Jorge Zetino expected to face new challenges during his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP) with the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) but he did not expect the worldwide spread of a new virus to be one of them.
The two-year program is designed to give members in temporary vows a firsthand look at life as a Divine Word Missionary by immersing them in a new culture while they serve alongside SVD priests and brothers.
For the seminarians on CTP during the COVID-19 pandemic, the missionary playbook has been tossed out. There’s no precedent to guide Church leaders around the world as they search for new ways to safely serve parishioners and the disadvantaged during these uncertain times.
Jorge, an American who is originally from Guatemala, moved to Germany in 2018 to begin his cross-cultural training. After completing language courses in Bonn, he moved to Katholische Kirchegemeinde Heilig Geist (Holy Spirit Parish), the only SVD parish in Berlin. Before coronavirus reached Germany, Jorge was doing pastoral work and volunteering throughout the community. He traveled 50 minutes by train to help at a soup kitchen, worked with children at the parish’s kindergarten program and assisted fellow SVDs who celebrated Mass for residents at a nearby nursing home.
That all changed three months ago when the country shut down and non-essential workers were advised to stay home and observe physical distancing in an effort to protect people from COVID-19. Public gatherings, even for the purpose of worship, were prohibited.
“The need for pastoral ministry did not change, even if the context itself of how to go about it had changed,” Jorge said. “Aware of the tremendous need for pastoral care during this time, we took to the internet and social media as a venue to continue reaching out to our parishioners. Online masses, video homilies, and meditations were sent in an email blast.”
Jorge said he drew on the skills he learned while working for the Public Relations Department at Divine Word College during his undergraduate studies. In college, he was responsible for taking photos and capturing video at major school events. So when the churches in Berlin were forced to stop holding public gatherings, Jorge used his talents with video editing and social media to help stream Mass online for parishioners during the quarantine.
In addition to digital efforts, Jorge and the other parish staff have been writing worship aids with prayers, reflections, and meditations that they send by mail in an effort to reach people in the parish who don’t have access to a computer or internet, as is often the case for the elderly.
Very recently, the government started easing some of the restrictions that were put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus and many citizens are returning to work. Churches can hold services again as long as crowds are limited to 50 people and everyone follows guidelines for distancing, wears a mask and abstains from singing. Jorge returned to his volunteer work at the soup kitchen but is still waiting for classes to resume at the kindergarten.
Since the beginning of his missionary training, Jorge said formation leaders have emphasized the importance of being present for the people he serves no matter what kind of ministry work he’s doing. During his CTP experience in Berlin, he has found that lesson to be especially important.
“Regardless of the limitations I may still have with speaking German, being present has allowed me to connect with the people at the parish, the kids at the kindergarten, the elderly at the nursing home, and the homeless at the soup kitchen,” he said.
While he certainly didn’t expect to be ministering overseas during a major health crisis, Jorge said it’s taught him that ministry work is necessary no matter what’s happening in the world. Sometimes it just requires a more creative approach.
“Living and working alongside a multigenerational, multilingual, and multicultural SVD community has helped me get a glimpse of the Divine Word Missionary life and work outside of the formation setting,” Jorge said. “This experience has certainly impacted and enriched my vocation and ongoing discernment process.”