Finding our way to freedom

By Father Victorin Oussoï SVD

In the Book of Samuel, God calls the prophet, and in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist sends two of his disciples to Jesus. But in our daily lives, it is not always easy to find our calling. However, if we listen closely, we will find the way. God works implicitly through our feelings, natural abilities, friends, parents, educators and church affiliations.

They help us decide how to make a living that makes our lives meaningful. They guide some people in choosing their life partner. Priests, brothers and sisters make a meaningful life through a vocation, which we also refer to as a “calling.” It is the invitation to follow Jesus as a religious woman, a religious man or priest.

Christians who choose this type of life choose celibacy, which helps them not only make meaningful choices but also prepares them to break away from loved ones in order to be a part of the human community in a special way.
They keep themselves free in order to devote themselves entirely to building universal human relationships, and as such, they are a living sign of the kingdom of God. That is what my confreres and I experience in community. We are five confreres from five countries, living together in a celibate life.

We have made this choice freely by responding to the voice of God. This has guided us to four parishes in Plauen, Strehlen, Löbtau, and Cotta, Germany. Our vows help us let go of everything and be ready to go wherever God is waiting for us. And this choice is not made once. It must be done every day.

So, what helps me to let go of everything today to hear God’s voice? Indeed, dear sisters and brothers! To respond to God’s call, one must leave a place and arrive where God is.

It is about leaving home, comfort, and family to go where God is waiting for us. In fact, I am convinced that there is no arrival without departure. To this end, John the Baptist invites us to see the Lamb of God. And we meet this Lamb of God in the Eucharist.

Through the Eucharist, Christ will join us and dwell in us in the form of bread and wine. When we connect with him in bread and wine, he gives us strength for life and faith. It is the celebration of our deliverance from sin and death. And that is God’s plan: that we are all free.

When Jesus calls us, he wants to free us from what keeps us captive. Many things in this world can hold us captive: self-pride, comfort zones, desires and the material world. And just as it took Samuel time to understand God’s call, it sometimes takes a long time for us to answer God.

Sometimes, we need time to free ourselves from our material world. Sometimes, we need time to leave our comfort zones. Sometimes, we need time to let go of our self-pride. We must be patient because it takes time.
It is a journey that we cannot travel alone. We need people like the prophet Eli in our lives who always point us in the right direction. We need time for the best things in life to materialize.

Love grows in marriage, friendship, and family over many years. There are significant moments, but often it cannot be rushed. Come! See! Stay! These are three words that we need today. And this invitation is not only for the disciples Andrew and Peter but also for you and me.

It is for all who dare to be a follower of Jesus in our world today. And I especially want to invite our young sisters and brothers to be open to God’s call and challenge. And you, dear parents, I encourage you to work together generously when any of your children feel God’s invitation to live meaningful lives of devotion in the priesthood or religious life.
Let’s all be disciples in our little ways.

New year wishes

By Father Victorin Kalassi Oussoï SVD

Earlier this month, we wished everyone a Happy New Year 2021. But, if we want this year to remain new and happy, let this year begin with: God’s blessings through Jesus Christ who is God among us, the breath of God’s Spirit in our lives and doings, and more importantly a plea for the maternal protection of the Virgin Mary through whom we regain our divinity and become children of God.

St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians reads: “God sent forth his Son, born of woman that we might receive adoption as God’s children.” This passage reveals our vocation as children of God. This is a restatement of the Christmas theme—namely, the Son of God becomes human so that all human beings might become daughters and sons of God. Moreover, it reveals Mary’s unique role in the story of salvation.

Mary is not only the Mother of God’s Son, Jesus, but also the mother of us all. And so, she brings bountiful blessings for all her children. Invoke her blessings for this new year 2021 upon all of us!

We call ourselves children of God. We associate being a child with trust, love, faith, hope, and the future. Let us go inside today and think about the extent to which we have lived as children of God in the past.

Sure, we have welcomed Jesus and decided to go with him and become like him. We can be happy about some of the things we have succeeded in doing. But there is certainly also a need for improvement—especially when it comes to faith, trust, love, and hope. We have the strength to do so because they are given to us!

What suggestions does the “old” year mean for the new? For the past year, I realized one thing most important in my life: the thing that sustained the mother of Jesus and sustained God from his incarnation to his resurrection. That thing is the love in our hearts.

If our hearts are right, the whole body will be all right. If our hearts are wrong, the whole body will be wrong. And by the body, I mean both the mystical and physical. The growth of trust, love, faith, hope, and the future depend on the health of our hearts. And indeed, if hearts are wrong, then marriages will suffer because love will not be there.

And if there is no love, then trust will disappear. If there is no trust and love, faith cannot survive. If faith dies, hope and future cease to exist. If all these things disappear, then, as humans our existence comes to an end. Isn’t that true in all of life?

Dear sisters and brothers, love restores us to peace while we practice it. To follow God’s will, we need to let hatred, unforgiveness, misunderstanding and disappointment go so that we can start over. Whatever happens to us, may we open our whole hearts to love. Let us always have room to love despite wrongdoings.

To be a Christian means to remain in love though wounded, remain in love though rejected and mistreated. To be God’s child is to love beyond our human expectations. Through this selfless love, we can cooperate like Mary, give birth to God in ourselves and in the world in which we live.

God gives hope in a world of uncertainty

“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656)

By Father Victorin Kalassi Oussoï SVD

How often do we want to be sure before we do something, especially those of us who don’t like adventure or who are perfectionists? Although I love adventure, I often looked for security before doing anything.

When I was a student in Benin, a friend asked me to invest in reselling old books with him. I was not sure of the return on this investment. So, what was stopping me from joining him? I did not want to take the risk because I was unsure.

I was afraid of losing the little money I had. I was not ready to enter a world of uncertainty. I was not ready to let the insecurities of life weaken me.

As I reflect on the recent Christmas Gospel, which focuses on the deep meaning of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in the world, I began to understand that God’s hands are more active in the world of uncertainty.

Indeed, God’s world is the world of uncertainty in which people learn to trust God who is responsible. It’s about daring to believe in God, which requires total dependence on God.

Mary and Joseph accepted the dare and believed in God. We, too, are totally dependent on God’s guidance. When we fully trust in God, we stop trying to control the outcomes of our lives.

We do not know the result of this trip. So, we walk in a world of uncertainty. Indeed, Mary and Joseph responded with faith and accepted the situation as God’s plan for them and her Son’s coming into the world. They did not understand, but they accepted and believed that this frail, weak child is God who comes into the world through them.

And I now hope that through this new year, we have learned to lean on God—that we understand that the mighty power of God is more active in the world of uncertainty. If we always want to be safe and responsible for everything, then God cannot work miracles in our lives.

God shows himself to those who are weak and need His help. Also, the coming of Jesus from the host of angels is announced to the shepherds.

The shepherds were viewed as one of the most outcast groups in society. If they thought they are not worthy of God’s grace, they must have been shocked when the angels announce that God was born in their city. We will always be afraid of meeting God if we keep thinking that we must be worthy to meet Him.

The angel had to urge the shepherds to let go of their horror; only then did the miracle of the night enter their souls. They were escorted to Bethlehem. They believed and set out to find the newborn king, and their faith was rewarded.

The shepherds were outcasts, the poor and despised, the great secret was revealed to them, and they became the first to know the Savior of mankind. Only those who know the small can be exposed to the wonder of greater realities.

We do not have to do anything to deserve God; we just have to believe and accept Him to enter His world. No matter who we are or what condition we are in, Emmanuel, God who belittles himself as a baby, is in our midst. He brings us peace and hope!

In weakness there is strength

By Brian M. Junkes SVD

Once a upon a time in a kindergarten class, there was a young boy, who at first seemed like other boys. He had friends and enjoyed playing games with other children. What made this boy different was that he had trouble speaking and communicating properly. And class assignments were typically not completed as the teacher wanted.

That little boy was me. One day when my mother came to pick me up from class, the teacher flat out told her, “I don’t know what else I can do for your son. I think he is retarded.” What the teacher did not realize is that I had a speech-language learning disability.

I struggled in school for a couple more years. My mom searched and fought with the administration until she found a teacher and program for children with learning disabilities. With the help of that program, I was officially mainstreamed by sixth grade and only needed accommodations that allowed me to have extended time on tests and assignments.

I do not remember much of the struggles from when I was a child. Some who know me now would never imagine I struggled to speak during elementary school. Yet, my learning disability still affects me today.

People do not need to treat me differently. I need what we all need: someone with an open mind who will listen. My teacher who helped me overcome my speech-language learning disability once told me that having a learning disability does not mean that I cannot learn or that my mind is disabled, it simply means that I learn differently.

I have come to see that not only do I learn differently, but I also understand, think and perceive the world differently. My disability is a gift.

My learning disability does not define me; it is only a part of my story and who I am, not everything there is about me.

Making good laws and breaking down physical barriers is important, but it is not enough if the mentality does not change as well, if we do not overcome a widespread culture that continues to produce inequalities, preventing people with disabilities from actively participating in ordinary life.

Pope Francis, International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2019

Many people with disabilities know how it feels to be treated with insensitivity, to have others force upon us what they think we can and cannot do. We know the struggles of discrimination and having to persevere to realize our goals and life dreams. I believe my own experience of having a disability has ingrained in me not only a strong work ethic but also determination.

My struggles guide me when I help others. When I was a student at Divine Word College, I helped students who were learning English. I could identify with the students as they faced the struggles of learning another language. When I tutored them, I used strategies that I remember from when I was a child. My elementary school teacher helped me with sounds and pronunciation.

I know the feeling of working hard to improve yet being ignored, belittled and told that my effort is not enough. It is in those moments of recognition—and identifying with the struggles of others—that Christ becomes present. Christ is present in brothers and sisters with disabilities.

St. Paul wrote about the challenges and constraints that he faced for Christ, “for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). St. Paul also wrote about how people perceived Christ and what he suffered as foolishness and unconceivable to grasp, yet Christ overcame death and has the power to save. “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23).

There still is much work that needs to be done to overcome discrimination and insensitivity towards people with visible and invisible disabilities. Whether it’s in the form of a physical injury, autism, ADHD or a speech-language learning disability, there is still a lot that needs to be done to include such members in our communities and help people with disabilities use and develop God-given gifts.

Pope Francis delivered a message on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in 2019. He said, “Making good laws and breaking down physical barriers is important, but it is not enough if the mentality does not change as well, if we do not overcome a widespread culture that continues to produce inequalities, preventing people with disabilities from actively participating in ordinary life.”

Our institutions and communities can implement policies and make resources available for people like myself with disabilities, but if attitudes, prejudices and assumptions about people with disabilities do not change, then everything that was implemented means nothing. If brothers and sisters with disabilities are still seen as weak, stupid and “special,” if we are seen only for what we cannot do, then we cannot reach our full potential and fully participate as active members in the community.

People with disabilities are fellow human beings with dignity, bestowed with God-given gifts that help to build the reign of God.

Recognizing the humanness of everyday villains

By Brian M. Junkes SVD

In a movie or book that you like, have you ever identified with the villain or antagonist? Have you ever seen yourself in the shoes of a villain or antagonist? It may be shocking to some that I ask these questions, but there really is nothing wrong to think and reflect on them.

In pop culture, villains have become identifiable to people who sit in the theater. They can relate to movie villains like the Joker from “Batman” or Killmonger from “Black Panther.” Even the Wicked Witch of the West in the “The Wizard of Oz” has become more identifiable with the publishing of the book “Wicked” that became popular almost 20 years ago.

“Wicked” told the story of how the witch became the infamous villain. These characters are not meant to be admired, but we can relate to them because of their motives, the psychology behind their actions, and how they became who they are. It shows that not all villains or antagonists are absolute evil as they are portrayed in some classic stories.

The same can be said about antagonists in the Bible, especially the Pharisees. Very often, the Pharisees are the antagonists or rivals of Jesus.

Typically, they are seen in a negative light, except for on a few occasions. I know it can be easy to assume that they are bad people, but the truth runs deeper than simple good versus evil.

The Pharisees were devoted to their faith and the people they served. They were trying to keep their cultural and religious traditions flourishing under the occupation of the Roman Empire.

Last Spring, I took a New Testament course with Dr. Malka Simkovich, Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies and director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Dr. Simkovich led a Zoom session with my class and explained that the Pharisees were known for their understanding and interpretation of the Scriptures and for the development of the oral tradition of Judaism.

Also, they are known to be the predecessors of the rabbinic community after the Fall of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. The Pharisees were very important in the community and in history. They played a key role in the development of Judaism.

Recognizing their collective goodness does not mean that there were not Pharisees who lost track of what is important and were doing bad things. Why else would Jesus be saying the things he does about the Pharisees in the Gospels? What Jesus tells us is a warning to the readers and to us.

It is a warning to us because we can become blind to our own shortcomings and wrongdoings as followers of Jesus. If we are not careful, we can hurt others who are discerning and trying to grow in their faith. We can become like the Pharisees of whom Jesus is critical.

A few months ago, I read an essay by Erna Kim Hackett called “Why I Stopped Talking About Racial Reconciliation and Started Talking About White Supremacy.” In it, Ms. Hackett criticizes white Christians for how they see themselves in their understanding of Scripture and racism.

I do not want to detract from the original intent of the essay, but she offers insightful ideas that can challenge us to see ourselves in a new light. She writes, “White Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. As each individual reads Scripture, they see themselves as the princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, but never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisees. They are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt.”

We, too, can suffer from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. We, too, can become like the Pharisees. We, too, can become like whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside but hypocritical and selfish within.

We can adore and honor the prophets, saints and righteous while our actions say otherwise to those in the community trying to become saints and prophets. We can adore fictional heroes while acting more like villains.

I encourage you in your own personal reflection to examine yourself. When we reflect on how we may be like antagonists in the Bible—perhaps even the Pharisees—we acknowledge those times when we have fallen short and have hurt others in their faith journey.

Thoroughly examining our conscience and actions, recognizing our own wrongdoings, and identifying with the antagonists can help us grow in our faith and better serve others.

A story of a latecomer

By Huy Joseph Nguyen SVD

I believe that I am a latecomer. Not because I am late to my religious vocation but because I did not know the Divine Word Missionaries even though I studied at Divine Word College (DWC) Seminary for more than four years. Why?

I was originally a seminarian of the Diocese of Phan Thiet, Vietnam. I joined the seminary after completing high school in 2011. My vocation started due to a simple suggestion from one of my neighbors.

He said, “The pastor just announced this morning at Mass that whoever wants to join the seminary can come and see him for the application to take the entry test.” Out of curiosity about the test, I applied, took the test, passed with the highest score and was admitted to the seminary. That was how I started my vocation. Very simple.

Yet, because of that, I did not know the difference between a diocesan vocation and a religious one. My vocation discernment ideal is also simple: If I am following this diocesan vocation, and everything still seems to be fine and possible, it is not yet time for me to consider changing direction. I thought that if God wants me to change, He will show me a sign.

In 2014, I moved to the United States with my family. I hoped to continue studying for the diocese. I enrolled at DWC in January 2015 after the school had received the letter of scholarship request from my bishop.
I was accepted to study as a diocesan seminarian. Upon picking me up at the bus station, Divine Word Brother Linh Tran asked me why I wanted to go back to Vietnam when my family already migrated here.

“Joining the Society of the Divine Word is a better option,” Brother Linh Tran said. Subsequently, many similar comments from different people continued to challenge me. Yet, I still held firmly to my title as a diocesan seminarian and not as a Divine Word candidate.

God gradually gave me different signs, and yet, I continued to find the way to justify my decision of continuing with the diocese. I tried to cover my eyes and ears and ignore whatever was stirring in me for I was so committed to my decision that I was not open to any other possibilities that God showed me.

God is so patient with me. Everything became clear when I gave myself a chance to look at other possibilities that I had missed. I was inspired by the simplicity and humility of the Divine Word Missionaries around me; I admired the missionary spirit of the Divine Word Missionaries who shared their stories with the students at DWC.

I appreciated the intercultural-community aspect of Divine Word formation, which helped me accept people from other cultures as brothers and sisters. I was touched by the meaning of the three vows, which I had never known; and I realized that my heart was burning whenever I witnessed people professing their vows.

God was patiently waiting for me to open my heart to see my vocation from a different angle. So, it happened. Like Samuel, whom the Lord had to call three times before he realized that God was calling him (1 Samuel 3:1-10), God also called me many times to make a turn and see something new.

Eventually, I made it after four years of wandering around with my eyes closed. The lesson that I learned is that to discern well one needs to be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and see things from different angles. Openness is the key.

I am a latecomer. Yet, I believe that the Divine Word Missionaries love me the same as other candidates, just like the landowner who pays the same wage to the 11th-hour workers as to the first-hour workers (Matthew 20:1-16). It is encouraging and comforting for me to know that St. Arnold Janssen, the founder of the Divine Word Missionaries, and St. Joseph Freinademetz, the congregation’s first missionary sent to China, were originally diocesan priests. I also hope to love God, the Divine Word Missionaries, and God’s people more and more as I travel along this vocation journey.

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.

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.