Arnold Janssen and the Parable of the Kingdom

Author: Leo Kleden, SVD
Subject: Arnold Janssen
Language: English, Spanish
Year: 2021
Boys Climbing a Tree - Maputo, Mozambique
Boys Climbing a Tree - Maputo, Mozambique

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed…” (Mt 13:31)
“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.” (Arnold Janssen on the inauguration day of the Mission House in Steyl.)

Jesus told the story of God’s Kingdom only in parables. What is remarkable about the parables of Jesus is that they are all simple stories about everyday experience: a sower going out to sow seeds in the field, a fisherman throwing a net into the sea to catch fish, a woman searching for the lost coin, a shepherd looking for the lost sheep, a merciful father waiting for his prodigal son to return home, and so on. Very simple and ordinary things!

The ending of these parables, however, surprises us with something extraordinary: a tiny seed becomes a big tree, the seeds in good soil brings a hundredfold harvest, there is greater joy in one lost sheep found again than in the ninety-nine remaining in the flock, and the merciful father makes a big feast for the prodigal son who has returned home.

The Reign of God is …like that! The ability to experience the Reign of God is a kind of sensitivity to see something extraordinary in ordinary things. Jesus, therefore, says: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see” (Lk 10:23). It is a certain ability to see the forest in the tiny sprouting seed, or to see the secret of the sky and the ocean in a drop of morning dew.

If Jesus told the story of God’s Kingdom in parables, the early Christians told the story of Jesus – his life, death, and resurrection – as the best parable of God’s presence. He is the smallest seed that fell into the ground, died, grew, and yielded a harvest in abundance; he is the bread of life broken and multiplied for the hungry, the living water that flows for the thirsty, the light that shines in the darkness. Later when Jesus sent his disciples to continue his mission, he sent them empty-handed, because he wanted them to follow the path of a small seed that has to die in order to bring new life. Under the guidance of the Spirit the disciples understood this secret of the Kingdom, as did Benedict in the cave of Subiaco, Francis of Assisi who left his parents’ house naked, Arnold Janssen in an old, crumbling house of Steyl, and Mother Theresa serving the poor and destitute on the streets of Calcutta.

Now we can say that the life and the mission of Arnold Janssen have become a new parable of God’s Reign. We recall his famous saying on inauguration day, when many people were disappointed by such a poor beginning of the German-Dutch Mission House: “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… So I appeal to all those assembled here: What can we do? First, pray. Beg the Lord of the harvest. Secondly, sacrifice.” First things first: We have to pray because ultimately the Kingdom is the work of God himself and we are just small instruments in his hands. But we have to sacrifice because we are called to follow Jesus through the path of a small seed that has to die in order to grow and bear fruit. In this context we also recall how Arnold started his missionary project empty-handed and how he put his total trust in the Lord of the harvest and relied on his brothers and sisters who shared and supported his vision.

By dedicating his first mission society to the Divine Word, Arnold Janssen wanted to remind us that “In the beginning was the Word…The Word became flesh and lived among us” (Jn 1:1.14). The first attitude of a missionary, therefore, should be a contemplative attitude of letting the Word become flesh and live among us. We recall a particular example of our missionary saint. Joseph Freinademetz once asked Arnold Janssen how he could best prepare for his mission in China. Arnold advised him to learn by heart the Gospel, because in that distant foreign land he might be forbidden to carry the Bible and would have to proclaim the Good News from his heart. Joseph followed the advice, but what he did was much more than just memorizing texts. He let the Word become flesh in his life so that his person would be transformed by the Word and become good news for the people of South Shantung. When Arnold further sent our brothers and sisters as missionaries to different parts of the world, he actually continued implementing the parable of a sower who went out to sow seeds in the field. Arnold realized that there would be many obstacles on the edge of the path; there would be resistance by the rocky ground and thorny soil, but in the end the Word would find rich soil and produce a harvest in abundance. Arnold, therefore, urged his missionaries to do their best in the work of evangelization because “to proclaim the Good News is the first and greatest act of love of neighbor.”

From the very beginning our congregations (SVD, SSpS, SSpSAP) were designed as international societies. They were intended to receive members from different peoples and cultures; and our missionaries were to be sent to all nations, especially to the places where the Good News had not yet been proclaimed or not yet been proclaimed enough. In this way our societies were designed as signs that “people from east and west, from north and south, will come and sit down at the feast in the Kingdom of God” (Lk 13:29).

If nowadays we reformulate our mission under the catchword “prophetic dialogue” or “life-giving relationships,” we are simply reaffirming and deepening the missionary insight we have inherited from our Founder. Through the work of our missionaries, especially through their commitment to faith-seekers and to the poor and marginalized, we re-actualize the parables of the Good Shepherd or of the Merciful Father. In reaching out to people of other cultures and other religions we emphatically announce the all-inclusiveness of God’s Kingdom.

Listening to the parables of Jesus, reading again the life story of Arnold Janssen, and reflecting on our contemporary mission, we realize that the Lord has indeed done great things through his simple servant from Goch: The extraordinary in an ordinary person!

Thus we joyfully continue our mission today. Even though our membership in West Europe is in decline and our financial resources decrease, our young missionaries from Asia, Africa, the Americas or different parts of Europe will find a new moment of grace in following the Lord along the small path of a seed, because “unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest” Jn 12:24. “Worthwhile indeed is the life of one who gives his all,” said Arnold.

Published in Precious is the Life given for Mission”


Leo Kleden, SVD
Leo Kleden, SVD

P. Leo Kleden is a Divine Word Missionary born in Larantuka, Indonesia. He was a theology professor at Ledalero Major Seminary, general councilor from 2000 to 2006, returned to Ledalero and was elected rector of the Divine Word Major Seminary. From 2010 to 2016 he assumed leadership as provincial of the SVD/IDE province (Eastern Indonesia). Currently, he continues as a professor at the seminary.

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