By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD
This year, seminarian Marlon Vargas SVD fulfills his ministry practicum, an important component of his religious formation. For this practicum, he serves as a volunteer chaplain at the University of Chicago Medical Center. He shares his thoughts as he attends to patients and their families while facing his own personal loss during Lent.
Earlier this month, I resumed my ministry filled with a grateful and hopeful spirit. I knew that my chaplaincy ministry this spring semester would be one-of-a-kind and relevant because of two special and significant occasions in the Catholic Church: the Jubilee Year of Mercy and the Lenten season.
I’m inspired by my ministry of bringing the spirit of God’s mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and healing to those who are sick, ill and dying.
Despite this joy, my first week was deeply sad. Three of the elder members of the Society of the Divine Word—two brothers and one priest—passed away. During my novitiate years, I ministered to them, providing them assistance in their weak and less-abled conditions.
I developed very deep and special relationships with each of them as a confrere, brother, mentor and friend. We shared many moments together, such as eating at the same table, playing Bingo, exploring Chicago and sharing stories about their mission experiences.
I witnessed their struggles in trying to live each day with joy, love and hope. I am sad that they’re gone but am glad that they are resting eternally in peace with our loving God. And I am thankful that I have wonderful and loving memories of them.
They lived lives of service. Serving others is a fulfilling way to begin the Lenten season. As a chaplain, I took ashes to several Catholic patients, staff and visitors in the hospital on Ash Wednesday. At first, I felt anxious.
I was nervous about people’s reactions when I offered ashes to them. I worried that they might not want to receive ashes, that patients—with their debilitating health conditions—were not really interested in practicing Church rituals at that time of suffering. I thought that their suffering situation might have lessened, if not taken, their faith in God.
But, I was wrong. I was surprised by people’s responses during my visits. When I walked towards one patient’s room, a couple approached me and asked where they could receive ashes. I realized that the couple saw the mark of a cross on my forehead, which led them to approach me.
We went to the side of the hallway, and I led them in prayer. I sensed their joy when I imposed the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads.
Then, I encountered another couple in the first room visitation. As I entered the room, the husband was standing by his wife’s bedside. They welcomed me with wonderful smiles.
They accepted my invitation to pray together Pope Francis’ prayer for the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. As I read the prayer, I was struck by the words, “You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error: let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God….”
Feeling humbled and privileged at that moment, I ministered to the couple. I felt gratitude because I believe that God used me to bring His compassion to the couple, most especially to the wife who had just had major surgery. When I said the words “let everyone who approaches them (the ministers) feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God,” tears flow down her cheek.
Perhaps she felt God’s love and mercy at that moment. I stayed for a bit and conversed with them about Jesus’ parables of the lost coin and the prodigal son. I encouraged the patient to continue her meditation on Jesus’ Gospel because it is a powerful and transforming way of experiencing God’s comfort and healing.
I hesitated to enter the final patient’s room. From outside, I saw a young lady sitting on a chair with a bandage wrapped around her head. Her parents stood next to her, talking.
The lights were off, and the curtains were closed, making the room a bit dark. I conquered my hesitation and approached the family inside the room. After making the sign of the cross with ashes on their foreheads, I encourage them to make their present family condition a time for a Lenten journey with Christ, the God who is with them in the midst of their suffering.
Again, I saw tears flowing from the mother’s eyes. I was touched by the father’s words, “Thank you so much for passing by. We greatly appreciate it.”
Reflection upon the death of my three dear Divine Word confreres has led me to become more deeply attuned to the season of Lent. The physical bodies of my friends soon will become dust. Yet, their deaths are not a meaningless end of life but rather celebrations of meaningful lives as Divine Word Missionaries.
A passage from Megan McKenna’s book “Lent: Reflections and Stories in the Daily Readers” came to mind: “They are connected to death, the cross, and suffering–the suffering and our share of the burden of the cross that is a necessary response to the unnecessary suffering, death, and injustice rampant in our world.”
I kept this thought in mind and heart when I marked ashes and uttered the words with hope: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.”
My visit to the hospital on Ash Wednesday has led me to an intimate experience and profound appreciation of God’s mercy through the people I encountered on that day. In the document Misericordiae Vultus (The Face of Mercy), Pope Francis invites us to be “inspiring preachers of Mercy; heralds of the joy of forgiveness, welcoming, loving, and compassionate confessors, who are most especially attentive to the difficult situations of each person.”
As a Divine Word Missionary ministering as a hospital chaplain, I feel blessed to have the opportunity to be a bearer of works of mercy to patients—visiting the sick, comforting the afflicted, counseling the doubtful, and praying for the living and the dead.
As I continue my journey in this ministry, it is my desire to live out the invitation of Pope Francis: “Once we have received the refreshment and comfort of Christ, we are called in turn to become refreshment and comfort for our brothers and sisters, carried out with a meek and humble attitude, in imitation of the Master.” It is a time for me to become a forgiving minister, to humbly beg for mercy from our loving God and give mercy to others by what I do as a follower of Christ.