Rome (Agenzia Fides) - The Congregation of the Verbite Missionaries (Society of the Divine Word, SVD), comprising priests and religious brothers, is committed to spreading the Gospel of Christ, the Son of God made man, in the world, and to promoting his reign of peace, justice and love. Founded by St. Arnold Janssen in 1875, in a short time the Congregation had a remarkable development, which brought its members, now more than 6,000, to Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa and America. Agenzia Fides the Secretary General for Formation and Education of the Word asked some questions to Fr. Pushpa Anbu Augustine, and to the Assistant General for the Formation and Education of the Verbite Brothers, Br. Carlos José Ferrada Monntero, on the reality of vocations of the verbite in Asia.
Can we give an overview of the situation of vocations in Asia?
Today Asia is the hub of SVD Vocations. There are 20 Provinces / Regions / Missions in Asia (ASPAC Zone) and the missionaries are present in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Timor Leste and Vietnam. Most of our vocations are from Indonesia and India. There are 396 students and 212 novices (15 brother novices) in formation from Indonesia, and 113 students and 40 novices (5 brother novices) from India. There are 62 students and 13 clerical novices in Vietnam and 54 students and 16 clerical novices from the Philippines. In all, therefore, there are currently 681 students and 283 (20 brother novices) in formation in Asia.
One of the unique features of SVD formation is that the students undergo common formation. Though most of the vocations come from Asia, they are open to serve anywhere in the SVD world in order to fulfill our missionary mandate, even if this entails leaving his own country, mother tongue and cultural milieu’.
In what context are SVD vocations born?
When the pioneering SVD missionaries came to Asia, they presented the Society as a missionary congregation and worked for the overall developments of the people. They proclaimed the Good News and stood for Gospel values. They sowed the seeds of the Word of God wherever the missionaries went. People witnessed to the committed service of the missionaries and gradually extended their helping hand. Zeal for the missions and interest to spread the Word of God is in the minds of young people. They respond willingly to God's call. When the missionaries came to frontier missions, they usually extended their service to the poor and the indigenous people. In gratitude, for all that these people received from the missionaries, some of the young people joined the missionaries to be religious.
The life of witness of SVD missionaries could be another factor: our missionaries live a simple lifestyle, serving in remote areas with commitment. When young people see such missionaries, they willingly join the congregation to be partners in the mission of God.
In the context of Asia, we find families are knit together. Certain amount of faith formation already take place in the families. Parents consider children as gift from God. Families insist on values and educate children with sense of responsibility to oneself and to others. They learn to choose their life freely and find meaning in it. Family support and encouragement enable them to continue their missionary service. There is so much of allurements in the world. Secularism, consumerism, utilitarianism have become walk of life for many. Yet, there is certain amount of religiosity that we find in Asia. In some parts of Asia, religious life is still an attraction. Of course, formation must sharpen their motivations and improve the quality of the life of our formees, who join the congregation willingly. Systematic vocation promotion is essential. Constant accompaniment and regular contacts are needed.
What drives, and what discourages, a young Asian to become a Verbite today?
SVD missionaries are always on the periphery, at the service of the last, the marginalized, and through their service "they put the last first". The service of the missionaries among the most underprivileged sections of the people, attract young persons to join the congregation and do likewise to uplift the poor and the marginalized.
The unique feature of SVD life anywhere in the world is intercultural living. In contrast to the world of individualism, cultural or national affiliations, our intercultural/ international communities become a powerful witness to values of universal brotherhood, inclusivism, and the acceptance of diversity as a gift of God and our way of life. The context of our global approach to formation with insistence on interculturality helps in the growth of vocation. Some of the young people get attracted to our way of life and join the Society.
There are important areas of mission that the SVD has outlined for all its members, these include: New Evangelization, Ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, Education and Research, and JPIC issues. When the young people see the SVD Missionaries engaged in these important areas of mission, they get attracted to SVD way of life.
In some parts of Asia, people are attracted to the beauty and the brilliance of Christian traditions. The ritualistic dimension of faith continues to attract vocations to religious life. People are more inclined towards what appeals to body and mind, festivals, popular devotions, clericalism, and dramatic liturgy. These aspects too, attract young people to become religious missionaries.
At the same time there are possible reasons that discourage them from joining the religious missionary life. The world changing trends like – globalization, secularization, migration, relativism, consumerism, and urbanization affect the mindset of the young people. Today they are overly attracted to social media, obsessed with post-modern tendencies. Undoubtedly, young people have a lot choices in life. They prefer to be economically sound and lead a comfortable life in any part of the world. Scandals caused by religious is another reason. Some of the students find the seminary formation too rigid and fail to reach the formation standards due to their attitudes and perspectives of life.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected vocational activity?
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a global impact and has affected every aspect of life. So also, the religious missionary vocation and formation. Some of the formation houses were able to continue their programs with restrictions, while others had to make a lot of changes and adjustments. Due to restrictions, vocation camps could not be held in many countries and the students could not be contacted personally. In some places, the formators were able to keep in touch with them, encouraging them to keep up the spiritual life and engage in some personal activities, such as social outreach programs and attended online classes. Certain amount of stress and anxiety crept into the minds of some of the students due to the fear of being infected, while a few were anxious about the members of the family too. Some of them were affected emotionally and psychologically. Sudden social distancing led to loneliness, psychological distrust, spiritual dryness and inner conflicts within them. Though the situation adversely affected vocation promotion and formation program, the Superior General and others were in touch with them, encouraging them. In spite of the pandemic, we were able to run the formation program to a great extent. The situation taught us to be creative and innovative in the formation programs. Due to restrictions, many of the activities are performed using modern technology / social media. It is the time that the religious too become active and make use of the modern technology for vocation promotion and other related activities. (SL) (Agenzia Fides, 24/4/2021)