St. Arnold Janssen, SVD

(1837 – 1909)

Pope Paul VI beatified Fr. Arnold Janssen on World Mission Sunday, October 19, 1975. Many wondered why the Church had not honored him sooner. The missionary religious order that he founded had by then 5,200 members scattered around the globe, well-known for their devotion and expertise.

That the Society of the Divine Word bore a Germanic imprint is not surprising. Arnold Janssen was born in the German Rhineland, the son of a hard-working, devout farming couple. He was a bright student who might have had a successful university career had he not preferred the priesthood. Graduating from the college seminary, but still too young to enter theology, he transferred to the University of Bonn. Although he passed the examinations there and was offered a teaching position in Berlin, he went back to the seminary and was ordained a diocesan priest in 1861.

For the next 12 years Fr. Janssen was back in the classroom, now as a teacher of mathematics and science. From 1867 on, however, he became more and more interested in the foreign missions. Resigning his teaching position, he accepted a chaplaincy and in 1874 began to issue a mission-oriented publication, The Little Messenger of the Sacred Heart. In its columns he reported news on the home and foreign missions, and gave expression to his own developing ideas about missionary needs and methods.

At that time, Germany had no missionary seminary. Janssen thought it needed one, and since nobody else volunteered to found such a school, he decided that he should do so himself. Unfortunately, in the 1870s, anti-Catholic laws in Germany forbade such religious schools. He therefore crossed the border, found an old inn at Steyl in the Netherlands, and there set up his first seminary in 1875.

For the Society of the Divine Word, which came into existence in this humble setting, Father Janssen assigned a double aim: to train missionaries and to cultivate the Christian sciences. These objectives reflected both the zeal and the scholarship of the founder. While his project was novel, the number of candidates rose rapidly. Janssen’s practical trust in divine providence also proved very effective: funds were available for the asking, he argued, and he proved his point. His own generosity inspired generosity in others. Finally realizing the importance of publicity, he expanded his Little Messenger and launched also the popular magazine Stadt Gottes (City of God), which still remains the largest illustrated Catholic family magazine in Germany. He likewise enlarged the scope of the order to include lay brothers, who soon outnumbered the priest members. In 1892, he established a women’s order, the Holy Spirit Missionary sisters, and in 1896 formed a contemplative branch of the same community.

The mission objective of the SVD, as stated in 1886, was to work particularly among the non-Christians in the Far East. Fr. Janssen sent his first two missionaries to Hong King in 1879. Others were soon missioned to China, Togo, Papua New Guinea, and Japan; then to Ecuador, Brazil and Chile. In Europe he eventually inaugurated missionary seminaries in Germany, Poland and Austria. Just before his death he set up an American SVD seminary at Techny, Illinois. In 1920 the American SVD opened a seminary at Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to train black candidates for the priesthood. Most of our black American priests have been trained in this school, including, by 1995, six bishops.

As a result of the founder’s insistence that his seminarians cultivate the natural sciences, the Society has become noted particularly for anthropological studies of populations it has served. This is enlightened missiology. It pays proper respect to the cultures of even the most “primitive” human societies.

Pope John Paul II raised Blessed Arnold to the rank of saint on October 5, 2003.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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