In 1905, one of the greatest Catholic missionaries in China wrote his thoughts for the Chinese New Year. His story is still interesting today.
“It is the Chinese New Year and a new era has begun for China. It is now essential to activate all means to take advantage of this favorable period for our religion. If Europe were truly Catholic, I have no doubt that the time for China’s conversion would have come. But unfortunately, we must look to the future with fear and trembling. There is no time to waste and we must work tirelessly.
These words, possibly replacing “Catholic” with “Christian” due to the success of various brands of Protestantism in China, could have been written for the Chinese New Year of 2022.
However, the text is not from 2022. It is from 1905. The person who wrote these Chinese New Year greetings was a mountaineer from Val Badia, the Badia Valley, now part of Italian South Tyrol, Josef Freinademetz. He had gone from assistant parish priest in the mountain hamlet of St Martin to famous and successful missionary in China.
Add that he was a member of a linguistic minority who spoke ladin (not a typo for “Latin”, but a Romance language spoken by less than 50,000 mountain villagers), and had learned Italian and German with great difficulty. He was the superior for the Chinese territory of a specialized religious congregation, the Verbites, that is to say the members of the Missionary Society of the Divine Word.
Celebrating the Chinese New Year, he could declare that he had become “Chinese with the Chinese”, fluent in three different Mandarin dialects and even wearing a pigtail. Pope John Paul II inscribed him in 2003 in the catalog of saints of the Catholic Church.
A few years ago, a visit to Val Badia led me to the poor birthplace of Freinademetz in the hamlet of Oies, a hamlet made up of half a dozen houses. More importantly, on August 5, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI visited the house and prayed there for China.
In this remote corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which became part of Italy after World War I), Ujöp Freinademetz (the German version, spelled Josef, of the Ladin name Ujöp would not come until many years later) was born in 1852. The family lived in dignified poverty and typical Tyrolean Catholic piety, which can be difficult to understand today. The daily rhythms of prayer alternating with work were more reminiscent of a monastic community than a modern lay family.
It is not extraordinary that in this environment a religious vocation matured, and Ujöp, who spoke only Ladin, overcame the language barrier to enter the seminary of Brixen (today Bressanone, Italy) and become a priest. What was extraordinary was the dream that was maturing in young Freinademetz, who had never traveled outside of South Tyrol. He dreamed of converting the most populous country in the world, China, to Catholicism. Although stories about the missions reached the seminary through Catholic magazines, Freinademetz knew very little about China. But he understood that she was immense and believed that she had to be converted.
From a local Catholic magazine, he learned of the existence in Steyl, in the Netherlands, of a new missionary institute which intended to devote itself to Asia, the Society of the Divine World, founded by a man whom Pope John Paul II will canonize with Freinademetz himself, the German-Dutch priest Arnold Janssen. Freinademetz asked and obtained from his bishop permission to leave the diocese and join the Verbites.
Janssen’s style was cold and severe, while Freinademetz was enthusiastic and exuberant. Moreover, Janssen had an academic background in secular universities and had been a teacher, while Freinademetz could barely complete the seminar with the greatest effort. Eventually, however, the two priests came to understand and respect each other, and even became friends.
In 1879, the first two Verbite missionaries left for China: one was Freinademetz and the other was Johann Baptist Anzer. Later, Anzer became the first Verbite bishop in China, as an apostolic administrator of southern Shandong, then called Shantung. The position was offered to Freinademetz, but he refused out of humility, while keeping his role as superior of the Verbites in China.
Anzer was not the best choice for a bishop. He was authoritarian, troubled by personal problems with alcoholism, and concerned as a Bavarian to promote Germany’s political interests in China. When Anzer died in Rome in 1903, Freinademetz was again the most logical choice for bishop. This time he could have accepted but was blocked by a veto from the German government, which feared that an Austro-Hungarian subject as bishop could not continue to advance Germany’s political interests.
Freinademetz was, however, allowed to serve as apostolic administrator of the diocese for several years. Finally, a German was appointed bishop, Augustin Henninghaus. He turned out to be a good bishop and Freinademetz was happy to work with him. Later, Henninghaus became Freinademetz’s first biographer.
When Freinademetz arrived in China, his judgment of local religions was very negative, and influenced by Catholic literature he had read in Europe and which certainly did not promote interreligious dialogue. He was impressed by what looked like miraculous feats of Buddhist and Taoist ascetics, but attributed them to the work of the devil, although he added that some of them may have been good men deceived by the Evil One without the knowledge.
The men he considered criminals and bandits were the members of the anti-Christian secret societies, who had kidnapped and murdered several missionaries, and whose fury was unleashed in the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901.
Boxer-related atrocities were less common in Shandong, where Freinademetz lived, but it was suggested that he seek protection in one of the areas controlled by Western armies. He refused and survived the Boxers crisis unscathed, but not the typhus epidemic that followed. In fact, he insisted on visiting hospitals and even helping doctors and nurses, until he got infected himself.
He died in Daijiazhuang, Shandong, on January 28, 1908. While other missionaries had their bodies transported to Europe for burial, Freinademetz wrote in his will: “I love China and the Chinese, and I want to be buried with them “.
His name was unpronounceable in China and he preferred to be called “Fu Shenfu”, the Fu Priest. Shortly before his death, Freinademetz wrote a report of his years of missionary activity in Shandong. When he arrived there, he found 158 Catholics in the area. Dying, he left 40,000.
It is a truism to say that Freinademetz was a man of his time, and some of his remarks on China and its traditions can today be considered orientalist or colonialist. On the other hand, as Pope John Paul II noted when he canonized him, Freinademetz made a genuine effort to overcome his prejudices, eventually abandoning most of them, and understanding Chinese culture according to its own terms.
His genuine love for the Chinese, Catholic or non-Catholic, was universally acknowledged. His tomb was visited and honored by tens of thousands of people until it was desecrated and destroyed by the Cultural Revolution, although a memorial has since been rebuilt.
Cultural issues aside, that a mountaineer from a remote hamlet in the mountains of South Tyrol could not only conceive but begin to realize the idea of converting huge China, or at least a vast region of it Here, to Christianity remains an extraordinary story – one to remember as we celebrate the Chinese New Year, with Bitter Winter’s best wishes to those celebrating.
This article has been republished with permission from Bitter winter.