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 giving 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.

Knowledge from the heart

Bookshelf by T Carson Nov 2019 to illustrate blog

By Joseph Huy Nguyen

Well-educated people are often judged by degrees, awards, and GPA, yet a high GPA does not guarantee that someone is more knowledgeable than others.

Indeed, knowledge is not only in the mind. Knowledge must be in the heart. The author of the Book of Proverbs wrote, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (Prv 13:3). Having knowledge in the heart is crucial, especially to make God’s love visible to people.

People who truly love learning will try to inscribe the knowledge they acquire on their hearts. They want to explore and do something with the knowledge they have learned. According to David Wilkerson, an American Christian evangelist, “Love is not only something you feel, it is something you do.” It is the heart that motivates us to show that we love what we learn.

The center

The ancient Hebrews considered the heart as the center of the human being. Without the functioning of the heart, the brain cannot work properly. The heart is the center of our life.

St. Paul emphasized the significance of love, “If I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing” (1Cor 13:2). Having the knowledge of love is pivotal.

Transformation

Knowledge in the heart is the knowledge of transformation. During the Rite of Ordination, the bishop reminds candidates to “believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach.”

Only through action can we transform people. Look at the scribes and Pharisees. They knew the law very well but did not practice it. Jesus told the people not to follow their example. Knowledge in the heart truly leads to action.

Humility

Knowledge in the heart is the knowledge of humility. The Book of Proverbs tells us, “The Lord gives wisdom, from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prv 2:6). Jesus, who is God, invites us to learn from him because he is meek and humble of heart (Mt 11:29).

In awe of God

St. Augustine, a great scholar of the Church, recognized the restlessness of the heart until it rests in God. St. Thomas Aquinas, a great philosopher and theologian, conceded that he could not explain everything about God who remains a mystery forever. St. Therese of Lisieux chose the little way to love God, and yet, she became a great saint of the Church.

St. Pope John Paul II acknowledged that the source of all his teachings came from humbly kneeling before God in prayer, which he called “Theology of Kneeling.” We are so small in the vastness of knowledge. We should be humble about what we know, for we can never know everything. Only God can.

How do we achieve knowledge in the heart? We turn information into transformation. We must take what we know in our heads, put it into our hearts, and generate action, so that people can see and believe. We must be transformed first in order to transform others. In the process, we are required to be humble before God, the all-knowing Transformer. We depend on God, who is the source of all knowledge.

Crucial questions

We should ask ourselves three questions. The first one is whether the knowledge we have is the knowledge of love: Do I truly love learning? Do I wholeheartedly treasure what I learn? Am I willing to take action, using what I learn?

The second question is whether the knowledge we have has the power to transform: Do I allow myself to be transformed by the good things I learn? Do I try to become a witness of God’s love for others through what I learn?

The third question is whether the knowledge we have is the knowledge of humility: Am I humble enough to recognize that I am not the best and I cannot know everything? Am I humble enough to acknowledge my limitations in order to rely on God?

St. Arnold Janssen, the founder the Divine Word Missionaries, wrote, “I would be glad if the Lord would send to our Society priests who are able to achieve something in academic fields. But they must be good men; otherwise, I would prefer to do without.”

If we are well-educated with high degrees without being good people, can we move people’s hearts? Only knowledge from the heart has the power to move another person’s heart. We need knowledge, which leads us to love, transformation and humility.

Joseph Huy Nguyen graduated from Divine Word College in May 2019. Currently, he is a novice at Techny. From August until next summer, he and his fellow novices are in formation, discerning God’s call to the religious life. This reflection is adapted from the 2019 Divine Word College commencement speech that he delivered as class valedictorian.

The excellence of love

Vespers blog illustration

by Deacon Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

A week before the profession of perpetual vows—the ceremony in which my confreres and I pledge to live in poverty, obedience and chastity for the rest of our lives—I had an opportunity to reflect upon 1 Corinthians 13. I asked myself two questions: When did I learn about the religious vows? How did I first learn the ways of living out the vows? These two questions led me to recall three regular occasions when I was a child.

Poverty

My family lived in relative poverty in Manila. During family mealtime, my mom taught my brothers and me to put only a small serving of food on our plates. We learned that the food must be shared. After everyone received a portion, then and only then could we take another serving. My brothers and I shared not only with food but also clothes, school supplies and shoes. Through this family condition, I learned about poverty.

Obedience

The second occasion was doing household chores. My mom was dependent upon me to maintain orderliness and keep the house clean. I cooked, prepared our table for meals, swept and scrubbed the floor and did laundry. When my mom went to work, she told me the what needed to be done. I paid attention. I even wrote her instructions on a sheet of paper so I wouldn’t forget anything. I learned obedience.

Chastity

The third occasion was taking care of my younger brothers. My mom taught me to love my younger brothers by taking care of them. When they were little children, I changed diapers, bathed, fed and played with them. I brought them to and from school and helped them with their homework. I spent most of my childhood taking care of my brothers. We developed a brotherly relationship. I learned about love.

False promises

Life changed when I became a young adult. I sought independence. I demanded freedom. After high school graduation at age 17, I walked away from my family.

After finishing university studies, I earned a good salary as a teacher. I could buy almost anything I wanted. I became self-serving with no need to worry about sharing. I had my own place. I managed it according to my own way.

I met many people in the teaching field. Some of the people whom I thought of as friends had questionable values. I ignored my inner voice that warned me because I longed for acceptance and a sense of belonging. I found myself trapped in unhealthy relationships. I cultivated shallow connections.

An authentic life

Fortunately, my life changed again at age 30. I entered the Society of the Divine Word with a strong desire to leave my old life behind. Formation has led me to a deeper understanding of the religious vows and to a stronger conviction to live out my life according to God’s holy will.

I have learned a meaningful life in the state of consecrated celibacy through personal friendship with Christ, living faith, fraternal sharing in community and selfless dedication to be committed to our vocation. In our community, we strive to form a true brotherhood, where every confrere can feel at home, form deep friendships and find fulfillment in his work and development of his talents.

Our shared mission calls us generously to place time, talents, work, and community goods at the service of our missionary task. By virtue of the vow of poverty, we strive to bind ourselves to a simple lifestyle. It enables us to accept our dependence on God and become inwardly free and detached from all earthly goods and honors. We become available and open to God and others.

In a world where so many seek to impose their will upon others, we seek to learn our vow of obedience in order to uphold unity in community. Our obedience unites us, helping us to focus on our Society’s missionary goals.

Through Christ’s love

As I look back and reflect on my past, I am able to heartily echo the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians, “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.”

“I solemnly promise you—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—to live for life chastity, poverty, and obedience, according to the Constitutions of the Society of the Divine Word.” With joy and gratitude during the perpetual vows ceremony, I uttered those words.

The love of Christ urges me to be prudent, worthy and responsible in carrying out missionary service with joy and gratitude. Through Christ’s love, each of us is able to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things.

Faithful friends: Rooted in Jesus

Faithful friends_blog photo_Sept 2019

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Friendship is a fundamental and essential aspect of any human relationship. I can’t imagine a life without friends. They help to make our lives happy and meaningful. While it is easy for me to get along with people, I do not develop friendships quickly. It takes time for me to trust and allow a stranger to become part of my life.

Many people use social media as a channel to build and develop relationships. Some people use Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, Instagram and LinkedIn to keep in touch with their friends. I am sometimes saddened when I see friends engage in arguments on social media. One cannot deny that a large quantity of friends online does not guarantee that a person has true friendships.

Some people consider social networks as a testing ground for true friendship. Many individuals who build online friendships echo the view of CommsBreakdown blogger Steve Ash, who believes that “far from making us less sociable, the online world is actually creating an ability to connect and engage with the rest of the world that’s never existed in any previous century. It’s more than possible for a person to have a network of friends that’s truly global, breaking down geographical, cultural and social barriers to build friendships across the planet.”

On the other hand, online friendship cannot replace the genuine intimacy of real friendship. I have a small circle of faithful friends. Each has a unique and valuable quality that people desire in friends. The qualities of faithful friends described in Sirach 6:14-16 depict the individuals who comprise my circle of friends. As the Scriptures say, “Faithful friends are beyond price, no amount can balance their worth.”

Faithful friends are like sturdy shelter. They are like strong pillars that we hold onto when we feel helpless and alone. They welcome and comfort us during times when we face life storms. Faithful friends provide spiritual sanctuary when we experience misery and sorrow. They are reflections of Christ’ love, his gentle and consoling presence in our lives. I recognize Christ’s protection through faithful friends who stand at my side in difficult times.

Faithful friends are treasures. They are priceless. Together, we enrich our friendships by discovering and sharing our gifts and talents with each other. Faithful friends are not perfect. Like us, they have their imperfections. We accept them for who they are, the way God wants them to be. These friendships are paths that lead us toward closeness with Christ. Christ provides the missing pieces that we and our faithful friends cannot give to each other in friendship.

Jesus is our greatest friend. He is the model and guide of how to be a faithful friend to others of different languages, cultures and beliefs.

Faithful friends are a life-saving remedy. If you are like me, your life sometimes gets off track. I have made wrong decisions and terrible mistakes. Faithful friends do not abandon us. They help to restore the goodness and kindness they see in us. They do not tire of reminding us of humility, forgiveness and reconciliation. Faithful friends have the courage and honesty to tell us of our failures. They are lovingly frank when we are unfair, arrogant or full of pride.

Having a circle of faithful friends is a way to a deep and intimate encounter with the living Christ. When I became a religious missionary, I learned the meaning and essence of friendship more profoundly. It is the friendship in Jesus. In John 15:13-16, Jesus told his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.”

Friendship in Christ is eternal and filled with love. Jesus is the faithful friend who seeks and finds us untiringly, most especially in times of adversity, affliction and misfortune. Friendship in Christ is built on a strong foundation that protects and sustains us; it is the priceless treasure that no amount of anything else can balance; and it is a life-giving relationship that enables us to seek, find, and share our friendships with others.

Jesus is the source and motivation for building a dynamic, healthy and lasting relationship with friends. Pope Francis reminds us, friendship is one of life’s gifts and a grace from God.

While it is sad to geographically be away from my dearest friends due to my missionary life, I am grateful for the many new friendships with the people I have met in different countries with diverse cultures, beliefs, traditions and values. Through the various social network platforms, my faithful friends and I live out the promise that Jesus told his disciples, his friends, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Christ’s compassionate heart

Compassionate heart blog photo

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

One afternoon while I was running alone on the Chicago’s lakeshore, I encountered three teenagers. They looked at me and shouted something. When I removed my earphones to understand what they were saying, I realized that they were cursing me.

One guy gestured obscenely, approached me and hit the back of my head. I thought of fighting back, but I followed my instinct to run away. No one else was nearby and I thought that they might be carrying a weapon. When I was far away from them and felt safe, I called 911.

After a few minutes, I saw a police car moving towards the teenagers. While I did not have a serious injury, I was worried that the teenagers might do harm to others along the lakeshore.

That evening I had difficulty sleeping. My memory of the incident bothered me. I was filled me with mixed emotions: fear, anger, vengeance, distress. Why did the teenagers harass me? What motivated them to harm strangers?

Such an experience can take away our capacity to be compassionate. When others harm us, it’s a challenge to be merciful toward them. I did not take the chance to know personally those teenagers who harassed me, but they may have been raised in their family with a lack of values. They might have grown up without parents or guardians who could teach them to show respect and kindness to neighbors. Perhaps, they were upset with the kind of life they had due to financial, emotional or psychological family conditions.

As Christians, our response should be one of compassion for all who are suffering. We are called acknowledge their agony and pain. It requires us to be courageous for those who are afraid, strong for those who are weak, generous for those who are deprived, prudent for those who are confused and hopeful for those who are despair.

Compassion is an intrinsic aspect of human nature. The word compassion is derived from the Latin words pati and cum which mean “to suffer with.”

Compassion is not sentimentality when we see an act of kindness in online viral video. Clicking “likes” and emoji reactions. Posting comments on social media cannot genuinely and whole-heartedly express compassion. We must live out compassion through direct human connections, not virtual connections.

Our society needs compassion that calls for justice and forgiveness. All three are necessary in the process of bringing about reconciliation. Domestic violence, gun violence, mental illness, racism and poverty cause wounds of division that call for healing and reconciliation. If we strive for compassion with strong conviction informed by our Christian faith, it can lead us to realize that we can be greater than the society we have now.

The two founders of my religious-missionary congregation, the Society of the Divine Word, taught me what it means to be compassionate to others. Saint Arnold Janssen taught us to serve others so that the heart of Jesus would live in our hearts and the hearts of all. Likewise, Saint Joseph Freinademetz taught us that, in relating with different people, the only language that is understood by people everywhere is the language of love.

They were impelled by Christ’s compassion to serve their neighbors in mission. The heart of Jesus is filled with compassion. It is the love of Christ that enables us to be compassionate with others. As disciples, we are also tasked to clothe ourselves with compassion by doing what Christ did (Colossians 3:12).

We have to let Christ live and remain in us. As St. Paul says, “I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2;20). Like Christ, we carry out our vocation as disciples by accompanying those who are in misery, feeling lonely or are mourning. Let us not allow self-centered prejudice remains in our hearts.

During a weekly general audience in Rome, Pope Francis said that Jesus’ compassion toward people in need is not a vague sentiment. Rather, it is a calling for Christians to bring compassion to others. He urged each one of us to share in Christ’s compassion.

As human beings created in the image and likeness of God, we are compelled by Jesus to serve others with the compassion of Jesus. Let us ignite compassion in our hearts as our concrete act of solidarity with others that will help eradicate social conflicts and heal the wounds in our relationships. Let us allow Christ to be the focus and guide in our path toward compassionate living.

Let our children come to us

Baptism photo

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 Mass 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

Liturgy fostered vocation_photo

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.