Arnold Janssen (1837-1909) was a penniless German priest who, at a time when the Church in his homeland was under grievous persecution, conceived the plan of founding a seminary for missionaries.
“He’s either a fool or a saint,” commented a bishop to whom he outlined his plans. Janssen was canonised in 2003.
The second of five boys and two girls, he was born at Goch, near the Dutch border. Both parents were dedicated Catholics and his father, a small farmer, loved to tell his children about the challenges offered to the Church in far-flung countries such as India and China.
At school Arnold proved particularly gifted in mathematics and science. He always knew, however, that he was called to be a priest.
At the diocesan seminary in Münster, at a teacher training college in Bonn and then back in Münster to complete his degree in theology, he always performed brilliantly. Ordained in 1861, he was sent to teach at a secondary school in Bocholt, where he remained for 12 years.
He resigned in 1873, feeling himself drawn to the preparation of missionaries. He became chaplain to the Ursuline Sisters at Kempen and in his spare time launched a magazine about missionary work called the Little Messenger of the Sacred Heart.
In Germany, this was the period when Bismarck was attacking the Church’s control over its own schools. He also expelled the Jesuits and other religious orders, took over seminaries and claimed rights over the appointment of clergy. Ecclesiastics who resisted these measures were imprisoned.
Janssen therefore founded his Divine Word seminary across the border at Steyl, Holland, in a dilapidated old tavern called Ronck Villa. He refused to worry about money; it was already there, he insisted, “in the pockets of good people who will give it to you at the proper time”.
And so it proved. In 1876 the Sisters of Divine Providence arrived to take charge of the kitchens and the laundry, while a new foundation of laymen, the Divine Word Missionary Brothers, helped with the ever-expanding printing press.
The first two Divine Word missionaries were sent out to China in 1879, and others followed: to Togo in 1892, to Papua New Guinea in 1896, to Japan in 1907 and to Indonesia in 1912. In 1892 the Holy Missionary Sisters were inaugurated and three years later sent their first members overseas, to Argentina.
By the time of Arnold Janssen’s death the orders which he had created comprised some 1,500 people. Today more than 10,000 men and women from every continent bear witness to the enduring inspiration of their founder’s seemingly impractical ideal.
“Anyone who sows sparsely will reap sparsely,” Arnold Janssen would say, quoting St Paul. “And anyone who sows generously will reap generously as well.”