The date was November 5, 1907. The occasion was the 70th birthday of Fr. Arnold Janssen, just a little over a year before his death. At this point in his life, Fr. Arnold began to weaken physically and to become sick often. Because of this, the general councillors were afraid that the Founder would not live long enough to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination in 1911. So, the councillors decided to celebrate instead, in a more solemn way, his 70th birthday – even if it was not usual to do so. In this way, the Society would have the opportunity to show its appreciation and gratitude to the Founder. This decision was announced to the entire Society. And in response, numerous letters and photos came from all over the world. An album of photos was made for the occasion, giving an overview of the various activities of the Society all over the world.
The main celebration was at the Mission Seminary in Steyl. And it was graced by the presence of Bishop Augustine Henninghaus, who headed the SVD Chinese Mission in South Shantung. Toward the end of the celebration, the bishop rose to address the assembled community and host of friends and benefactors. He said: “I am here in the name of 40,000 Christians, who owe to you, Father Janssen, the grace of faith. I am here in the name of 43, 000 catechumens, who are being taught the principles of the Christian Faith; I am here to present to you the souls of more than 150,000 infants, to whom the gates of heaven have been opened by baptism before death.”
When the celebrant rose to speak in response, he could hardly find adequate utterance. All he could say was that the goodness of God had blessed his work and that he was but an imperfect and unworthy instrument in God’s hands.
One of the letters which came to Steyl was from Joseph Freinademetz, provincial superior in China and, in the absence of Bishop Henninghaus, apostolic administrator of the SVD Mission in South Shantung. His words sum up well the sentiments of the members of the Society at this time. Like an eldest brother, he spoke for all his confreres, when he wrote: “When Your Reverence looks back over the many years of your priesthood, at the almost bottomless sea of graces and favors which you …, through the very extraordinary election by God, have channelled to the entire world, your paternal heart must overflow with joy and gratitude to the dear God … For many long decades I have known hardly any other man, with the possible exception of Don Bosco, who through the grace of God has done so much for the Church of God and the salvation of souls as Your Reverence. If it is true that “by their fruits you will know them” … then your children and – I almost said – the whole Church of God and the whole world are justified in offering you on your birthday not only their sincerest good wishes and congratulations but also their heartfelt thanks. All your spiritual children scattered over the face of the earth will not fail on the 5th of November to thank the Father and Giver of all good gifts from the bottom of their hearts for all the great things he has done to our common father … And when finally it pleases Divine Providence to adorn our father with the crown of life in the choir of those privileged souls who accomplished extraordinary things for God and his Holy Church, then may his spiritual sons continue to work in the spirit and virtue of the father until at last the number of the elect has been filled … In childlike esteem and love, Your Reverence’s grateful son, Joseph Freinademetz.” (F. Bornemann, p. 475).
Little did Freinademetz know that, 96 years afterwards, the Founder would be receiving the “crown of life in the choir of those privileged souls” along with himself. In any case, the celebration in 1907 seems to have been unique for the fact that it emanated from a decision of the general council, involved the entire congregation all over the world, and was held precisely to provide an opportunity for the members of the congregation to pay tribute to their father and founder. In this sense, the celebration in 1907 seems to have been but a foretaste of another worldwide celebration that the members of the Arnoldus Family will soon be holding.
The date is October 5, 2003. The occasion is the canonization of both Arnold Janssen and Joseph Freinademetz (along with Bishop Daniel Comboni who knew and met Arnold Janssen during his lifetime). The main celebration will be at St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in Rome. Along with some 600 members of the Arnoldus Family, about 7,000 pilgrims from all over the world are expected to be present in the square to hear the Holy Father proclaim Arnold and Joseph saints of the Catholic Church. Thus, the celebration will no longer be just of our religious family but of the whole Church. For, as Joseph Freinademetz wrote 96 years ago, it has pleased Divine Providence to adorn our father and founder, along with Freinademetz himself, with the crown of life in the choir of those privileged souls who have accomplished extraordinary things for God and his Holy Church.
But there will also be other celebrations, perhaps smaller ones, wherever there are members of the three congregations Arnold Janssen founded. Already articles, books, posters, song compositions, liturgical music, video films, medals, paintings and other memorabilia have come from all over world – all meant to express our joy at the canonization of Arnold and Joseph and pay tribute to our Founder and our First Missionary.
In the end, however, our greatest tribute to our father and founder is the canonization, along with him, of our eldest brother, Joseph Freinademetz. For Joseph was the realization of Arnold’s dream, the embodiment of Arnold’s idea of a missionary. As Bishop Henninghaus once said of Joseph: “His most outstanding characteristic was his immensely amiable goodness. He was endowed with those traits so necessary to the missionary, that is, a permanent gentleness and kindness, which win hearts, and a tireless patience, which is the incomparable charity of one who forgets oneself. He was always in a cheerful mood.”
When in 1877, Joseph Freinademetz, along with Arnold Janssen, approached his bishop to ask for permission to join the SVD in Steyl, the bishop said: “The Bishop of Bressanone says NO, but the bishop of the Catholic Church says YES. Take my son and make him a good missionary. But by giving him to you, I’m entrusting to you the pearl of my diocese”. Joseph Freinademetz is also the pearl of our religious missionary family. He is our first missionary, not only in the chronological but also in the exemplary sense. He was one of the first two missionaries to be sent out. But he is also our model missionary. He is the most beautiful flower in our Arnoldus garden. And he is our tribute to you, Fr. Arnold.
For he is the promise of what we can all become and the pledge of what we should all be. By following his example, we shall be, as he wrote in 1907, continuing to work in your spirit and according to your vision until the darkness of sin and the night of unbelief vanish before the light of the Word and the Spirit of grace.
Published in Arnoldus Nota August/September 2003
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