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Missionary Vocation of St. Joseph Freinademetz

Author: Michael Ertl, SVD
Subject: Joseph Freinademetz
Language: English, Spanish
Year: 2023
Poor child, China, XIX century

On 5 October 2003, Joseph Freinademetz was canonised together with Arnold Janssen by Pope John Paul II. In his homily, the Pope quoted from a letter written by the saint in October 1878 from Steyl to his parents: “I do not regard life as a missionary as a sacrifice I make to God, but as the greatest grace God gives me.”

Even if this is not one of the new saint’s best-known words, it is certainly the most important in relation to his missionary vocation. Even though many “sacrifices” will be demanded of him in the course of his life as a missionary in China, he lives out of the awareness that he is called to make the message of God’s love known to all people.

But where do the roots of his missionary vocation lie? An important personality on this path was Father Johannes C. Mitterrutzner from the monastery of Neustift near Brixen. Joseph Freinademetz was his pupil for several years and in various subjects at the grammar school in Brixen. Mitterrutzner, who had rendered outstanding services to the mission of Central Africa, was in written contact with several missionaries of the diocese of Brixen and will also have repeatedly read to his pupils from their letters. He promoted the missionary idea not only in the grammar school run by his monastery, but throughout the diocese and beyond. Years later, it is Freinademetz’s letters that reach Professor Mitterutzner from China.

Once, when he was a pupil and heard the words of the prophet Jeremiah during the Good Friday liturgy, “the children begged for bread and there was no one to break it for them”, they struck him right in the heart, as he confided to one of his fellow pupils. Another time, as he stood at the window of the study hall and looked out, he thought he saw strange children in the distance calling out to him, “Come over and help us”. Later, in the Brixen seminary, he dedicated one of his practice sermons to the theme of mission. So, Joseph Freinademetz will have thought again and again about a possible vocation as a missionary, both during his time in the grammar school and later in the seminary.

And so, it is not surprising when he writes from China to his nephew Peter Freinademetz in December 1891: “What a joy it would be for me and a great grace for you if you were later to come over to China as a missionary … you may already pray for this grace, as I already did when I was a small student like you are now. I had also hardly considered it possible to come to China; but with God nothing is impossible.”

Another piece of the mosaic in this picture of the missionary vocation and the final impetus to also pursue this vocation was an article from the Brixner Kirchenblatt of January 1878 about the mission house founded only a few years earlier. A few weeks later Freinademetz wrote to Rector Arnold Janssen: “Most Reverend Sir, the call of the missionary institution you have brought into being, on which God’s blessing rests so conspicuously, has reached even the remotest corners of Tyrol. Since I have been thinking for years about dedicating myself to the missionary profession, I respectfully dare to knock on your door for admission.”


Michael Ertl, SVD
Michael Ertl, SVD

Michael Ertl was born in Germany in 1966. He entered the Congregation of the Divine Word in 1989. After training as a pastoral assistant and professing perpetual vows in St. Gabriel (Vienna), he spent three years in Chile, where he worked in parish and school pastoral. Back in Europe, he spent 14 years in a contemplative community in Belgium and served as novice master in Berlin. From 2018-2022 he was Spiritual Director of the “Centro Ad Gentes” in Nemi. In 2022 he was transferred to ITA and since then he lives in the house of St. Joseph Freinademetz in Oies.

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