Portugal is a country with countless fascinating stories of missionaries and their voyages of discovery. If you are ones who love the history of Catholicism during the Age of Discovery, then this is the country that you would want to visit. My admiration for the missionaries of the past grows stronger whenever I have a chance to stroll along the seashore and stare at the ocean at night. I imagine the thousands of Portuguese missionaries risking their lives to follow Jesus’ command, “Go and baptize the people of all the nations” (Matt 28:19). With audacity, they transverse into the darkness of the unknown of the Atlantic Ocean. My Cross-Cultural Program (CTP) experience became even more meaningful when I learned that the Portuguese missionaries were the first ones to arrive in Vietnam in the 16th century.
Before heading to Portugal for CTP, I was quite worried upon hearing about many challenges facing the European church today. However, my worries faded away as soon as I encountered the SVD and the people in Portugal. Each year, the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) collaborate with the Holy Spirit Sisters (SSpS) to organize the youth gathering, Verbum Jovem, to help the young people to pray and discern their vocations. This year we had more than 120 young people participated in Minde, a small town located 20 minutes south of Fatima. The SVD has two parishes here. Due to a large number of participants, the SVD often asks the local people for accommodations. I was assigned to one of the Portuguese families with other Divine Word Missionaries. In this experience, I was deeply touched because we were strangers, yet the family warmly welcomed us into their house with great kindness and hospitality. Even though the language was a barrier, since this was my second week in Portugal, I was moved by the love and warm hospitality from the people.
Not only was I touched by their kindness, but also their way of living out the Catholic faith. Portugal is considered to be the poorest country in Western Europe, but their value of faith is strong and robust.Most of the Portuguese that I had talked to recognized the importance of passing on the Catholic faith to the younger generation. I encountered many instances where people gave witness to the faith through simple acts, such as family gathering for prayer, praying before or after meals, and their devotion to Our Lady, just to name a few.
For the Portuguese, the apparition of Our Lady at Fatima is monumental.It is not merely a miraculous event that happened to three ordinary children at Fatima, but it also plays a very important role in the history and politics of Portugal. This event significantly shapes the local church. The people here acknowledge many challenges that the church is currently facing. However, they believe that their prayers and petitions for the protection of the Divine Providence and of Our Lady of Fatima are best ways to defend their country against the corrosive elements of the modern world. After a short time living in Portugal, I learned that the best way to get in touch with the people is through praying the rosary. For many faithful in Portugal, the rosary is the most powerful and effective tool to foster unity and to safeguard their faith as Our Lady of Fatima had promised to preserve the faith of Portugal.
Ministries in Portugal are very diverse. One way the Divine Word Missionaries contribute and respond to the needs of the local church is through parish ministry. Despite hindrance from secularism and materialism, the young people in Portugal still hunger for the Word of God, and above all, the true Spirit of the Gospel. Our founder, St. Arnold Janssen, once said, “The best joy that we can offer to the people today is the Good News of our Lord Jesus. ”His words urge all of us to work tirelessly in proclaiming the joy of the Gospel to the people, especially in the secular context of Europe where people quickly identify with destructive pleasures of life and reject the reality of pain and suffering. The sign of the cross continues to illumine the loving heart of Jesus in the midst of our lives, in good and bad times.