The Bible and the Cross; Prayer and the Poor

Author: Antonio M. Pernia, SVD
Subject: Arnold and Josef Freinademetz
Language: English, Spanish
Publisher: Arnoldus Nota
Year: 2003
SVD General Chapter 2018 - Logo Proposal
SVD General Chapter 2018 - Logo Proposal

On May 14, 2003, Mr. Giorgio Scarato presented to the community of the Collegio in Rome the portraits he was commissioned to paint of Blessed Arnold and Blessed Joseph for the canonization ceremony in St. Peter’s Square. A gigantic copy of each of these portraits will be hung from a window of St. Peter’s Basilica in the morning of October 5, 2003. Mr. Giorgio Scarato is a well-known artist from a small town near Verona in northern Italy. He has done portraits of various Church personalities. Before starting work on the portraits of Blessed Arnold and Blessed Joseph, Mr. Scarato read their biographies and interviewed some SVD confreres in northern Italy.The result is an intriguing portrayal of the figures of our two saints.

To some extent both paintings are similar to each other. Both are not, so to say, straight portraits which simply present the figure of the two saints. Rather they are narrations which depict the life and work of Arnold and Joseph. The paintings do this by including symbolic elements in the background. In the case of Arnold, a representation of the main church in Steyl on the left and a depiction of the globe on the right. In the case of Joseph, a picture of his native house in Oies, Val Badia, on the left and a replica of a Chinese pagoda on the right. The paintings make use of an interplay of light and darkness in portraying these symbols in the background – light surrounding the church in Steyl or brightening up Joseph’s native home in Oies, and a certain degree of darkness enveloping the world or hovering over the Chinese pagoda.

However, what immediately catches attention are the objects which each one clasps with his hands and close to his breast – for the Arnold, the Bible, and for Joseph, the cross. Along with the symbols in the background, these objects form an invisible triangle in the painting. In that of Arnold: Steyl, the globe and the bible; in that of Joseph: Oies, China and the cross. The look on the faces of Arnold and Joseph completes the narration conveyed in the paintings. Arnold, with an intense and penetrating look, as if intent on discovering God’s holy will as revealed especially in Sacred Scriptures and in the concrete events of the world, and Joseph, with an almost transcendental look directed into the distance, expressing a readiness to do God’s will even if it means carrying one’s cross.

Obviously, the symbolism and ideas expressed in the paintings are not all Mr. Scarato’s inventions or interpretation. Elements of the paintings and ideas for the message they are to con- vey came from the central committee for the preparation of the canonization. In any case, the center of the paintings is Arnold and the Bible and Joseph and the cross. Both Bible and cross, indeed, serve to epitomize the spirituality of each of these saints.

Arnold and the Bible
Painting of Arnold Janssen
Painting of Arnold Janssen

There is no doubt that devotion to the Divine Word was one of the main pillars of Arnold’s spirituality. This devotion, in fact, can be considered a “family heirloom”. He learned it from his father who, as we know, often recited the Prologue of John’s Gospel at the family’s evening prayer. This devotion certainly led Arnold to eventually take special interest in the universal mission of the Church. And when he founded his first congregation, he named it the Society of the Divine Word. Its goal was to be the “spreading of the Word of God in the world, especially by evangelization among non-Catholic peoples ….” For Arnold, however, the Divine Word referred to three realities: first, the Word of the Father, that is, the Son; second, the Word of the Son, that is, the Gospel of Jesus; and third, the Word of the Holy Spirit, that is, Sacred Scriptures in its entirety.

Even if the Divine Word is larger than the written Word, Sacred Scriptures nevertheless had an impor- tant place in Arnold’s spirituality. Fr. Josef Alt notes: “In contrast to his letters, when he gave conferences Arnold Janssen quoted copiously from the Scriptures. He must have had a very good concordance because with the text he always gave the chapter and verse….” (p. 732). We know that the Founder wanted to breathe a religious spirit into the 1898 Rule by including inspirational texts and theological reflections with frequent references to Scriptures. These had to be deleted before the Rule could be approved by the Vatican (cf. Alt, p. 758). Concerned about the holiness of priests, the Founder wrote: “The priests of the Societas Verbi Divini must be zealous devotees of the Scriptures and propagators of these truths. The four gospels and the four evangelists should be venerated in a special way, also the Apocalypse and the whole New Testament” (Alt, p. 970).

Joseph and the Cross
Painting of Joseph Freinademetz
Painting of Joseph Freinademetz

Much of Joseph’s life in China was marked by suffering and sacrifice. The cross, therefore, is almost a natural symbol of this South Tyrolese who made himself a Chinese among the Chinese. His years in China were difficult years – long trips, attacks by bandits, death threats. And not only were the sufferings physical. There were also his struggles with the bishop. He was often sent to start new Christian communities in very isolated places. But once a community began to take shape, he would be ordered by the bishop to go and start a new community elsewhere. But Joseph never ran away from any responsibility – administrator of the mission, rector of the seminary, spiritual director of the first group of Chinese priests, provincial superior.

In 1898, upon the insistence of the bishop, Joseph went to Nagasaki, Japan, to recover from a throat infection and the beginnings of tuberculosis. Not long afterwards, he returned to his mission having recovered a little but never really cured. In 1900, after 20 years of uninterrupted work in China, the Founder invited him to participate in the 25th anniversary celebration of the Society in Steyl. It was also the 25th anniversary of his priestly ordination. But it was the time of the Boxer rebellion in China. He respectfully refused and preferred to remain with his Christians and suffer with them. Eight years afterwards, a typhoid epidemic broke out in the mission. He did not spare himself in helping the victims until he himself contracted the disease. He returned to Taikia, headquarters of the mission, where he died on 28 January 1908. And he, who was born under the Mount of the Holy Cross in Oies, was buried under the 12th Station of the Via Crucis in Taikia.

Bible and Cross; Prayer and the Poor

Many theologians and spiritual writers today say that the two points of reference for any genuine renewal in the Church or in the religious life are prayer and the poor. That is what we find, indeed, in many of the renewal movements today. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is said to have demanded of her sisters not just service to the poorest of the poor but also an hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament everyday. The twin pillars on which the Sant’Egidio community is built are also community prayer and solidarity with the poor. They invite sympathizers not only to help in feeding the homeless but also to join the prayer of the community every evening. Through Blessed Arnold and Blessed Joseph, we, members of the Arnoldus Family have practically the same points of reference for our own search for renewal in this year of grace – the Bible and the cross. For, on the one hand, the Bible is prayer. After all, the Bible is first a prayer book be- fore it is a workbook. Similarly, prayer is first the Word of God addressed to us before it is our word addressed to God. And, on the other hand, the Cross – both the Cross of Jesus and our own crosses – reminds us of the poor who suffer. Indeed, the Cross of Jesus and our own crosses would be emptied of meaning if they did not embrace as well the crosses of those who suffer in the world.

If we want to know whether our year of grace has been fruitful or not, we need to ask ourselves at the end of it: Has my prayer – my own and that of my community – changed for the better? Has the Word of God moved to the center of my prayer? Have I acquired a greater solidarity with the poor of the world? Have I learned to take up my cross as an expression of my sharing with the passion of Jesus and the plight of the suffering?

Dear confreres, true renewal implies deepening both our prayer life and our solidarity with the poor. It entails deepening our capacity to be disturbed by the Word of God and to be haunted by the cry of the poor. It means allowing ourselves to be converted by God’s Word and to be transformed by the suffering of the poor. May our year of grace lead us all to such conversion and transformation.

—————

Fr. Antonio M. Pernia, SVD
Fr. Antonio M. Pernia, SVD

Fr. Antonio M. Pernia, SVD is the Dean of Studies of the Divine Word Institute of Mission Studies in Tagaytay City. He was ordained a priest on September 5, 1975. Fr. Pernia served the SVD in numerous administrative capacities including Provincial Superior of the Philippine Southern Province (1993–94), SVD Vice Superior General (1994–2000) and as SVD Superior General in Rome, Italy (2000–12). He was a member of the Executive Committee of the Union of Superiors Generals (USG, 2000–03) and Co-President of the Joint USG-International Union of Superior Generals (UISG) Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) Commission (2010–12) in Rome.

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