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Arnold Janssen Spirituality Center

Relevance of Freinademetz in the Asian Context


When the Communists took over the reins of China around six decades ago, in their revolutionary zeal, they wanted to obliterate as many memories of the past as possible. Incidentally in Taikia they discovered the grave of Joseph Freinademetz. At once they exhumed it and when it was found that his mortal remains even after four decades were in tact, they put kerosene and burned it.1 Members of the Society of the Divine Word by and large have always considered him a saintly person and a zealous missionary. When his death centenary is fast approaching (2008) it is quite appropriate that a close look is taken again at his life and work.

There are already many writings2 about Fu Shen-fu as he was called in Chinese. Hence in the present article those details about his checkered life would not be presented again but rather the relevance of Freinademetz’s life and work will be viewed from a missionary point of view. Therefore the emphasis by choice is more on analytical and interpretative aspects than on the descriptive dimension.

I. Person and Mission

i. A Brief Biographical Note


In the annals of SVD Josef Freinademetz is considered one of the first and most outstanding models of being an effective missionary in a strange land following the society’s best traditions of internationality. His efforts have been noteworthy because he made a significant contribution to make the Church in China truly indigenous and inculturated. He was more of a ‘doer’ of the highly acclaimed subject called ‘inculturation’ and less of a writer or speaker on it. After taking a brief look at his person and mission method an attempt is made in the present article to see the Asian missionary relevance of his approach. During the centenary year of his passing away, this pioneer SVD’s endeavours are commented upon with great admiration and are found to be worthy of emulation. There is a bright future in store for the Church behind the bamboo curtain.

Anthony Poruthur, SVD

Born on 15th Apr. 1852 at Oies/Brixen. Studied at Brixen. Ordained priest in 1875. Parish curate for two years.3 Besides knowing classical European languages he spoke German, Italian and French.4 He knew about the starting of mission seminary in Steyl from an article of Arnold Janssen written in Kirchenblatt published from Brixen. Joined Steyl missionary group in 1878.5 Left for China with J. B. Anzer in 1879. Held positions of responsibility like Provincial Superior and Administrator. Died on 28th Jan. 1908 at Taikia, China. Beatified on 19th Oct. 1975. Canonised as saint of the universal church on 5th Oct. 2003.

ii. Personal Traits

Freinademetz’s personality was oozing with self-effacing humility. He would not hesitate to be self-critical when necessary and had the inner freedom to own up his limitations. When he was sounded to head the new foundation of the society in Austria he wrote in response to Arnold Janssen: “Do not be shocked, I beg you, but pray much for me, a poor sinner. I have many temptations against chastity… and cannot testify that I have fought them properly. I am frightfully vain and anxious to please. I am peevish and morose when things don’t go my way. I am easily impatient and stubborn, and many times scandalize the catechumens by my bad example. On no point do I have myself under control.”6

Freinatdemetz had an ascetical bend of mind and he lived an austere way of life. But he never demanded it from others, his missionary companions, both as their religious superior and also as Administrator of the diocese. It is often said that this is the secret of his popularity among fellow SVDs. For the confreres who came to the mission after him he was quite edifying in the way he lived. His actions were more eloquent than his words. In fact he was both a master and model.7

His simplicity of heart is reflected in a sense of humour which used to be demonstrated now and then. He once made a very hilarious observation about one of his own catechumens in the following manner: “Many have already learned their prayers by heart. One old gray-beard always carries his prayer book under his hat since his clothes have no pocket.”8

His simplicity was quite outstanding and others too took note of it easily. Fr. Leopold Gain, S.J, a contemporary missionary from the neighbouring mission territory had the following to say, in this regard: “He is a true Tyroler. I was overwhelmed by his great simplicity, his virtue, his prudence, by his knowledge and zeal.”9

iii. Life in Steyl

For the training of future missionaries there should be solid spiritual foundation. “Life at its source must be pure and strong.” That was the contention of Arnold Janssen, the Rector of the mission house.10 The young priest, Freinademetz discovered the very same thing on his arrival at Steyl. He wrote to his parents that the mission seminary is truly a house of God. “Here the spirit of piety and fear of God reigns… I have never seen anything like it, neither at Cassianeum nor at the Brixen seminary. The zeal, the diligence, the simplicity of the students is something quite new to me… So I am most happy to be here and thank the Lord for allowing me to come to this place where I can learn many things, above all to live as a Christian should.”11 Also in right earnest he started learning Chinese as a fitting preparation to go to his desired missionary destination.

iv. Early Impressions in China

China the land of the great wise man, Confucius has been permeated by his philosophy which is basically guided by jen (translated as ‘human-heartedness’). Although founded on humanism veneration of ancestors is an integral part of it and this dimension is manifested in their allegiance to rituals. “Human beings are part of a cosmic whole, and every human activity of eating and drinking, walking and talking, marrying and caring for a family, sowing and harvesting, caring for the sick dying, has to be related to the universe to which we all belong and to the power, by whatever name it is known, which ruled the universe.”12 Confucius was so highly successful in spreading his wisdom that it has gone into the psyche of in the Chinese people. They carry the essence of his teaching wherever they go. It is to this socio-cultural and religious milieu that Freinademetz arrived as a missionary.

A traditional Asian village will usually have its local physicians, ritual experts, exorcists, astrologers and healers.13 Social fabric of Asian societies is generally very well knit. It is in a sense a self-sufficient system. Any outsider coming in, particularly a White man, is perceived as an intruder. This impression was all the more fed into their minds during the colonial era. A missionary trying to make an entry to such a society would be treading on the toes of many. Such a challenge awaited Freinademetz too although he had taken the trouble of picking up the Chinese language before his arrival on the missionary scene.

When a missionary tries to create a little space in the traditional social setting someone’s importance will be naturally reduced or taken away. Any one who joins his company from the locality is seen as a turn-coat and would be treated as a traitor. He/she will be ostracized. No wonder in his early days as missionary Freinademetz faced a similar hostile situation. “Just today a man came to visit me, a young man who only a month ago had become a Christian. His parents have slammed the door of their house in his face and do not allow him to enter any more.”14 In such an exclusive society as they are all knit together well, opposition to mission is a group affair. So the system opposes the new entrant with all its vehemence.

A keen observer of the surroundings, he has also recorded his first impression about the place where he had to say mass once: “You should see the hut in which I am obliged to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass… Heating stoves are unknown here; in the winter a fire is simply built on the earth floor; the smoke gradually turns the room black.”15 But he had tremendous capacity to adjust to the situation.

v. Mission Methods

Freinademetz had the ability to establish contact with people easily. Simple folks used to flock to him. His way of dressing in Chinese style served him to make himself acceptable to them. The flourish with which he made friends with people was a gift that flowed from his closeness with God.16 Using it to its best he used to make direct contact with people. The next step used to be to begin with catechetical instructions together with teaching prayers. He used to follow-up with visits at regular intervals. In the intervening period of his absence catechists used to monitor the situation.17

It did not take him too long to realize that the sheep has to be guarded. He had to be very prudent in his manner of speaking and his presence with the little flock was very necessary. “When I am with them I seem to be in the very centre of a stormy sea where one ship after another flounders and sinks beneath the waves. A mere triviality, even a single word, can send an entire family back to the worship of the false gods they had already renounced. That is why it is necessary for the missionary to remain with them always.”18

In spite of fairly good success in his mission Freinademetz would not take any credit for himself. With his trade-mark humility as well as trust he says: “It is clear that not we but God sowed the seed. We missionaries are only the reapers who bring in the harvest of Christians. We plant and we water, but the growth and the increase remain the work of Him who sends us.”19

Freinademetz was quite realistic in the way he looked at the missionary scene. He was able to assess the motives that prompt people to come to the missionary. Sometime it had nothing to do with any spiritual quest. Some people used to approach him to derive financial benefit or “the European should teach him how to take revenge on his enemies, or he expects to land a job…. But when his plans evaporate in thin air, the unclean bird also takes to flight.”20 Such circumspection has saved him from a lot of trouble.

The neophytes in faith used to face various difficulties within their own community. In the early years as the new missionary found out for himself, ostracization stared often in their faces. “It is not easy for the poor people here to become Catholics. The catechumens tell me that in the beginning, after their conversion, they no longer dared to go to the market place. When they met other people they blushed crimson for shame. Formerly they were regarded as respectable members of the community or as good neighbours; now they became ‘the most despised of the world’, ‘outcasts of mankind’.”21

Teaching catechism to women was very much a priority for Freinademetz in his missionary endeavour. He faced a serious challenge in this regard as there was strict segregation of men and women in the Chinese society. But he would not give up that easily: “The instruction of the women presents some problems since male catechists are not allowed to instruct them, and we do not have any female catechists who can. That slows down the development of the mission very much. In one place I was obliged to appoint as the women’s catechist a 10-year old girl, who is still a catechumen herself but has learned the prayers well.”22

Though Freinademetz was a devout religious and a zealous missionary, life for him was not a cake walk. He had to face his own share of problems. Once he admitted to baptism a clever and ‘wheeler-dealer’ type of man rather quickly which was not his normal practice. This worldly-wise man knew the ropes to move up and he became a catechist soon. He indulged in various nefarious activities including opium trade. Eventually Freinademetz had to dismiss him from service. He was quite upset with this incident as he had misjudged this man who was working against the church there.23

vi. Leader of a Persecuted Church

Freinademetz had to face another ordeal in his missionary life in China. When he was the Administrator of the mission two missionaries were brutally murdered. Richard Henle and Francis Nies were doing good work in the mission field. This tragic incident pained him much. On some other occasion Mon. Anzer and Freinademetz too had received maltreatment in the hands of Chinese hooligans.

Besides these there were also other occasions when the Local Church faced persecution. A church was broken into and the catechist was roughed up. Of course their main target was the priest there who had providentially escaped from the place a little earlier. So the poor lay leader bore the brunt of the attack. Looting and plunder had been part of this incident too as in the case of many other mission stations.

The Administrator of the diocese did not take these incidents of persecution lying down. He drew up a precise and detailed account of these atrocities and presented a memorandum to the powers that be in Germany for necessary action. He also pointed out the indifference and lethargy of Chinese authorities. Though no compensation was received from any quarter registering protest and raising voice seemed to have some desired effect as the number of attacks on missionaries and mission came down slowly.24

II. Asian Relevance

“Christianity was born in the Middle East as a religion, went to Greece and became a philosophy, migrated to Rome and became a legal system, spread through Europe and became a culture, and finally headed to America, where it became Big Business.”25 Various shades have been added over centuries with the encounter of different culture. In much of Asia it is seen differently – a colonial hangover, often grudgingly tolerated.

Despite this limitation SVD has been making efforts right from the beginning to make a difference in mission. Its missionary vision originated with Arnold Janssen, was articulated by William Schmidt and was lived by Freinademetz.26 The precedent he set is outstanding and later generations of SVDs look up to their first missionary to China.27 So his life is viewed from the angle of its relevance to further promote the mission ad gentes.

i. Paradigm of Inculturation

Although the western world-view has dominated the global scene, in recent times it is being increasingly recognized even in academic circles that there are certain traits and characteristics which are typically Asian in nature. “People in the West are dominated by the conscious mind; they go about their business each shut up in their own ego. There is a kind of fixed determination in their minds;… But in the East people live not from the conscious mind but from the unconscious…”28 Freinademetz seems to have captured this piece of wisdom, perhaps without his own knowledge, soon after his arrival in the orient and he imbibed more of ‘Asian-ness’ little by little, day by day.

Asian continent has a rich cultural legacy. China and India stand out in this regard. Excavations done around Beijing a few decades ago (1923-27) clearly brought to the notice of the world that the Chinese civilization is very ancient and the people are quite proud of its antiquity. People of Chinese origin are steeped in their tradition and they almost wear it on their sleeves wherever they go. Even in modern cities like Singapore and Hong Kong they maintain their cultural identity.29

Freinademetz learned fast that as a missionary if he had to be effective he needed to be one with the people to whom he was sent. He had to show respect for their culture and also adapt their ways.30 In his case he was also quite aware that the Chinese had no love lost for the White man. In fact he made all-out effort to win their trust and very much wanted to show them that his interest was not in trade, commerce or politics, but he was a missionary. His presence and activity was not intended to subjugate a part of their land as a colony. He consciously projected a different image although in that peculiar historical era the Europeans were annexing more and more of Chinese land as their colonies.

A realization dawned on him that if he maintained his external appearance as a European he would be practically rejected by the very people to whom he had come as a missionary. Mateo Ricci’s (1552-1680) efforts in this regard must have been a good reminder as well as a model for him. The great Jesuit missionary had taken pains to learn the language, literature and etiquette of the Chinese to win their hearts.31 Of course Fu Shen-fu could not change the colour of his skin. But for that he made him himself look like a Chinese in all other respects.32

Such an approach is very much needed to remove the impression from the minds of the people that Christianity is still alien to this continent. In China many take to studying Christianity in universities as a western religion oblivious of the fact that it is born in the same continent. It is through genuine inculturation that the charge of Christians being agents promoting western culture would gradually disappear. As Paul said I make all things to all people so that I may win some by whatever means possible. (ICor. 9: 22).

ii. Missionary Facing Religious Phenomena

Asian continent is known as the cradle of religions. Sotereology has many manifestations and their age-old expressions can not be faced with a rhetoric that might be considered brilliant in certain Christian circles. “We have to open ourselves to the revelation of the divine mystery which took place in Asia, in Hinduism and Buddhism, in Taoism, Confucianism and Shintoism.”33 The way so many Christians are flocking to some of these sects and Masters of the orient should make us look at them and see what is good in their approach to life and reality.34

In many of the Asian countries there is high regard for persons of religiosity whether they are Buddhist monks or Hindu mendicants or Sufi masters.35 Even when one is an active missionary like Freinademetz his model as a deeply devout person is quite inspirational for the people of Asia as a whole.

Renunciation is a value well appreciated as essential an element of religiosity. Unlike in the West where with the growth of materialism and rationalism religion are on the verge of dying out, in the Asian context even when there is material progress religious outlook is not totally compromised.36 Freinademetz’s genuine ascetical discipline has been instrumental in drawing many people to the fold of Christian faith as it is not an uncommon phenomenon in Asia.37

As Abhishiktananda (Henry le Saux 1910-1973), the Benedictine itinerant monk has said “What the world needs most urgently now is men who have met God in Christ and witness to it with the spontaneity and the liberty of a John or a Paul. Nobody can make the presence of Jesus known to others if already Jesus is not for him a living presence.”38 This is, no doubt, a personal challenge for every missionary.

iii. Towards a Broad-based Missionary Praxis

A missionary is most often perceived as a rank outsider. He should be quite conscious of this fact. Initially much opposition to his arrival is expected. But that should not deter him from pursuing his task. It is by building bridges across people that he finds a place in the social milieu where he is placed. Hence there is no substitute for entering into relationships with various types of people. Being a humble learner is one of the best approaches a missionary could adopt at the beginning stage. He has to contend with weird customs and a strange world-view. With much patience he will be able to break new ground and slowly win their hearts. In the case of Freinademetz he has presented himself as a model for a missionary at the grass-roots.

The understanding of reality in some of the Asian cultures is like a ray of light passing through a spectrum. Various shades can co-exist simultaneously without any contradiction.39 It is like Nicholas of Cusa’s (1401-1461) principle of ‘Coincidentia oppositorum’. He had said: “In God we must not conceive of distinction and indistinction, for example, as two contradictories, but we must conceive of them as antecedently existing in their own most simple beginning, where distinction is not other than indistinction.”40 The missionary’s canvas has to be pretty broad in order that he does not get confused.

Sometimes lethargy and indifference go along with it. Just for the sake of maintaining harmony even deviancy is never condemned.41 In such situations when Christian missionaries make their entry the passive, static idea of harmony, even if not immediately changed, but at least it is challenged. Fatalism which is quite common in Asian cultures too would not go unaffected by his presence and activity.42 Naturally it will raise many eye-brows and there will be some tension. To some extent it is to be expected as some dynamic element has entered the lull, dull society. It is to be seen and understood as a sign of positive change as well as healthy growth. The outsider can be a quite catalyst for bringing about transformation in the society. It is truly prophetic dialogue that is in operation in this context.

iv. Advocacy for the Little Flock

In the Asian context the Church is a small minority, truly ‘a little flock’ (less than 3% of the vast multitudes of Asia). In such a situation mutual encouragement is constantly needed and appreciated.43 This is all the more necessary when incidents of persecution occur, every now and then in India, Indonesia, China and some of the Arabian countries. Many have become martyrs in the recent past. Everything should not be taken lying down. The consequences then could be disastrous. There is need for promoting advocacy about the situation at various national and international fora. Awareness should be raised that there are various ways of registering protest. Sometimes immediate result may not be forthcoming. Yet as it is a matter of survival for the ‘little flock’ Church leadership at local level can not afford to ignore this vital responsibility.

In this regard violent means should be totally excluded. Temptation could be pretty strong to take revenge with counter attacks and there could be some short-tem gains. But violence only begets more violence. Such an approach will create more problems than solutions. History is replete with such lessons. Taking the cue from the New Testament Gandhi had developed non-violent methods of registering protest as well as fighting injustice. If physical violence is faced with fortitude, courage and patience, without fleeing from the situation, there is going to be positive result in the long run.

v. Spiritual Back-up for Mission

In this era of crass materialism and consumerism affecting the lives of even religious and missionaries the life of Freinademetz is worthy of admiration as well as emulation. Once he left his home in 1879 there was no turning back; he never returned to Europe even once. His life has been marked by a sense of detachment, ascetical discipline and austere living. It was seen as an integral dimension of incarnational spirituality and all these traits enhanced his missionary profile.

While on the one hand there is a tendency today to play down the importance of these elements and substitute them with a kind of activism these are the very factors that keep the missionary on a steady track, without faltering. These are the genuine ingredients of his unflagging zeal. The edifice called mission is built on the foundation of simple living. That is the message from the life of humble Fu Shen-fu.


Freinademetz was not a brilliant student nor was he that very extraordinarily gifted. But he as an average man was quite focused in what he was doing and marshalling all the resources he had at his disposal, achieved great things in the mission land. His life epitomizes the laying the foundation for a genuinely Chinese, nay, Asian Church. He has provided a vision of a truly incarnated, inculturated Church without the usual trappings of the West.

As Asian Synod Document (1999) says “In the process of encountering the world’s different cultures, the Church not only transmits her truths and values and renews cultures from within, but she also takes from the various cultures the positive elements already found in them. This is the obligatory path for evangelizers in presenting the Christian faith and making it part of a peoples’ cultural heritage.”44 This is exactly what Freinademetz lived for and his life has in some way foreshadowed in the above statement. Even though 100 years have gone by after his death his life and ways of mission have not become irrelevant.

III. Epilogue

China is currently going through a phase of great economic boom. Industry, trade and commerce are taking unprecedented strides. Life behind the bamboo curtain is fast changing. Globally this country is positioning itself as a super power and as it looks nothing can stop this march forward. As for the Church in China she has faced many obstacles. Confucian philosophy of naturalism makes them indifferent to other religions. Even when some accept Christianity temptations of making it a kind of syncretism is still persist. Polygamy is yet another obstacle the church has to contend with.

Despite these problems there would have been a more inculturated Church there, but for the Communist revolution. Yet everything does not seem to be lost. There is a silver lining in the cloud. “Christianity in China today evidences an heroic spirit. Tens of thousands have persevered … without priests and sacraments. The faith, hope and love are undaunted and carry them through. Many have endured forced labour, imprisonment and even martyrdom.”45 In the land of Confucius the words of Tertullian, viz., the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christian faith, could have a some telling effect in not so distant future.

The confession of Lou Tseng Tsiang, once the Prime Minister of Chinese Republic who later became a Catholic monk, is perhaps a harbinger of the days to come:

I am a Christian and a Catholic because Holy Church, prepared from the beginning of mankind, founded by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, divinely enlightens and sustains the soul of man and gives the exclusive response to all our highest desires, to all our aspirations to all our needs.”46

  1. From the Address of a South American Missionary during ASPAC Assembly, 2005, in Taipei.
  2. F. Bornemann’s As Wine Poured out is the best authoritative biography so far available. Hereafter all the references to this book will be as AWP.
  3. Cf. Josef Alt., Journey in Faith, p. 1034.
  4. Cf. AWP, p. 13.
  5. Cf. AWP, p. 30.
  6. AWP, p. 94.
  7. Cf. AWP, p. 95.
  8. AWP, p. 72.
  9. AWP, p. 137.
  10. Cf. F. Bornemann and Others, A History of the Divine Word Missionaries, 1981, Rome, p. 17.
  11. AWP, p. 37.
  12. Bede Griffiths, Universal Wisdom, Indus, New Delhi, 1995, p. 251.
  13. Cf. R. De Smet, Religious Hinduism, St. Paul’s, Mumbai, 1997, p. 390.
  14. AWP, p. 75.
  15. AWP, p. 72
  16. AWP, p. 95.
  17. Cf. AWP, p. 136.
  18. AWP, p. 75.
  19. AWP, p. 138.
  20. AWP, p. 72.
  21. AWP, p. 72.
  22. AWP, p. 72.
  23. Cf. AWP, pp. 141-142.
  24. Cf. AWP, pp. 242-3.
  25. Gibson David, The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful are Shaping a New American Catholicism, Harper, San Francisco, 2003, p. 224.
  26. From the Key Note Address of Antonio Pernia, SVD Superior General, during the seminar on mission spirituality at Indore, on the occasion of Platinum Jubilee celebrations of SVD presence in India.
  27. In India the efforts made in this regard by George Proksch is still very much discussed as a model and rated truly as the work of a pioneer.
  28. Bede Griffiths, The Marriage of East and West, Collins, London, 1982, p. 8.
  29. Even after Mao Zedong’s great revolution it could only make cosmetic changes in their way of thinking.
  30. In India William Wuellner who was a pioneer missionary among the Bhilalas, practically followed the example of Freinademetz.
  31. In India Robert de Nobili (1577-1656) too had made similar efforts of presenting a thoroughly inculturated church.
  32. His zeal in immersing himself in the local culture went to the extent of him stating loud and clear “Even in Heaven I would like to be a Chinese.”.
  33. Griffiths, Marriage between East and West, p. 202.
  34. Nostra Aetate No.2. The Zen, Yogic and Vipassana methods of meditation, let alone many others, have something different to offer.
  35. Thomas Merton’s efforts to dialogue with the Buddhist monks of Thailand at the level of spirituality, is a case in point of their regard. It is a fact that they held this Cistercian monk from America in high esteem. So also the attempt of a few Benedictine nuns who spent a month with their Buddhist counterparts in India brought to light that both have much common ground.
  36. Sunita Williams, an astronaut who recently spent 90 days in space had carried along with her a copy of the Hindu Scripture, Bhagavad Gita This gesture indicates that Asian sensibilities are different.
  37. For instance take the case of Mother Teresa of Kolkata (1910-1997). Her simplicity of life and ascetical discipline drew many Hindus closer to her, as a devout religious, not merely as a social worker.
  38. Quoted in D. Bhatt, ‘An Apostle - a Christian Guru’, Clarence Srambical, (ed.) Mission Spirituality, Divine Word Publications, Indore, 1976, p.145.
  39. The Chinese symbol of Yin Yang illustrates it very clearly.
  40. http://integralscience.org/cusa.html
  41. For instance, in India those who practice the cult of tantrism still make sacrifice of children. Hardly anyone raises voice against it.
  42. The Hindu Reformers in 19th and 20th century under Christian missionary influence fought against the practice of sati – the wife jumping into the funeral pyre of the husband.
  43. Cf. James M. Kroeger, M. M., ‘Mission Congress Reflection: God’s Asian Tapestry’, Mission Today, Vol. IX, No. 2, Apr. – June 2007, Shillong, p. 126.
  44. Ecclesia in Asia, No. 21.
  45. F. Bornemann and Others, A History of Divine Word Missionaries, Rome, 1981, p. 320.
  46. Dom Lou, The Way of Confucius and of Christ, Burns and Oats, London, 1948, p. 64. Quoted in H. Staffner, The Significance of Jesus Christ in Asia, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, Anand, 1985, p. 178.