Divine Word Missionaries operate more than 700 parishes around the world, but did you know that some of them are right here in the United States? In the early 1900s, the order started assigning priests to staff U.S. parishes where ministries were neglected or insufficient. That early mission continues today but there’s also a wider need for priestly vocations, so the Society is assisting where it can.

While most U.S. Catholic churches are associated with one of nearly 200 Dioceses, Archdioceses or Episcopal Regions, some others are staffed or run by religious congregations, like the Society of the Divine Word. In 1970, there were 54.1 million people in the U.S. Catholic population and a total of 59,192 priests, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. In 2020, the Catholic population swelled to 72.4 million people but the number of priests dropped to 35,513. The shortage of priests has led to creative measures to serve the growing number of faithful Catholics across the country. One way to combat the deficit is to keep more religious priests in the country or invite priests from other parts of the world to serve in American churches. 

Fr. Gus Wall, SVD, raises the host during consecration

Fr. Gus Wall, SVD (right) presides at Mass. 

A missionary message

So what makes a church operated by the Society of the Divine Word different from one that has a diocesan pastor? Divine Word Missionary Priests and Brothers demonstrate the spirit of service that defines the order everywhere they go. When they’re leading a parish, SVD priests work with the congregation to develop a group of lay missionaries. Fr. Gus Wall, SVD, pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Lafayette, La. said getting the parishioners involved in missionary efforts encourages the order’s spirituality.

A generous woman from Iowa offered to make and send quilts for people in need at his parish in Louisiana. Fr. Gus blesses each one before they’re distributed to members of the parish who are elderly, ill or isolated due to the pandemic. This initiative inspired other members of the church to add onto the effort by creating care packages that can be delivered along with prayer blankets.

“What makes an SVD parish is not just us dumping on others what we think the Church should be, but it’s us in dialogue with others to discover together what the Church should be. It takes true commitment,” Fr. Gus said.

Church leaders also invite guest speakers to share their mission experiences, plan workshops to introduce parishioners to the SVD goals and distribute materials about the congregation. The lay partners at SVD parishes pray for Divine Word Missionaries working around the world and support their mission projects in a variety of ways.

Religious vocations

Fr. Jon Kirby, SVD, Provincial of the Society’s U.S. Western Province, said SVD parishes should be made up of a core group of dedicated lay people who embrace the charism of Divine Word Missionaries and promote services to the poor. When that happens, young people in the church community have an opportunity to learn about Divine Word Missionaries and understand the purpose of the religious order. In some cases, young men who feel called to religious life may explore the possibility of joining the SVD based on their exposure to the order.

Fr. Gus Wall, SVD visits with an elderly woman at her home
Fr. John Kirby, SVD headshot

Fr. John Kirby, SVD

“Vocations will flow from impressed youth and supportive families,” said Fr. Jon Kirby.

Due to the shortage in priests, the sheer amount of work that faces each pastor on a daily basis is a challenge today. The church where Fr. Gus is serving has about 2,000 families in it and he’s the only active priest. That’s why it’s so important that more people join in the ministry of reaching out to others as Divine Word Missionary Priests and Brothers.

“There’s a real challenge for vocations these days, however, I think what drew the first ones will draw new ones. It’s the lived example. To be drawn, to be impressed, to be renewed by the ministry of others. When they see the priests working with others, collaborating with the laity and helping other people, I think it will draw the right candidates,” Fr. Gus said. “It may take a little while, but they will come.”

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