WINTER HAVEN | Society of Divine Vocations Father Jimson Varghese, pastor of St. Joseph Parish and School in Winter Haven, is a long way from his homeland of Kerala in India.
A zeal for the faith and a desire to be a missionary in the United States brought him to the Diocese of Orlando in 2011. He officially became an American citizen June 21, and shared his journey with the fourth grade classes at his parish Sept. 18, the day after Citizenship Day.
“It took me almost eight years to become a citizen,” Father Varghese said. “I arrived with an R1 religious visa for two years, then I applied for my green card. After five years, I applied to be a citizen. It was a long journey, but the more I stay here, the more work there is to be done for the Lord. I thought becoming a citizen gave me more strength and more awareness of the people who I am serving and then I can do a better job for them.”
He likened it to Jesus’ Incarnation, so that he could become one with man.
Vocationists are missionary priests. That desire to serve in the world led Father Varghese to the priesthood. The Italian order serves in 15 countries and has had a mission in the U.S. for 50 years. There was a call to come to Orlando and he was ready.
In preparation for his visit, teacher Jennifer Insua led the class in a reflection on Phil 3:20, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” She said, “We talked about what this Bible verse meant in relation to being a citizen on earth, and that it is our greatest citizenship in heaven.”
Insua said Father Varghese “provided a real life example of what the students were learning in government about citizenship. He brought his test book and certificate, and all the authentic artifacts that go with becoming a naturalized citizen.” She said students were most curious about the test questions.
The children loved hearing his story. He told them how he went through several interviews, was fingerprinted and had to pass a written and oral exam. “They asked me civic questions about my history and morals, to make sure that I am a good person and a worthy person to be part of this great family.” He even asked them some of the questions from his citizenship book and was happy to see them respond well. But the test was not the most difficult part.
“I talked to my mom the day I became a new citizen,” he recalled. “I needed to give up my Indian citizenship. My parents were not happy about that … but I told them, because I am working here, I don’t want to be a stranger in this country. I want to be fully integrated, so that I can help them (the people) better; help them more. I am a missionary priest and wherever you go, that is your home. The people around you are the children of God. Everywhere I go I have to make a family of the faithful.”
He admits it was difficult for him too. “I felt so blessed, but when I had to renounce my relationship with my country, all my ties, it was a great suppression for me … I actually cried. It was really emotional for me to give up my Indian citizenship.”
Despite the sacrifice, he said he is “so happy to be a citizen of this country.” He added, “We don’t possess anything for ourselves. We are part of what is needed around us. There is nothing permanent in this world. Everything is passing. What is most important is to make happy, make holy everyone around us. They become your family. There is a blood relationship with your family, but God wants us to be more open to this world and the children of God are everywhere. Everywhere you go you see the presence of God in them. It was a major step for me.”
The children delighted in the unique show and tell. He passed around his new passport, showed them the letter of congratulations and welcome he received from President Donald Trump and the copy of the U.S. Constitution given to him. The students flipped the pages of his citizenship book and admired the plaque he received from the Knights of Columbus Winter Haven Council. Of all the items, the most meaningful to him was an American flag. “That was a very proud moment. I keep it with me. It is very small, but very significant,” he said.
He noted how he enjoyed sharing his story and acknowledged the similarity to Eph 2:18-20. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone…”
“Before you’re like a tenant,” he said. “Now this is my family. It is an affirmation. I feel more a part of this family … It’s not easy to be part of a family, but we are so blessed to be part of this great country where there is peace, faith and liberty. That is very important. Nobody should take it for granted.”