Rome (Fides Service) – On Sunday 5 October Pope John Paul II will canonise Arnold Janssen founder of the Divine Word Missionaries and Joseph Freinademetz first missionary of this Congregation. On this occasion Fides Service spoke with Father Antonio Pernia, superior of the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD).
When, in the mid 19th century, Arnold Janssen asked permission to open a seminary for foreign missions the Archbishop Cologne replied: “We are living at a time when everything seems to tremble and crumble”. Later, that opening to mission marked the beginning of new growth and missionary zeal in the Church in Germany. Today, at the beginning of the third millennium, threatening clouds on the horizon for humanity appear to make everything precarious and to stifle any new impulse. What message can this canonisation offer to the missionary Church and to the world?
The canonisation of Fr Arnold is the crowning of his confidence in God. In fact we see this trust in his answer to the Archbishop: “Yes, and this is precisely why we must do something new!” For Arnold a time of crisis signified not the end but rather the need for a new beginning. A crisis can be a time of grace. In fact Arnold founded a new missionary congregation in Germany during the difficult period of Kulturkamp, a struggle for culture, when a series of anti-Catholic laws were passed.
The threatening clouds of the third millennium can be considered a call to discern new things which must rise up to take the place of those which are crumbling. For example in the past Europe was the only continent which sent missionaries to other continents. Perhaps today there is a need to identify and responds to missionary needs in Europe itself. Mission is not only outside Europe, it is also in Europe. The canonisation of three great missionaries, Arnold Janssen, Jozef Freinademetz and Daniele Comboni – confirms the importance of mission for the Church. Mission is part of the Church. As the Second Vatican Council said, the Church is missionary by nature.
Janssen was a precursor, an innovator of mission under several aspects: the spreading of the Word of God, necessary formation of priests, collaboration of laity in missionary activity, the need to know about other religions and cultures, the use of the media, social commitment. Which of these aspects should be development and which are priorities for the third millennium?
It is difficult to say because each of these aspects is important and should be developed. If I had to choose I would say interreligious and inter-cultural dialogue, collaboration from the laity, the use of the media. First of all we must change the old method is missionary for a new method. Missionary is no longer seen as conquering but rather as dialogue. Moreover there can be no sincere dialogue unless there is knowledge of other religions and cultures. Secondly, in the past the Church was used to identifying the role or the place of the laity, whereas the Church of the future is a Church of the laity. The question will be what is the role of clergy and religious? Collaboration “with” the laity and not only “of” the laity will be crucial for the Church tending ever more towards communion. The third priority, as the Pope has said already, the media, which today is the new forum for the proclamation of the Gospel. The use of the media is important for a Church whose identity is communion and whose mission is dialogue.
Today the Divine Word Congregation has 6,000 members in 60 different countries. Can you trace a map of their fields of commitment? What are the inspiring principles for their work of evangelisation?
According to our Constitutions, we work preferably where the Gospel has not been proclaimed, or has been announced only in a precarious form or where the local Church is still not self-supporting: we are fundamentally missionaries ad gentes. But since our foundation our understanding of our mission changed. Our most recent General Chapter in 2000 spoke of our mission as prophetic dialogue with four groups: those without any faith who are search; the poor, excluded, oppressed; people of different other faiths or secular ideology. The Chapter identified four frontier situations in which we are called to be present: first evangelisation, new evangelisation; among the poor and the excluded, trans-cultural testimony and interreligious encounter.
Unlike many other religious institutes Steyler missionaries have no crisis in vocations and most of the new members come from the continent of Asia where Christians are a small minority. How would you explain this?
First of all we cannot overlook the mystery of God’s grace. Moreover, there is the sociological factor. Usually a minority in a society feels challenged to express its identity more clearly. This happens for Christianity in Asia. This tiny majority of Christians is anxious not to be submerged by the majority, and some of them take the radical path of religious or priestly life. Moreover, I would say we are operating in the right places, among young people where the Lord sows the seeds of vocations. Or perhaps what we do responds to the needs of the local people, young people in Asia in particular. But we should not forget another sociological factor: the religious/priestly life sometimes may appear to be an easy way to climb the social-economic ladder.
Janssen was particularly devoted to the Rosary prayer, and his canonisation comes during the Year of the Rosary and at the beginning of October, the month of the rosary. How is this prayer missionary and what are the fundamental elements of Janssen’s spirituality.
As a Marian prayer the Rosary is still important for today. It unites us with Mary who was we might say the first missionary. Mary welcomed the Word into her womb not only physically but spirituality and she gave Him to the world. Mary carried and bore Christ and every true missionary must carry Christ to others. The Rosary offers an opportunity to meditate on the mysteries of Christ who is the Gospel which we as missionaries announce to others.
Arnold Janssen, a son of his times, had many devotions, Besides devotion to the Rosary he was very devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Divine Word, the Holy Spirit and the Most Holy Eucharist. But his spirituality focussed on the Trinity, God Three in One. In fact he left us a prayer which has become the motto of our congregation. Vivat Deus Unus et Trunis in cordibus nostris et in cordibus hominum - May God, Three in One, live in our hearts and in the hearts of all men and women.
SL (Fides Service 29/9/2003 EM lines 89 Words: 1,152)