A savior is born!

Christmas greetings 2017
Photo by Father Guilherme Andrino SVD

Advent: Presence in Sacred Waiting

Advent blog_Our presence_Dec 2017

by Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

When I was six, I had an unforgettable experience that left an imprint on me. Due to miscommunication, my parents failed to pick me up after school.

I would have risked going home by myself, but it was already dark and I did not know the way. I was terribly scared. This event happened in the days before cellphones. The school office was closed. I had no choice other than to wait.

I did not cry. However, I felt helpless and alone. That childhood experience impacted my attitude growing up. My trust became fragile. Consequently, I developed the “I’m in charge” and “let me handle it” attitude. I became independent to a fault. I took control and manipulated situations to avoid anxiety in waiting.

There are moments throughout our lives when we find ourselves waiting in frustration. Despite our efforts for better outcomes, we feel stuck in situations that nobody wants. In as much as we want to quickly ease the pain we face, we find ourselves lost, not knowing how to manage ourselves.

People who recently have relationship breakups struggle; they sometimes need time to help them regain their self-worth. Individuals recovering from addiction tussle to keep themselves sober. Families with a seriously ill member sometimes fight with one another due to financial burdens, care-giving concerns and emotional distress. With a desire to give their children a better life, many single parents are exhausted, having two jobs to make ends meet.

Often, it’s impossible to fix our life problems in a short time span. We sometimes have to struggle under agonizing circumstances for quite a while. The perplexity of everyday life might make us doubt the presence of God. We might live as if there is no God.

The season of Advent is a sacred waiting period. When observed, the season makes us aware of our ongoing journey into a deeper reality. We can learn how to travel the journey with the examples of our faith models in the Advent narratives, people who prayerfully experienced sacred waiting.

In the Gospel of Luke, the old Zechariah and Elizabeth, felt hopelessness while waiting to have a child. Yet, they remained righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees. After waiting for a long time, an angel sent by God said: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John” (Luke 1:13). Zechariah, Elizabeth and John show us the divine work of God in a family who stays together in sacred waiting.

Joseph may have been disillusioned, resentful and afraid when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy. He could have followed his immediate plan of quietly sending her away. Instead, he took time to discern. In a dream, an angel of God told him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21). He gained courage to follow God’s salvation plan.

Mary opened herself to God’s will by accepting the Archangel Gabriel’s words, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus” (Luke 1:30-31). Selflessly, Mary said yes to God’s call. Her acceptance of God’s will encourages us to wait in confident assurance. Regardless of the difficulties that lie ahead, God will never abandon us.

We might be afraid of the uncertainty. Advent reminds us not to be afraid to bring ourselves before God. We are invited to recognize again God’s existence.

We are summoned to reflect and be present in sacred waiting. As we journey through the Advent season, let us bring our minds, hearts and spirits into contemplative awareness before God. When we bring our worries and burdens to God, time is nothing.

Theologian Ronald Rolheiser wrote, “To give birth to what’s divine requires the slow patience of gestation.” Advent has come. Spend time to reflect on your meaningful experiences of waiting. Pray to God for help in recognizing His divine presence in your sacred waiting.

Advent actions for busy people

Blog_Advent reflection_Dec 2017 Five practices for a meaningful and grace-filled Advent
By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Advent, the period when Catholics prepare for the birth of our Lord and reflect on the Second Coming of Christ, is a time of great anticipatory joy. However, it also can be a challenge for those of us who aren’t practiced in the art of waiting.

Most people don’t want to be on a waiting list. We have developed a rush-hour mentality—expecting swift messaging, express shipping, instant cooking recipes, high-speed Internet connections and quick passes to avoid long lines in amusement parks. Many of us have short attention spans.

Due to our preoccupation, we don’t always notice how our fast-paced, high-tech world has conditioned our minds to accomplish tasks as quickly as possible. This season, let us purposefully slow down and reflect.

Let the Good News lead to a healthier lifestyle. Allow me to share some of the practices that I hope will help make your Advent journey a blessed one.

Visit someone who longs for your presence and needs your service.
After receiving the good news from the Archangel Gabriel, our Blessed Mother Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth to share the joy of being chosen to bear the Son of God. Mary stayed with Elizabeth, who also was pregnant. She went not only because she longed to see her cousin but also to provide assistance to her.
Presence with service is one of the best gifts we can offer to others. You can bestow the gift of presence upon a family member, friend or colleague. Or you can go to a prison, hospital, senior home, orphanage or homeless center.

Keep a daily Advent journal.
In the Bible, prior to the Annunciation, prophets foretold the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. Jeremiah prophesied of the Messiah. Isaiah spoke about the ruler. Micah said that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. They are three among other prophets who foretold the birth of Jesus. In their writings, they described their deepest desires, longings and hopes for the coming of Jesus.
We can do the same. We can crystalize our thoughts and feelings about our waiting and preparation for the coming of Jesus by journaling. Your journal entries can be as simple as a word, phrase or sentence. You may want to use a daily devotional book for Advent to guide you. Committing your excitement, frustrations, achievements and struggles to paper can deepen the experience of Advent.

Be imaginative and create your own Advent masterpiece.
Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem and looked for a place to stay.
Other than that, we don’t know much about their journey, their period of waiting and preparation for the birth of Jesus. However, Advent is full of signs and symbols with profound meanings: candles, wreaths, trees, stars. These symbols serve as windows to God. They give us a glimpse into the mystery of the Divine. Creating art can help you fill in the blanks. You can draw, paint, sculpt, or crochet. During the process, reflect upon ways that you can welcome Jesus into your heart. Producing artwork can help you direct your mind and heart in the spirit of season. God can transform these ordinary objects into gifts of grace. We, too, are transformed in making art. Try it! You may be surprised by what you can imagine.

Participate in an Advent retreat or reconciliation service.
When Zechariah, Joseph, and Mary encountered God’s angels each one responded with humility and acknowledged their unworthiness.
Advent is time for us to reflect on renewing our relationship with God. It is an opportunity to look back and reflect on all the things that have happened throughout the year. Surely, there are many things that we did of which we are proud. There were also times when we stumbled in our lives, times that made us feel broken and unworthy. Local parishes often organize Advent retreats and common reconciliation services to help the faithful to prepare spiritually. Our participation is a great gift to Jesus.

Attend the Eucharist daily during Advent.
The Scripture readings during Advent offer wisdom and understanding of our Christian faith life.
We go to Mass not for pep talks and entertainment but for real-life transformation. We go to Mass not to feel good but to be blessed by God’s goodness. Our presence in the Holy Eucharist is a sacred moment during which we experience inner connection between expectation and the fulfillment of our waiting. In the Eucharist, we see and feel Jesus’ presence. It nurtures our longing and strengthens our hope. If we allow ourselves to remain still in the Eucharist, we realize that we are not waiting for Jesus’ coming. Rather, Jesus is waiting for our response to His Divine love.

No matter how fast-paced and hectic our daily schedule, we should find time and seek occasions in which we can pause, breathe, wait and be blessed by God’s grace. Advent season offers time to slow down and the opportunity to experience waiting—preparing ourselves for Jesus in a profound and spiritual manner. May the grace of Advent be with us all!

Generation Z and spiritual companions

Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

What is All Saints’ Day? How many Catholics remember that Nov. 1 is a holy day of obligation? Young people who belong to Generation Z (those born after 1993) might not even know that there is a day to recognize and honor the lives and works of saints, both known and unknown.

Some people claim that saints are irrelevant in today’s fast-paced, high-tech and secularized society. The influence of advertising has urged Generation Z to strive to follow their most-admired personalities on social media. They want to know all the nitty-gritty details about the personal lives of celebrities—the more personal the details, the better.

For Catholics of all generations, however, saints of yore and even contemporary saints can be admired personalities from whom we benefit by learning of their virtuous lives. Devotion to saints can grow from understanding the Apostles’ Creed, a component of the Catholic Mass. Let us not simply say, “I believe in the communion of saints” without a deeper knowledge of its meaning.

The term “saints” encompasses the church’s triumphant (all the souls in heaven), the church’s suffering (the souls in purgatory), and the church’s militant (those of us who are still on earth, aiming at sanctity). The unique and special communion depicts and upholds the sense of an all-embracing and belongingness in the community God.

We are all called to partake in the universal call for holiness, especially those who are here on earth. In a 2014 General Audience, Pope Francis said, “It is by living with love and offering Christian witness in our daily tasks that we are called to become saints…. Always and everywhere you can become a saint, that is, by being receptive to the grace that is working in us and leads us to holiness.”

Studies about Generation Z indicate that they seek something that enables them to feel like they are making a difference in the world. Responding to the call of holiness is indeed a way to make a difference. Why not take the path of saints?

Here are some ideas:

Let a saint be part of your life. Each life story of a saint gives us profound and inspiring thoughts on how to serve and follow God. There are many free apps, such as The Saint of the Day, that offer short and easy-to-read information about the life and work of a saint. Find out which aspects of the saint’s life you could relate to such as the things you have in common or how the saint developed his/her relationship with God.

Be unique. Nowadays, being unique is trendy. How about making your prayer life unique? Saint Teresa of Avila offers writings on how to develop and grow in our prayer life. Saint Ignatius of Loyola teaches us the way of discernment. Embrace global diversity by following Saint Francis Xavier who shows us how to deal with challenges in foreign missions. Feel lost and don’t know how to move forward from a dark past? Saint John of the Cross enlightens us on how to deal with dark and painful experiences. Saints are human beings, who like us, had joys, sorrows, weaknesses and problems during their times on earth. We can learn a lot from the saints.

Visit a parish. Every parish has a patron saint whose feast day is celebrated annually. Celebrating the feast of the patron saint of a parish helps not only to strengthen the identity of the parish, but it gives parishioners knowledge about the life and works of the saint, which can help them grow in their own Christian faith. If there is an opportunity, visit the sacred and religious sites that are significant in the lives of the saints, such as their birthplaces, churches where they were baptized, schools where they studied, communities where they worked, shrines, tombs, and other sites consecrated for worship or ritual.

Go on a pilgrimage. These are also awe-inspiring places connected to saints where they were born, baptized, educated, worked or buried. Other sacred places mark where miracles or visions were reported. Seeing these places in person help us deepen our belief that a life in holiness is possible. One example is the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Saint James the Great in Galicia, Spain. In Portugal, you can visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, where Pope Francis recently canonized Jacinta and Francisco, two of the three children who witnessed the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In North America, you can visit Saint Anne de Beaupré Basilica in Quebec, the National Shrine of St. John Neumann in Philadelphia, the National Shrine of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini in Chicago or the National Shrine of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos in New Orleans.

Pray through the intercession of saints. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church conveys, the saints in heaven are much closer to God than those of us still on earth. “The merciful love of God and his saints is always attentive to our prayers.” (No. 962) Therefore, we ask our family and friends in heaven to pray for us, to hand deliver our prayers to God.

Borrow from the saints. Sometime, we are overwhelmed by the trials we face in life. We seek words to articulate our thoughts and express our feelings. During those times, we can express our petition to God through the prayers of saints, such as “make me an instrument of your peace,” a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. When we are frightened and terrified by darkness in our society, let us pray with St. Arnold Janssen, the founder of the Society of the Divine Word and two communities of religious women: “May the darkness of sin and night of unbelief vanish before the light of the Word and the spirit of grace, and may the heart of Jesus live in the hearts of all. Amen.”

Sainthood comes to those who selflessly offered their lives to God. Members of Generation Z are characterized as self-starters and more accepting of others. To them, I say, why not include a saint in your life? Accept what a saint can offer you and be transformed. Regardless of generation, with the grace of God, let us all strive to live out our call to be saints here on earth.

Love blooms in the springtime

Road to Emmaus_illustration_by Ben Le SVD

By Brother Luke Henkel SVD

The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us!

Life is unfolding everywhere around us in May. It’s blossoming, burgeoning and bursting. The mornings are fresh and brilliant—at least the last few here in Chicago, after some pretty wicked storms for a few days. The sun is shining and our seminary is out for the year. Lots of new beginnings are taking place this spring for many Divine Word Missionaries in the Theologate community in Hyde Park.

This, my friends, is a season that makes me think a lot about hope and the story of the disciples going toward Emmaus. For me, the glory and wonder of spring is the Easter mystery.

As I think about the Word, Jesus—living among us and then dying on the cross and leaving behind his disciples, the women and his mother, and everyone else around him—I can’t help but think about the beginning of the Gospel of John and about this season that we’re in now.

John’s Gospel says the Word was made flesh, and DWELT among us—past tense. Historical. But as spring reminds me, Jesus didn’t just dwell among us once and then go. He wasn’t just here and then gone, leaving us to stew in our own misery and confusion. He didn’t just die and depart and that was that.

Jesus came back.

He came back. He resurrected and beat sin. He vanquished the darkness of sin and death and more than that. He came back to the disciples as they were despondently and miserably walking along to Emmaus—after they decided that all hope was gone and that there was nothing left for them to do but return to their old lives.

The disciples were downcast because they’d put all their hope in Jesus and look what happened. They’d given up everything to follow him because they believed he’d be their savior, that he’d truly bring all that he’d promised. (And he promised a lot.) And then, everything fell into the worst disarray and chaos they could have imagined.

To say they were downcast is possibly the biggest understatement in the Bible. Can you even IMAGINE how many emotions they must have been feeling? Downcast, yes, but also rage. Fear. Resentment. Bitterness. Hopelessness. Helplessness and despondency. Surely, regret too. They must have been asking themselves, what had they just abandoned their lives for and where was the pay-off? What did they have to show for all their faith, hope and trust in Jesus?

No wonder they wanted to get back to what they knew, back to fishing, back to some sort of normalcy.

And then guess what. He showed up on their journey. He came back, on this dusty path on the outskirts of Jerusalem, as they were meandering, heads down, away from what had just happened.

Jesus came back.

Jesus came back to visit his friends on their journey from the city. Immediately after this scene, he visited the disciples again and walked through the wall to say, “Peace.”

Given all the mighty, magnificently cosmic effects of the Resurrection, the most powerful thing Jesus could have done was come back to his disciples. The most important thing that Jesus did was to remain with them, walk with them to Emmaus, and stay with them so they could have a meal.

This is the Easter mystery. Sometimes we get caught up in defining the Resurrection itself, and we talk about all that it meant for humanity and for the conquest of life over sin and death.

These conversations ring true, but we’ll never grasp the totally overwhelming mystery of what happened to Jesus in the Resurrection.

But, we can understand what Jesus did on the way to Emmaus. We can understand a long-lost friend showing up alongside us after being gone. We might not grasp where he’d been and what he’d done, but we don’t necessarily need to understand. We can rejoice in the simple fact that he’s here again in front of us. We can then feel our hearts burning within us, as the disciples did once they understood it was Jesus.

We don’t have to understand the cosmic, universal, overwhelmingly transcendent mysteries of Jesus’ Resurrection in order to feel it. In fact, perhaps the feeling comes first. When we experience Jesus coming back for us, there’s a joy that can’t be defined, a burning, a goodness that has no word, no definition and no limit either.

We might not understand the technicalities of rising from the dead but what’s so beautiful about Jesus showing up again to the downcast disciples is that he’s telling us, “That’s alright.” We don’t need to understand. We just need to see and hear Jesus, and we know he came back for us.

Even though we sometimes feel misery, despair, bitterness, fear or resentfulness, Jesus came back for us. He’s right here. We might not recognize him at first, but we will know it’s him if we pay attention to that feeling, that burning within us. We’ll know.

That burning, my friends, is the Easter mystery. It is life, hope and goodness swelling up inside and overtaking the cells, flooding them with life, light, hope, energy, with the desire for every cell, every mitochondria, ribosome and enzyme to scream and shout the words: “LIFE IS SO GOOD!”

This is what happens during spring. It’s what the flowers and the trees are doing—and it’s what we do when we breathe in the fresh air and take a closer look at a blooming flower or at the hundreds of colors on one single tree. It’s what happens when we attend Mass because this is the most life-giving celebration we have as faithful people.

In every way, may this spring be an awakening, a chance to see the glory, goodness and LIFE that God gives us, not just through some hugely cosmic event but from coming back to see us, to share a meal and the Scripture—to spend more time with his beloved because he can’t get enough of us.

Brotherhood: A primer on the mystery and meaning

Brother Symposium_blog_April 2017

By Brother Luke Henkel SVD

On March 25, I had the privilege and joy of attending the inaugural Brothers Symposium at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. This day-long event brought together brothers from all across the country—almost 300 religious who represented more than 15 congregations.

It was an invigorating day of discussing what the brotherhood means in our various congregations, how we live it out, and how we address challenges, questions and concerns about the blessed ambiguity of our vocation. This phrase has been a buzzword since the Vatican’s December 2015 release of a document on brotherhood called “Identity and Mission of the Religious Brother in the Church.”

Brother John Mark Falkenhain OSB, the keynote speaker, was by far the highlight of the day for me. From the beginning, he spoke the words I feel all brothers need to hear. Brother John Mark spent most of his speech dissecting what might be the most common

Brother John Mark Falkenhain OSB

question a brother hears—a simple, easy question. “Oh, I see you’re in religious life. Are you a priest or just a brother?”  We all laughed because we caught the word he wanted to highlight: “just.” We’ve all heard it before.

Are you just a brother?

Just. The word might seem simple, even innocuous—and I doubt it’s meant harmfully. There’s much to be said about the cultural connotations and power of this word “just.” But that’s a topic for another day. There’s a lot of hidden meaning behind that word “just,” and it’s not necessarily as harmless as it seems.

For most of us, he said, there’s the temptation to respond to this question with some sort of justification, half a dozen different excuses or even anger at being compared to priests. After all, how often do people usually mean, “Why didn’t you become a priest?”  When this is the real underlying question, it is hurtful.

How should brothers respond to this question? We might say, I’m not just a brother. I’m a teacher, a theologian, a nurse/cook/student/you name it. The answer might be given in terms of our professional title, with a response about what we do or what we offer to our community or the people whom we serve. While this answer isn’t necessarily misleading, it’s not really the whole picture. Our job is not the whole picture we are to paint. We are more than our job. What we offer is not just professional service—anyone can do that.

The question then becomes: What do we offer?

To answer this, Brother John Mark showed a jar of Crofters Organic Fruit Spread. It is, as their motto states, “Just Fruit Spread.” There are no preservatives, no chemicals or additives. It’s simply fruit. There isn’t anything else. It’s just…fruit spread.

And so, he said, when we are faced with the assumption of being “just” brothers, the answer is YES! Brothers are simply brothers. Brothers are present, without additives or chemicals or weird preservatives that no one has ever heard of. Brothers, he emphasized, are natural, organic and simple. We are uncomplicated witnesses, and we walk as Jesus walked—simply, with no hidden intentions or confusing ideologies. This simplicity and singleness of purpose is an extraordinary reminder about what it means to really follow Jesus. It means being witnesses in a special way: unmediated, unbroken, wholly and solely for God. We can then journey on with unfettered zeal and heroism—with true passion because there’s nothing in the way. This, in turn, leaves every brother open to joy, totally free to be what he is called to be.

This is our offering, and this is our source of strength to continue on. Of course, whenever and wherever we look in our world, we can see that things are just so complicated. Nearly every issue and conversation is layered, complex and difficult. Naturally, the answer of simplicity is, well, complicated.

In reflecting on Brother John Mark’s words, I’m reminded of how the very first apostles left behind their professional identities in order to become Jesus’ companions and brothers. They threw down their nets on the shore and gave up their professional title of fishermen in order to follow Jesus.

I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them, and a lot of people misunderstood. Especially back in the day, in a rigid and structured society, this act of going off to simply follow Jesus must have been absurd. Imagine giving up the labels and titles that are easy for people to understand in order to embrace something much more challenging.  However, that’s true brotherhood. It’s complicated and it’s difficult only if we let it be.

I am reminded of Saint Teresa of Calcutta and her call for us to live in the joy that Christ gives us. We have Christ in the smile given, in the smile received, in the smile of the poor, in the smile of Christ our brother. That’s simple, and it’s our source of joy. It’s all we have in the end!

This joy is constant. It’s there all the time, and there’s no reason not to bask in it, glow from it, radiate it back outwards to everyone we meet. As brothers, we’re simply following Jesus. And if we do that—if we’re mindful of and faithful to our small yet heroic purpose of simplicity in this chaotic world—then what can get in the way of this joy?

Brothers are to be heroic in our brotherhood. We are to walk on, to proudly, courageously and solely witness to the passion God has for us!

Welcoming the unexpected

By Viet Quoc Hoang SVD

Paraguayans visit one another often, usually without calling or announcing a visit ahead of time. Tereré or maté are traditional drinks offered to unexpected visitors. While fulfilling my cross-culturing training program (CTP) in Paraguay, I learned how to share maté or tereré in a hospitable environment.

Maté is a caffeine-packed beverage that is always consumed hot and is one of the most popular drinks in the region. It is made from yerba mate—green, finely chopped leaves that infuse the tea water with an earthy and slightly bitter flavor like that of green tea. Some drinkers add sugar to cut the taste as they would with coffee. It is often served in a common guampa, a container made of wood, cattle horns or gourds, and sipped thorugh a bombilla, or metal straw. The preparing, drinking and sharing of maté are an integral part of daily life in Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay.

Guampa and bombilla
Guampa and bombilla

Tereré is a traditional cold drink, made from the leaves of the yerba mate plant. The Paraguayan cultural tradition is to carry these drinks in a thermos, usually wrapped in tooled and stitched leather that also holds an attached cup holder and a metal straw with a series of fine holes that serve as a filter.

When either maté or tereré is shared, the host passes it to one person, who drinks and returns the container to the host, who then  makes another portion for the next person.

The guampa (cup) is completely emptied by each participant before refilling it from the thermos and passing to the next person. Whenever, a participant in the circle of sharing is full or does not want to drink anymore, he or she will say, “Gracias.”

It is a signal to skip that particular person as the circle of sharing continues. People of all ages drink maté and tereré at home, with family or while spending a relaxed afternoon with friends. For many, maté and tereré are the beverages of choice for staying alert during the workday, as they sip on it at their desks. These teas have been part of the Paraguayan culture for hundreds of years.

CTP in Paraguay was indeed a special time for me. I had many excellent opportunities to integrate what I learned into missionary life. I have learned, struggled, affirmed and grown in faith. Although there were moments that I thought it was tough and frustrating, the experience affirmed the vocation to which God calls me, to witness the Good News.

My experience in Paraguay carries on a rich tradition. For more than 140 years, Divine Word Missionaries have been learning and adopting cultural rituals of the communities in which we serve.

All of us are called to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Appreciating the ways of others—such as the tea ceremony of the Paraguayan people—is a form of that love.