Three Missionaries, One Mission

Three weeks ago, on Oct. 5, Pope John Paul II canonized two 19th-century missionaries together with Blessed Daniel Comboni, the first bishop of Central Africa. The Register reported on the event in a news report, “New Saints to Highlight the Church's Missionary Expansion” (Oct. 5-11). Here are the newest saints' stories in greater detail.

Saving Africa with Africans

Daniel Comboni (1831-1881), founder of two missionary societies, has been called “the Francis Xavier of Central Africa.” The sole surviving child of poor parents who tended citrus groves, Daniel was educated at the Mazza Institute in Verona, a school for gifted children from needy families. There, at age 17, he discerned his vocation to the mission fields of Africa.

This future saint was inspired by saintly priests. He was confirmed and later ordained by Blessed Johann Nepomuk von Tschiderer, bishop of Trent, and was taught by the Servant of God Nicola Mazza. Daniel Comboni's intensive seminary formation — years of prayer, study, community life and spiritual direction — prepared him to go forth and proclaim the Gospel in vast, unexplored regions of the Dark Continent.

His first expedition in 1857, traveling up the Nile River with five other Mazza missionaries, was unsuccessful. Disease and tropical heat forced him to return to Italy in early 1859. Undeterred, Father Comboni helped educate native Africans at the Mazza Institute and looked for new ways to evangelize Africa.

In 1864, while praying in St. Peter's Basilica, he received an inspiration. The plan called for “saving Africa with Africans”: setting up missions on the North African coast (which has a milder climate) and training native priests and lay catechists to bring the faith to their own regions.

This plan, too, met with many setbacks, but in 1867 Comboni was able to found a religious community for men and establish two colleges for Africans in Cairo. He also toured Europe promoting the missions and recruiting future missionaries. Father Comboni attended the First Vatican Council in 1870 as a theological advisor and won the support of many Council Fathers. Two years later he founded an order for missionary sisters.

In 1872 Rome appointed Comboni “Pro-Vicar Apostolic of Central Africa.” After a perilous desert journey in early 1873, he celebrated his first official Mass in Khartoum in the Sudan.

Besides the anticipated difficulties, Comboni encountered militant Islamists and an illegal but flourishing slave trade. He responded by ordering his mission stations to shelter fugitive slaves and educate them. Because of his crusade against slavery, he was once abducted while fundraising in Paris.

In August 1877 Comboni was consecrated the first bishop of Central Africa. His rugged constitution, knack for learning languages, intellectual ability and oratorical gifts made him not only a dynamic evangelizer, but a true explorer. He compiled a Nubian dictionary and contributed to scholarly journals of geography and ethnology.

Exhausted by his labors, Daniel Comboni fell ill during a fever epidemic in Khartoum and died on Oct. 10,1881, at age 50. Today 4,000 Comboni priests, brothers, sisters and laymen carry his love for the poor into mission territories. Like their founder, they make great sacrifices: Two of them were gunned down in Uganda in August 2003. The Comboni Missionaries maintain their century-old ties to war-torn Sudan.

Sacred-Heart Messenger

Arnold Janssen (1837-1909) founded the Society of the Divine Word and by 1900 was sending missionaries to work on all five continents.

Janssen initially studied natural sciences. After his ordination he devoted 12 years to teaching.

Prussia won a war against France in 1870 and formed a new “reich,” or empire, the following year. The Kulturkampf (culture war) in German-speaking lands began. Clergy were no longer exempt from military service and the Church was forbidden to supervise schools. Forced to resign from his teaching position, Father Janssen promoted the Apostleship of Prayer as an itinerant preacher and published a magazine, The Messenger of the Sacred Heart.

On his journeys he met Bishop Raimondi, the Apostolic Vicar of Hong Kong. Father Janssen realized that his life's work was to form priests for the foreign missions. But what could be done, when the German Church languished under oppressive laws?

Father Jannsen purchased property in Holland, near the Prussian border. With practically no funds, but with the approval of the entire Dutch episcopate and the subsequent blessing of 14 German and Austrian bishops, he founded St. Michael Missionary Seminary in Steyl to train German-speaking missionaries.

The spiritual seeds Father Janssen had sown as a teacher and preacher yielded a phenomenal harvest. Young men with vocations arrived in Steyl in droves. Many highly qualified displaced priests helped teach them. The seminary thrived on poverty and adversity.

The rector also promoted retreats and founded two congregations of missionary sisters (one cloistered). A few weeks before his death, Father Arnold Janssen approved plans for a new community house and technical school for German emigrants in Illinois. He was beatified in 1975 with one of his first missionaries to China: Joseph Freinademetz

‘Pious and Humble’

Joseph Freinademetz (1852-1908), one of the original five Divine Word priests, served as a missionary in China for almost 30 years.

Born in South Tyrol, he was a diocesan priest for two years before being recruited by Father Janssen in 1878. In a letter to his parents, Father Freinademetz recorded his first impressions of the seminary in Steyl:

“The house is truly a house of God. … The zeal, the diligence, the modesty of the students here is something quite new to me. In spite of their youth, they realize that life on earth is to be taken seriously. … Here I can learn many things, above all to live as a Christian should. I am also beginning to study Chinese.”

The rector arranged with the Propaganda Fide in Rome for Father Freinademetz and a confrere to travel to China the following spring. They were welcomed in Hongkong by Bishop Raimondi and assigned to work with the Franciscans in Shandong [Shantung]. Soon the southern part of that district was entrusted to the Steyl Missionaries. For 10 years this was their only foreign mission, and during the founder's lifetime it remained the most important one.

In Southern Shandong the missionaries met with persecution, especially in 1900 when the Boxers tried to expel all foreigners from China. After a wave of violence, the Prussian government, ironically, placed the Divine Word priests under its protectorate. An official explained that the empire “absolutely needed” missionaries in the colonies, and it cared more about their nationality than about their creed.

At one point, when Father Freinademetz was a candidate for bishop of the territory, Rector Janssen described him in a letter: “He is extremely zealous … pious and humble; he has mastered Chinese very well. … He is especially good at instructing catechumens.” Appointed provincial instead, Father Joseph served as religious superior of the Divine Word Missionaries in China.

Michael J. Miller translated New Saints and Blesseds: Vol. 2 for Ignatius Press.