews stayed still in awe. Each of us allowed ourselves to be immersed in silence. Our silence became our encounter with the sacred presence of Christ among us.

Sacred silence filled the assembly and radiated like the light of Christ. A sacred silence that gives joy and hope.

God became human on a silent night so that we could hear and feel His coming. His birth was not announced with loud sounds but rather through the beating of our hearts. God sent His son in the middle of darkness because Christ dispels darkness and illuminates our lives with his unconditional love.

The mystery of God becoming human is the source of grace that leads us to humility and trust. We must admit that we cannot make our world a better place by our own efforts.

We can only see God because God wills it. God wants to make our hearts anew by filling them with gratitude and hope. We need Christ’s presence in our hearts. I noticed that my friends’ relationships with Christ empower them and give them profound joy despite their disabilities.

Like my friends, we need a deeper, stronger and closer relationship with Christ. Christmas is our opportunity to renew our relationship with Christ. It is a grace-filled season that invites us to restore our way of life according to Christ’s love.

It is a time to silence our hearts from the noise of our secular world. It is the season that urges us to listen to Christ and respond to His invitation to rest in our hearts.

We can only attain the lasting joy that Christmas gives us if we proclaim and live out the teachings of Christ in our daily lives. Let us share in Christ’s birth by living in his light. Let us accept our brokenness, incompleteness and wounds.

Let us be like the shepherds who glorify and praise God for all the things they heard and saw at Jesus’ birth. His coming to be with us is the Good News! Let us share the love of Christ this Christmas!


Working with the saints next door

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By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Editorial Verbo Divino (EVD) is a global publishing company and the major communication ministry of the Society of the Divine Word in Spain. Located in a small town called Estella, EVD has been serving the Catholic Church since 1956. It plays an essential role in proclaiming the Word of God.

In addition to publishing Bibles in several languages, EVD produces theological books, magazines, journals and prayer booklets. In this digital age, EVD also creatively ventures into new forms of multimedia to make the Divine Word more accessible to the people of God.

During the last phase of my Cross-Cultural Training Program in Spain, I had the opportunity to see the inner workings of EDV and to work with the lay staff and SVD confreres there.
Saints next door_1aEDV employees busied themselves: laying out publications, editing, accounting, sales, marketing and shipping. I helped digitalize the latinoamericá edition of DOCAT, which is a resource for young people who want to learn the social teachings of the Catholic Church.

My main task involved transferring content from one electronic resource into the mobile application software—a lot of copying and pasting. After finishing DOCAT, I received a new task—adding content to La Buena Noticia, EVD’s daily Scripture mobile application. More copying and pasting.

While working besides my colleagues in the office, I heard them sharing ideas and plans for other projects. I was filled with pride and thought, “I can do that too!” I wished to be a part of other projects, but I also wanted to joyfully accomplish the task assigned to me.

God responded to my prayer. After closer observation, I saw that there is profound meaning in repetitive tasks. My confreres do repetitive work in our community, such as preparing breakfast, shopping for the needs of community, setting the tables for meals and cleaning after the meals. They mow the lawn and care for the gardens.Saints next door_2

As missionaries, they arrange the schedule of Mass presiders; preside at Mass; participate in community prayer; join the weekly Bible sharing; and attend funerals to offer condolences.

Likewise, the lay staff have their own repetitive tasks, such as editing, reviewing, conceptualizing, laying out the publications, packing, billing and delivering the orders. All the staff members perform tasks in collaboration with the whole team.

They performed their jobs every day with dedication. I realized that although my tasks seemed simplistic, they contributed to the overall work. I felt fortunate to be part of the team.

In his third apostolic exhortation entitled Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis wrote: “Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence.”

My colleagues at EVD and in the Divine Word community are those holy neighbors. The daily collection of repetitive tasks makes a sacred routine. Together, we proclaim the Divine Word.

To learn more about EVD in Spain, visit the official website www.verbodivino.es.

Divine Word seminarian Marlon Bobier Vargas fulfilled his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP) in Spain. This fall, he returns to Catholic Theological Union in Chicago to complete his last two years of studies.

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The earthen vessels of Parroquia Nuestra Señora de Altagracia

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A reflection on the Cross-Cultural Training pastoral experience in Spain

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

When I finished my seven months of language study in the Province of Palencia, I moved into a Divine Word community in Madrid. The former formation house is now the residence of the Divine Word chaplains who are ministering to various migrant communities, including immigrants from Africa, Poland, China and the Philippines. I had the privilege of doing pastoral ministry at Parroquia Nuestra Señora de Altagracia.

Parroquia Nuestra Señora de Altagracia is geographically located in Valdezarza, a neighborhood in Madrid. The congregation is made up of people from Mexico, Peru, India, Togo, Philippines, and Spain.

A small but vibrant community

The church is small, simple and ordinary compared to some of the more famous Spanish churches. One might not recognize the building as a church if not for the bell tower and the signage. However, there is more to the parish than the church’s simple facade.Algracia_Spain_M Vargas_August 2018_2_250 width

Parishes in Spain face two challenges: a decrease in volunteers and a scarcity of youth in parish communities. Most of the parishioners who participate regularly at Altagracia are elders. They recognized the situation with sadness and frustration. But rather than give up on the parish community, they respond to the challenge with courage and hope.

With the help of the two Divine Word priests, they make the most out of what they have: time and presence. The parish community of Altagracia lives out what it means to be a church today. They respond to the call for inclusion, dialogue and faith encounter.

Some of the elders are isolated in our society because of failing health. Others are widowed, physically handicapped or sick. They come to the parish daily for the Holy Mass even though their physical limitations make it difficult. They offer their struggles as their sacrifice to God.

The parish addresses their psychological, emotional, social and spiritual needs. In return, their presence animates the life and work of the parish. Not only do they attend the liturgical celebration; depending upon their capabilities, they also volunteer.

The elders are very passionate storytellers. Their stories give everyone a sense of belonging, acceptance and love. Indeed, parish community is a living testimony that all are welcome in our Church.

Prophetic Dialogue

Altagracia parishioners have a passion for dialogue. They are diverse and are varied ages, ethnicities, cultures, social statuses and political affiliations. The liturgy is the center and common ground for everyone.

Algracia_Spain_M Vargas_August 2018_14_333 widthDialogue is apparent in their various parish activities, such as the Vida Ascendiente, a weekly faith group sharing of the elders; the catechesis of children preparing for First Communion and Confirmation; and the Bible study group.

Moreover, the dialogue in the parish community is animated and strengthened through special occasions, such as the profession of religious vows, ordinations, birthdays and anniversaries. In these encounters, the parish community experiences personal and communal transformation, which comes through listening, questioning, and sharing.

The elders have time and presence that they share as gifts out of love to others. They are like the poor widow who offered her two copper coins as tithes in the treasury. Jesus praised her for giving the smallest of coins in contrast with the rich who gave greater sums (Luke 21:1-4).

It gives them deep joy from selfless giving and generous love for others in the community. In the spirit of generosity and sacrifice, they praise God saying, “God Himself gives to us that we may give in turn.” Undeniably, their volunteerism reflects their authentic faith encounter with God.

God’s earthen vessels

The elders at Altagracia are like earthen vessels, pots made of clay. The parish community consists of precious earthen vessels created to be receptacles for its intended contents – inclusion, dialogue and faith.Algracia_Spain_M Vargas_August 2018_16_333 width

This parish may not be look like a grand museum and may not be filled with tourists, but it strongly embodies the Church that quenches our thirst for God’s blessings. God’s blessings pour upon us when the parish community is present—believing, praying and loving.

I admired how a community in a simple and ordinary parish could make a difference in making our society a better place. If you have a chance, I encourage you to visit and receive the graces of Parroquia Nuestra Señora de Altagracia.

Offering inclusion, one haircut at a time

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By Akizou Gerard Kamina SVD

“The poor have a privileged place in the Gospel. In a world deeply scarred by injustice and inhuman living conditions, our faith calls us to recognize the presence of Christ in the poor and the oppressed.” (C. 112)

Upon my arrival in Brazil, I discovered that the pastoral guidelines of the Divine Word Missionaries are based on this constitution of our religious order. Current political and economic situations are deeply affecting Brazilians of low and middle classes. Such was the context in which I found myself.

Though I focused on language learning during my first months in Brazil, I decided to also do pastoral work at Nossa Senhora da Aparecida (Our Lady of Aparecida) parish in São Paulo.

Akizou Kamina_haircut_cookingMy first pastoral experience was with our homeless brothers and sisters. Every Thursday, my fellow volunteers and I served meals to them. Before each meal, we prayed together to show solidarity in struggles and to rely on God’s assistance. Through prayer, we all asked God to provide for our future ministry and mission.

I admire the women who cook for those in need. They are devoted and committed. I also admire the recipients, the people who are homeless. I admire their ability to show up with high spirits. We share an hour of happy time. The goal is not so much to cook for those without homes but to build a community with them.

We eat the same meal. We engage in discussion. They share their difficulties and joys with us. We feel that they are part of our lives, and we are part of their lives. We celebrate together. For instance, I celebrated my birthday with them. We shared Christmas with each other. We are one family under God.

The shelter serves about 60 people of various ages, including children. I was stunned the first time I met four homeless children. It was a challenging experience for me because it was the first time in my entire life that I had seen children who were homeless. After this encounter, I always made sure to take good care of these children. In addition to offering meals to them, we now offer haircuts to those who want them. Our services to these homeless people are ways to make them feel dignified and included in society.

This experience has allowed me to reflect on a question that was asked of Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29) By serving and being with my homeless brothers and sisters, I came to realize that every human being—without distinction of color, race and social class—is a reflection of God’s love; therefore, each person should be loved unconditionally.

Such a life-changing experience wouldn’t have been possible without the initial formation that I received in Chicago. The formation process helps us as seminarians to be Christ-like for the People of God, those to whom we are being sent. This is an opportunity for me to thank all those who have been contributing to my formation as a Christian and as a religious missionary. Consequently, we are called as Divine Word Missionaries to make the goodness and kindness of God visible through our lives and service to the world.

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Last summer, seminarian Akizou Gerard Kamina SVD began his Cross-Cultural Training Program in Brazil. Born and raised in Togo, West Africa, Akizou professed vows with the Society of the Divine Word in 2015. Next year, he will return to Catholic Theological Union in Chicago to complete his seminary studies.


An Emmaus journey in Niebla

Marlon Vargas_photo for Emmaus Journey_ April 2018_sizedBy Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

As part of the Society of the Divine Word’s formation process, missionaries in vows participate in the congregation’s Cross-Cultural Training Program, also known as CTP. Seminarian Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD is completing his CTP in Spain. Shortly after Easter, he completed an assignment at Santa Maria de la Granada parish in Niebla, a town with a population of about 4,000 in Southern Spain.

At the end of Easter Sunday Mass, the presider invited the congregation to sit for a moment. I nervously approached the lectern. I felt every heartbeat in my chest. I was about to bid farewell to the community of Niebla.

As I began to speak, a sudden silence filled the church, and I noticed the eyes of friends fill with tears. I had lived in the village for only six months. It was a short stay, but I’ve learned a lot. Life in this town is simple and quiet, a departure for me. Having grown up and studied in large cities, I am accustomed to places where people are especially busy with their own affairs. As I leave Niebla, I want to share lessons that the Nieblans taught me. I carry them in my heart.

Spend time and share presence with others through a family meal.
I can’t remember exactly how many generous invitations I received, but the Nieblans showed me why the region was named Spain’s Gastronomic Capital of 2017. They served local delicacies—white prawns, coquina clams, monkfish, sea bass and cuttlefish; strawberries, raspberries, oranges and asparagus, taken from fertile soil of the area; and jamon, Iberian ham, from the mountainous regions of the province. They whet the appetite with white wines, quality liqueurs, grape juice, vinegars and olive oils. I admire their spontaneity and appreciate the honor of spending time with their families. They let me know that they care about me and value my presence in their community.

Greet each other and share smile with each other.
“¡Hola!, ¿Que tal?, ¿Como va?, Hasta luego!” Members of Las Raíces, an organization of retired people, were good companions. They made a point to ask how I was doing and if I was enjoying life in the village. As someone who lived most of his life in a big city, greeting other people, especially strangers, is not a common practice. This simple gesture made me feel connected and valued by others. It reminded me that we are one loving and thoughtful community.

Fulfill one’s duty and responsibility in the family and the community.
Workers in Niebla are dedicated. In a small village like Niebla, it is possible to get to know the people working at the market, grocery store, municipal hall, restaurants and hardware store. In the community, each person fulfills their duty as a service to the community and the family. Each person’s vocation serves as a humble contribution to make our world a better place.

Tell and retell life stories and community narratives.
Niebla is a village filled with stories. Every place within village—Castillo de Niebla, Casa de la Cultura, Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Granada, and Rio Tinto–has a tale. Through these stories, I learned about the food, history, culture and faith of the people. The homes are filled with family photos. With those pictures, Nieblans narrate their stories with passion, enthusiasm and pride. As I listened, I felt the value and importance of the story to the person telling it. I sensed how the story transformed their lives. Our life experiences are a wise teacher.

Keep the cultural heritage and religious traditions dynamically alive.
As a municipality located in Andalusia, Niebla has a unique cultural heritage and religious tradition. During Holy Week, members of three Las Hermandades, or brotherhoods, lead community celebrations. The members of Hermandad de Virgen del Pino, Hermandad del Rocío, and Hermandad de Jesus Nazareno practice and pass on ways of the Catholic Church.  Fiestas and other events, organized by the Ayuntamiento de Niebla each month, leave a memorable impression: La Feria Medieval in November, Los Campanilleros in December, La Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos in January and Semana Santa in April. Communal activities, such as musical concerts and community picnics known as Toston, bring the people together and pass along traditions from one generation to the next.

Spread the joy, love and hope in the community.
The laypeople in Niebla played an important role in their parish. I learned much from the various lay groups. Members of Lectura Creyent deepen their faith by studying the Scriptures each week. Cáritas assists the less fortunate by providing for their basic needs. Volunteers in Catequistas educate the children in the village and prepare them for receiving the Sacraments. The Pastoral de Salud visit the sick and elders in their homes once a month. The Fieles de la Santa Eucaristía attends daily Mass. These groups have fewer numbers than in years past, but they are dedicated in spreading the joy, love, and hope of the Risen Christ.

My experience in Niebla was an Emmaus journey. My new friends reminded me how Christians keep faith in the Risen Lord, even amidst scarcity and adversity.

The end and beginning of the grace-filled journey

Part 5_Photo 5_Camino de Santiago passport_sized for blogThe Camino de Santiago Experience of a Divine Word Missionary
(Part 5 of 5)

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Frater Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD hiked El Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain while fulfilling his Cross-Cultural Training Program. His affinity for Saint James the Apostle led him to undertake the arduous venture. As he reaches his destination, he finds that the end is another beginning.

One of the many highlights of the pilgrimage was our last stop before reaching the cathedral: Monte de Gozo (Mount of Joy). Located on the top of a hill, Monte de Gozo offers great views of the city and the tower of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

The scenery gave us a glimpse of what lay ahead and motivated us to finish our journey. As the end of our journey came into view, we began to share our joy, gratitude and hope with one another. Indeed, happiness is real when shared.

Undeniably, the most unforgettable moment during the Camino pilgrimage was our arrival at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. I felt my heart rejoice in the Lord whom I believe accompanied me through the journey.

A special Bible passage came to mind, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7) I remembered and felt the words of Saint Paul who Part 5_Photo 7_Marlon in front of trail map_sizedmay have known Saint James. Upon our arrival, my companions and I were not able to contain our inner joy. Our eyes were filled with tears as we embraced one another in appreciation.

Other pilgrims who arrived after us shouted, chanted and danced out of happiness and gratitude. We could not believe that we had arrived. Unfortunately, we were unable to attend the Pilgrims’ Mass because when we arrived the cathedral was at maximum capacity. So we waited in the winding line outside where other pilgrims talked and took pictures.

After Mass, we entered the cathedral. I felt its sacred ambiance. I venerated Saint James’s tomb, located under the altar, and presented my physical and spiritual tiredness in front of the grave. I prayed that the Lord might accept all the hardships and sacrifices endured during the pilgrimage and that they may give greater glory to God.

I then went above the altar to embrace the statue of Saint James as a symbolic gesture of my petition to God—that through the intercession of Saint James, God will embrace my family, relatives, friends, loved ones and everyone for whom I promised to pray. May God take away their sufferings and bless them with joy, love, peace and hope.

Part 5_Photo 2_Group photo in front of Santiago Cathedral_sizedI was struck by the on-going construction inside and outside the cathedral—like a metaphor or invitation for all the pilgrims on the Camino. Like the cathedral under construction, each pilgrim is called to conversion.

Each person has his or her imperfections, weaknesses, and rough edges. But when feelings of brokenness are acknowledged humbly and accepted wholeheartedly, they can be stepping stones toward life-giving gifts to others. Pilgrims are not called to go to church; we are called to become the living Church of Christ.

With my credential, a Camino passport full of different stamps from places that I passed, I got my Compostela. It is the certification, or diploma, that serves as proof that I completed the Camino de Santiago. For me, the Compostela is not simply about my arrival at the end of the Camino de Santiago. It is a remembrance of the grace-filled spiritual journey that urges me to begin a new life-long pilgrimage.

In the cathedral’s Chapel of Saint Mark, I found a pilgrim reflection guide. It offered meaningful insights and questions that helped me contemplate my experience. I read words touched me deeply: “To arrive in Santiago is not the end of our Camino. In a way, it is a place of departure. On the Camino de Santiago, as well as in life, the goals impel us to new horizons.”

Enlightened by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, I believe that my arrival at the Cathedral of Saint James urges me to do something more in my life journey. I accept the invitation that I read in the pilgrim reflection guide:

“To arrive…To arrive is not to finish the path you began. To arrive is to want to carry on from the path you have walked. To arrive is to glimpse a future horizon which was nourished in the meetings and challenges along the way. To arrive is to announce that a new way of looking is present in daily life. To arrive is to perceive that everything remains the same, but you are not as you were at the beginning. To arrive is to have the wisdom to start walking again to the place this same path guides you.”

My whole Camino experience has deepened and strengthened my prayer to God. To paraphrase the words of Saint Arnold Janssen: Lord God, grant me the grace to have an open heart, to always discern anew Your divine will, and to be available, flexible, and ready to venture into new situations. Forever and ever, amen!

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Part 5_Photo 8_Marlon returning home


‘Buen Camino!’A greeting of connection and friendship

Part 4_Photo 5_Pilgrims selfie_not flipped_sized for blogThe Camino de Santiago Experience of a Divine Word Missionary
(Part 4 of 5)

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Frater Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD gets closer to the end of his pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago. The routes of El Camino de Santiago are many with the longest one stretching 780 km (500 miles) from France to Western Spain. As Marlon continues his voyage, he ponders the connections he has made along the way of the pilgrimage and life.

Considering the madness in our world, it is not surprising that many pilgrims take part in the Camino, seeking spiritual enlightenment. The firsthand testimonies that I heard from fellow pilgrims, as well as the stories that I read on blogs about the Camino experience, made me believe more deeply that the pilgrim’s desire to grow in the grace and knowledge of God.

To attain such an experience, one has to slow down and be patient. The Camino de Santiago is not a speed race that forces one to walk rapidly. It is not a long-distance tournament that makes one greater than the person who took longer to walk the path. While pace and rhythm are two important aspects of the Camino pilgrimage, what matters most is reaching the destination with memorable and meaningful encounters with others along the path.

The Camino gave me time to detach and disconnect from the busyness of the world. I intentionally avoided getting information about the things happening in the world and contacted only a few individuals while on the journey. It was a struggle not to look at social media during the journey.

There were many times when I was tempted to post photos of the beautiful scenery. However, I wanted to give myself the opportunity to look internally and be with God. Ironically, the more I detached and disconnected myself from people, the more I felt their closeness and connection.

My family, close friends, Divine Word community, mentors and other significant people filled my mind and heart. I spent time remembering and understanding the meaning and purpose of their presence in my life. Through God’s grace, I once again reassessed the level and quality of my relationships with the people in my life and how I meaningfully partake in growing, maturing, deepening my relationships and understanding my communion with significant people in my life.

Along the Camino journey, pilgrims greeted one another with the phrase “buen camino,” which literally means “good path.” It’s generally understood as “good luck and happy traveling.” Camino pilgrims come from different places, backgrounds, ethnicities, languages and cultures. The exchange of the greeting buen camino is a concrete act of recognizing and sharing presence with fellow pilgrims.

It may be taken as a simple gesture of greeting another person, but it also could lead to a new and deep connection. It’s the first step toward friendship where two or more people open themselves and become their best selves.

The greeting, when extended from the heart, could be followed by one’s sharing of identity, relationship, purpose and meaning in life. My interactions and conversations with fellow pilgrims have reminded me that each of us has crossroads in our lives. Sometimes, we share the same journey. Sometimes, we journey alone. There are times when we voyage as strangers with other strangers. The one thing we all have in common is our longing to make our journey a meaningful one.

Saint Arnold Janssen wrote, “Happy the person whose eyes of the spirit God opened so that he/she recognizes: ‘I have a Master above me. I have to serve Him and I will serve Him,’ and then arranges his/her life accordingly.” We are invited to open our eyes to the presence of others and their needs. Let it be a source of joy in our mission. Buen camino!