Close to the Gospel, close to the people

Kulüke,_Sup_Gen_Heinz_news_websiteAn interview with Superior General Heinz Kulüke SVD

Divine Word Superior General Heinz Kulüke spoke with Chicago Province Public and Media Relations Director Theresa Carson about his travels, his goals as the worldwide leader of the Society of the Divine Word, and the state of the Roman Catholic Church. During the past three years, he has visited 60 of the 78 countries in which Divine Word Missionaries serve.

Thank you for making time for an interview during this busy trip. You must have started your travels at the beginning of your tenure.

I did. I took office in 2012, Sept. 29. Since then, I’ve been traveling. I started in northern Italy and a week later went to Poland. Then the first steps to Africa, these are the countries that needed our visits most, particularly countries like Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Sudan because it was a very difficult situation.

Now it’s been 60 countries that I visited. We are working in 78 now, so another 18 to go. My plan is to finish around August next year. Then we have two years to plan for the General Chapter—to align things that we saw have to be aligned.

Speaking of alignment, since its beginnings, the Society of the Divine Word has focused on many of the issues that Pope Francis emphasizes. If there was a project or an issue in which you could partner with the Holy Father, what would it be?

Basically, I think the message is very simple. We belong to the same Church; the Holy Father gives the key or direction—to be closer to the Gospel. That’s where we as Divine Word Missionaries have always wanted to live, close to the Gospel. It is a confirmation of what we have been doing. If you talk about alignment that is exactly what we have been doing. So the Holy Father confirms and pushes us even faster.


Faster. To go back to those who are most in need. The Society of the Divine Word is known for working with those in need. We’re really close to those at the margins.

That is why I think the Holy Father is pushing us to move even faster. The key concern that I have is formation. Young confreres have to be prepared. In that context, I was very happy to see what I saw here. The formation program that we have here in the Chicago Province is surely one of the best programs that we have in the Society.

What makes it so?

It’s what I experienced yesterday afternoon, talking with our young confreres. Many of them have come back from what we call CTP, the Cross-Cultural Training Program.

They shared their experiences. I had met some of them in their respective fields. I met one in Bolivia, the other one in Chad—very difficult missions. They were really struggling, being sick, in difficult situations, no water, suffering together with the people. At the same time, they immediately asked, "When I get my assignment, can I go back?" By all means, they want to go back.

Many of the younger students shared how they got involved in different social apostolates in the province: prison ministry, retirement facilities, working in parishes, serving in shelters, serving food in different places, all sorts of different social apostolates.

They get in touch with the people, meaning basically that they are close to the people, journeying with the people. The people become our formators. The people tell us what they really need.

For the academic formation, I visited Catholic Theological Union. I talked with the president, Viatorian Father Mark Francis. We have the same orientation, creating social awareness among the students. It’s a good academic formation, particularly in the field of theology.

There is an add-on factor, and that is the international formation group. People come from all over the world. That is exactly the SVD way of working worldwide, and it is a good preparation so that when missionaries go to the field and live in international communities, they have previous experience.

In your travels, what have you seen in regards to Catholic culture in other countries that can enlighten Catholics in North America?

For Catholics in general, I think it’s to be very open-minded. We have to be open. The Holy Father says we should be open to the God of surprises. Let God surprise us.

Is it a concept that had crossed your mind before Pope Francis said it in that way?

Yes, I was working in the Philippines, as you might know, for 27 years in different slum communities. I also was doing academic work, teaching at the university [to which I was assigned]. We call that concept an ethics of obedience.

Religious are known for taking vows and giving instructions that people follow, but a paradigm shift was presented by a moral theologian named Bernhard Häring, a Redemptorist.

He talked about a paradigm shift from an ethics of obedience to an ethics of responsibility. So the question is simply how much responsibility do our confreres have? Can we take more responsibility?

In that context, we realize that we have a huge number of confreres who have a huge amount of responsibility. Also if you look at it from the worldwide angle, we have a huge amount of responsibility for people at the margins in a very particular way.

In that context, that idea has crossed my mind many times. In the Philippines, we take responsibility for young people who are being exploited in red light districts; young girls, even boys, who have become victims of human trafficking; people living in garbage dumps or people living in the streets, impoverished fishing villages, and farming villages.

In the university, we are educating our people to take more responsibility. The students are not only engineers, not only nurses. They are people who are taking responsibility for the suffering sectors of society.

Earlier you mentioned that after the General Chapter in 2012, the provinces received ten focal points from which they could choose a few. All 60 provinces chose family and youth as one of their focuses. Why do you think they all chose that focus? Why is it such an important component of mission?

Yes, all 60 provinces chose family and youth. A year later, the official Church announced the Year of the Family, so we were really a year ahead. It just shows that we are close to the people.

The family is simply the smallest unit of any society. If the families are functioning in society, then the world society will function well. If the families are not functioning, then we have a problem.

That is exactly what’s happening worldwide. With globalization, individualism, secularism, families are divided. Families break up and then it destroys society.

For religious, it’s equally important. The smallest form of community that you find in parishes is families. If you have good families, then you have good vocations. Many families are divided. We are trying to help to bring people together again, to experience the value of community, living together, doing things together instead of alone.

If people do not have a foundation in the healing and healthy environment of a family, then we see the problems that we are facing. Terrorism is one of them. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. Nobody’s exempt. People need community.

In regards to community, to what do you attribute the steadiness of the number of Divine Word Missionaries, especially compared with other large congregations?

I believe that the reason we are so stable in number is our internationality and interculturality. We are surely the most international congregation when it comes to membership.

Other congregations, realizing that they do not have many vocations in Europe or in the Americas, are trying now to find vocations in other zones. It is very difficult if you are not there from the beginning.

Our congregation was designed by the founder from the very beginning to be international and intercultural. That is the reason we have vocations aplenty.

Internationally in six years, we gave first assignments to 757 new confreres. There are very few congregations that have so many new members. It’s a blessing. And yet it’s not enough. We need more. We have 6,000 members, but we have work for 12,000.

Can you give an example of how the needs have grown?

Kenya is a good example. I saw pictures from 25 years ago in Nairobi. A confrere is celebrating Mass with 16 people under a tree. If you go to the same parish today, they have 3,000 people every weekend coming for Mass. They have their own health services.

They have everything you can imagine from feeding programs to everything to address the needs of those that are not that well off in the parish. We always start small. Saint Arnold Janssen worked in this context. Something what becomes big must start small.

Is there anything that you especially want Catholics in North America to know about the Society of the Divine Word?

Many people do not know that we are the biggest religious order in Russia and what our brothers and priests are doing in very difficult places like Chad, South Sudan, Madagascar and Mozambique.

In general, people should not give up on the Church. There are lots of good things happening. We are aligning our forces [as a religious congregation of brothers and priests] in order to go back to what we are supposed to be: a Church that’s close to the Gospel, following the instructions of the Master.

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