In our church today, it is not only priests who are doing the preaching. Complementing them are lay and consecrated persons like the Verbum Dei missionaries whose main apostolate is to preach. Sister Wendy Ooi, fsp, traces their roots and explores their ministry.
"We transmit, not only what we say, but rather what we deeply pray and live." (Const. Verbum Dei 36)
THE VERBUM DEI (Word Of God) Missionaries in Singapore are part of the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity, an Institution of Consecrated Life and one of only two institutions pontifically approved, in April 2000, as a New Form of Consecrated Life (Canon 605).
The fraternity was founded on Jan 17, 1963, in Mallorca, Spain by Father Jaime Bonet and consists of consecrated religious women (the group present in Singapore), consecrated religious men (brothers and priests) and associated married couples.
Their mission is to announce the Word of God and to proclaim the Kingdom of God through contemplation, the ministry of the Word (preaching, Bible studies etc), and the witness of evangelical life. To perform their mission well, each Verbum Dei missionary studies theology for six years upon completion of their spiritual formation. Besides Scripture, they also integrate elements of the Magisterium and Tradition in their preaching.
A vital part of their life in support of their ministry is also prayer and contemplation. They emphasize on preaching what they have contemplated and on living a life that witnesses the faith they preach. Based on a spirituality rooted in the Word of God, their prayer life is also influenced by St. Ignatius of Loyola, and the Carmelite Mystics like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Each year the Verbum Dei Missionaries participate in a 30-day retreat; their daily prayer take up to three hours.
Today the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity is present in 35 countries with about 1,000 consecrated persons and 35,000 lay disciples.
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History of Verbum Dei missionaries
"As for us, we shall give ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word." (Acts 6:4)
FATHER JAIME BONET (right) was born in Alqueria Blanca, Spain on May 21, 1926. Even as a seminarian, he organized schools of evangelization and conducted recollections and retreats. He believed in their effectiveness towards a deep encounter with the living Word of God - Christ - and, consequently, growth in faith in him.
As a result of these, a group of young women asked Father Bonet, in 1963, about the possibility of consecrating themselves totally to the life of evangelization which he inspired through his preaching. They were to be the first Verbum Dei Missionaries and received their approval from the Bishop Jesus Encisco Viana of Mallorca in October 1963.
Six years later in 1969, the missionary movement was extended to young men who were similarly attracted to live out the same charism. Two priests were also given permission by the bishop to be incorporated in Verbum Dei.
In that same year, some couples and lay people joined the movement and these later evolved into the branch of the couple-missionaries.
The Verbum Dei Missionaries Fraternity gradually emerged as an apostolic-missionary family of the Catholic Church with one single charism - the dedication to prayer and the ministry of the Word. (Cf Acts 6:4)
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Sisters in Singapore
From left, Verbum Dei Missionaries Jeanette Kong, Maria Jose Egido, Cecilia Teo, Leticia Condelario Lopez, Sandra Seow and Mary Grace Gonzales.
WHEN THE VERBUM DEI Missionaries decided to extend their mission to Singapore, Spanish Sister Maria Jose Egido sought permission from then Archbishop Gregory Yong to set up a community here. She was warmly received and finding the doors of Singapore open to their ministry, she returned with fellow Spaniard Sister Yolanda de la Fuente on Sep 12, 1997.
The Sisters came with only a suitcase each but with much faith in God's providence. They stayed in a three-room flat in Clementi for a year, during which they were active at Church of the Holy Cross; it was from this parish that their first local vocations arrived.
A need for bigger premises arising from the nature of their ministry led them to move to Upper Thomson Road, and then to their present premises at 2A Bury Road where they conduct a range of activities for different age groups including young adults and married couples. Certain groups gather monthly while others weekly. Besides these activities, the Sisters are also involved in giving retreats, confirmation camps and parish related activities.
Once a year, the Verbum Dei Missionaries organize mission trips. This year it will be to Cebu, Philippines, from Dec 2-10; it is open to young adults. At present there are four Verbum Dei Missionaries in Singapore. Sisters Maria Jose Egido (Spain), Leticia Candelario Lopez (Mexico), Mary Grace Gonzales (Philippines), and Sandra Seow (Singapore).
The first Singaporean to join Verbum Dei as a Sister is Elaine Seow (currently in Taiwan). She was followed three years later by her younger blood sister, Sandra. Two other Singaporeans, Jeanette Kong and Cecilia Teo, are undergoing formation in San Francisco.
Verbum Dei Missionaries' ministry in Singapore has expanded over the years and Sister Maria Jose finds among Singaporean Catholics a genuine hunger for the Word of God. She explains, "When you don't find hunger, it is difficult to feed. But, here, the people are open and respond to the Word of God." Through their ministry, the Sisters help the local church make the Living Word a vital part of daily life.
For further information visit www.verbumdeisingapore.org.
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Pioneer in Singapore
SISTER MARIA JOSE EGIDO entered the Verbum Dei Missionaries at the age of 20. Now, 31 years later, with 17 of those years spent as a missionary in the Philippines, she is the pioneer of the foundation in Singapore and its current superior.
Like many who join the fraternity, she was attracted to it after attending a retreat conducted by the Verbum Dei Missionaries. She recalls, "At the retreat, I encountered Jesus and really fell in love with him. I was open to a vocation in any area but not preaching, as I am a shy person. But the Lord said to me, 'How did you know me? How do you want others to know me if not through preaching?'"
Today Sister Maria Jose and her fellow Verbum Dei Sisters preach not only to the different groups they meet but also to each other. Each Sister takes turn to preach to the community.
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It began with a retreat
Right below, Sandra Seow has no regrets for leaving her life as a teacher to become a preacher with the Verbum Dei Missionaries.
CHEERFUL SISTER SANDRA SEOW, 29, and her elder sister, Elaine, were part of the original Young Adults group in Church of the Holy Cross. When the group decided to hold a retreat, a priest recommended the Verbum Dei Missionaries. Sister Sandra remembers that retreat vividly.
It was held in early March 1998, and the Sisters had arrived six months earlier. "I had just turned 21 and was in my final semester at National Institute of Education," Sister Sandra recalls. Her sister is three years older. The retreat was a turning point for them.
Displaying an excitement, as if it happened just yesterday, she recounts her deep encounter with God at the retreat. "I experienced God's love and saw the beauty of the Word of God! God really spoke to me in Isaiah 49. I realized this was a very personal God, and not just a God of my ancestors."
After the retreat, the siblings shared their experiences. "To try to keep the fire, we went for daily Mass," Sister Sandra recounts. They saw the Sisters at Mass and were invited to their home and to join in their activities. Then Elaine, who had just finished her Masters in Economics at Nanyang Technological University, decided to join the Sisters. "But I had to finish my bond so I went on to teach at St. Anthony's Convent, but with the intention of joining later," Sister Sandra says.
She describes her parents' initial reaction as one of shock, although her mother had sensed a change in them after the retreat. She adds, "I think the three years I was at home helped. But in 2001 when my bond ended, and I decided to join the Sisters, the mood was sad. When I left, my mother gave me a very big hug and said, 'San, whatever makes you happy.'"
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Left, elder sister Elaine Seow with Isabel Fornari, president of the Fraternity.
As an affirmation to her call, she recalls the pact she made with the Lord. "I was praying in the chapel and Jesus and I made something like a deal because he said to me, "You take care of my people, I will take care of yours." Today, she believes the Lord has remained true to his word. Her parents are happy for both her and Elaine and they join in the monthly holy hour at the house of the Verbum Dei Missionaries.
Upon entering in 2001, Sister Sandra spent a year of formation in Singapore and another year in the U.K.. In 2003, she took her first vows in Spain. She has since returned to Singapore and is presently studying theology at the St. Francis Xavier seminary.
The simplicity of life among the Verbum Dei Missionaries was an aspect that attracted Sister Sandra - for instance, there is no television at Verbum Dei communities. But Sister Sandra does not miss TV; she, in fact, appreciates its absence. "Without a TV, we have more time to sit and talk as a community."
Like every Verbum Dei Missionary, Sister Sandra hopes to preach and live what she has prayed with the goal of making people experience a real encounter with God.