|Fr. Robert Kisala, SVD
A graduate of DWC, Fr. Kisala has risen to the highest levels of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) and today is one of the six men who make up the order’s general council in Rome. Fr. Tim Lenchak, SVD—who was rector of the SVD house in Rome before becoming president of DWC a year ago—invited him to return to his alma mater to share some of his experiences.
"When Tim asked me to come, he asked about three different talks," Fr. Kisala said. He took an academic approach for faculty. For staff, he would talk more about the global SVD. "And with the students, it would be more of a vocational talk and my own personal history in the SVD."
And his personal history is a rich one.
Born in Chicago, he graduated from DWC in 1978, took final vows in 1984 and was ordained in 1985. But in between times, right after his graduation, he took advantage of a program that sent him to Japan to spend two years teaching English in an SVD high school. Based on that experience, his first choice for assignment after ordination was Japan, which was granted.
He studied Sociology of Religion at the University of Tokyo, where he received his PhD in 1994 and went on to teach at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan. In 1999, Fr. Kisala was named vice provincial of the Japan Province and in 2004 he became Provincial. He served in that capacity until 2006, when he was elected to a six-year term as a member of the General Council of the Society of the Divine Word.
"It was not something I expected. It’s an honor," he said. Much of the job is attending meetings and reading reports—the necessary administrative work that keeps the largest missionary order in the world operating. But there are also times when he can get out of the office. Members of the council regularly visit the many SVD provinces around the world. These trips happen twice a year and last about six weeks.
"It’s a chance to meet the members individually and as smaller groups or communities, to become familiar with the work that they are doing," Fr. Kisala said. "It’s my favorite part of the job."
One particular visit sticks out in his mind. He had traveled to Papua New Guinea where conflicts among the more than 700 different tribal groups can turn violent. Many years previously, a large mission station containing more than 100 buildings—including a hospital, school buildings, living quarters, and many others—was burned to the ground during a violent episode. The only thing left standing was a water tank. As the missionary there surveyed the destruction, a local man came up to him and pointed out that, obviously, the missionary would have to start all over.
"No," said the missionary, "If you want a church here, you will have to build it yourself."
When asked where he would stay during this time, the missionary pointed to the water tank.
Fast forward 15 or 20 years, when Fr. Kisala made his visit. The missionary had long since been replaced by perhaps three or four successors who continued to live in the water tower, and the church had finally been rebuilt by the people.
"That story so impressed me," Fr. Kisala said. "First by the work that we’d done, beginning with building this huge mission station to help people and when it was destroyed, then moving into saying, ‘No, we need to empower the people to do it themselves.’ And it was done."
Reflections on DWC
Fr. Kisala’s returned to DWC was an eye opener as he was struck by the increased diversity of the college and the improved atmosphere it creates. At lunch one day, he sat with someone from China, another from Vietnam and another who was born in California but whose parents were from Nicaragua.
"This is what SVDs are about. My experience going to different places in the world, this is what people are talking about when they are talking about the SVDs—that they come from so many different places," he said. "I think it is just amazing how God has blessed our work here, especially in the United States in terms of the vocations throughout the years, and the contributions that’s made to mission throughout the world."