Written by Fr. Mark Weber, SVD
The Society of the Divine Word (SVD) has a strong tradition of seeing education as an integral part of your missionary outreach. Our Founder, St. Arnold Janssen, was a math and science teacher with a deep appreciation for education. In South America, one of the earliest places missionaries were sent, the Divine Word Missionaries were offered mainly pastoral work.
The Founder, however, was not too interested in involvement in ordinary parish work. In 1894, he famously wrote to a superior in South America, “We can no longer save the world with sermons and liturgy alone.” He emphasized the establishment of schools as a means to give a solid basis to Christian life, training lay people who would be leaders in society.
In 1908, Arnold stated, “Education is one of the most important activities in the missions… this has been proved in the past… Those who receive a higher education are called to exercise a good influence on their contemporaries.” The Founder clearly saw education as an important aspect of missionary work—both for the betterment of the people, as well as to train teachers, catechists, and the future leaders of nations.
The Society of the Divine Word continues its mission of education and its commitment to schools, “where the word of God can be heard and its liberating power experienced in one’s personal and social life” (c.109.3). Some 11% of Divine Word Missionaries in perpetual vows are engaged in the educational apostolate throughout the world. I count around 130 middle, secondary, and tertiary schools established by and/or administered by the Society, including various agricultural, vocational, and technical schools. Most of these are in the Asia-Pacific Zone, followed by South America. Additionally, a good number of catechetical, missiological, theological, biblical, and language institutes are found throughout the world.
Other stories on the vocation office website include stories of Nanzan University in Japan and Fu Jen University in Taiwan; there are also two SVD universities in the Philippines, one in Papua New Guinea, and one in Indonesia. Of course, this number does not include countless parish elementary schools, nor does it include seminaries or educational entities that are solely for the formation of SVD candidates. In addition, there are many missionaries who teach at or administer non-SVD schools.
Our educators integrate not only gospel values aimed at building up the Reign of God, but also our SVD vision of mission as prophetic dialogue—inculcating in the students a respect for those who are of other cultures, races, and religions. A strong sense of solidarity with the poor is also an integral part of their education, with schools having various outreach projects as part of the students’ educational experience. SVD schools often try to integrate the four “characteristic dimensions” of the Society into the curriculum and extra-curricular experiences of the students—a sense of mission, a rootedness in the Bible, learning skills for communicating the Good News, and a commitment to justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. Just as we consider these characteristic dimensions to be “family traits” of the SVD, so do our educators pass on those traits to the staff and students of our schools.
I was privileged to meet with many of my fellow Divine Word Missionaries in the educational apostolate around the world during my six years as General Secretary for Formation and Education. Their commitment to their students, to excellence in education, and to high professional standards are commendable. They not only strive to offer great educational opportunities within the context and structures of their particular country, but they also try to create alternative models of education, especially for those who find it difficult to participate in traditional classroom education due to extreme poverty, discrimination, or social marginalization. They are committed to bringing an authentic SVD flavor to their schools, and form genuine partnerships with the laity, Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit (SSpS Sisters), and others involved in teaching and administration. May the vision of St. Arnold continue to guide them and inspire their efforts!
Mark Weber, a farm boy native of Dyersville, Iowa, entered formation just down the road at Divine Word College in Epworth in 1972. His perpetual vows and ordination were in 1982, and he spent 7 years as a missionary in Ghana. Upon his return to the USA, he served as a justice and peace coordinator, formator, provincial, and parish priest before being asked to be the General Secretary for Formation and Education for six years. He currently is a recycled rector and formator at Divine Word Theologate in Chicago.