Let our children come to us

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By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

While preparing for my class on worship with children, I read an article about Pope Francis in which he said that children’s tears are the “best sermon.” He explained that “children cry, they are noisy, they don’t stop moving. But it really irritates me when I see a child crying in church and someone says they must go out. God’s voice is in a child’s tears: they must never be kicked out of church.”

Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).

This passage always comes to mind when I see parents struggling to calm a child during Mass. I admit that I am one of those worshipers who labors to keep my composure and focus on the celebration when there is a crying or playing child at the liturgy.

A child’s awe and wonder, a gift of the Holy Spirit, is a divine source of their desire to be in relationship with our God.

There were instances when the presence of a disruptive child became a cause of division within the worshiping community. Parents are in a dilemma whether to bring their child with them to fulfill their Sunday obligation or to let them participate in the Mass only when they learn to behave themselves. Perhaps, we should ask ourselves: Which option is better? A church full of crying children or a quiet and empty church?

As baptized Christians, we have a shared responsibility in molding children’s engagement in the liturgy. We have to accompany and guide them on their paths as they discover the beauty and gifts of the liturgy.

Children’s participation should not be something taken as added attendance in the assembly or to merely make the celebration more festive. Everyone must realize that the presence of a child in the liturgy is an essential gift to the whole community.

It gives life to the community. A child cannot and should not be excluded from worship. It reminds us of our interdependence with one another.

In the liturgy, children need us, and we need them. Joan Patano Vos writes, “the role of adults in the church is not to ‘put’ God into children. Rather, we help to shape an environment where they feel at home and in and with the divine presence. And then we need to pray with them.”

Children remind us of the sacredness of our humanity. A child’s knowledge of liturgy does not come from a database. As children grow up and become members of the worshiping community, we need to help them realize their God-given gifts. We should encourage them to use those gifts to the fullest.

We need to guide them in sharing their gifts with the whole community. Parents who let their children be present and participate in the community worship affirm those gifts.

As Diane Apostolos-Cappadona writes, “the child learns to worship through experience from the very first moments in the church. The child’s first ‘understandings’ come through the senses: one sees the flickering candles, the smoke of incense, and the colorful movement of celebrants in procession; one hears the music of the choir and the chanting priests and readers; one kisses icons, the cross, the gospel book…one feels one’s head anointed with oil or splashed with water; and one tastes the wine and bread of holy communion. By age two, children will be imitating many of the things seen and heard.”

We have to be patient, kind, understanding and loving with our children as they take time to grasp and express faith in worship the way we hope they will. A child’s awe and wonder, a gift of the Holy Spirit, is a divine source of their desire to be in relationship with our God.


How liturgy and worship fostered my religious missionary vocation

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By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Nearly 20 years into the new millennium, society sometimes asks how modern young people choose the religious life. A summer school course at Catholic Theological Union gave me cause to reflect and recall my own liturgical formation–learning the holy work of God–from the age of four and how it shaped the foundation of my vocation.

My parents seized the opportunity to foster my gift of faith. I was baptized at Saint Rafael Parish in Pasay City, Philippines. They sent me to the parish’s preschool where I had my first religious education. I believe that my baptism and early education sowed the seeds of my religious vocation.

I remember three significant experiences in that parish: the pouring of holy water on my head during baptism; Easter Sunday celebration where an image of Judas Iscariot was burned in effigy; and the moment when I realized I wanted to be like the altar servers and wear the vestments of the priest.

When I moved to elementary school, I was fortunate to receive religious education in a non-Catholic private school where I first experienced the Sacrament of Reconciliation and received my First Communion. During high school, I joined and became a leader of a Catholic youth ministry.

Salesian brothers and priests lived in our community. They did youth ministry in our small urban settlement. Every weekend, the seminarians visited our place for catechism class. They helped us establish our chapel and develop our community parish activities.
I became one of the youths who made parish activities a recreational part of our community. We were involved as parish ministers such as choir member, altar server, commentator and lector.

I read the Bible and adopted religious practices like novenas and devotion to the Blessed Mother and Santo Niño (Child Jesus). As children, we raised awareness and promoted the Catholic faith by organizing social outreach projects. For the feast of our patron saint, we organized activities, such as a procession, sports festival and a Bible quiz bee. After earning a bachelor’s degree in religious education from a Catholic university, I became a religion teacher.

I am thankful for the rich experience of parish involvement at a very young age. I owe it to my family, the parish community and the people I met in school. The music, gestures, Scriptures, prayers of the faithful and Eucharistic prayers became an integral part of my growth as a baptized child who was exploring the mystery of sacred experience. It taught me a sense of community, belonging, diversity, inclusion, reconciliation, peace, justice and charity.

My presence in the liturgy was not as a watcher but as a participant who was being transformed by the living God. As stated in the Congregation for Divine Worship’s Directory for Masses with Children,” worship teaches human values through “the community activity, exchange of greetings, capacity to listen and to seek and grant pardon, expression of gratitude, experience of symbolic actions, a meal of friendship, and festive celebration.”

Through Mass, I learned active, conscious and authentic participation in the Eucharistic celebration. Furthermore, I witnessed the dynamic life of the Gospels, the Word of God. Over the years, as I grow in age and wisdom, my ears have been trained to the sounds of the words in Scripture verses.

When I listen to a lector, I understand that it is not a mere reading of Scripture. It is the proclamation of the Divine Word. It became the lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Psalm 119:105).

From my first encounter with the living God in worship to where I am at right now, the liturgy has formed my baptismal identity as a child of God. The proclaimed Word that I heard during the liturgy grew within me. It is constantly calling forth an ever deeper spiritual response. It leads me to unlimited possibilities for an encounter with God through worship and the liturgy.

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.