The founder of the Society of the Divine Word, St. Arnold Janssen, knew the power of the written word.
He worked as a school teacher and wrote several books on prayer before publishing a magazine called, “The Little Messenger of the Heart of Jesus.” Through this publication, he learned that there was a market for such printed materials and support for a missionary society. In 1875, St. Arnold founded the Society of the Divine Word. He sold printed materials to help fund the process as he worked to get the new congregation established in Steyl, Netherlands. As the SVD gained momentum and Janssen started sending missionaries to other countries, he continued to rely on forms of communication to serve as a vehicle for spreading his message and funding the mission expansion.
Another notable figure in SVD history was Brother Wendelin Meyer, SVD, who, in 1895, traveled to the United States to sell subscriptions of SVD publications. He quickly discovered the possibility of vocations. Soon other SVDs joined him to establish the first of several American seminaries that would eventually pop up across the country.
In 1970, Fr. Frank Mihalic, SVD created a newspaper in Papua New Guinea that’s still in publication to this day. Throughout the SVD’s history, publications and other means of communications helped spread and enrich the missionary message.
Today, Divine Word Missionaries serve in nearly 80 countries around the world.
In 1978, Fr. Michael Manning, SVD founded a non-profit corporation in California called Wordnet Productions in hopes of spreading the Word in another way – though the television ministry. Early programming focused on reflections and interviews by Fr. Mike himself. They were carried by Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). He added additional staff and programming through the years and by 2002, Fr. Soney Sebastian, SVD joined the group. Originally from India, Fr. Soney brought a wealth of knowledge and experience in communications. He had spent several years working at a media center in India before moving to Ireland to earn his master’s degree in social communication and then relocated to the United States. He started as an executive producer at Wordnet. “Our show was mainly preaching by (Fr.) Mike or sometimes we’d invite regular, ordinary people to share their faith experience,” Fr. Soney said. The programs were well received, so the Wordnet staff started looking for ways to grow and provide a wider variety of programs.
About three years after Fr. Soney’s arrival, a generous donation enabled Wordnet to purchase property in San Bernardino, California. A year later, the former car dealership was transformed into a television studio with a control room, editing space, audio recording capabilities, makeup room and offices.
In time, the programming expanded. Wordnet started producing short documentaries, developed a presence on social media and created a daily reflection based on the liturgy called iGod Today. They also developed an app and launched a Spanish version of the daily reflection. Fr. Mike passed away in 2016, but his legacy lives on in the success of the production company that he started.
About four years ago, Wordnet parted ways with TBN and started a round-the-clock streaming channel called Wordnet TV. Today, it’s available on the Wordnet website, as well as Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast and AndroidTV. In addition to the original content that the Wordnet team creates, the channel also features programs by a few other producers.
“Communication is at the core of our faith,” Fr. Soney said. “At the very beginning, you look at the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, the first word itself is the communication. When God said, ‘Let it be,’ that was the biggest communication and without that, there is no acceptance of anything at all.”
From the early days when Divine Word Missionaries went door to door selling printed materials to the digital age when anyone can access iGod Today on their smartphone, communication has come a long way. Still, the intent is the same – to share the Word of God.
“(Communication) is at the center of the whole universe, at the center of everything,” Fr. Soney said. “So, if you look at it, we are passing information to each other and sometimes even our silence is communication. So, without communicating with each other, there is no possibility at all.”
Sometimes when people discuss the four characteristic dimensions of the Society of the Divine Word, they rank communications as least among them. But Fr. Soney said Former Superior General Fr. Heinrich Kuluke, SVD always told him that it should be first because without communication, the others could not exist. “All of them encompass or use the means of communication,” Fr. Soney said. “You cannot get to one without the other. They complement and support each other.”
Not long ago, forms of mass communication like radio and television dominated, but now, Fr. Soney said social media has changed the landscape of how people receive information. Thanks in part to that shift, Wordnet’s reach is now worldwide.
Much like the early days of the Society of the Divine Word, Fr. Soney said the biggest challenge continues to be funding. Running a production company and keeping up with technology is costly, but through the generosity of a small group of benefactors, they continue their work with God’s grace.