Divine Word Missionaries

History & Tradition


Back to
Members' Area
Site Map

History & Tradition

Journeying with SVD Internationality
vis-à-vis Multi-Culturality


1. On a Personal Note

Unlike the staring of an article in the usual way let me take the privilege of a frequent contributor to the pages of Verbum SVD and come to the introduction of present one on a personal note. Life is often compared to a journey by poets and literary figures. This sojourn for me as an SVD began way back in 1967. I landed up in the minor seminary of the congregation by chance as my then parish priest sent me to join there with a recommendation letter. I had not known then anything about the charism and other special features of the society. But with the passage of time it began to dawn on me that there are some cherished ideals in the way the members live as well as do their mission throughout the world.

The journey continued with the usual ups and downs. Then at the age of 58 when I moved as a missionary to another continent, to another culture to be with another race, people with a different colour of skin many eye-brows were raised. Perhaps it was like the story of our Father in Faith, Abraham, of course in a small way (Gen. 12:1). What I happened to observe about myself prior to my departure was that I did not get worried about this major change going to take place in my life. When I asked myself ‘why so?’ there was an answer welling within me that as an SVD I would be made to feel at home by my confreres even though I was entering a totally strange county.

For me as an SVD internationality is a daily, living reality and I felt happy when the Society chose as its theme “From Every Nation, People and Language: Sharing Intercultural Life and Mission”, for the XVII General Chapter held in 2012. Unsurprisingly it has emerged from the core values of the society right from the foundation of the society. The present article is a simple assembling of some reflections on the meaning of internationality, its earliest origin, its implications for the society. Perhaps it may resonate with other Ad Gentes congregations and may have some relevance for the mission of the Church as a whole.

2. Ethnocentrism Ingrained in Human Nature

A newly consecrated bishop from Asia once narrated his own experience of visiting the family of his benefactor in Europe, way back in 1970s. He was warmly welcomed and also made to feel at home. At dinner time he found one of the grandchildren of his host was not present. When they were looking for the boy they found him in the room given to the honourable guest. He was quietly searching on the bed where the bishop had lied down for siesta if any image of his body was imprinted on the white sheet. Obviously this youngster had different impressions about people of another race.

To illustrate this point that ethnocentrism is a universal phenomenon take the case of the writer, Aubrey Menen who is of Indo-British descent. He was taken aback to hear from his Hindu paternal grandmother the impressions she had about the people of the White Race and even looked down upon them. Interestingly this elderly woman would not mind calling the British as ‘heathen’ just like until recent times Christians used to do with non-Christians.1

As culture is a dynamic and vital factor of human life besides Christianity other major religious too face the challenge of encountering the ethos of various tribes, ethnic groups, etc. Islam too is no exception. It is said from its place of origin in the Middle East when it spread eastwards the rigidity of its traditions is quite much watered down. Take for instance the freedom enjoyed by women in some of the Moslem countries.2

3. Ethnicity Precedes Religion

People may be baptized Christians; may be attending church regularly. But when it comes to the ethnic element religion can be a forgotten entity. A case in point is the notorious Rwanda genocide. Hutus and Tutsis who form the vast majority of the population are both Catholics. But both tribes went on killing each other.3 Even if one belonged to a religious congregation it did not matter. Three Jesuits were shot and killed in their retreat house.4 Even religious cooperated with their own ilk for mass murder.5

Around 80% of Kenya’s population supposedly follows various Christian denominations and churches. But after the general election of 2007 large scale violence and killing followed. According to official statistics over a thousand people were butchered. Even 34 persons who had taken shelter in a church were burned alive. Thousands were rendered homeless and became ‘Internally Displaced People’. They lost their own land and houses all their belongings.6 It was in this context the then Archbishop of Nairobi, Raphael Ndingi made the following, oft-quoted statement: “Ethnicity precedes religion.”

Ethnic conflicts can occur even within religious institutes. In one such case sisters from one particular tribal group demanded that recruitment of vocations from another tribe should be stopped. Because of tensions between groups provinces get divided as a last resort. It is against such background that the value of SVDs living and working in intercultural groups should be seen.

Many religious communities experience tension not so much on matters of faith but on food and language.7 Communities can have divisions and even animosity on account of such issues betraying that after all religious too are just human. At those times they can forget that they had made a commitment once, lying prostrate on the floor. In this scenario great ideals to make sacrifices for the mission can just evaporate in thin air.

4. Culture Tensions in the Apostolic Church

The Church led by the Apostles has placed on record the tension that existed among various ethnic groups. First of all there was the complaint of discrimination. The Greek-speaking Jews alleged that their widows were neglected (Acts 6:1). Then there is the account of Peter having a vision, a voice instructing him to kill and eat. Then he as a faithful practitioner of Judaic law responded that he has not eaten anything unclean (Acts 10:13, 14).

There should not be any surprise about the reaction of Peter because at that stage the Church in Jerusalem was practically following all the religious and cultural practices of the Jews. He even kept away from ritually unclean people (Acts 10:28). On his own Simon Peter was helpless. But the Spirit of the Lord worked in a powerful way and made him break this strong mental barrier (Acts 10:19).

Arguments on the issue of keeping up the age-old practice of circumcision were quite vehement as can be discerned from the account (Acts 15:1). Peter finally settled the matter saying that the Holy Spirit was given not only to the followers of the Way of Jesus Christ who hailed from Judaism but equally to the Gentiles as well (Acts 15:8). There must have been much heart-burn before the heated discussion drew to a close. But the power of the Spirit made the break-through piercing all human resistance.

5. Father Arnold’s Way of Nurturing Internationality

Having acknowledged the role played by the element of culture in humans, cutting across religious affiliations it is now appropriate to take a look at how SVD developed ways and means to transcend this barrier. Understanding of internationality as well as inter-culturality in the case of Arnold Janssen gradually evolved. Almost from the beginning he had in mind that the missionary foundation should not be bound by nationalist considerations and boundaries. It so happened that though he hailed from Germany the mission seminary was started in another country, viz., Holland.

There must have been many discussions and debates, even a bit heated too, on this issue as can be discerned from the clearly stated position of Ludvig von Essen: “it is more beneficial for the work of missionaries if the various nationalities did not work alongside each other on the contrary, each nationality should possess its own special territory.”8 It is quite likely that irreconcilable difference on this issue also contributed to the parting of ways between the two. The visionary in Arnold Janssen had in a way foreseen that there would be members in future who belonged to nationalities beyond the borders of Germany, Holland and Austria.9

Already before the starting of the mission seminary in September 1875 Arnold Janssen had in mind to check the danger of unhealthy nationalist spirit that could creep into the society. He had shared this concern in his letter to Cardinal Franchi, the then Prefect of Propaganda.10 His sincerity in this regard can be ascertained from the fact that when the small group of four members started living together in the mission house they belonged to different nationalities – two Germans, one Austrian and one from Luxembourg.11

Father Arnold rose above nationalist considerations while making recommendation to choose the successor for Bishop Anzer.12 On another occasion he gave a judicious piece of advice to the missionaries to be sensitive to the culture of the place: “Furthermore, beware of making disparaging remarks about the situation to others. No one likes to hear foreigners criticizing their country.”13

In the First SVD General Chapter (December 1884) rules and regulations were laid down for confreres of various backgrounds to live together in peace and harmony: “All are to show consideration towards persons of other nationalities. It is strictly forbidden to criticize the nationality of a confrere or promote one’s own at the expense of others or give a nickname to a confrere because of his nationality.” 14

It is also on record that Janssen served caution to his confreres when the question of taking candidates for the society hailing from American or Irish descent. Eventually this problem was overcome when the priests and brothers were more conversant with English and the investiture of four novices took place in 1902.15 Thus it can be said that breaking ethnic barriers was a strong point in the life of Arnold Janssen and his concept of internationality gradually evolved through many years.

6. Freinademetz: an Exemplar of Living Interculturality

As Arnold Janssen tried to inculcate a sense of respect for other cultures in the communities Joseph Freinademetz the SVD pioneer to China simply applied it in the situation where he was placed. What this missionary par excellance wrote to his parents after spending a few years in the Vineyard of the Lord is worth recalling: “I love China and the Chinese, that I am ready to die a thousand deaths for them… Now that speaking their language is no longer a problem for me and since I have come to know the people and their way of life, China has become my homeland. .. I would never give up this dignity of being a missionary here, even in exchange for the crown of the Emperor of Austria.” 16

The man from the White race could not of course change the colour of his skin, but in his manner of dressing and appearance he identified himself as one of the typical Chinese. With the passage of time he grew further on this conviction to the extent of stating explicitly that even in heaven he would like to be a Chinese. Thus he showed the way how subsequent generations of SVDs not just doing some cosmetic adaption but to become incarnate in the culture one is sent, to be a missionary. Once again he has proved that a missionary in a strange land can endear himself/herself with the people if one can build bridges of credibility and thus become part and parcel of their lives.

7. SVD Contribution to Culture Studies

SVD’s contribution to the study of cultures has been considered noteworthy. Founding of Anthropos in 1906 was a milestone in the annals of the society. Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt was already known for his scholarship in the academic circles of Vienna. He had been publishing his many works in the field of linguistics since 1900. 17 His monumental work viz., Idea of Origin of God contains his theories as hypotheses. The ideas found in this magnum opus of 12 volumes had its impact on Vatican II especially on the issue of esteem for other religions.18

Pioneering studies in the field of culture have been made by many other SVDs. These amateurs made theeir foray into wherever they worked like pygmies, savages and many tribes, cutting across continents. Some of them carried on with their research doing side by side pastoral work.19 In fact some of these writings became the very first items to be published regarding so many various ethnic groups.

SVD contribution to make a synthesis of anthropology and missiology is also remarkable. Louis Luzbetak widened the horizon of mission studies by bridging the gap between Church and various cultures where much tension has been existing between the inveterate practices of indigenous people and official ecclesiastical prescriptions. He asserted: “All human beings are cultural beings. Jesus must be culturally relevant if he is really to be understood and appreciated. This is a most obvious fact unfortunately only too often overlooked.”20 Academics particularly of Church circles have been so taken up with this book that it has gone into eight reprints and also translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Polish and Bahasa Indonesia.

8. Pioneering in Inter Racial Living Together

Though there were thousands of Black Catholics in the United States there wasn’t a single priest from among them. Having taken note of this lacuna , Peter Janser who was provincial superior then, approached the bishop of Natchez, seeking permission to start training of priests from the Blacks. Keeping in mind how sensitive the matter was he immediately said that he did not want any Black priest in his diocese.

Pursuing the matter further a proposal to have the Blacks as members of a religious congregation was presented. That clinched the issue. Thus written permission for the SVD to start the seminary for the Blacks was granted. This was truly epoch-making. That was why Cardinal O’Connell of Boston told Peter Janser: “You Germans are the only ones who can do it.” 21

Implementing the modalities of this decision was not a cake walk. Many hurdles had to be overcome. After taking candidates from the Black race questions arose about the residence of the professed members and also if both Whites and Blacks would stay under the same roof. To sit side by side for dining also cropped up as an issue. Today these may not be seen as serious problems but in those days of strict racial segregation and discrimination to make a path-breaking beginning in this regard was not easy.

9. Placing in Perspective SVD Charism

More than ever before humanity today is seeing large scale movement of peoples all over the world. Being placed side by side more than ever before there is mixing of blood through marriage at inter-racial level.22 Multi-national business houses too facilitate some kind of international co-existence. In so many ways the whole world is becoming a melting pot of races. Hence some may ask if there is anything special about SVD charism of internationality.

Against the background of internationality emerging from conjugal relationships SVD members try to live in multi-cultural communities without any male-female complementarities coming into play, in their lives. Besides Divine Word Missionaries are doing their mission different from multinational companies.

Furthermore it should be all the more cherished against various religious congregations following different traditions. Some of them take as members only from certain nationality.23 Many have provinces based on ethnic or linguistic identity.24 So also there are missionary societies having basis on liturgical rites of the Church.25

It is a historical fact that SVDs in certain critical times have lived together despite war going on between their home countries. During World War II, Germans and Americans were fighting against each other but the society members lived and worked together as confreres. Adding credence to this reality currently two Russians are doing their novitiate in Poland with two novices from that the latter country. Looking at the past history of these two countries it is almost unbelievable that they could live together under one roof.

10. Can SVD Sustain Its Charism?

SVD trying to live out the delicate charism of internationality is also fraught with the danger of losing it gradually, although it is true that some of the provinces have a healthy mixture of members from various countries.26 It has to be remembered that in religious life with the passage of time there is at work a law of deterioration of the original charism.27 There is need to rise above this limitation without sweeping the dust under the carpet.

As a fact of observation it can be said that when election to hold offices are round the corner, in some of the provinces, some of the drawbacks of the democratic method come into full play. Unfortunately the majority ethnic/linguistic groups try to foist their candidates over the minority. So come election time, in such cases not just murmuratio but behind-the-scene campaigning goes on.

At that time all fraternal charity is thrown into the wind and the vows taken prostrating on the floor to live as brothers is completely forgotten. It is in such circumstances the highest administrative body of the society should intervene using the provisions in the Constitution and help confreres rise above petty considerations.

Besides keeping scrambling for power under check SVDs need to cultivate some skills and grow up with some of the healthy attitudes. By and large though confreres from different continents live together they do not carp about food laid on the table. Even though they are not doyens in learning local languages many have sufficient proficiency to function effectively in their respective missions.

SVD having such strong roots in cultural anthropology should be able to work with the basic assumption that no culture is perfect. Hence they should be able to affirm first what is good in other ethnic groups and should be slow to pick holes in them. Furthermore, making stereotypes of others which is a general human weakness need to be overcome.

In the interest of the society and its mission criticizing one’s own culture is a orientation needed for a healthy SVD life. This process implies both becoming aware of the positive elements in one’s culture and also have the capacity to own up the grey areas obviously seen as weak points. Having a sense of humour by which one can laugh at those things when someone makes fun of these cultural traits can further enhance their community life.

This is a recipe for SVDs to succeed in community life and maintain our multicultural living together. Their diversity in membership is like a mosaic as they rightly chose the theme for canonization viz., ‘one heart, many faces’. They indeed have some amount of rare richness in their charism.

11. Conclusion

Society of the Divine Word is the seventh largest male religious congregation. Currently it has around 6000 members. Perhaps the current strength may be the highest we may reach. One reason for it could be that it is not easy to live in international, multicultural communities. Yet we shall strive to live out this charism and leave the question of our numbers to the province of the Triune God.

SVD has to content with the fact that two major countries from where society gets the largest number of members it has become hard to keep up this little charism of internationality. The governments of Indonesia and India do not allow entry for missionaries from other countries. Despite this handicap efforts are being made to send missionaries from these two countries into different parts of the world.

It is not easy to live internationality vis-à-vis multi-culturality. Level of tolerance is put to test every day as we rub shoulder to shoulder with members hailing from various nations. One may become a saint as a priest/religious in one’s own cultural setting. But to be an SVD one has to have the capacity to pass on from one’s own culture and be able to live as well as work with people of various cultural/ethnic backgrounds.

Arnold Janssen sowed the seeds of internationality not only in the Society of the Divine Word but also in the two sister congregations he founded (SSpS and SSpS AP). Members of the Arnoldus family down through their history keep watering it albeit painstakingly. May we be able to live up to the motto so aptly chosen for the canonization of our saints: ‘One heart, many faces!’.


This article commenced on a personal note. As mentioned above my real journeying with internationality started when I ventured out from the country of my birth to a foreign land rather late in my life. Now that I am on the verge of completing three years living with people of a different race my desire to genuinely live out this charism, as a true SVD, has in some way been fulfilled.

If this immersion in international living did not take place probably my sharing above would lack credibility and would remain a theoretical exercise. Although I have not reached the stage of saying like our Saint Freinademetz that even in heaven he would like to be a Chinese I have come to tell myself, God willing, my mortal remains shall rest finally in the soil of Kenya.

Anthony Poruthur, SVD

1 Cf. Louis Luzbetak, Church and Cultures, Orbis Books, New York, 1991, pp. 194-195.

2 As a matter of fact Bangladesh has seen two women prime ministers in its short history of four decades. Both Pakistan and Indonesia too have had one prime minister each.

3 It is estimated that around 800000 people lost their lives in Rwanda genocide, of 1994

4 The room where they were done to death is preserved as it was, without even painting the walls.

5 It was reported in the media that in 2002 a court in Belgium convicted two religious sisters for supplying kerosene during Rwanda Genocide, to be poured on the people from the other tribe who had taken shelter in the convent.

6 Having borne the brunt of violence even after five years a Catholic priest is still under psychiatric treatment.

7 Just like we would like to keep up our mother tongues there is also a hidden desire in us to follow the food items first food items put into our mouth after breast-feeding is over. So we carry in our minds the affinity not only of the first language we spoke but also the first items of cuisine.

8 Quoted in Josef Alt, Journey in Faith, p. 916.

9 Cf. Ibid, p. 58.

10 Cf. Ibid, p. 406.

11 Cf. Ibid. p. 917

12 Cf. Ibid. p. 511.

13 Quoted in ibid, p. 597.

14 Quoted in ibid, p. 917.

15 Cf. Alt, p. 616.

16 The Letter written in 1886, quoted in Mathew Kavukatt, ‘Joseph Freinademetz: The picture of a Missionary’ As the Saints Go Marching In, Thomas Malipurath (ed.), 2003, p. 41.

17 Cf. Fritz Bornemann, A History of Divine Word Missionaries, Rome, 1981, p. 158.

18 Cf. Ibid, p. 106.

19 Cf. Ibid, p. 107.

20 Luzbetak, op. cit., p. 374.

21 Fritz Bornemann, op. cit. , pp. 211,212.

22 For instance just in Angola alone it is estimated that there are around 40000 Chinese working there and are taking many African women who are Catholics as their wives. The pastoral exigency that followed from this development compelled all the bishops of this country to approach the SVD Generalate with the request to send Divine Word Missionaries who can speak Chinese to do pastoral work among these people.

23 For instance take the case of Mary Knoll which has US citizens only as its members.

24 As an illustration the Jesuits in a small country like Belgium used to have two separate exclusive provinces for the French-speaking and Flemish-s speaking members. Even when they went as missionaries to India they kept up the same tradition. The French-speaking ones started a province in Calcutta whereas Flemish-speaking group had Ranchi mission as their area of operation.

25 Vincentian Congregation of Syro-Malabar Rite so far has taken members only from that rite although they are working in different countries, with people of various races.

26 SVD Chicago province in the USA for instance has members from 29 countries living in multicultural communities.

27 The problem of ‘Early Returnees’ is an example to illustrate this point. In recent times many who enthusiastically opt for mission in another country return home after a short stint abroad almost making a supposedly serious mission look like an excursion. Earlier not only they persevered in the mission land but it is a fact that some of them never went on home leave even.