Vatican City (Fides Service) - Joseph Freinademetz was born on the 15th of April 1852 in Oies, a small hamlet of five houses situated in the Dolomite Alps of northern Italy. The region, known as “South Tyrol,” was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was baptised on the day he was born and inherited from his family a very simple but tenacious faith and a great capacity for work.
While Joseph was studying theology in the diocesan seminary of Brixen, he began to think seriously of the “foreign missions” as a way of life. He was ordained a priest on the 25th of July 1875, and assigned to the community of Saint Martin (Martino in Badia) very near his own home, where he soon won the hearts of his countrymen. However, the call to missionary service did not leave. Only two years after ordination, he came into contact with Fr. Arnold Janssen, founder of a Mission House, which was soon to become known as the “Society of the Divine Word.”
With his Bishop’s permission, Joseph left for the Mission House in Steyl, Netherlands in August 1878. On the 2nd of March 1879, he received his mission cross and departed for China with Fr. John Baptist Anzer, another Divine Word Missionary priest. Five weeks later they arrived in Hong Kong, where they remained for two years, preparing themselves for the next step. In 1881 they travelled to their new mission in South Shantung, a province with 12 million inhabitants and only 158 Christians.
The next two years were hard, marked by long, arduous journeys, assaults by bandits and filled with the difficult work of forming the first Christian communities. As soon as a community was just barely developed an instruction from the Bishop would arrive telling him to leave everything and start anew.
Soon Joseph came to appreciate the importance of a committed laity, and especially catechists, for first evangelisation. He dedicated much energy to their formation and prepared a catechetical manual in Chinese. At the same time, along with Anzer, who had become bishop, he put great effort into the preparation, spiritual formation and ongoing education of Chinese priests and other missionaries.
At different times he served as Administrator for the Mission, Rector of the seminary, Spiritual Director for the first group of Chinese priests, and as Provincial Superior. He always exercised his authority in a brotherly fashion, and the respect he received came more from his example and life witness than from the dignity of the office he held.
His life was marked by a desire to become more like a Chinese among the Chinese and in that vein he wrote a letter to his family saying: “I love China and the Chinese; I want to die among them and be laid to rest among them”.
In 1898, Freinademetz was sick with laryngitis and had the beginnings of tuberculosis as a result of his heavy workload and many other hardships. So at the insistence of the Bishop and the other priests he was sent for a rest to Japan, with the hope that he could regain his health. He returned to China somewhat recuperated, but not fully cured.
In 1900, after twenty years of hard work in China, Fr. Janssen invited him to travel to Steyl for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Congregation. Fr. Joseph declined the invitation. It was the time of the Boxers Rebellion against the Europeans. The German authorities ordered the missionaries to retire to the port city of Tsingtao for their own protection. Joseph decided to stay at the mission station at Puoli, knowing well the risk that he was taking. At one point he sent a group of orphans from the interior mission to the coast of Tsingtao, where it was relatively secure. He wrote to the missionaries there: “They (the orphans) are absolutely destitute. Please have the kindness to do something for them. With conditions as they are we must not hesitate to incur a few extra expenses in order to save what can still be saved.” He added: “I think it would be better to sell the horses”.
Whenever the bishop had to travel outside of China, Freinademetz would take on the added burden of the administration of the diocese. At the end of 1907, while he was serving as Diocesan Administrator for the sixth time, there was a severe outbreak of typhus. Joseph, like a good shepherd offering untiring assistance, visited the many communities until he himself became infected. He went to Taikia, seat of the diocese, where he died on the 28th of January 1908. He was buried at the twelfth station on the Way of the Cross and his grave soon became a site of pilgrimage point for Christians.
Freinademetz learned how to discover the greatness and beauty of Chinese culture and to love deeply the people to whom he had been sent. He dedicated his life to proclaiming the Gospel message of God’s love for all peoples, and to embodying this love in the formation of Chinese Christian communities. He animated these communities to open themselves in solidarity with the surrounding inhabitants. And he encouraged many of the Chinese Christians to be missionaries to their own people as catechists, religious, nuns and priests. His life was an expression of his motto: “The language that all people understand is that of love”. (Fides Service 25/9/2003 EM lines 62 Words: 914)