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.

Hearing Christ’s coming through our beating hearts

Christmas blog_speaking to the heart_Dec 2018
Photo by Father Guilherme Andrino SVD

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Not too long ago, we began the Advent season. Now it’s almost Christmas! The celebration of the birth of Christ Jesus. With our hearts, minds, and spirits, we prepared ourselves for Christ so that we may be able to welcome Him with joy.

Christ is our hope at this moment when we are bombarded with social conflicts, injustices and violence. That gift especially struck me during Advent Sunday Masses at the Special Religious Education Development (SPRED) center, a community of people with developmental disabilities.

I found myself deeply moved by the participation of my friends from SPRED in the offertory and preparation of the gifts at Mass. Despite their limitations, my friends participated and engaged in the Eucharistic celebration.

A father and son walked together to the sanctuary. They slowly and patiently placed a purple linen on the altar table. A prayer pleading to Christ to cover our broken world with his mercy and love.

A mother and son went to the altar, carrying a lit candle. The divine light that we need to dispel the darkness in our society.

A mother and daughter brought a vase of beautiful flowers to the altar. A prayer to restore the beauty of creation so that we all may enjoy the nature that God has given us.

A family of four offered the bread to the table. An act that reminds all that the family that prays—asking God for their daily bread amid hunger, poverty, and daily struggle—stays together.

Then, another family walked to the altar, carrying the wine to be blessed and shared. A symbolic prayer of a family who sought Jesus to quench their thirst for loving protection against pain, depression, and spiritual crisis.

The way each person performed his or her task in the liturgy was touching. My friends didn’t let their intellectual and physical limitations hinder their participation in the celebration. They fulfilled their assigned roles with dedication and reverence.

People in the pews stayed still in awe. Each of us allowed ourselves to be immersed in silence. Our silence became our encounter with the sacred presence of Christ among us.

Sacred silence filled the assembly and radiated like the light of Christ. A sacred silence that gives joy and hope.

God became human on a silent night so that we could hear and feel His coming. His birth was not announced with loud sounds but rather through the beating of our hearts. God sent His son in the middle of darkness because Christ dispels darkness and illuminates our lives with his unconditional love.

The mystery of God becoming human is the source of grace that leads us to humility and trust. We must admit that we cannot make our world a better place by our own efforts.

We can only see God because God wills it. God wants to make our hearts anew by filling them with gratitude and hope. We need Christ’s presence in our hearts. I noticed that my friends’ relationships with Christ empower them and give them profound joy despite their disabilities.

Like my friends, we need a deeper, stronger and closer relationship with Christ. Christmas is our opportunity to renew our relationship with Christ. It is a grace-filled season that invites us to restore our way of life according to Christ’s love.

It is a time to silence our hearts from the noise of our secular world. It is the season that urges us to listen to Christ and respond to His invitation to rest in our hearts.

We can only attain the lasting joy that Christmas gives us if we proclaim and live out the teachings of Christ in our daily lives. Let us share in Christ’s birth by living in his light. Let us accept our brokenness, incompleteness and wounds.

Let us be like the shepherds who glorify and praise God for all the things they heard and saw at Jesus’ birth. His coming to be with us is the Good News! Let us share the love of Christ this Christmas!

Working with the saints next door

Saints next door_1

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Editorial Verbo Divino (EVD) is a global publishing company and the major communication ministry of the Society of the Divine Word in Spain. Located in a small town called Estella, EVD has been serving the Catholic Church since 1956. It plays an essential role in proclaiming the Word of God.

In addition to publishing Bibles in several languages, EVD produces theological books, magazines, journals and prayer booklets. In this digital age, EVD also creatively ventures into new forms of multimedia to make the Divine Word more accessible to the people of God.

During the last phase of my Cross-Cultural Training Program in Spain, I had the opportunity to see the inner workings of EDV and to work with the lay staff and SVD confreres there.
Saints next door_1aEDV employees busied themselves: laying out publications, editing, accounting, sales, marketing and shipping. I helped digitalize the latinoamericá edition of DOCAT, which is a resource for young people who want to learn the social teachings of the Catholic Church.

My main task involved transferring content from one electronic resource into the mobile application software—a lot of copying and pasting. After finishing DOCAT, I received a new task—adding content to La Buena Noticia, EVD’s daily Scripture mobile application. More copying and pasting.

While working besides my colleagues in the office, I heard them sharing ideas and plans for other projects. I was filled with pride and thought, “I can do that too!” I wished to be a part of other projects, but I also wanted to joyfully accomplish the task assigned to me.

God responded to my prayer. After closer observation, I saw that there is profound meaning in repetitive tasks. My confreres do repetitive work in our community, such as preparing breakfast, shopping for the needs of community, setting the tables for meals and cleaning after the meals. They mow the lawn and care for the gardens.Saints next door_2

As missionaries, they arrange the schedule of Mass presiders; preside at Mass; participate in community prayer; join the weekly Bible sharing; and attend funerals to offer condolences.

Likewise, the lay staff have their own repetitive tasks, such as editing, reviewing, conceptualizing, laying out the publications, packing, billing and delivering the orders. All the staff members perform tasks in collaboration with the whole team.

They performed their jobs every day with dedication. I realized that although my tasks seemed simplistic, they contributed to the overall work. I felt fortunate to be part of the team.

In his third apostolic exhortation entitled Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis wrote: “Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence.”

My colleagues at EVD and in the Divine Word community are those holy neighbors. The daily collection of repetitive tasks makes a sacred routine. Together, we proclaim the Divine Word.

To learn more about EVD in Spain, visit the official website

Divine Word seminarian Marlon Bobier Vargas fulfilled his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP) in Spain. This fall, he returns to Catholic Theological Union in Chicago to complete his last two years of studies.

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The earthen vessels of Parroquia Nuestra Señora de Altagracia

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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.Algracia_Spain_M Vargas_August 2018_2_250 width

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.

Prophetic Dialogue

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.

Algracia_Spain_M Vargas_August 2018_14_333 widthDialogue 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.Algracia_Spain_M Vargas_August 2018_16_333 width

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.