Antonio M. Pernia, SVD - (Superior General)
International Religious Communities in a Multicultural World

(The Experience of Internationality in the SVD)

I have been asked to share the experience of internationality in our congregation, the Society of the Divine Word (SVD). I would like to so in three parts: First, I would like to mention a few assumptions about internationality in religious congregations; secondly, I will then share how internationality is experienced in our congregation; then thirdly, I will end with a few thoughts about what the mission might be of international religious congregations in our increasingly multicultural world.

A. Some Assumptions on Internationality in religious congregations

(1) In the first place, internationality, fundamentally, has to do with the cultural diversity of the origin of the members of religious congregations. Exactly how many nationalities make for true internationality or what is the minimum number of nationalities which allows for internationality — these, of course, are open questions. Perhaps more important than the number of nationalities is the diversity of nationalities. Five nationalities from four continents may be more challenging than ten nationalities from just one continent.

(2) Secondly, there are, obviously, several types or styles of internationality. Often this depends on the way congregations are organized and on the norms and practices that govern their life and mission. For instance, one congregation may be international in membership worldwide but culturally homogeneous in membership on the province or community level. Another congregation may be international in its membership both on the worldwide level and on the province or community level.

(3) Thirdly, the motivations for internationality may also vary. For instance, we can speak of internationality by choice, by chance or by force. By choice — when internationality is an integral element of a congregation’s charism and is actively promoted in its norms and practices. By chance — when, for instance a mission congregation with members from only one nationality is asked to take care of a local diocesan congregation and eventually some local vocations ask to be admitted to it. And by force — when a congregation heretofore culturally homogeneous in membership is forced to admit local vocations from a mission country due to the lack of vocations in the home country.

(4) Fourthly, true internationality is achieved not just by putting together under one roof members of different nationalities. An effort must be made toward a genuine integration of cultures, whereby different cultures truly complement each other and cultural differences do not hinder but enrich community life and apostolic service. Like any community, an international community does not come automatically. It needs to be consciously created, intentionally promoted, carefully cared for and attentively nurtured.

(5) Fifthly, genuine internationality needs a local base, that is, members belonging to the culture of the place. Without a local base, a community of religious from various nationalities would remain a completely foreign presence in the country or mission area. A local base is a good reminder of the need for inculturation and links the community to the complex realities of the local church and the local community.

(6) Sixthly, it seems advisable to avoid a situation whereby a community is limited or reduced to having only very few (e.g., two or three) nationalities. Polarization can easily arise if a community is made up of only a few identifiable national or cultural groups. Controversial issues can divide the community according to national or cultural lines. Personal differences can be interpreted as cultural differences in such a way that a controversy between two individual members become an issue that divides the entire community.

(7) Seventh, true internationality will have an impact on community structures, religious lifestyle, methods of work, systems of government. Indeed, if an international community is to survive, it will require a deepened spirituality. Internationality is not achieved by simply bringing, for instance, Asian members to staff European houses without any corresponding change in structures, lifestyles and methods of work. That would be like simply putting Asian rice in a European bread basket. Eventually the grains of rice will fall out.

(8) Finally, internationality calls for a specific program of formation. Young members need to be trained in the attitudes and skills required for living in international communities and working in multicultural teams. But also the so-called receiving provinces or communities need to be prepared to accept confreres or sisters from another culture. Especially the older provinces or communities need to realize that they are not necessarily the only or even the best expression of the charism of the congregation.

I guess many more things that can be said about internationality in religious congregations. But I believe these eight assumptions are enough for us to proceed further in this sharing.

B. Internationality in the SVD

When it comes to the experience of internationality in the SVD, I believe it is possible to discern three stages: (1) Early openness to internationality, (2) Internationality as Geographic Expansion (3) Internationality as Interaction between cultures.

1. Early openness to Internationality

Our Founder was a German priest by the name of Arnold Janssen. As you may have heard, he was canonized last 5 October, 2003 along with another member of the congregation, Joseph Freinademetz, who was a missionary to China, and Bishop Daniel Comboni, founder of the Comboni missionaries. As a young priest Arnold Janssen was involved in the apostleship of prayer and this eventually led him to develop an interest in the foreign missions or mission ad gentes. He soon noticed that while the other Catholic countries of Europe like Italy, France, Spain, had their own mission seminaries, Germany did not have any. He sought to convince others — Bishops and priests — to take up the idea of founding a mission seminary for Germany. When he found no one to do so, he reluctantly decided to found one himself. Because of the religious persecution arising from Bismarck’s Kulturkampf at this time, he was unable to start his project in Germany, but had to cross the border to the small town of Steyl in Holland.

In the months of preparation for the foundation of his mission seminary, Arnold Janssen began referring to his plan as a plan for a German-Dutch-Austrian Mission House to which he hoped representatives from different nations would belong. Because of this, he thought at first of Rome as the place for its headquarters so as to avoid nationalistic conflicts and tensions. As it turned out, he was unable to start in Rome and did so instead in Steyl, Holland. The first community which began in Steyl was a group of four persons from three different nationalities: two Germans, one Austrian and one from Luxembourg.

Soon afterwards, when Arnold Janssen started the official gazette of the fledgling Society, he gave it a Latin name. Thinking of the future internationality of the Society, the Founder remarked: Finally the possibility came to my mind that later, perhaps, the Society will recruit priests from places where German is not spoken. Maybe later it will be necessary to replace German with Latin in the text.

Another characteristic of Arnold Janssen which favoured internationality was his appreciation of the culture of the people as a necessary precondition for genuine evangelization. A few months after the opening of the mission seminary in Steyl, Arnold and his first companions found themselves disagreeing over the goals and purpose of the newly born community. Two companions left him after a few months. But he was able to agree with the third companion regarding the regulations for the house and for their life as a religious community, as well as the inclusion of academic sciences in the training of future missionaries. [1]  From the very beginning Arnold Janssen placed great value on the study of peoples and cultures in the preparation of missionaries. His insistence on the importance of the study of ethnology, anthropology and linguistics encouraged a later disciple, Wilhelm Schmidt to found the Anthropos Institute in 1931 in Germany.

2. Internationality as Geographic Expansion

In the light of this fundamental openness of the Founder to internationality, it is easy to understand the extremely rapid growth of the Society around the world. Within a relatively short time, the Society was able to establish itself in several countries in all five continents. The mere expansion to so many countries is noteworthy in itself. But even more noteworthy is the fact that wherever it established itself, the Society soon accepted members from the indigenous population. Although there was caution at the outset in some cases, the basic openness to internationality implanted by the Founder in the Society made this not just possible but also rather natural. Thus, by the time the Society celebrated its 85th year in 1960, the Society could count 35 nationalities in its ranks.

Another element which needs to be noted is the practice of sending international teams to the mission, i.e., assigning confreres of different nationalities to work in the same mission territory. This practice began with the very first team of missionaries sent out by the Founder, John Anzer, a German, and Joseph Freinademetz, a Tyrolese (Austrian), missioned in 1878 to China. This practice continued to be cultivated in the history of the Society and has led to the establishment of provinces and regions with an international composition. Thus, it is not rare that a province or region of the Society would be made up confreres belonging to 5, 10, 15, 20 or more nationalities.

At this time, of course, internationality was nothing more than just geographic expansion or the presence of the Society in several countries in the world, and the consequent presence in the Society of several nationalities. Thus, the Society was international only in the same sense as the Church was universal for being present in almost all countries in the world. But such a presence was basically the presence of a Euro-centric Church and of a Euro-centric SVD. As Karl Rahner once noted, the Church was like an international firm exporting to Asia and Africa, via its American agents, a fundamentally European religion. [2]  In a similar manner, in whatever country we worked, the SVD was present as a European (German) religious missionary congregation. What was done in Europe or Germany was repeated or imitated in Argentina, Papua New Guinea or India.

We SVDs, like many other Institutes, were international by geography but Euro-centric in culture and formation. Doing the novitiate in Japan or Chile did not make much of a difference. Studying theology in Buenos Aires or Bombay was about the same thing. One studied the same subjects and consulted the same authors. The prayers followed the same so-called universal methods, and everywhere the same norms of religious life applied.... [3]

At this time, then, what was at work was a certain centralized uniformity rather than genuine internationality. While this gave a strong sense of unity to the Society, it also did not take into account the particular richness of each specific culture. Only one kind of SVD was being created, and obviously only one way of living the religious life and doing missionary work. Indeed, one had the feeling that in order to an SVD one had to give up being an Indonesian, Japanese, Brazilian or African and become European.

3. Internationality as Interaction between Cultures

This situation began to change with the coming of Vatican II and its positive evaluation of the culture, history and socio-economic contexts of peoples and nations. Theology began speaking of inculturation and the building up of the local Church. There was no longer just one way of being Church or being Christian in the world. There are as many modalities as there are cultures. Similarly, in the SVD, the insight began to develop that there was not just one way of being SVD and that the charism of the Founder could find different expressions among the various cultures of different peoples. Like the Gospel, the original charism of the Society not only could enrich but also be enriched by the cultures in which it incarnates itself. This led to a situation whereby the Society came to be seen as being composed no longer of members from different nationalities all learning the one SVD culture but of members from different nationalities sharing the richness of their cultural diversity. Gradually the SVD became not just the home of one culture but the place for the interaction of various cultures.

Two developments in recent years served to sharpen all the more the multiculturality of the SVD. The first was when what used to be Amission-receiving@ provinces and regions began to regularly send missionaries to other parts of the world. This turn of events took place among the main Asian provinces in the mid-1980s. This has led to a situation whereby there are now about 450 Asian SVD missionaries working outside their own countries in Africa, the Americas, Europe, and other parts of Asia. Likewise, although fewer in number, African and Latin American SVD missionaries are now working outside their own countries and continents. This phenomenon has certainly given colour to what heretofore has been a white man’s domain.

The second development is what we in the SVD call the Roscommon Consensus, that is, the statement of the provincial superiors of the European zone gathered in Roscommon (Ireland) in 1990 which declared secularized Europe to be also a mission territory analogous to the mission situations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Thus, it was declared that Europe had also the right to ask for and receive missionaries from elsewhere. A practical consequence of this was that the older European provinces, which used to received first assignments only from its own formation houses, were now receiving missionaries from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Thus, multiculturality has become a characteristic of even the formerly largely homogeneous provinces of Europe.

And so it is that the picture of the Society now has radically changed from that of 1960. There are now about 65 nationalities in the Society (compared to 35), and the biggest group now are the Indonesians who make up almost 25% of the total membership. They are followed by the Indians and the Poles. The Germans now come in fourth place and comprise only 9.45% of the total.

Summarizing what has been said about the experience of internationality in the SVD, I think the following five points can be made:

(1) We consider internationality as an essential element of our charism and thus also a fundamental feature of our identity as a congregation. The idea is enshrined in our constitutions and is considered a value which is to be sought after and actively promoted in all our communities.

(2) Our highly centralized system of governance fosters the promotion of internationality. Despite some steps taken recently toward decentralization, the distribution of personnel and finances has remained in the hands of the central administration. First assignments are given by the superior general and his council. Likewise transfers from one province to another are made by the general administration. And both first assignments and transfers are usually done according to the principle of relative internationality.

(3) Some programs of formation for internationality have been developed in the course of time. The Overseas Training Program (or Cross-cultural Training Program) allows students to spend two to three years working or studying in a culture other than their own. Common Formation Centres or International Formation Houses with an international staff is another attempt. The Exchange Student Program is an even older practice.

(4) There are, of course, some places that have become Aimpervious, so to speak, to internationality — largely due to government restrictions. Examples are India and Indonesia. In these cases, we try to give first assignments outside the country to as many as possible, in the hope that some of them would return to their home countries and share their international experience with the rest of the confreres.

(5) We also have an international renewal programme in Nemi where those who never had any exposure to the foreign mission can have an experience of internationality.

C. Mission in the Context of Multiculturality

I think part of the reason why internationality in religious congregations has become a special topic of reflection and discussion today is the fact our world today is itself becoming more and more multicultural.

Indeed, along with globalization and international migration, multiculturality is another inescapable reality of our world today. While globalization and international migration mutually impact on each other, together they make our world more and more multicultural. As a result, people of different cultures not only are in much closer contact today, oftentimes they are forced to live alongside each other. Many of our world’s cities today are inhabited by widely diverse cultural groups. Globalization, international migration and multiculturality are changing the face of our cities. For societies that have heretofore been ethnically homogeneous, this can be very traumatic.

It is clear that an increasingly multicultural world poses a special missionary challenge to international religious missionary congregations. In discerning about how to respond to this challenge, the first thought might be about what we can do to minister to the people who are affected by globalization or migration. One response would be to organize a special ministry to migrants, refugees or displaced people. Such a ministry will naturally embrace several dimensions which will attempt to address the vastly complicated needs of people on the move, e.g., needs in the socio-economic-political, the social-psychological, the religious-pastoral areas. Another response would be to engage in related ministries like urban ministry (since most migrants and refugees are found in the cities), ministry among women (since women make up the bulk of migrants and often have to carry the heaviest consequences of migration), interfaith and ecumenical dialogue (since migration brings together not only people of different cultures but also invariably people of different religions).

But aside from the challenge of what the Church, through religious missionary congregations, can do for migrants and refugees, there is also the challenge of what the Church can be or ought to be for people on the move or for our increasingly multicultural world. And this challenge is for the Church to become itself a multicultural Church, or the challenge for the Church to be: (1) a home for people of different cultures, (2) an instrument of intercultural dialogue, and (3) a sign of the all-inclusiveness of the Kingdom of God.

1. Home for people of different cultures

A multicultural Church will be seen by strangers and foreigners not just as a more tolerant but also a more welcoming Church. And for the Church to be more welcoming, three elements are essential [4] , namely, that it be a Church that (1) fosters the recognition of other cultures (i.e., allows the culture of migrants, strangers or foreigners to be visible in the community), (2) encourages respect for cultural difference (i.e., avoids any attempt to level off cultural differences by subsuming the minority cultures into the dominant culture), and (3) promotes a healthy interaction between cultures (i.e., seeks to create a climate whereby each culture allows itself to be transformed or enriched by the other). With these characteristics, a multicultural Church will be a community where people of various cultures will feel they belong.

2. Instrument of intercultural dialogue

A truly multicultural Church, however, cannot limit itself to just caring for those who belong to its community, i.e., migrants, strangers or foreigners who are Christians or Catholics. A truly multicultural Church must also look beyond itself and minister to non-Christian migrants, refugees and displaced people by being an instrument of intercultural dialogue in the larger society. It must work towards creating in the larger human community the conditions whereby the three elements mentioned above can be realized, i.e., recognition of other cultures, respect for cultural difference, and healthy interaction between cultures. Often this will mean undertaking a wider ministry to migrants or refugees, making its voice heard in regard to immigration laws, or taking a stand in regard to the rights of migrant workers. But at all times this will mean promoting genuine dialogue among people of various cultures.

3. Sign of the all-inclusiveness of God’s Kingdom

A Church that fosters genuine interculturality within itself and promotes intercultural dialogue outside itself will be a truly credible sign of the all-inclusiveness of the Kingdom of God. It will be witness to the universality and openness to diversity of God’s Kingdom. Such a witness is especially needed in the age of globalization. For globalization tends on the one hand to exclude and marginalize the poor and the weak and on the other hand to create a uniformity which eliminates all differences. [5]  A multicultural Church will be a proclamation that the Kingdom includes everyone and excludes no one, and that in it there are no strangers or foreigners but only brothers and sisters. It will be an image of a universal gathering of all peoples about which the prophet Isaiah speaks: Thus says the Lord: “I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory” (Is 66:18).

I believe international religious missionary congregations are called today to help promote a truly multicultural Church. With the experience of internationality and multiculturality in their own ranks, their members would be well positioned to help create genuine dialogue and interaction between people of various cultures in society. Moreover, their vocation as religious places them at the service of God’s Kingdom. For in the Church, by their profession of the evangelical counsels, religious are the official witnesses to the Kingdom of God.


John Paul II, in his apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Inuente (n. 43), states: To make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God's plan and respond to the world's deepest yearnings. In the context of a multicultural world, I believe that to make the Church a Aschool of communion is to make the Church multicultural and thus allow it to become a home for people of different cultures, an instrument of intercultural dialogue, and a sign of the all-inclusiveness of the Kingdom of God.

With its experience of internationality, international religious congregations play a special role in making the Church a home and school of communion in the context of a multicultural world. The document from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Starting Afresh From Christ (n. 18), says the following:

Institutes of Consecrated Life are increasingly characterized by cultural, age and project differences. Formation should prepare for community dialogue in the cordiality and charity of Christ, teaching to see diversity as richness and to integrate the various ways of seeing and feeling. Thus the constant search for unity in charity will become a school of communion for Christian communities and an example of people living together in communion.

I do not wish, however, to idealize internationality. Unfortunately, there is no time to reflect on some of the problems and difficulties which result from internationality. I do wish to downplay these problems and difficulties. Because there are not a few and they are real ones. In the end, however, it can be said that diversity and internationality is gift rather than a threat. I once had a conversation with a Holy Spirit missionary sister, an Asian working in Angola. She narrated to me the difficulties she encountered not only in adapting to the African situation but also in working in a team of sisters coming from different nationalities and cultures. At a certain point, she said: talk about internationality is great, but the reality of internationality can often be heartbreaking. In the end, though, she said she was going back to her mission because she had grown more from internationality than she had suffered from it.

During the years of the debate about sustainable development and appropriate technology, it used to be said that Asmall is beautiful. Today, I think we can say: diverse is beautiful, that is, of course, if diversity is handled properly and made to serve rather than impede communion. Then we can even say: Adiverse is divine, for diversity is a characteristic of the one and triune God Himself. Thank you!


1. Stefan Üblackner, Arnold Janssen: Serving the Universal Church. Short Biography for the canonization. Trans. by Jacqueline Mulberge. (Città di Castello: GESP, 2003), p. 28.

2. The imagery comes from Karl Rahner, “Towards a Fundamental Theological Interpretation of Vatican II”, Theological Studies 40 (1979), pp. 716-722.

3. Carlos Pape, “Esperienza di internazionalità nella Congregazione del Verbo Divino”, Il Verbo nel Mondo 2001-2002, (Steyl: Editrice Steyl, 2000), p. 11.

4. Cf. Robert Schreiter, Ministry for a Multicultural Church (, Articles in English).

5. Cf. SVD, “XV General Chapter Statement”, In Dialogue with the Word, No. 1, Sept 2000, nos. 48-51.


Ref.: Antonio Pernia, SVD. Testo presentato per la Conferenza di SEDOS (13 febbraio 2004).