A reflection on the Cross-Cultural Training pastoral experience in Spain
By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD
When I finished my seven months of language study in the Province of Palencia, I moved into a Divine Word community in Madrid. The former formation house is now the residence of the Divine Word chaplains who are ministering to various migrant communities, including immigrants from Africa, Poland, China and the Philippines. I had the privilege of doing pastoral ministry at Parroquia Nuestra Señora de Altagracia.
Parroquia Nuestra Señora de Altagracia is geographically located in Valdezarza, a neighborhood in Madrid. The congregation is made up of people from Mexico, Peru, India, Togo, Philippines, and Spain.
A small but vibrant community
The church is small, simple and ordinary compared to some of the more famous Spanish churches. One might not recognize the building as a church if not for the bell tower and the signage. However, there is more to the parish than the church’s simple facade.
Parishes in Spain face two challenges: a decrease in volunteers and a scarcity of youth in parish communities. Most of the parishioners who participate regularly at Altagracia are elders. They recognized the situation with sadness and frustration. But rather than give up on the parish community, they respond to the challenge with courage and hope.
With the help of the two Divine Word priests, they make the most out of what they have: time and presence. The parish community of Altagracia lives out what it means to be a church today. They respond to the call for inclusion, dialogue and faith encounter.
Some of the elders are isolated in our society because of failing health. Others are widowed, physically handicapped or sick. They come to the parish daily for the Holy Mass even though their physical limitations make it difficult. They offer their struggles as their sacrifice to God.
The parish addresses their psychological, emotional, social and spiritual needs. In return, their presence animates the life and work of the parish. Not only do they attend the liturgical celebration; depending upon their capabilities, they also volunteer.
The elders are very passionate storytellers. Their stories give everyone a sense of belonging, acceptance and love. Indeed, parish community is a living testimony that all are welcome in our Church.
Altagracia parishioners have a passion for dialogue. They are diverse and are varied ages, ethnicities, cultures, social statuses and political affiliations. The liturgy is the center and common ground for everyone.
Dialogue is apparent in their various parish activities, such as the Vida Ascendiente, a weekly faith group sharing of the elders; the catechesis of children preparing for First Communion and Confirmation; and the Bible study group.
Moreover, the dialogue in the parish community is animated and strengthened through special occasions, such as the profession of religious vows, ordinations, birthdays and anniversaries. In these encounters, the parish community experiences personal and communal transformation, which comes through listening, questioning, and sharing.
The elders have time and presence that they share as gifts out of love to others. They are like the poor widow who offered her two copper coins as tithes in the treasury. Jesus praised her for giving the smallest of coins in contrast with the rich who gave greater sums (Luke 21:1-4).
It gives them deep joy from selfless giving and generous love for others in the community. In the spirit of generosity and sacrifice, they praise God saying, “God Himself gives to us that we may give in turn.” Undeniably, their volunteerism reflects their authentic faith encounter with God.
God’s earthen vessels
The elders at Altagracia are like earthen vessels, pots made of clay. The parish community consists of precious earthen vessels created to be receptacles for its intended contents – inclusion, dialogue and faith.
This parish may not be look like a grand museum and may not be filled with tourists, but it strongly embodies the Church that quenches our thirst for God’s blessings. God’s blessings pour upon us when the parish community is present—believing, praying and loving.
I admired how a community in a simple and ordinary parish could make a difference in making our society a better place. If you have a chance, I encourage you to visit and receive the graces of Parroquia Nuestra Señora de Altagracia.