Home: renewing family relationships

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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

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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

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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.

Hope and misery in Muisne, Part 1

Frater Benjamin Le SVD soon will wrap up his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP) in Ecuador. As part of their education and preparation for ministry, Divine Word Missionaries in the formation process live in a culture other than their own for one to three years. Ben will return from Ecuador next week. In the fall, he will begin his final year of studies at Catholic Theological Union. These photos are Part 1 of a three-part photo essay.

By Ben Le SVD

I wanted to share a few more pictures I took of Muisne and the surrounding communities before I return to the United States next week. I’m not sure if you have heard, but after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, there were hundreds of aftershocks. Two earthquakes of magnitude 6.7 and 7.2 caused many more houses to fall and instilled more fear in the people. Fortunately, there were no deaths from those two quakes. Most of the people are living in tents, including those with houses that are structurally safe to live in because they fear more earthquakes.

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To get to the island of Muisne or to leave for surrounding communities, we use these lanchas, or ferries.

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Although this is not a very good picture, it shows the work of missionaries in Ecuador. Here, we are returning from the island of Portete after celebrating Mass there. When we left the island, it was complete darkness and we could not see much. If I was rowing the canoe, I think we would have gone straight out into the ocean! Without the light from the car to the left of the picture, all we can see is a lamp post on the island.

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Many residents are still living in tents. Immediately following the earthquake, they put up makeshift tents that were much smaller. When it rains, all the belongings of the people were soaked. Without warm clothing, the elderly just shivers and the children cry.

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A humble Mass kit is used whenever we go to the campo to celebrate Mass.

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The people cannot afford to buy flowers, so they cut the beautiful wildflowers to decorate their chapel.

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Yes, in the midst of suffering and fear, there are baptisms and hope.

Ben’s photo essay will continue with Part 2 on Saturday.

 

Defeating death is a matter of faith

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By Novice Jorge Zetino

“Your dad just suffered an accident, is in a coma and at risk of dying” were the words that radically changed the course of my life. Such words are like an echo that even 14 years after the accident still rumble in my ears. I have always heard of how painful it is to lose someone you love to death, but I had never experienced the agony of knowing that in any moment that person can die.

How can a 14-year-old boy comprehend that his father might not live, and if he does, he may not be “normal” again? Certainly, there are no words that can give consolation to a child living with that agony. The only thing that child can do to help his dad is to pray. And that is what I did.

I recall my grandmother saying, “Just have faith in God and ask Him to protect your dad” to which I asked, “Grandma, but how can God protect my father when he is not with him right now?” Then, she softly spoke into my ear and whispered, “Miracles do happen. You just need to believe.” I hardly remember praying before the accident and, even worst, of asking God for a miracle because deep inside of me, I did not believe in miracles.

I remember that on that cold and rainy night in October, I did what I hardly thought of doing before: praying. I knelt beside my bed. Pressing my eyelids shut as hard as I could, trying to not let any more tears come from my eyes, I started to pray.

But there was something different about this prayer than those prayers that I had said in the past. This time I did not only pray, I started a conversation with God, a God that I hardly knew before. My heart was broken in pieces. The tears could not stop showing what I was feeling inside; I was experiencing an emotion that I never felt before.

In the meantime, while praying, I kept reminding myself to pray with faith, believing that God eventually would respond to my supplication and that my dad would be able to defeat death. I have always heard that the best way to pray to God is to pray with the heart, to really mean what you are praying, and to believe and have faith in what you pray.

It took me a long time to experience that myself while I was saying “The Lord’s Prayer” over and over. Every time was different because my faith increased with each prayer, believing that God would help my father defeat death. It was then I realized that I was not only praying with my mind but also with my heart. I might have lost track of time while I was praying because I can’t recall how long I knelt. When I got up, my knees were red and in pain but not as much pain that my heart felt.

My father’s health condition was so severe that even the doctors thought that he could not survive. There seemed to be no hope. My hero now was connected to computers with cables attached all over his body and a trachea inserted into his throat. He only had himself and God; nobody else could help him to fight against Lady Death.

Days went by without news of progress. The doctors tried to push my mother to sign the order to disconnect my dad from artificial life support. My mother refused to sign such an order because she felt strongly that if Dad passed away, it was going to be God’s will and not her ending his life. It was then that I realized that my mother also had faith, just like I had it.

Two months passed and my father was still in a coma, trying to defeat Lady Death. One day, all of the sudden, he woke up from that long sleep. The only thing I remember is seeing the doctors and nurses running down the hall towards my dad’s room. They had bewildered looks on their faces. They could not believe that my father had come out of the coma. They could not believe that his fight with Lady Death was over.

He had defeated her. I am sure that the doctors did their part, providing the assistance and care that my father needed, but I am certain that what helped him most to fight death was the love and faith that many of us, including me, had in God. I realized that God had answered my prayer. From that moment on, I started to pray not only with my mind but also with my heart.

Since then, every time I pick up the phone to call my dad to wish him a Happy Father’s Day, I am grateful not only for the second chance that God has given my father and our family but also for the opportunity to continue to witness God’s healing and miraculous hand in the person of my father.