Since its inception, the Society of the Divine Word has relied on education as a tool to influence society and culture. Founder St. Arnold Janssen was a teacher himself, and always ensured that education was a part of the Society’s mission.
Today, the congregation operates Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan. It’s a coeducational Catholic institution of higher learning that aims to educate from a Christian worldview. Fr. Bob Kisala, SVD serves as president.
There are more than 300 faculty members at the university. Fifteen of them are vowed Divine Word Missionary priests and brothers. Each year, the university holds a faculty orientation presentation for new employees and a separate lecture for incoming students. Fr. Bob said he uses those opportunities to explain the history and purpose of the school. The educational motto of the university is “for human dignity,” and in his talks, he focuses on the meaning of human dignity from a Christian perspective. There are three required course for all students: an introduction to religion, an introduction to Christianity, and a class on human dignity.
“The goals of the classes are to understand religion as an important part of culture and society, to understand basic elements of Christian teaching and Christian values, and to explore how human dignity is related to contemporary social issues,” Fr. Bob said. “I see these classes as an opportunity to share our faith and beliefs in the context of an academic exchange with the students.”
Born in Chicago, Fr. Bob first realized that he may have a calling to the priesthood when he was in junior high school. After talking with a vocation director, he enrolled at an SVD minor seminary in East Troy, Wis. in 1971.
Fr. Bob says he was always interested in education, because he was good at academics and figured he could make a real contribution in the field. After graduating from Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa in 1978, he embarked on first teaching experience. For two years, Fr. Bob taught English at an SVD junior high school in Japan. It didn’t take long for the culture to win his heart. “Everything was so different from what I was used to in the States, so I found it fascinating,” he said. “When I returned to the States in 1980 to enter novitiate, I knew then that I wanted to return to Japan and continue to work here.”
Since less than 1% of the Japanese population is Christian, Fr. Bob realized that education was an opportunity to share Catholic values with many people who may not otherwise have contact with the Church.
After his ordination in 1985, Fr. Bob returned to Japan. This time he went to Tokyo, where he continued his own education in Religious Studies, specializing in contemporary Japanese religion. In 1995, he started working at Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture at Nanzan University.
In 2004, Fr. Bob became the provincial and was no longer able to go to the institute every day, so he moved to the Christian Studies Department at Nanzan, where he taught for two years before going to Rome as a member of the general council. He returned to Japan in 2018 and reentered the Christian Studies Department. He started his current role as president of the university in April.
Even though the Society’s charism isn’t taught directly at Nanzan, Fr. Bob said it is present at the school. Several volunteer groups work out of the Christian Center at the university. One organizes summer trips to the Philippines to build classrooms. Another helps feed the homeless in Nagoya each week and a third group tutors children.
“For me, both my work at the research institute and teaching at the university has been a great opportunity to meet many people who I would not have had the chance to cross paths with,” he said. “Although it is challenging sometimes to interest the students in religion, it has been an enriching experience, and I am glad that I first came to Japan many years ago ‘by chance,’ and glad to be back here now.”