St. Joseph Freinademetz, the missionary
By Father Stanley Plutz SVD
St. Arnold Janssen founded a missionary society, the Society of the Divine Word. St. Joseph Freinademetz became the kind of missionary Father Janssen had in mind in establishing the religious congregation.
Although Father Janssen and Father Freinademetz spent only a short time together in the first mission house in Steyl, both were beatified and then canonized together.
God called Father Arnold Janssen to found the Society of the Divine Word. God called Father Joseph Freinademetz to be the ideal missionary of the Society of the Divine Word. Why can we call Father Joseph Freinademetz this ideal missionary?
Let us recall a few events of his life to show that he is this model missionary.
Joseph was born to Catholic parents and into a poor farming family in the Alp Mountains. After he finished the fourth grade, his father apprenticed him to an enterprising tailor, Mr. Thaler. Without money, God through this good man got the young Joseph started on his way to the priesthood, his vocation.
As boy in a strange city—an 11-hour walk from his home—Joseph did household chores for a lady in order to have a place to sleep. He became a working student in the school where he could continue his studies. To survive, he begged for his food.
He graduated from his elementary schooling with honors. And he received scholarships for his high grades and for his singing in the cathedral choir for eight years of studies and plus his theological courses. The bishop ordained him a priest.
Although he was happy being an assistant priest in a parish near his home and was loved by the people, especially by the children, he heard the children of faraway China crying out for the bread of the Eucharist.
He joined Father Janssen and received an appointment for the Chinese people in China. Once he arrived in China, he studied the language of the people. He dressed as a Chinese person. He ate Chinese soy food and lived in a house like the people. He learned the customs of the people and their way of thinking. He told them about Jesus and brought them, with the help of Holy Spirit, to faith in Jesus and his holy Church.
When the superior of the Franciscan Shantung mission wanted to make him superior of the new mission territory, South Shantung (given by the Franciscans to the Society of the Divine Word, Father Freinademetz knelt down before him and would not get up until the superior said that he would make his companion the head instead of him.
He traveled by Chinese junk up the Yellow River to Tsining, the capital of the Shantung Province and the See of the bishop, and brought supplies. He then had to take everything needed for Mass to Puoli, the center of the new mission territory, which was quite a distance away.
With the help of several men, he wheeled them by wheelbarrows to Puoli. Of the some 12 million people in the vast territory of South Shantung, there were only 158 registered Catholics among them, mostly in the town of Puoli.
In Puoli, he went to the surrounding villages. He talked to the children and showed his pocket watch to them. They were enthralled by the little man who told the time.
Father Freinademetz explained that as someone had made the watch, so God, the Great Spirit, had made all things. When the parents returned from the fields in the evening, the children told them about the watch. They, too, were curious to see it.
After several months in Puoli, his companion, now also his superior, sent him to the farthest part of the mission—ten days away by ox cart. Father Freinademetz went with a catechist. There he bought a house and organized the territory into three areas. He systematically visited each of the villages in each area.
The people gave him the name of Fu Shenfu: Fu as a shortened version of Freinademetz and Shenfu, which means priest. When almost a year passed, Fu Shenfu wished to go to confession and also report to his superior. He returned to Puoli.
He made his confession, read and answered his mail. His superior, John von Anzer, commissioned him to write a rule for catechists. The missionaries realized the need for more catechists to help them in instructing those who had received the gift of faith from the Holy Spirit.
Father Arnold Janssen in the meantime had sent more missionaries. One was a carpenter, who immediately began to restore the neglected chapel.
Fu Shenfu had many adventures in his life and missionary work in China. For example, he was beaten and robbed. The story is this: A lesser mandarin in a certain district received the gift of faith, underwent instructions and received baptism.
The newly baptized man also promoted the Catholic faith among his people. A higher mandarin had him arrested, put in jail, and beaten with many blows.
The man’s relatives and friends appealed to Father Freinademetz. Father Freinademetz sent a catechist ahead and came himself with a teacher as soon as he could. They went to the mandarin, a mean man, who ruled with a band of thugs. The convert was released only to be soon rearrested.
Then the thugs of the cruel mandarin went to the inn where Father Freinademetz was staying with his catechist and teacher. The henchmen of mandarin grabbed Fu Shenfu, forced him outside, threw him to the ground, twisted his arm, pulled out some of his hair, lathered his face with waste from the public privy, and dragged him out of the town.
Father Freinademetz preached to the gangsters as he was being dragged and he also heard the confessions of his companions. Then suddenly when they were about a mile out of town the gang leader said it was enough and left with his gang members. The cart of Fu Shenfu had been robbed and severely damaged. The three men stood up, looked at each other and began to laugh since the others looked so funny.
Another time when Fu Shenfu was traveling during the rainy season with a catechist, his horse—with him on it—fell into very deep and wide hole filled with water.
Father Freinademetz caught a branch of a tree while his horse swam to solid ground. The villagers working nearby rushed to Father Freinademetz and his catechist and rescued them.
Father Freinademetz felt sad because he thought he had lost his divine office book from which he had been praying while riding on his horse. Safe on solid ground, lo and behold! In his wide sleeve, Father Freinademetz discovered his divine office prayer book.
A delegation of person living in the south had been praying to learn the truth. The Holy Spirit enlightened them and told them to go to the north, and they would find the persons who would instruct them in the truth.
There they came upon some Christians, who informed Fu Shenfu. Father Freinademetz sent a catechist with them, and he himself went later.
During the Boxer Rebellion, a fanatical group of Chinese was determined to kill all foreigners and all Christians. The governor of Shantung forced the missionaries to go the coast since he said that his soldiers could not protect them in their various stations.
The missionaries gathered, and with a soldier escort started out for a city on the coast. Fu Shenfu was in charge of the mission because his confrere John Anzer, who had become a bishop, was in Europe. Father Freinademetz felt responsible for the Christians.
He left with the other missionaries but after the first day he, with Brother Ulrich at the end of the caravan, returned to the Christians in Puoli. He helped the young Chinese priests prepare the Christians, more than one thousand Christians who had gathered in the mission compound for preparing to suffer possible martyrdom.
Father Freinademetz, Brother Ulrich and the young Chinese priests, organized activities: a day of praying the rosary, a day of adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, a day for the Sacrament of Confession, and so forth.
The Boxers, or Long Knives, intensely hated all foreigners, so when peace in the refugee camp had been restored among the factions, Father Freinademetz and Brother Ulrich left so as not to cause more trouble for the Christians. They left secretly for a safer place where the persecution was not so intense.
After sometime when a report reached Fu Shenfu that trouble had again broken out in the camp, he and Brother Ulrich, amid the greatest dangers, made the trip back a second time. Father Freinademetz and Brother Ulrich stopped at an inn of a friendly innkeeper, but someone recognized them and alerted the Boxers.
The innkeeper let the two missionaries out through the back door. They mingled with the crowd since they always wore Chinese clothes and thus escaped. Brother Ulrich expressed his surprise about how forcefully the usually gentle Father Freinademetz dealt with the situation upon their arrival and brought order back into the camp.
While traveling through Boxer territory, Father Freinademetz and Brother Ulrich fervently prayed the rosary to obtain Mother Mary’s protection. At least one time they sighted a division of the Boxer army.
Upon hearing the danger to which Father Freinademetz had exposed himself and Brother Ulrich, Father Janssen did not scold him but praised him: "You defied almost certain death to be with your oppressed Christians. You certainly believed that this was the special will of God…that I am willing to admit. Therefore, I congratulate you wholeheartedly on what you have done."
Later, after the Germans had occupied a key city and the surrounding territory, Fu Shenfu visited a small community of Christians. He stayed, but a short time and left secretly so as not to cause trouble. Yet news spread that a foreign missionary was present. About 200 hostile men mounted their best horses and chased Father Freinademetz on his nag as he was leaving. How he wished he had a racing horse!
They caught up with him and beat him up before releasing him. Beatings did not stop him, though. The mission work that especially appealed to Fu Shenfu was to preach the Gospel message to pagan persons, both adults and children, to inform them about Jesus, to win them to faith in Jesus, to instruct them further in the faith, prepare them for baptism, baptize them, get them ready for their first Holy Communion, help them confess their sins, and gradually to form with other believers a Christian community.
The bishop, however, gave Father Freinademetz other important assignments, namely to start a catechist school and write a rule for catechists, compose sermons in Chinese for the newly arriving missionaries, be the rector of the seminary, and many other tasks.
During his time as rector of the seminary, Father Freinademetz gave a series of talks explaining the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to those seminarians immediately preparing for the priesthood. These were later put into the form of a very inspiring little book entitled "The Most Holy Sacrifice of the New Covenant" or in shortened form Sacrificium in Latin.
Although not the bishop, Father Freinademetz was six times administrator of the mission while the bishop was in Europe. During one of those times, the descendant of Confucius, the wise man of China, and some of his disciples paid a visit to Fu Shenfu on the occasion of Chinese New Year.
Later Father Freinademetz and some other missionaries returned the visit. Reporting on these visits to Father Janssen, he wrote a very enthusiastic note, expressing the possibility of all the people of China becoming Christians with the help of more missionaries.
Fu Shenfu often had the task of introducing newly arrived missionaries into their missionary work. He developed a good relationship with these young missionaries. When they had trouble with the bishop, they would go to Father Freinademetz for advice.
He would listen to them and do what he could to intercede for them with the bishop. However, trying to help the young missionaries got Fu Shenfu in trouble with the bishop, who accused him of siding with them against him. The bishop would exile Fu Shenfu to the most remote districts of the mission and then summon him back for a special task or to defend him to higher superiors in Rome.
When one of missionaries was in Europe for promoting the China mission, he made known the faults of the bishop to some higher Society and Church authorities. He mentioned that the bishop liked to parade as a great mandarin, was fond of drinking to excess, and lost his temper easily.
When consulted about the conduct of the bishop, a retreat master whom Father Freinademetz invited to give talks to the missionaries pointed out that the bishop was ruining mission and had to be reported to the authorities in the Vatican.
Father Freinademetz also had health problems. He would get laryngitis when he got wet in the rain and could not immediately change into dry clothes. He contracted tuberculosis and began spitting and coughing up blood some ten years before his death. And finally typhus got him as he administered to patients sick with the disease.
Our question may be asked again. Was Father Joseph Freinademetz the kind of missionary whom Father Arnold Janssen envisioned? He was. Together, the two were beatified. Together, the two were canonized.
Editor’s Note: Father Stanley Plutz served as vice postulator for the Cause of the Canonization of St. Arnold Janssen. A native of Wisconsin and a missionary in the Philippines for decades, Father Plutz is the author of four books: "Our Founder: A glimpse into the Inner Working of Our Founder’s Mind" (2002), "The Sacred Heart of Jesus, Arnold Janssen Ardent Devotee" (2002), "Spirituality of Saint Arnold" (2004) and "St. Arnold Janssen Memories" (2004).