China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2003/Sep

Freinademetz, China Missionary and Saint

On October 5, 2003, Pope John Paul II will proclaim Joseph Freinademetz (1852-1908), Divine Word missionary in China, a saint. Before founding the Divine Word Fathers’ mission in Southern Shandong (1881), Father Freinademetz worked for two years in Hong Kong, under Bishop Raimondi.

Joseph Freinademetz was born in 1852 in Southern Tyrol which at the time belonged to the Austrian-Hungarian empire. In 1875, he was ordained a priest, and in 1879 he met Arnold Janssen, founder of the Society of the Divine Word (the two were canonized together). Freinademetz decided to enter the new missionary society. At Steyl in Holland, the first Divine Word Center, he met the young German priest John Baptist Anzer (1851-1903), and their destiny was linked forever.

A heartbreaking relationship

The most painful event in the life and mission of Joseph Freinademetz was, without doubt, his very heartbreaking relationship with John Baptist Anzer, his religious superior and his bishop in the Shandong China mission. Freinademetz and Anzer were among the first students of the Society of the Divine Word and the first to be sent in mission. They were friends and companions at Steyl, the Divine Word Center, and deeply fond of each other. “Anzer,” wrote Freinademetz from Steyl in 1879, “is a young, energetic and courageous priest. I am sure that he will be a wonderful life companion.” They left Steyl together following a moving departure ceremony, the first in the new Divine Word Society. Together they made the long voyage to China, which also took them to Hong Kong and together they arrived in Shandong Province where they set up the first Divine Word mission.

Two friends take different paths

Along the way of life, the two companions took very different paths. Anzer became superior and bishop while Freinademetz resolutely refused such appointments. Anzer was proud, arrogant, and lacking in self-discipline and even violent in some of his dealings with the Chinese. Freinademetz, on the other hand, for whom “love is the only language that call can understand,” esteemed the Chinese and their culture deeply, adopted a missionary attitude of profound respect for and solidarity with the Chinese people going so far as to declare that “in heaven I want to be Chinese.” In his will he had also asked to be buried in the Chinese cemetery, a wish that was not respected.

Two missionary attitudes

The story of the relationship between these two missionaries – friends and adversaries – illustrates the two missionary attitudes in China. Anzer’s missionary strategy was based totally on confrontation and a triumphal attitude. This immediately provoked a negative reaction from the Chinese, which resulted in anti-Christian riots and persecutions.

On 3 November 1897, two Divine Word missionaries were killed. Anzer, who was in Berlin at the time and – according to popular opinion – contributed to the Kaiser Wilhelm II’s decision to occupy Jiaozhou militarily and in that way to increase German influence throughout the whole of Shandong. This episode, along with other factors and events, brought on the crisis that paved way for the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

Anzer’s behaviour raises alarm

Freinademetz looked upon the bishop’s decisions and his pastoral style with increasing alarm and soon found himself in a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, he realised that the Divine Word mission was on the road to ruin. Moreover, his confreres, who did not have the courage to confront the irascible bishop, begged Freinademetz, who was Anzer’s pro-vicar administrator and number two in the mission, to admonish the bishop. On the other hand, Freinademetz was tied to Anzer by fraternal bonds, and respect for his superior to whom he owed religious obedience.

A letter from the heart and the conscience

Freinademetz spoke and wrote to the bishop frankly. Anzer refused to accept Freinademetz’s admonitions, and threatened him with canonical sanctions. Their relationship became impossible. In his long, touching and tragic letter of 26 February 1894, Freinademetz wrote: “The real reason for the lamentable situation of our mission is the lack of proper relations between the bishop on the one hand and whole of the mission on the other… The missionaries stay as far away as they can from the bishop’s house… What Your Excellency says is a mixture of lies, distortions, contradictions, and defamations. No one can believe what Your Excellency says any longer. The bishop’s way of often using extremely offensive language in dealing with persons in public has shut the mouths of the missionaries… Because you drink too much, you are no longer able to control your tongue or your legs… and everyone is laughing at you. It is extremely painful for me to mention these things and I weep as I write. Curse the wine that transforms into a stupor even the wisest of men. Your pastoral visits do not meet your purpose. Your Excellency is only interested in big numbers, and not in the quality of converts… Individual missionaries do not tell you these things. They tell you only what you want to hear. I want to say to you: enough of these pompous spectacles!

“Excellency, I have written here what I have held hidden within my heart for many years. With only two exceptions, I have remained silent for 15 years, committing, in fact, a serious wrong to our mission in Southern Shandong and saddening my own conscience with the weight of a grave responsibility. But I can no longer remain silent. The consequences of this situation are too grave and my confreres beg me to intervene; it is my duty to do so. It is a matter of life and death for our mission… If there is something offensive in the words I have chosen or in my explanation, this is not my intention and on my knees I beg your forgiveness. Not speaking about this with you directly, up to now, I have not had the courage to be a friend (forgive me the word) true, sincere and open with Your Excellency, which I ought to have been. If Your Excellency so permits, I would want to be your true friend from now on.”

Anzer’s response

Anzer reacted by forbidding Freinademetz, under obedience, to speak any more about him. He dismissed all the catechists working for Freinademetz, who, as a punishment, was sent to the eastern most remote part of the Vicariate. The situation went from bad to worse. Freinademetz requested his superior general for a dispensation from the obligation of religious obedience in order to explain the tension-filled state of the mission. Janssen, superior and founder of the Divine Word Society, petitioned the Holy See to have Anzer relieved of his administration.

In a scathing letter written on 28 September 1894, Anzer accused Freinademetz of various offenses: being his mortal enemy, secretly plotting against him and wanting his downfall. He ended the letter by saying, “I am leaving for Europe. I do not know if I will see you again. But my memories of you will always be bittersweet.”

Anzer undertakes a reform

The following year (1895) Anzer tried to correct his excesses. On his knees he begged Freinademetz’ pardon and the two began to collaborate once again, so much so that Freinademetz was named interim superior during Anzer’s frequent absences. Under pressure from Anzer, Freinademetz even wrote a letter to Rome – where in the meantime reports of Anzer’s unworthy behavior had arrived – asserting that the bishop was making heroic efforts to correct himself.

Rome responds to the situation

The bishop soon lapsed back into his vices, taking a turn for the worse. In 1901, the Prefect of Propaganda Fide, Cardinal Ledochowski, badly advised and irritated by Janssen’s request to have Anzer removed, considered this interference in the prerogatives of Propaganda. He maintained that Anzer, as bishop, depended only on Propaganda no longer on the Society and that he had to be left in peace. Incredibly, he exonerated Anzer from the accusations. The mission was left in total confusion. There was no way now to stop the bishop.

In 1902, Cardinal Gotti, Ledochowski’s successor, was compelled to reopen the case. This time Anzer could not manipulate powerful friends to come to his defense.

Once in Rome, Anzer had to confront multiple accusations related to his many excesses. These accusations were based substantially on reports that Freinademetz, elected superior of the Divine Word missionaries in Shandong Province in 1900, wrote under oath. Other missionaries, as well as two Propaganda inspectors and the Superior General, Janssen, confirmed these reports. Anzer had no way to defend himself. He died suddenly from a heart attack on 25 November 1903, shortly after he arrived in Rome.

Life after Anzer’s death

Freinademetz, who was already provincial superior, was the natural candidate to succeed Anzer; the Superior General and his confreres proposed him. But the German Chancery vetoed the proposal saying that Freinademetz was Austrian and not German. Furthermore, they considered him Anzer’s adversary. Anzer enjoyed Kaiser Wilhelm’s friendship. Freinademetz had no political agenda. He did, however, remain as the superior.

There is certainly a tragic human and affective dimension to Freinademetz and Anzer’s story, friends and adversaries. The human figure of Anzer arouses more sadness and pain than scandal. Freinademetz, who died on 28 January 1908, had the misfortune to see his friend, superior and bishop, sink deeper and deeper without being able to save him.

Freinademetz the saint

Freinademetz was superior to all the other Divine Word Fathers in his knowledge of the Chinese language and culture, by talent and missionary zeal and by the sanctity of his life. Although Freinademetz did not die a martyr, it is highly probable that the event of his unfortunate mission companion must have caused him a personal, constant and most painful anguish, a special kind of martyrdom.

The words of Bishop Henninghaus are perhaps the most meaningful and not at all ordinary:

“Freinademetz never received any praise from the Chinese, no decorations, no imperial commendation, no honors such as the Chinese government of the time was so generous in bestowing. Nothing, no inscription ever made for him, such as so many other missionaries have received. That is all the more extraordinary for those that know the circumstances of his life. Father Freinademetz knew how to stay far away from every external tribute. He was always the humble servant. He had one wish only: to do his duty with modesty and faithfulness.”