Coming to terms with the past

By Frater Brian M. Junkes SVD

Before entering the seminary, I lived in a rural community called The Acreage in South Florida. It was not next to the sunny beaches and colorful high-rise condos of Miami but rather in a community on a grid system of dirt roads, two-acre properties, canals, and woods of pine trees.

It was rather quiet living until you heard the roar of someone’s pickup truck or motorcycle down the street. Overall, it was a nice community. Growing up, I was aware that like in other communities, crime did happen.

Racism also was present. As a child, I remember hearing from a friend that the Ku Klux Klan used to meet at a house that was down the street. I also heard the KKK protested the opening of my high school because students of color from other towns and communities would study at my school.

During my high school years, some students fought over race. They would even meet in local parks to fight after school.

One of the most memorable conflicts happened when some guys went to a Black student’s house to fight over a girl. The one guy brought 30 friends with baseball bats with him and waited outside of the other guy’s house. Fortunately, he never came out.

Later, when the victim and his family left the house to go grocery shopping, the group came back with spray cans and painted “KKK,” Nazi swastikas, and WP (white power) all over the house.

Some of the members of this group were later arrested after the police found the spray cans in a nearby lot. I knew some of these guys who perpetrated this abhorrent behavior. Some of them would say things like “I am not racist, but…” and “I have black friends.” They were blind to their own prejudice.

I used to hear people talk about avoiding the “bad neighborhoods and areas” in the county and how they did not want Black people and Mexicans around. I have heard “Black jokes” and “Mexican jokes.”

I have listened to people rant about how terrible Black people and Mexicans were in the past. Racism certainly still existed in the history of my local community and exists now.

I bring all of this up because the topic of racism is now in the news and headlines again after the killing of George Floyd. This time, I really felt it. After reading the news about the protests and seeing what my friends have posted on Facebook, I have felt the need to reflect and contemplate on what has been happening and on myself.

Recently, in light of what is happening, I have had to ask myself: What am I doing about racism? Am I racist? Do I have any prejudice towards people of color? How can I help people in the future or in the mission if I have not reflected on my own biases, prejudices, and racism? How can I help the international community I am a part of to become intercultural if I have not overcome those things? Some people may say I am being too emotional or sensitive, maybe even experiencing overwhelming guilt, but I say this is too important to dismiss lightly.

 I have learned in recent years of being in formation and living with people from different cultures that people can have prejudices and biases towards people of other countries and cultures even if they are in the subconscious and are not aware of it. I have witnessed this firsthand from other people.

Sometimes, it is laughable with no one being hurt; other times, it causes a divide in relationships and hurts others. Racism prevents the person who has the biases and prejudices from going deeper and getting to know the other person who is vastly different and unique.

I have been in community with people who have shown this attitude towards me as an American. Besides the overt racism that is commonly seen in the news and movies, it can be subtle. This subconscious racism is what people are taking to the streets and protesting.

My point in sharing all of this is not only to bring awareness, but also to invite people to reflect internally to possibly discover any deep-seated or subconscious biases, prejudices, and racism they may hold.

It is natural to resist and deny that it is there, but if we want to stand with our brothers and sisters who are discriminated against, we must first start with ourselves. We must examine our own consciences and our own past to make sense of who we are in the present situation. Only then can we really make a difference and help others.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently said more than half a century ago: “In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Death in the age of COVID-19

Father Viet “Juan” Quoc Hoang SVD, a graduate of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, was ordained at Techny and moved to Paraguay for his first assignment in 2018. He serves three parishes. The Paraguay Province recently announced his appointment as the district superior of Itapúa Sur district, one of the province’s five districts. He writes of the passing of a confrere during this unusual time.

By Father Viet “Juan” Quoc Hoang SVD

In March when Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez ordered flight restrictions, border closures and strict quarantine due to the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak, my heart sank. Little did I know, it would affect our way of saying “goodbye” to our dearly departed—dying in solitude, without visits, wake or hugs.

The sanitary security measures instituted by the Ministry of Health and presidential order prevent family members from carrying out traditional farewell rituals for their loved ones.

Along with the pain and sadness that COVID-19 causes, the epidemic is posing a very unusual scenario. The strict health restrictions deny relatives the right to say goodbye. This crisis is making us live through situations in which certain cultural values ​​are subordinated to the objective priority of containing the spread of the pandemic.

One of the most dramatic and heartbreaking consequences is that even in their last moments of life, the grievously ill cannot see their relatives and are forced to die alone.

The pandemic changes the way we live and the way we die. To adjust, the archdiocese has modified the protocols for funeral services, both for deaths from this infection and for those who have died from other causes.

Many effected families naturally feel that this situation is cruel. Although they understand that the protocols are in place to combat a public health problem, it does not alleviate the sadness that they feel. There is no comfort at such difficult times.

Usually, the Catholic funeral rite is divided into several parts, each with its own purpose. During this pandemic, the typical funeral rite is simplified to one. As a Catholic religious priest, I am only allowed to do “un responso,” a last prayer for the deceased.

Do not confuse un responso with a Mass for the deceased. The responso is without Mass. This pastoral practice was put to the test when our confrere Father Bernardino Caceres SVD passed away due to health complications on April 17. He was the pastor of San Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz from 1987 to 1989 and 2006 to 2009.

I understand that grief is a necessary process, natural and inherent to the human being. But it does not mean that it was easy to say goodbye to our Father Caceres with only our provincial, vice provincial, the rector of our central retirement central house and the cemetery caretaker present.

The province’s cemetery, San Blas, is located 60 kilometers from the closest major city, Encarnacion. Father Caceres’s family and friends were not allowed during the burial because of travel restriction. The rest of us were there virtually.

New technologies like WhatsApp and Viber can help say goodbye to loved ones when no other alternative is possible. Through innovation and the use of modern tools, we can live through the pain of the pandemic together.

COVID-19: A time to live out the virtues of faith, hope and charity

Father Viet “Juan” Quoc Hoang SVD, who was born in Vietnam and moved to Wisconsin as a youth, was ordained to the priesthood in 2018. He is serving his first assignment in Paraguay.

By Father Viet “Juan” Quoc Hoang SVD

The world has stopped. Activities, economics, political life, travel, entertainment events and sport have stopped. Public religious life also has stopped.

Every Lenten season, the Church invites us to redirect our lives to focus on prayer, fasting and works of charity. This period of quarantine during COVID-19 is like the Lenten season. It is a universal abstinence.

May this episode be an auspicious time to live more intensely. The disease cannot stop us from worshipping God in our hearts and homes. We may not be able to gather for Mass in the House of God, but God instills these habits in us so that our actions may be oriented according to the will of the Father who only wants our good. According to Catholic theology, when we accept God’s will and habits, they become manifest through faith, hope and charity.

Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and in all that He has revealed to us, all that the Holy Church proposes to us, because He is the truth itself. We pray to God: “Lord, I believe, but increase my faith!” As believers we must strive to know and do God’s will. He speaks to us through signs. And he asks us for an active, creative and supportive faith.

The virtue of hope corresponds to the yearning for happiness placed by God in the heart of every man. It protects us from discouragement. The impulse of hope preserves selflessness and leads to the bliss of charity. When Christians do not allow themselves to be invaded by discouragement, they cannot fail. God will not leave us without His help.

Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God over all things. This is a central commandment of our faith. We cannot say that we believe in God if we do not show our faith with works. This is a time to do good. As Pope Francis asks, “Let us ask the Lord, at this particularly difficult time for all of us, to rediscover within us his presence that loves and sustains us, and thus bearers of his tenderness to all who surround us with works of closeness and good.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has taught us to act and live out our faith. A traditional list of immediate “basic needs” is food (including water), shelter and clothing.

In March when Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez ordered flight restrictions, border closures and strict quarantine, my heart sank. One week after the presidential order, many poor people began to knock on the rectory door, asking for food and cleaning supplies like bleach, dish soap and hand soap.

As a Divine Word Missionary, I cannot ignore the needs of our brothers and sisters. With the help of goodhearted people, we began our work of charity. We handed out bags of food and supplies and cooked “olla popular” in our various outstation chapel communities. The needs in our parish community is growing each day. We will continue for as long as we can.

Let us increase our prayers for one another so as not to fall in the face of the ravages of this storm. Let us prayer to overcome the fears that paralyze. Let us open our hearts so that the Lord may calm them.

With His help, faith, hope and charity will be the antidotes for successfully overcoming this crisis. Let us ask for the intercession of St. Joseph, protector of the family, and of our mother Mary Most Holy. Let us pray the rosary and novenas as a family. We entrust ourselves to the Virgin of Miracles of Caacupé to be our defense and refuge against this epidemic.

Living our baptismal call in all situations

As part of Society of the Divine Word formation seminarians and brothers in temporary vows fulfill two to three years in a culture other than their own. Seminarian Manie Manuel completed two years of studies at Catholic Theological Union and is now in Colombia for his Cross-Cultural Training Program.

By Manie Manuel SVD

Time flies. I have been in Colombia, South American, for eight months. I arrived in Bogota on Aug 16 at 1 a.m.

The flight was good. However, the next day when I awoke, I was very sick. I had no clue what was going on. My head and stomach hurt. I could not eat.

One of the ladies told me that I was suffering from altitude sickness. The city of Bogota is more than 10,000 feet above sea level. After nine months, I am somewhat adjusted to the altitude, but I still get sick often.

This mission experience has been very challenging yet rewarding. I am so blessed to have listened to God’s call to serve his people. The people here are very friendly, and the country is 80 percent Catholic.

There is much work to do here. Many people have asked, “Is the country dangerous?” My answer is “yes, it is, but I am not scared.” When you do God’s work there is no reason to be scared. I put everything into His hands and fully embrace my baptismal call to mission.

Many people have fled from nearby Venezuela, seeking a better life. That country is controlled by a dictator who is killing many people. The Venezuelan people are displaced and are left with nothing.

I have been trying to help them by providing clothing and food. Currently, the Colombian government is not helping these people. I pray that the people of Colombia and the United States will answer their missionary call to serve God and His people.

Baptism makes us disciples who know and love Jesus Christ and respond to his call to follow him. The Pope likes to stress that Baptism makes us missionary disciples, endowed with many gifts and talents for the service of others in the name of the Lord. So, let us ask: “What does it mean to follow Jesus?”

That question can be answered rather simply. It is a matter of listening and doing. An authentic disciple of Jesus Christ is one who first listens to his Word and then puts it into practice. From days of old, obedient listening has been the distinctive mark of God’s people.

This notion was expressed simply and beautifully by the prophet Isaiah: “Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught” (Isaiah 50:4).

Now that God’s Word has become a human being in Jesus Christ, we listen with attention to the words spoken by the Savior himself. Indeed, Jesus himself affirmed the centrality of hearing and practicing his Word for all disciples.

In the Gospel of Luke, we read: “Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:19-21).

On the night of the Last Supper, after Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he taught that by this action, he was giving us an example to follow and then spoke this command: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

Putting the Word of God into practice means serving our brothers and sisters in love. To love as Jesus loved means that we make sacrifices daily for the good of the other. God’s gifts are to be used according to His purpose and in keeping with our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.

After the COVID virus quarantine is over, I will move to a different mission site in a city called Dagua Cali. I will be working in one of the parishes that is run by my religious order. I am looking forward to this new experience.

There are ample opportunities for service in our Church. If you think that God is calling you to missionary religious life as a priest or brother, please check out the Divine Word Vocation Team website at svdvocations.org and contact one of the vocation directors.  May God bless you and your family throughout the Easter season.

Hold fast to the life that fosters faith, charity, and hope

By Deacon Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

When we look back and think about things that have transpired during the pandemic, what thoughts and feelings come over us? The daily news about COVID-19 shows us the unprecedented and excruciating reality of our times; it leads us to ponder what kind of future lies ahead of us.

Many important events on my planner are now marked cancelled or postponed: long-distant races, the SPRED (Special Religious Development) ministry dinner dance fundraiser, the baptism of friends’ children, the Easter Triduum celebration in the parish and graduation in May.

I had hoped that my family and friends could join me to celebrate the milestones of my vocation journey. To my dismay, the priesthood ordination has been postponed without knowing when and how to celebrate it. My inner fear gave rise to more questions about life and vocation. Does it still make sense to become priest for empty churches? Does faith have a future in an online church?

The worldwide pandemic has affected each one of us in various ways. All of us are urged to be morally responsible to take care of one another by abiding with the guidelines of stay-at-home, social distancing, work from home, shelter in place, flatten the curve and enhance community quarantine.

The guidelines were implemented for our protection and safety; yet, it also makes us feel justifiably worried. Surely each one of us, depending on own story, feels something that no words can describe. It’s an indescribable feeling that belongs to each of us alone. It is a feeling that I thought I would only encounter when I was close to the edge of death.

I brought my feeling of fear with me to my five-day ordination retreat – the only activity on my calendar that was not postponed or cancelled. During the first week of Easter, I spent this stay-at-home spiritual exercise by contemplating the Resurrection narratives in the Scriptures.

I was drawn to the persons who witnessed the Risen Christ: the women hurriedly running away from the empty tomb; Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb; the two troubled disciples walking on the road to Emmaus; and disciples who panicked, hid and were frightened when Jesus unexpectedly stood in their midst.

The apostles did not presume to inquire “Who are you?” when Jesus invited them to eat a meal with him after their fishing; and the doubting Thomas refused to believe in the Resurrected Jesus until he could see and feel the wounds received by Jesus on the cross.

At different levels, each of them was filled with fear. It was not the kind of fear that accompanied the complex emotions of anger, confusion and indifference. Their fear was the result of Divine Providence, a freely given gift from the Risen Lord that led them to and made them rely on their faith, love and hope.

I recalled the profoundly moving image of a shepherd taking care a flock when Pope Francis gave the special Urbi et Orbi blessing at Rome. He stood as a witness and servant of the Good Shepherd Christ Jesus in a deserted St. Peter’s Square with a steady rain falling.

He spoke to us through different means of modern communication; he led us to Jesus’ question: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” Pope Francis has proclaimed again and again the message of God’s unconditional love and has urged us all “to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering.”

While experts strive to collect and rely on data to understand how and why the pandemic is happening, we are tasked to reawaken our virtues of faith, love and hope.

We, the Church, the people of God, are missionary disciples. As frontliners, even though fearful, we must serve unselfishly to make sure that we do not become lifeless. We have a duty to make our Church community come fully alive.

We need to let the heart of the Risen Jesus Christ live in our hearts and in the hearts of all. Let the Easter mystery touch your life with the healing power of Jesus’ love. Seek constant growth by putting into action the great work and teaching of Jesus. Free yourself from longing for only the passing things in life. Hold fast to the life Christ Jesus has given to us so that we come to the eternal gifts He promised all who follow him.

We do not know how long we will be in this situation. Faith, charity and hope make our waiting more worthwhile and meaningful. For us who are free from virus infection, let us be grateful and keep ourselves safe and healthy. At the same time, let us be merciful by nurturing and offering kindness.

Let us renew our family life, community life and prayer life. Let us grab our planners and organize concrete ways to live out our Christian life and vocation.

Sharing sacred space with the marginalized

Editor’s Note: This reflection was written before the COVID-19 pandemic. We publish it because the message still holds true and the physical aspect of being together eventually will return. Be safe and know that you are loved.

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

On a Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before our first SPRED (Special Religious Development) session of the year, I received a phone call from our lead catechist. She informed me about a new friend who would be coming and asked if I would accompany her in our group. I was asked to take the role of a helper catechist, unlike in the past when I simply observed the whole group during a session.

I felt excited and nervous at the same time. This would be my first time in the role of a helper catechist in our SPRED group. When I arrived at the SPRED center that evening, I felt apprehensive. My heart was beating fast as I entered our preparation room. Our activity catechist welcomed me and introduced me to Marie, the friend whom I was to accompany.

As we approached, she was playing with sand in the corner of our preparation room. She looked at me for a second and then offered her right hand to shake my hand. I told her my name and smiled as we shook hands. She does not communicate verbally. She is on the autism spectrum. I was not quite sure how I was going to build a relationship with a person who was non-verbal.

After shaking hands with Marie, I pulled up a chair and sat across from her at the table. I sat with her as she quietly worked with sand and seashells in a large container. She scooped the sand with a small shell and poured it like a flowing waterfall. While she held the shell in her left hand to scoop and pour the sand, she was catching and pouring sand with her right hand. She was attentively focused on the sand as she worked.

My anxiousness started to gradually subside. I believe her calming presence helped me get over my anxieties. She was at ease and did not disrupt any of the others during the whole session. She did not walk away from me, and I observed from her behavior that she wanted to spend time with me. I believe we were both comfortable with one another. I was grateful and joyful that we were able to bond at our first meeting. It gave me hope that her presence and involvement in our first session would be beneficial for her whole faith formation.

In our SPRED community, many parents have shared stories about their sad and painful experiences of rejection and isolation because of their child’s condition. These stories convey a social reality—that disabilities can lead to being isolated and marginalized. Through no fault of their own or their families, our friends sometimes are marginalized in parish settings despite church documents that uphold their belonging to the family of God.

Many families were discouraged from attending the Sunday liturgy with their family member with disabilities because of the ways they have been treated by others in the assembly. There have been occasions when people with disabilities and their families were reprimanded and asked to leave the church because others could not cope with some of the difficulties the person with disabilities was having.

These are pressing issues that we attempt to address throughout our catechist formation in SPRED. As catechists, we advocate for the rights of people with disabilities to share the liturgy with all believers. The faith formation empowers them to truly belong in our liturgical communities. Through our SPRED community of faith, our friends become more comfortable entering into the worship experience of the whole church.

Parish leaders need to be sensitive and listen attentively. Patience, respect, and collaboration are necessary both on the part of the family requesting support and on the part of the parish trying to be supportive.

Some ask: Are they capable of having faith? Can they acquire faith and explain it? Are they capable of knowing their religion? Do they understand the meaning of prayers, hymns, gestures, sacraments? Can they really participate in liturgy?

Our friends with disabilities may not have the same cognitive capacity as we have to understand prayers, hymns, gestures and sacraments, but we have to understand that faith is neither fundamentally abstract nor purely conceptual. It is about relationships. For that reason, persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities can be educated in faith by providing them the opportunity to experience our faith.

Each person is a human being. Each person has his or her own way of relating to others. Abstract or conceptual knowing may be limited but there are other ways of knowing, such as symbolic or intuitive knowing and response. Our friends have a strong affective capacity to make others feel valued. Let the relationship they share with us, the friendship, our experience together in SPRED become the vehicle for their physical, psychological and spiritual growth.

At a Mass in Rome, Pope Francis told those in the audience that when St. Pius X ruled in 1910 that children as young as seven years old could receive Communion, similar objections were raised. “But that child won’t understand,” the critics complained. But St. Pius went ahead, knowing: “Each one of us has a different way of understanding things. One understands one way and another in a different manner, but we can all know God.”

One of our fellow catechists shared this reflection: “SPRED means creating bonds of new friendships, a beautiful sense of community, learning to see Christ in everyday situations, knowing that I need a Shepherd; not being afraid to grow, to love, to forgive; seeing my friend with disabilities for the first time lean forward with her hands outstretched to hear what Jesus wants to say to her today.”

Every Sunday I see Marie with her mom, dad and grandmother at our liturgy at the SPRED center. I admire them for their love and dedication as they accompany her on her faith journey. I also am inspired by Marie who does not merely attend the liturgy but also participates according to her own capacity. When I see her, I remember how she leads me during our SPRED sessions with her reflective presence, her deep awareness and loving attentiveness to others.

Living a courageous life in the middle of a pandemic

Divine Word Missionaries and guests gathered in Spain before the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Hoang Nguyen SVD

It is time for me to adapt to another way of life. I am a Divine Word seminarian who is living and studying in Spain. This country has been my host country for the past seven months. 

I live in a community in Dueñas, Palencia, which is two hours north of Madrid. Now that my formal studies are completed, I continue learning new things at home. With the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic in Spain last month, I have heard many heartbreaking stories. However, I also have heard stories that inspire and encourage. 

As a student learning Spanish, I read as much as I can every day from whatever I can find. I make a practice of finding a story in the newspaper that I can share with one of the priests with whom I live. I have shared story after story about COVID-19 and people’s fear of the deadly virus. Finally, one of my confreres reminded me that there are positive stories too. 

 My priest instructor’s comment reminded me of what I learned at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. It is so important to have a balance of stories about any place. Even though the virus has brought sadness to the world, this virus has awakened us to a new consciousness. 

We cannot just sit around and wait for something good to happen. Most of us, in fact, are making a better reality at home, work and in our communities. I have seen neighbors waving at me from their front yard for the first time since I arrived in Spain. 

People in other towns, who live in apartments, come out at night to stand on their balconies and sing to each other, talk to each other from a distance, and wave while wishing each other well. Indeed, they are connected. Seeing these positive people on TV gives me hope for better days. 

Though people practice social distancing, they are still in solidarity with one another. In other words, people are united to fight this war against the COVID-19 by being supportive of others and collaborative with one another. 

Social distancing is so contrary to being a Spaniard. Since I arrived in the country, I have observed people on the street converse with each other from a close distance. When a woman and man meet each other, they often give each other kisses on both cheeks. But now, kisses and close distance are gone. However, what is not gone is their being supportive of each other. 

One writer, Nuria Labari, shares her vision in El País, a Spanish-language daily newspaper in Madrid. She wrote, “Cuando una sociedad es solidaria como la nuestra lo está siendo, en tonces sentimos que formamos parte de algo más grande y más importante que nosotros missos.”

In English, it reads, “When a society is as supportive as ours is, we feel that we are part of something bigger and more important than ourselves.”

Nuria went on to say, “Give us courage to face life. To also face disease and even this virus. Even to be better persons.” What I have learned from people like Nuria is that after this pandemic virus, no one will be afraid to face something as deadly as this virus again. 

Schools have been closed. Streets are empty, but homes are full. The people usually get together at home to play dominoes and card games, like Chinchón, which is a famous matching card game in Spain. 

Nuria writes that the children are learning something fundamental these days without school. I agree with Nuria because whenever there is a problem, there is always something good that we can learn from it. 

Like me, these young people probably have a lot of free time to learn new skills at home since they do not have homework assignments to do. According to Nuria, “Our children are experiencing an active and determined solidarity capable of changing things to protect the weakest.” 

I really admire those who come out on their apartment balconies in big cities like Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla to applaud medical workers. In this way, the local people are helping medical professionals fight COVID-19 by being supportive of them. Like the local people, I have to stay indoors and keep healthy for the sake of others and for these medical professionals. 

Things may get worse, but one thing I know for sure is that I am still learning new things in these difficult times. The people are my teachers. I have no doubt that we are going to get through this together. 

I cannot wait to wear a shirt that says, “I Survived COVID-19” with the local people. I cannot wait to celebrate our victory with these people. I cannot wait to hear young people say, “I am stronger than ever. I am more fearless than ever. I love serving other people more than ever. And I am more faithful than ever.” So far in this lockdown, in addition to noticing the negative newspaper stories, I also have come to learn from the local people to stay positive even in the most difficult situations, to be supportive of others, especially of those who are vulnerable, and to appreciate those who are still working out there on the frontlines, fighting for our lives and our future. Let us stay positive together.

Divine Word seminarian Hoang Nguyen is in Spain, fulfilling his Cross-Cultural Training, which is part of his religious formation. Currently, Spain has the second more cases of COVID-19 in Europe.

The joy, beauty and goodness of Christ’s peace: Glimpsing the face of God

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

“Ministry is, first of all, receiving God’s blessing from those to whom we minister. What is this blessing? It is a glimpse of the face of God.”

These words of Henri Nouwen resonate with my experience in the Special Religious Development (SPRED) ministry of the Archdiocese of Chicago. SPRED is a program of faith formation designed to meet the spiritual needs of people with intellectual, developmental and learning disabilities.

Recently, I became a lead catechist. As a leader, I stay next to the entrance and welcome our friends. Andrea is a tenderhearted girl who is friendly and sweet. Andrew is an observant, straightforward boy. Daniel, who is constantly enthusiastic, is animated and loving.  Leah, a quiet girl with a calming presence, has a contagious smile. Fred is a gentleman, polite and intelligent. Mary is a goodhearted girl whose gentleness and genuineness draws us closer to her. They are ages 11 to 16. They are on different levels in terms of their developmental and intellectual growth.

Our activity catechist prepares the activity room and fills it with sensory materials, such as paints, puzzles, sandboxes, musical instruments and coloring books. They help our friends get in touch with their senses. As the youth enter the room, they approach each other one by one. We shake hands and give warm welcomes. The catechists try to make all of them feel safe and loved.

On one occasion, I gazed at them from my seat while they were doing their chosen activities in silence. I was drawn to their calming presence. The love and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ was with us.

The sense of peace became deeper and stronger when we went to our sacred space, a room where we gather around the Holy Bible that is placed on a small table at the center. Next to it was a vase of fresh flowers and a lighted candle. Together with those objects before our eyes, the dim lighting made us feel the sacredness of our gathering.

Our goal that evening was to ponder our experience of peace. I showed two different images of snow-covered countryside. One was a painting, and the other was a photograph. We shared our personal experiences of how the snow during winter make us feel peace.

As I was showing the painting and photograph to each of our friends, I was surprised that a few of them touched the images. Perhaps their sense of touch was evoked in them by the images. As some of them touched the images, they thought they would feel the cold snow. In our sharing, we related our experience of peace with the sense of peace in our liturgy, when we go to church.

Our celebration in the sacred room gave us a deep joy, especially when we shared our thoughts and feelings. I stood and proclaimed the Scriptures from Philippians 4:4-7, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

We felt Christ’s presence in our midst when the Scripture passage was proclaimed to us. We opened ourselves to Christ speaking to us, because Christ Himself is with us.

Our sense of joy was infectious. We could not contain it in our hearts. We all stood and formed a circle around the Holy Bible. We held each other’s hands and expressed our feelings. Our hand gestures and body movements became an expression of our joy. We sang a hymn of thanks and praise to Christ with gratitude as an expression of our unity. Our friends’ disabilities did not hinder them from celebrating the peace of Christ. The peace of Christ brought us together and united us as a faith community that is grounded in trust, patience, kindness and understanding.

After our time for liturgy and catechesis in the sacred room, we continued enjoying the peace of Christ in our agape. The catechists used three tables to make one long one. They arranged the chairs. Mary placed the table mats. Andrea put the spoons on the table. Andrew prepared the pitcher of juice. Daniel added the cups. Leah set up the plates. Fred assisted in serving the food. Christ came to us through the Divine Word. Christ preached peace to us through the presence of our friends who were with us.

Christ’s peace impelled us to serve one another during our preparation period, celebration in sacred room and sharing in agape. In that room, we get to know each other; we talk about things happening in our families, schools, workplaces and in society.

We experience meaningful and transformative relationship, the friendship built on the peace of Christ. We are one body of Christ, regardless of age, gender, race, education, ability or profession. Each of us feels accepted and loved. It’s our experience of mutuality in diversity and ability. The joy among us grows. We savor its beauty. It brings out goodness in us that shines upon our community. Together, we radiate the peace of Christ. With humility and confidence, we strive in our shared vocation to seek the grace of Christ—a glimpse of God’s face.

A marathon, a faith journey and the abounding grace of God

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

It’s the beginning of a new decade. I like to spend time looking back and reflecting on the many things that transpired. One such event was my first marathon. During the race, the energy of the crowd was contagious. It motivated runners like me to persevere and reach the finish line.

A marathon is much like a faith journey. Both can make us question if we can finish the race. Both can fulfill a heart’s desire. Both are pursued from an inner call and can compel us to leave a beloved homeland (or a beloved couch).

When I decided to enter the Society of the Divine Word, I sought something greater than myself, something that at the time was unclear to me. I was sad to leave family and friends, yet the prospects also filled me with excitement.

Running a marathon is like the race of faith. Faith in Christ gives us the courage to go to unknown places and to be with strangers. On the marathon route, you also find yourself among strangers.

Following a friend’s suggestion, I wore a shirt with my name on it. I was surprised and elated by people who cheered me on, calling my name at the top of their lungs. The name on my chest made the people notice me, an average runner, small in stature, among roughly 45,000 runners. The loud cheer was like an energy drink that helped me finish the race.

Reaching the finish line was exhilarating, much like the way I imagine Zacchaeus felt when Jesus called him by name (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus’ small stature did not hinder him from seeing and meeting Jesus. As the chief publican, or tax collector, Zacchaeus was a wealthy collaborator of the hated Roman occupiers. He exploited his own people. Because of his ill repute, he hesitated to approach the Master. His effort to see Jesus clearly led him to change his heart and his life.

In one of Pope Francis’s homilies, the pontiff said, “Even today we can risk not getting close to Jesus because we don’t feel big enough, because we don’t think ourselves worthy. This is a great temptation; it has to do not only with self-esteem but with faith itself. For faith tells us that we are “children of God…that is what we are.”

I can relate to Zacchaeus. With a contemplative mind, I followed a path guided by Scriptures in a way that has been spiritually meaningful. During my silent prayer, I heard God cheering me on. God awakened my spirit and lifted me up from brooding caused by past injuries. God’s loving presence opened my heart and motivated me to start over.

In 2020, Christ continues to invite us on the faith journey. Like a marathon, it will not be easy. There will be doubts and confusion, discouragement and disappointments, frustrations and limitations, yet Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus offers us three ways to run the race called the Christian life.

First, when Jesus came to Jericho, passing through the town, Zacchaeus, due to his physical limitation, climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus.

Let us persist, strive, and persevere to seek and find Jesus especially when he is passing through our daily lives. Jesus is present in people and events around us. A listening heart is a key to noticing Jesus.

Second, Jesus looked up at the sycamore tree and said, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” (Luke 19:5-6). Zacchaeus came down and received him with joy.

Let us deepen our encounters with Jesus by receiving and loving him with joy. The way to receive Jesus and express our love for him is by contemplating the Good News, especially in the sacraments, such as the Eucharist and reconciliation. We can deepen our encounter with Jesus by making a dwelling place in our hearts. Let the Divine Word remain in our hearts.

Third, Zacchaeus said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over” (Luke 19:8).

Let us manifest the love we have in our relationship with Jesus through acts of charity. Our relationship with Jesus will only be possible through interconnectedness and interdependence with others through acts of service.

The three responses of Zacchaeus to Jesus are examples for us to imitate. We do not know how the year 2020 will unfold. Let us prepare ourselves to face many questions, doubts and difficulties in our Christian faith lives. Let our hearts remain attentive to the call of Jesus. In other words: to run alone is a race, but to run with God is grace.

Silence

Silence_blog image_February 2020

By Jorge Zetino SVD

The words die Stille, das Schweigen, die Ruhe, das Stillschweigen, die Schweigsamkeit are nouns used in the German language to translate one single English word: Silence. The only other translation I knew of this word was in my native Spanish, “el silencio.”

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, silence can be defined as (1) forbearance from speech or noise—muteness, (2) an absence of sound or noise—stillness, and (3) absence of mention—oblivion, obscurity, secrecy.

I had never given so much thought to a single word before—regardless of the language. Until a couple of years ago, to me, “silence” was either just a word used to describe the absence of noise, refraining from speaking (keeping silent), or the title of a very long movie directed by Martin Scorsese. Scorsese’s 2016 film adaptation of the novel with the same name by Shūsaku Endō depicts the story of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 17th century and Japan’s persecution of that country’s Christian community.

The meaning and my relation to this word changed in 2018. After arriving in Germany for my Overseas Training Program (OTP) as a young Divine Word Missionary in formation, silence went from being a concept, an idea, or the title of long movie to a lived reality.

Like the Jesuit missionaries in Endō’s 1966 novel, I too arrived in a foreign land, 4,245 miles from my home country to be exact, as a young Catholic missionary with no prior knowledge of the language, culture or traditions of my host country.

The first year of any OTP, or Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP), is known among Divine Word Missionaries as the “silent year.” Silent because one likely does not know the local language before arrival. Silent because even after beginning with the cultural immersion and language courses, one is not fully fluent in the language and not be able to express one’s thoughts and ideas on any given matter. Silent because one likely does not have family or trusted friends or confreres with whom one can openly and safely share the roller coaster of emotions experienced in the new environment.

We have a lot to say and ask but lack the vocabulary. We have a lot to share but lack a physical shoulder to lean on. The support of our friends and family is there, just one phone call away. However, after we hang up, we find ourselves all alone to shed our tears in silence, in an unfamiliar land that has become our home—or so we hope.

Before departing for my OTP experience, many SVD confreres warned me about the silent year. “When everything you know is taken away from you—language, culture, family and friends—you are left with nothing,” said an SVD confrere. “All you have is you, God, and all the silence and solitude of the first few months.”

During my first few months, many of my friends encouraged me not to be afraid of the silence but to embrace it and use it to my benefit. They encouraged me not to get frustrated for not being able to communicate what I thought and believed in full German sentences. “That will come later,” one said. Instead, “Use this time to listen, to listen to God and to listen to yourself,” another confrere said.

I followed the advice and tried to embrace this “silent year,” to take advantage of the opportunity given to me, not just to struggle with learning a new language and adapting to a different way of life, but also to look inward, to turn my attention within and learn to listen to God’s desires for me. Mother Teresa once said that “in the silence of the heart God speaks.”

It was not easy to appreciate the silence that the first months of this experience had to offer. There were days in which I struggled with it. But in those days in which such silence felt unbearable I was reminded of David Haas’s beautiful hymn “You Are Mine,” which says:
I will come to you in the silence
I will lift you from all your fear
You will hear My Voice
I claim you as My choice
Be still, and know I am near

I’ve learned that silence is not only the title of Hollywood film or the title of a long novel; it is, among other things, a venue in which I can learn to listen to the desires of my heart, and equally important, listen to the voice of God within and around me.