Sunday, October 25, 2009

From the Glory of St. Peter's Basilica to His life by the Water

Happy Sunday to All!

This week, I wanted to share a bit about my experience in China this past summer. It truly was one of the best summers of my life. There is really no way to convey all that that trip meant to me. But I would like to share a couple thoughts/details and then one reflection I wrote at the end of the summer.

Traditionally at the North American College, guys are encouraged to spend their first summer abroad so as to more richly experience the world, the people in it, and the Holy Spirit moving amongst them. It is up to each seminarian to find some kind of program, apostolate, mission, immersion-program, language school etc. He just needs to get the approval of the College and his diocese. This past summer guys ministered everywhere from India to China to Russia to the Holy Land to all over Europe to Honduras to Ethiopia and more.

The summer before, Paul Vu (Orange, CA), a seminarian in the class ahead of me, had gone to China through Maryknoll, America's Missionary Society. Fr. Brian Barrons, a Maryknoller of Lansing, Michigan, was Paul's host. When I asked Paul to tell me about his experience he said, "Victor. Let me just say this upfront. That was pretty much the best experience of my life!" He also told me that our Vice-Rector Msgr. Meuggenborg was actually the first seminarian from our College to go and spend a summer with Fr. Brian. At that time, Fr. Brian was serving in Tanzania. So I went and asked Msgr. Meuggenborg about his experience with Maryknoll and Fr. Brian to which he quickly responded, "Victor. That was easily the best summer of my life!"

After conversations such as these, much thought, prayer, and planning, two other seminarians (Patrick Arensberg--Mobile, AL--& Colin Wen, Sacramento) and I decided to spend our summer abroad in China. Pat is half-Filipino and Colin is actually half-Chinese...and me...well...I'm pretty white. So the combination alone was an inculturation.

Pat and I at the height of the inculturation process

A bit about our host:

Fr. Brian spent the first 14 years of his priesthood in Tanzania. He now has been in China for about 10 years. Currently Fr. Barrons is stationed in Jilin City, a city of about 1 million people in NE China. There Fr. Brian is the dean of the English department at a Medical College. I know...not exactly your traditional "parish assignment." But this is the foothold that the Lord has given Fr. Brian in China. He is closely watched by the government, cannot safely wear clerics, or openly function as a priest. However, this does not stop Fr. Brian from making Christ known in Jilin City. Each semester Fr. Brian teaches over 200 students. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner of every day he invites students to his apartment to share a meal and practice that each student eats with him about once a month. His office, he has basically converted into a student lounge that has students streaming in and out of all day, every day. He is there to just BE with them. To listen to them. To love them. To offer his counsel and encouragement. And to give them a good laugh.

His ministry is largely one of "Presence." It is one of the most impressive and inspiring one's I have ever seen. In addition to his work at the College, Fr. Brian also keeps up a blog (read by literally THOUSANDS of people all over China every day), hosts a local radio show, has starred in a couple Chinese movies, is the Chaplain for a convent of Chinese Carmelite nuns, and works closely with the many priests, religious, and faithful of Jilin Diocese. Not to mention, this past Christmas, Fr. Brian baptized 78 of his students...welcoming them into a new life in Christ!!! These details cannot begin to do justice to his the power and love of Christ working in this priest...but hopefully it gives you a taste.

One more detail about Fr. Brian I would mention: This past year he received the "Friend of China Award"--the highest honor that China can give to a non-Chinese resident. He was given this as a result of the many great things he has done for the Chinese people over the past decade. Because of this, some friends encouraged Brian to apply for a Green Card...which normally is nearly impossible to secure. So he did...and a couple days after we arrived, Brian was approved! So he is a Chinese citizen for life long as he spends at least one day on Mainland China, each year for the rest of his life. I thought this was a fascinating achievement! Here we see a communist, atheist government honoring a Catholic priest?! What gives?! To me it is a testament to the innate beauty... the attractiveness that comes from a life in Christ---it spreads goodness, love, and real service ---something everyone can agree on.

Paul had gone and lived with Fr. Brian in Jilin last summer. There he taught an English class for the summer. That gave him the chance to get to know and love many young, mostly non-Christian students. So up until about a week before we left for China this summer, this was our plan as well. But then Swine Flu broke out! We got a call from Fr. Brian telling us that the College decided to not allow us to come to Jilin and teach at the College for fear we would bring the virus along with us. Basically that meant, after months of planning, our entire plan for the summer was canceled!!! However, he still was happy to have us come. He just wanted us and our bishops to know that he could not promise us anything.....and our trip would have unfold on a day-to-day basis.

So, with our bishops' approval, we talked it over and decided to go ahead and just see what happened. We decided it would be a good chance to place ourselves into God's hands...his loving Providence and see what happened.

There was not one day that summer that I was not amazed at God's Plan and his care for our trip.

Our summer went so well, that Fr. Brian is planning next summer's experience based on everything that we were able to do. He has talked to the Maryknoll HQ in NYC and approved 12 spots for seminarians to come minister with his this coming summer! Never before has Romans 8:28 made so much sense to me--"We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

Below I would like to share a reflection on one of the many graces of the summer. Every seminarian was asked to write a "Theological Reflection" at the end of the summer, concerning one experience of their summer ministry. As I wrote my Post for last week...this reflection came to mind. In a mysterious way, this experience in China is, I believe, intimately connected with my experience serving at St. Peter's two weeks ago.


DESCRIBE ONE EXPERIENCE which affected you significantly.

(e.g., a conversation with someone, a ministerial experience, a crisis, etc.)

I spent my summer with Maryknoll in China. For about a week, we were hosted by Fr. Peter Xu, a friend of Maryknoll and the Rector of Jilin Diocese’s Seminary in northeastern China. For four of these days, Fr. Peter took us on a tour of the villages of his diocese. The second town we visited was Soujou. It was a small town of about 800 people and was 99.9% Catholic. Only the party secretary of the town was not Catholic, but even he was a good friend of the pastor and supporter of the Church. It was truly a fascinating place. The pastor more or less ran the town. The mayor differed to him on any big decision affecting the whole town and the pastor settled all legal disputes in the town. The lines dividing “Church and State” in this Chinese village were blurred for both Communist and Western eyes alike.

The first afternoon, the pastor invited us to visit the famous river of the town. We got in the car and slowly bounced our way on various dirt roads through corn fields until reaching the waterfront. When we got there, we were met by a group of fishermen from the village. They took us on a boat ride around the river first. While we were out, the others decided to prepare a large meal to welcome us to their town. We pulled back onto shore just in time to see them taking the fish from their nets that we would be served. A couple ladies emerged from a little brick hut by the water to get the fish to begin cooking.

After some time swimming in the river and catching clams with some village children, the meal was prepared. Precisely twelve of us sat down on split logs to feast around a low wooden table outside of the brick hut. The pastor blessed our food, offered the first toast, and the party had begun. As I sat at this table, sharing a meal with two priests, two seminarians, and seven fishermen, in a small Chinese Catholic village, on the bank of a river, I felt like I was reliving a story I had heard somewhere before.

In Chinese culture, especially in the northeastern province where we were at this time, toasts are a very important aspect of any friendly gathering. This is especially true when meeting new people and establishing new friendships. I truly was overwhelmed by their hospitality and the particularity of the situation and felt moved to give a toast. With the help of one of the priests I toasted these men saying, “Some of the first disciples called by Jesus were fishermen. So today, it is a special honor to be dining with fishermen as we come to know a new place, new friends, and more of our Catholic family.”

This seemed to really resonate with the fishermen who showed their accord by clinking glasses and patting one another on the back. Then one of the fishermen toasted in response saying, “Even though you come from far away and we are just meeting for the first time, we are part of the same family because of our common belief in Jesus Christ. So today, we are happy to welcome members of our family to our village.”

WHAT INSIGHTS DID YOU GAIN about yourself, human nature, or the Church because of this experience? HOW HAVE YOU GROWN?

I think this was one of the most intensely Catholic experiences in my life. It was a moment when being “Catholic” clearly became something substantial. Here I was in the middle of nowhere China, with total strangers, not able to speak Chinese, with a practical life experience much different from the others at the table (minus Patrick and Colin). And yet, a deep and abiding connection was present amongst us--our faith in Jesus Christ and his Church. So much so that we could sincerely toast one another as members of the “same family.”

Also, I felt I was given a special insight into the early apostolic community. Just spending the afternoon with them, it was obvious that these fishermen were deeply fraternal. They lived together, worked together, ate together, drank together, did just about everything together. Their common profession gave them a context to form incredible bonds of friendship. You really did sense that they would do anything for each other. Also, these fishermen were tough. There skin was darker and more leathery than anyone else we met in China; their personalities were stronger; their stomachs were bigger; their homes were more modest; and their socializing was more robust than most anyone else we met in China. As I noted all of this, I kept thinking about Peter, James, and John. It was making much more sense to me at this moment as to why Jesus would have called “fishermen” to be his first disciples. More so, it gave me new insight as to why Peter would have been chosen as the leader of these disciples.

Although I was in China, I believe this experience is relevant to the early apostolic community. These fishermen, like those you find in the Gospels, were rough around the edges. They were not the smartest, wealthiest, or most influential people of their village. However, they were very passionate, hardworking, and tough with a deep capacity to be fraternal and united. Jesus chose someone like that to be the “rock” of his Church--a leathery-skinned man with a fiery personality. A man like this, I realized, lied beneath all of the gold and marble of St. Peter’s basilica back in Rome. A man like this, Jesus had called from the shores of Galilee to come and follow him. A man like this, was called to be a saint.

WHERE WAS GOD AT WORK in this experience: in you, in other people, and in the Church?

God was amongst us as we gathered and celebrated in his name. As he moved amongst us, I feel the Lord allowed me to see the humble beginnings of the Church. He allowed me to see how “ordinary,” in a sense, they were. I feel he gave me a vivid and relevant scenery upon which to meditate each time I encounter James, Peter, and John in Scripture.

Living in Rome, I am blessed to be able to readily experience the splendor...or the glory of Peter and his Church. But this experience in China, allowed me to see the other side of the coin--the ordinary, rough, and humble man that was transformed by the grace of Christ. Both aspects I believe are important in their own right. Both are necessary to really understand what Aquinas meant when he said “Grace builds on nature.” Both are necessary for me to understand how I too am called to this paradox of ordinary and glory--namely, holiness.

HOW ARE YOU BEING CALLED to a greater conformity to Christ? How are you being called to live the Paschal Mystery and to imitate the Pastoral Charity of Christ?

The men in Soujou, as well as the Chinese people in general, particularly challenged me by their hospitality. They stopped everything to host, welcome, feed, and celebrate with us. They were excited by the faith that we shared. They were eager to meet more members of their Catholic family. I pray to be caught up in their excitement for their faith and their hospitality. Hospitality provides the occasion for people to encounter each other and to share with each other. Jesus is a person who desires to share his entire self with each of us. So I feel more inspired to be hospitable, so as to give our Lord this foothold...this opportunity in others lives to fulfill this, his deepest desire.

Us sitting and eating with the Fishermen and Priests

Pat, Colin, and I with kids from the village I talked about

(the internet is really slow here now...I will post some more pictures later)

This week's Links:

Colin Wen's Blog (guy from CA who went to China with me):

A link from Colin's Blog to some pics he posted from China:

Fr. Brian Barrons' Blog: A Chinese Sensation!-----THE GREAT WALL

Next Sunday's Gospel:

This is the Gospel Reading for Mass next Sunday. At seminary, they really encourage us to meditate on Scripture throughout the week... especially the daily readings from Mass and more especially those for the upcoming Sunday.... and most especially the Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday. So, I thought it would be good to post the Gospel reading each Sunday for the next Sunday. For those who would like, you can read it, reflect on it, and pray with it throughout the week. It could be something small that not only we would be sharing together...but it would be a way to plug into the life of the whole seminary here....and really the life of the Church worldwide...many of whom will be hearing these words proclaimed a week from now.

Matthew 5:1-12a

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain,

and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.

He began to teach them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward will be great in heaven.”

Have a great week! Let's pray for each other.


1 comment:

  1. This blogging thing really suites you TRON :) Thank you for posting the Gospel reading for next Sunday! Sunday is Jeremy and I's one year anniversary and the Gospel is the one that was read at our wedding. I remember last year being pleasantly surprised when you, mom, char, and I went to mass on the morning of the wedding and the Gospel reading we had chosen was read for All Saints Day - can't believe that was almost a year ago.