In the Crucible of the Divine Word
As so often in history, new initiatives have arisen out of a concrete need. This was also the case with the Apostolate of the Spiritual Exercises which, through the founder of the missionary work in Steyl, Arnold Janssen, received a significant boost during the severe trial of the Prussian Kulturkampf.
In the summer of 1877, the Archbishop of Cologne, Paulus Melchers, turned to Arnold Janssen for assistance in the spiritual renewal of his clergy. While he had smiled at him a few years earlier during a visit to Cologne on the occasion of his intended founding of a mission house in just these difficult times, Bishop Melchers now saw the first fruits of the mission house founded only two years earlier (1875).
Arnold Janssen was only too happy to comply with this request, for it not only corresponded to his own inclination for ascetical exercises, but he also recognized the great service he could render not only to the priests but also to many believers: “… there, in the light of faith, new resolutions are made; there, in a few days, in the crucible of the Divine Word, the old self is crushed and crushed, in order to emerge from it as a new self, born in God”.
The first retreats in Steyl took place in the new building, which was begun in 1876 and inaugurated on 8 September 1877. The building was urgently needed for the growing community, however the founder decided “… to put up with the inconveniences for some weeks more and dedicate the house to the holiest possible use we could think of…”
The first step was taken by his Franciscan friend Fr Ignatius Jeiler, who would later be his advisor on other occasions. Arnold Janssen took part in the retreats himself and eagerly took notes for his own retreat lectures which he wanted to give later. This happened for the first time in September of the following year, when Arnold Janssen preached the Spiritual Exercises to 33 lay people. In the months of September and October 1877, 133 retreatants, priests and lay people, found their way to Steyl to take part in the Spiritual Exercises, most of which lasted four days. Arnold Janssen was able to recruit priests from various religious orders to lead the retreats.
From these humble beginnings the mission house soon became a leading address for retreats, first in German, then also in Dutch. After a total of 690 retreatants had stayed in Steyl in the years 1877 to 1879 alone, Bishop Melchers wrote to Arnold Janssen in November 1879: “It is very gratifying that your Mission House has offered so many German priests, teachers and lay people the opportunity to participate in the blessings and consolations of the holy exercises in this time of ecclesiastical distress in Prussia. This is a great blessing; admittedly also a burden and privation for their house and its inhabitants – but also undoubtedly the most effective means of recommending it.”
In the following years, the extensions to the constantly expanding mission house were always made available first for the spiritual retreats. The same procedure was followed for the new mission houses. The positive outcomes gained from these experiences were later echoed in the resolutions of the Third General Chapter (1897/98). Among the means to achieve the purpose of the Missionary Society, “the holding of spiritual retreats in one’s own home, if it can be done” was given first place in Europe.
Arnold Janssen was keen to be able to offer these intensive spiritual days for women as well. The first of these retreats took place in 1893 in the convent of Notre Dame (today Alt-St.Gregor), which had been acquired by the Augustinian nuns only a few years before. For this, the steadily growing group of the newly founded Sisters Congregation gladly moved together. As in St. Michael’s, rooms and dormitories were cleared for the retreatants to occupy, while residents of the house made do with a mattress in the attic or in some other corner of the house. After the completion of the large Sacred Heart Convent in 1904, the number of spiritual retreats for woman grew to twice the number.
In both houses, retreats and participant numbers grew from year to year. After the community had recovered from the losses of the First World War, the apostolate of the Spiritual Exercises took off once more. During the large retreats over Easter and Pentecost, up to 300 people participated at the same time in St. Michael’s, in addition to the 700 or so residents of the house. The focus of the retreats increasingly changed to accommodate lay people. For women as well as for men, it was especially teachers for whom separate courses were advertised.
It is not surprising that Josef Alt, in his biography of Arnold Janssen, comes to the conclusion that the founder has secured a place of honor among the promoters of the retreat movement. “By making the European houses available for retreats every year and in the course of time, together with other Fathers, also giving the lectures himself, Arnold Janssen contributed significantly to the renewal of spiritual life among thousands of priests and lay people, men and women, and at the same time gave his confreres a powerful impulse to do the same.”
Our two houses in Steyl, the St. Michael Mission House and the Sacred Heart Convent, are still popular places for retreats today, where “in the crucible of the divine Word” people discover how God’s red thread runs through their life story, so that in the power of the Holy Spirit they transcend boundaries to proclaim this “life-giving Word” to all people.
Br. Michael Ertl was born in Germany in 1966. He entered the Congregation of the Divine Word in 1989. After being trained as a pastoral assistant and taking perpetual vows in St. Gabriel (Vienna), he spent three years in Chile, where he was involved in parish and school pastoral. Back in Europe he spent 14 years in a more contemplative community in Belgium and served as novice master in Berlin. Since 2018 he is the Spiritual Director at “Centro Ad Gentes” in Nemi.