China has been noted for its centuries-old resistance to Christianity. Missionaries have made a series of beginnings, but each time when they seemed to be making headway, the governments in power have closed the gates against Christ.
Not that the Catholic faith has not had its Chinese adherents, many of them heroic. Nor its equally heroic missioners from abroad. Blessed Joseph of Shandong is a case in point.
Joseph was a German, born into a farming family, the Freinademetzes, on April 15, 1852, in the Tyrolean Alps. Thanks to his parents, he grew up not only devout but with an interest in the Faith that prompted him to study for the diocesan priesthood. During his educational training he focused especially on languages. Eventually he would become well acquainted with seven different tongues, including Chinese, an important missionary tool.
Although ordained as a diocesan priest, he soon decided to join the Society of the Divine Word (S.V.D.), a congregation devoted to missionary work. He and another German S.V.D. priest, Fr. John Baptist Anzer, were missioned to Shandong, China, in 1879.
In that period, Russia, England, France, and Germany were trying to gain political control of some chunks of the vast Chinese Empire. European missionaries, although they entered China to bring the peace of Christ, were naturally looked upon by the pagan Chinese as possible spies. This suspicion was to complicate their efforts.
After interning briefly with some Franciscan missionaries, Fr. Freinademetz and his companions were given a section of the Shandong Diocese to develop on their own. The bishop of Hong Kong wanted to name Father Joseph head of this mission, so that when it had been developed into a diocese, he would be its first bishop. But Fr. Joseph, with no ambitions for a mitre, insisted that the bishop name Fr. Anzer superior.
Joseph showed himself a brilliant catechist. The Franciscans had made some converts, but there was much more to be done. Joseph began by teaching the children catechism every afternoon. His general method was to take a statement from the catechism, fix it in the minds and memories of his pupils, and then explain it with examples from the bible, the lives of the saints, and the daily experiences of the Chinese people. Soon the adults became interested and asked that they, too, be instructed. For them he began evening classes.
To expand the catechetical work, he chose his best students to catechize others under his supervision. For instance, one bright ten-year-old girl was deputed to instruct the women. As he moved into the other rural villages in his district, Father Joseph found the same situation and followed the same pattern. After three years he had a thousand well-instructed new Christians, some of them even interested in the priesthood and the religious life.
But it was not all smooth sailing. The S.V.D. mission had many enemies: those who suspected any foreigners; those who resented the Christian Faith; those who were simply robbers. Violence flared up from time to time, and several Christians were martyred.
One time Fr. Joseph and his companions were ambushed by brigands and badly beaten. As he lay there, Joseph began to tell his attackers about the beauty of the Christian Faith. They listened, fell quiet, and then withdrew.
On another occasion an anti-European secret society killed two innocent S.V.D.s. Germany, France and Russia used the murders as a pretext to steal large tracts of China territory. The Chinese government therefore ordered the expulsion of all foreigners. But Fr. Joseph persuaded the mule cart driver taking the banished missionaries to the port to turn off the road into a lane. There they found many Christians gathered. With them they prayed all night long. The next day, the order for deportation was rescinded.
In his last years, Joseph was able to do less because of tuberculosis, but he remained the valued counselor of younger missionaries. Eventually he was also stricken with typhus. Wishing to be buried in the village of Taikia, he drove there himself. En route he stopped to give some final instructions to a group of catechists. When he reached Taikia, he said, “From here on the way leads up.” He died shortly afterward, on January 28, 1908.
He had always dressed like a Chinese, even to the shaved head and a “tip of a beard”. “I want to be a Chinese in heaven,” he explained. Look him up in heaven in the company of the 121 Chinese martyrs. He got his wish.
Pope Paul VI, in 1975, declared “blessed” this grand missionary, Father Joseph of Shandong. Pope John Paul II canonized him October 5, 2003.
-Father Robert F. McNamara