By Theresa Carson
“People welcome the missionaries, show understanding and are patient,” said Father General Paulus Budi Kleden SVD, superior general of the Society of the Divine Word, during a recent visit to Chicago.
“People tell me how grateful they are for missionaries who listen, are present and show what it means to be a synodal Church—journeying together as companions,” said Father General Kleden, who served in Switzerland and Indonesia before his election to the General Council in Rome in 2012. “It is not easy being a missionary, but they [the people] animate our members.”
This trip marks his fourth time in the American Midwest in the last 12 years since he has been in the general administration of the Society of the Divine Word. His world travels are an opportunity to meet members of the Society of the Divine Word and the people whom they serve. During his travels, he said he sees firsthand how much the people appreciate being able to have the missionaries as their companion on the journey, sharing joys and challenges of life with them.
And he appreciates the opportunity to meet the people with whom Divine Word Missionaries work and build community.
During his travels, he has met with migrants in Europe, Central America and South America. Last August, he visited Chiapas, Mexico. On another trip, he had an opportunity to meet Venezuelan migrants in Ecuador.
He stressed that the context and culture of each place and its people inform the work that the Divine Word Missionaries take into consideration.
“Once a country becomes developed then we, as a Church, can move towards advocacy—defending and helping people understanding their rights,” he said. “For example, we advocate for protection of the environment in places like Brazil, Indonesia and the Philippines.”
Father General Kleden, the 12th superior general in the Society of the Divine Word’s 148-year history, was born in Indonesia, joined the religious congregation in 1985, professed vows in 1987 and was ordained a priest in 1993.
He studied theology in St. Gabriel Mission House in Maria Enzersdorf, Austria, a small city southwest of Vienna, and pursued his doctorate in Freiburg, Germany. In 2001, he returned to Ledalero, Indonesia, as a professor of theology. After six years as a general councilor, he was elected to a six-year term as superior general in 2018.
As a superior general, he is a member of the Union of the Superiors General (USG). Once every two years, Father General Kleden and superiors general of other religious congregations meet with Pope Francis.
“The pope puts a lot of hope and trust in religious life,” Father General Kleden said. “Priests, brothers and sisters in religious orders take this vocation seriously. Being a religious [order priest], he knows that very well.”
When asked about the last meeting, Father General Kleden said that Pope Francis calls us to “be a more listening Church, humble enough to work with the people. He puts hope and trust in the religious congregations.”
During the meeting, the pope also spoke of giving “space to women to play a greater role in the Church,” he said.
Father General Kleden echoed that sentiment when recalling an event at which the pope gathered 250 superiors general of the female and male congregations. Father General Kleden called the event, a “beautiful picture of journeying as men and women, sharing challenges, stressing the importance of working together.”
He expounded upon the state of missionary work worldwide.
“As Christians, we are doing a lot in this world. In many places, education and healthcare cannot be thought of without the Church,” he said and gave the islands of Timor and Flores in Indonesia as examples.
“Without the Church, these two places would be very different. Now, the government is in a position to do many things, but before that, it was the Church that fulfilled basic human needs.”
When asked about the greatest needs around the world, he said, “In general, everywhere, people need to be respected. The concrete forms that respect takes can be different, but the need is the same. The Society of the Divine Word shows respect by providing education and social services when communities express the need.”
For example, last summer, he spent time in Cuba and said that the Cuban people realize that the missionaries could be elsewhere in better living conditions, but they stay.
“It is a very difficult situation there. The people struggle to get food and medicine. I was touched to see how SVDs and Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters stay there to show solidarity with the people. That mission of presence speaks volumes,” he said.
He concluded with an uplifting message: “Advent is a time when we reflect a lot on light and hope,” Father General Kleden said. “For me, that is the message—hope and to not let ourselves be devoid of hope. Continue to keep the hope. There are a lot of problems that we cannot solve, that we cannot answer, but other situations where we do make progress. Name the dark side but do not fix our attention on that. See the light in us, through us and through others.”