The simplicity of our beginnings

Author: Antonio Pernia, SVD
Subject: SVD History
Language: English, Spanish
Publisher: Arnoldus Nota – September
Year: 2010

Let me yield this space to the main portion of the Founder’s Inaugural Sermon at the opening of the Mission House in Steyl on September 8,1875 as published in Analecta 63 (pp. 150-153). Prelate Dr. von Essen, the pastor at Neuwerk, sang the solemn high mass at the village church in Steyl. After the gospel, the Founder preached what was considered to be an “excessively long sermon”. At the silver jubilee celebration of the Society in 1900, the Founder had a shortened version of his inaugural sermon printed in the jubilee book, wishing in this way to preach once more the sermon he gave 25 years earlier. Today let us hear him preach the sermon again to us:

It is indeed a unique and rare occasion that has brought such a numerous crowd in celebration around the altar of the Lord. The occasion is the beginning of a sacred undertaking, one consecrated to God, which, even if its goal will be only halfway attained, cannot but become a source of salvation and blessing for many thousands. The foundation has been laid quite close to this church of God, and today, the most holy Feast of the Birthday of Mary, is the festive day when that undertaking too will be born, when the house acquired precisely for that undertaking will be dedicated to its sacred purpose with the blessing of the Church.

What will come of this mission seminary we do not yet know; goals are not always reached that one aims for. Still it can lay claim to your participation, for it is founded with the blessing and approval of so many bishops and it is for such a noble, exalted and sublime purpose. Should I today not direct your eyes to that goal and explain to you what it is we are striving for? Then I must speak to you about the noble, sublime mission activity of the Church, for the purpose of this house is nothing else than to help proclaim the Gospel among the peoples who do not know God at all or not in the right way; to attract young men for this task and to send them out as trained missionaries.

But, someone may think, is it really necessary? Isn’t there enough work to do in the home country? Why go to distant lands?

For this reason I need to show you the necessity of our undertaking and I must guide you therefore to distant places, indeed, guide you over the whole earth and show you what the situation is. The whole world is the vineyard of the Lord and we wish to train and send workers into the vineyard, indeed, to send them to its most distant and most neglected parts where practically only wild vines grow that bear no grapes and where everything is thoroughly overgrown with brambles, thistles and useless climbing plants. Of course, these workers must first volunteer, and so I wish to join my words to the challenge of our Divine Saviour: “The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers to his harvest” (Mt 9,37).

I would like to show you: 1. What the vineyard of the Lord is and how desperate is the situation in it so that every help is very welcome; 2. Why is it so desperate; 3. I would then like to add a few words about our undertaking.

[The preacher went on to explain that the whole human race forms the vineyard of the Lord. There are about 1500 million people on the earth. Of these 210-220 million are Catholics (in Europe 150 million, in America 50 million, in Africa 5 million, in Asia less than 9 million, and in Australia less than half a million). Protestants and Orthodox are about as numerous, and Moslems almost the same. This gives a total of 500-660 million, while the greater part, about 800-900 million, are still pagans who do not recognize God as creator of the world nor pray to him. This is to judge only from externals since all are counted as Catholics whose names appear in the baptismal register.]

The Lord God had arranged that Christianity could easily spread over the whole world. Christ was born at the centre point of the then known world. From there he wished to spread his divine message in all directions through his apostles. But human perversity had tried to bring God’s work to nought. Therefore the Chosen People were rejected since they had proven themselves so unworthy of divine grace and of their high calling. Europe thus inherited this task which the Near East once had.

The foundation is already laid; Europe has made a start. From it the Christian faith has spread over the world so that we now find Christians in all countries, even though in many places they are relatively few. The missions have experienced a great push forward. The Paris Seminary in 1872 offers a good comparison. Fifty years earlier they had only 25-27 missionaries; but now they have that many dioceses and almost twenty times as many missionaries.

But what is that among so many? The situation is a very sad one, indeed, it is a shame for us. The words of the Saviour, ‘Go and teach all nations!’ are not addressed only to the apostles but to the whole Church, and also to us to work, as much as we are able, for the execution of this divine command.

A German priest has taken these thoughts to heart and has begun to work for the realization of this task. The dear Lord has helped him and in spite of many difficulties has arranged for him to receive the support necessary to make a modest start. Whether anything will come of it, is known only to God. But we express our thanks to the Giver of all good things for having helped with this beginning. We hope that the house will attain its purpose. The simplicity of this beginning should not discourage us. The mightiest tree starts as a single seed and the strongest of giants was once a week, whimpering baby. We know that with our present resources we cannot accomplish our task, but we hope the good God will provide everything we need. And he may do with us what he wills. If the seminary succeeds, we will thank the grace of God. If nothing comes of it, we will humbly strike our breast and confess that we were not worthy of the grace.

[Then the preacher addressed an appeal to the congregation for help with the newly started venture through prayers and sacrifices.]

Fr. Fritz Bornemann comments on this sermon with the following words: “How can anyone speak like this? The man must be tremendously objective. He is not a dreamer. He does not seek himself; he works, not for himself, but for a cause. He speaks quite against all the rules of the art of eloquent preaching. If he had aroused any enthusiasm in his listeners for the mission seminary, he immediately dampened this enthusiasm: Perhaps nothing will come of the seminary; and that would then be our fault. Then we would have to say that we were not worthy of the grace. That is Arnold Janssen, a piety that is theologically exact, God above all.”

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