The charism of The Divine Word Missionaries is to spread the Gospel to the world and its people and make the goodness and kindness of Christ visible through their lives and service.
Their ministries, including education, pastoral ministry, health care and feeding the poor, flow out of this notion that they are witnesses.
“We don’t just do one thing, but we find various needs of God’s people in so many different contexts, and then we base our mission on serving those particular needs,” said Father Adam MacDonald, SVD, a vocation director for the community. “All of them tie back to this being our Gospel mandate to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
A German priest, Father Arnold Janssen, founded the order during the height of European colonialism. Pope St. John Paul II canonized Father Arnold on Oct. 5, 2003, along with the community’s first missionary, Father Joseph Freinademetz, SVD, who was sent to China and spent 29 years there until his death.
|A Thriving Order
Three reasons why Father Adam MacDonald, SVD, thinks Divine Word Missionary vocations are flourishing:
| Father MacDonald
1. The community is relatively young (142 years old), compared to orders like the Benedictines or Dominicans. “We were founded at a time and in a way to really serve the needs of the people as we find those needs. And we know these needs are evolving and changing so rapidly. There’s something dynamic about our ability to adapt to the changes and needs.”
2. The Divine Word Missionaries have a presence in so many countries and they integrate the people from those countries into their community. “One of the first things we would do when we arrived at a country on mission was to start schools and seminary programs. Young men in those countries who were hearing the word of God and felt called to respond could do so.”
3. In trying to be Christ for the world as the Word made flesh, they intentionally and deliberately live in an intercultural community setting. “We don’t just go to other countries and recruit people from those countries and have the people from different cultures all sitting around the table, each individual speaking his language and eating his food without any interaction. We actually try to enrich the whole community by this intentional sharing of the richness of each culture, one with the other.
“When we assign people on mission, we look for an opportunity to make sure that there’s a mix of cultures represented by the people in that particular mission site. That allows each of them to be stretched and challenged and enriched by the differences among them. In the midst of all the fracturing and brokenness and division of the world, we want to witness that it’s possible for men and women and children of God to live as God intended, which is to live in harmony and peace with one another. I think that is something that really speaks to a lot of people from any background, culturally speaking, would feel welcome in our community.”
Despite founding an order of missionaries, St. Arnold never left Europe, Father MacDonald pointed out; he was the architect, but “Joseph was the man who ran with the plan.”
“One was the visionary, and one the missionary. In a sense, we really need both kinds supporting us,” he said.
St. Arnold eventually founded a family of three communities, including missionary sisters and a women’s contemplative order. The three communities boast 10,000 members worldwide. India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam are seeing the most growth in vocations.
The power of diversity
Father MacDonald says people from a variety of cultures often approach vocation directors in his circle. They see literature and websites with mostly white or African-Americans represented and ask if there’s a place for them as people of a different ethnicity.
“[The Divine Word Missionaries] almost have the opposite of that. Our diversity is so great that we’ve actually had African-Americans and Anglo-Americans ask, ‘Do you accept people who are only Asian or African? You’re so diverse!’ I think that’s very attractive to people.”
Brother Luis Carmona joined the Divine Word Missionaries in 2010 and is in his second year of vows. He studies computing and digital media at DePaul University in Chicago. Since his childhood in Mexico, he had wanted to be a Franciscan, but at his first request, he was turned down because of his age.
“The SVDs were the second to call me, and I said ‘OK, maybe God is telling me something,’” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “And so I went to the Come and See [gathering] and I really fell in love with their mission.”
Now 26 years old, his current assignment is working with the Missionaries of Charity every Saturday to prepare food and share the word with people of different backgrounds and religions. He tries to be creative and connect the Gospel to their lives or their struggles.
“People can teach you so much. It opens my horizons to hear their stories and be part of them,” he said. “It helps me to know them better and give them whatever they need.”
He also appreciates how easy it is to be himself around the sisters and the people they serve. “Some of the sisters have tattoos,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are as long as you are willing to serve. You don’t have to fit a certain box to be a religious.”
He encourages young people to rethink their conceptions of a religious vocation.
“People might see religious as being different from other people, but it’s just being someone who embraces their talents and gifts and goes outward and becomes one with the people and gets to know their stories,” he said. “That’s what makes religious life so enriching.”
From convert to missionary
Frater Zachary Smith (Frater is Latin for “brother”) didn’t grow up practicing any religion in his Michigan home. He was sent to a Jesuit-run school because of the education. But the teen fell in love with the Faith and started going to RCIA as soon as he got his driver’s license.
| Frater Smith
His plan was medical school, and for a while he pursued that path by studying microbiology at the University of Pittsburgh. He occasionally was peppered with comments from others about a possible vocation, especially in regard to the Jesuits. But it wasn’t until he volunteered as an EMT the second semester of his freshman year that he really started to consider it.
A woman walked up to the ambulance and said she was having a heart attack. While the personnel assessed her, she told them her life story. She told Frater Zachary that no one ever listened to her and thanked him.
“I thought, ‘I enjoyed listening to you. Maybe this is something I can do,’” he said.
He took an online vocation test, found the Divine Word Missionaries and began the process of learning more about them. Eventually he moved to Iowa to continue his studies and applied to their novitiate.
All in God’s timing
Deacon Tuan Hoang took his first vows in August 2004. After studying two years of theology, he was sent to Vietnam for a cross-cultural training program and to serve in an orphanage. Despite his heritage as a Vietnamese-American, he didn’t speak the language.
| Deacon Hoang
“Being in a new country, there are struggles and there are times of loneliness because you don’t know the language or the culture very well,” he said. But “as time passes on, you’re more adjusted to it. I feel that it was a blessing to be there.”
Eventually Deacon Tuan took a detour and left the order for three-plus years. But something was tugging him back to the Divine Word Missionaries.
“When I was outside, I found that life out there wasn’t for me. I feel that God let me go off-site to test if the vocation out there was right for me,” he said.
Deacon Tuan will be ordained a priest in May, and his first assignment will be in Ecuador, where he will receive some language and cultural training before being assigned to a parish.
“I’m very excited to go there. I don’t really know what it’s going to be like ahead of me,” he said. “I can be present with the poor and try to help them as much as I can. For me, that’s part of my spirituality, serving them and seeing the smiles on their faces and how blessed they are.”
Mariann Hughes writes from Florida.
Read more spring vocation articles here.