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Fr. Arnold Janssen: "Et Tui Erant"

by Fr. Antonio M. Pernia, SVD

photos from Divine Word Missionaries

“Et Tui Erant”

The ringing of the bells that morning was longer than usual. And everyone in Steyl knew that the Superior General, Arnold Janssen, had died. It was the early morning of Friday, 15 January 1909. At the first hour of that day, at 1:00 AM, the founder of the Steyl religious missionary congregations passed away peacefully and without any struggle.

Although the final illness had set in already in early November, Arnold Janssen was confined to bed only during the last ten days. From 05 January, the founder could no longer get up from bed. His right side was completely paralyzed and the paralysis had now spread to the left side. On 10 January it seemed that the death agony had begun. The last rites were administered, and the Prayers for the Dying were said. Despite his condition, the founder joined in the responses. The hymn to the Holy Spirit, Veni Sancte Spiritus, was heard repeatedly from the founder. And in the midst of his prayers, a small Latin phrase escaped from his lips—“Et tui errant.”

At first the phrase seemed irrelevant and meaningless. But he kept saying it—until one of those around him remembered: “Et tui erant”—And they were yours! It was a phrase from the final prayer of Jesus before he went forth to his death (Jn 17:6ff). “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word .... I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours.” On the night before he died, Jesus prayed for his disciples. In a strikingly similar way, a few days before he died, Father Arnold prayed for his spiritual sons and daughters.

And his prayer revealed a profoundly modern missiological insight—Missio Dei. Mission is God’s first and foremost. The missionary congregations which he painstakingly founded, the missionary vocations which he carefully nurtured, the mission work around the world which he efficiently organized—this great work, his missionary vision, his lifelong mission—all this was God’s. Everything that he lived and died for, everything that he worked hard and sacrificed for, everything was God’s. ET TUI ERANT! There was nothing he could claim as his own. It was all Missio Dei. The founder may never have used the terms themselves, but his lifestyle and spirituality showed that he understood the call to mission as a call to collaborate with God’s mission.

It is therefore understandable that the search for God’s will was a central concern of the founder throughout his life. For if mission is fundamentally collaboration with God’s mission, then it is essential that one is constantly attuned with God’s will. Thus, he sought all his life to learn to discover God’s will and follow it. And he demanded the same of his priests, brothers and sisters. Before making any major decision, he discerned hard and waited for God’s will to be revealed more clearly. In discerning God’s will, the founder generally combined both prayer and study, or contemplation and dialogue.

First, prayer and contemplation. While Father Arnold was no “mystic” in the classical sense of the term, those who knew him closely testify to his “mystical disposition” or “prayerful frame of mind”. Thus, while Father Arnold was not gifted with extraordinary mystical manifestations such as visions, ecstasies and revelations, he appeared to walk in the presence of God and gave the impression that he was constantly conversing with God. Biographers of Father Arnold inevitably refer to his “communion with God” and love for prayer as prominent characteristics of his personality. It was from this that he drew the energy and strength for the many tasks that he had to do. And it was through this that he contemplated God’s heart and discerned God’s will about a particular question.

Second, dialogue and study. For Father Arnold, discovering God’s will was not only a question of prayer and contemplation. It also required serious study and research. No important decision was ever made without first demanding detailed information regarding a concrete situation, consulting with members of the general council, dialoguing with confreres or groups of confreres, asking advice from experts and persons in authority. Indeed what emerges from the founder’s style of reaching a decision is the image of a person of dialogue. The many consultations he undertook, the innumerable letters he wrote, the various reports from the missions he required—all these bespeak of a man striving to discover God’s will by being open to hear the other, to learn from concrete situations, and to dialogue with confreres.

Thus, in his lifetime, Arnold Janssen sought only to do God’s will—in such a way that whatever he achieved was not his but God’s. At his death, that Friday morning of 15 January 1909, he handed over to God his life’s work and labor. Because they are yours!

Et tui erant!

It is beautiful to remember that the founder prayed for his followers just before he died. But it is also important to note that in his prayer he considered his followers as belonging not to himself but to God. Et tui erant. Because they are yours. In other words, what was important for Father Arnold was not that the members of the congregations he founded be his followers but that they belong to God and be truly “persons of God”. That is to say, that by being followers of the founder, members of the congregations he founded would become like him—a man of God, someone who placed at the center of his life the holy will of God, which is the salvation of all peoples.

This is the real meaning of our vocation as followers of Arnold Janssen—becoming persons of God, as companions of the Divine Word and servants of the Holy Spirit.

Because this experience of being of God or of belonging to God is the very source of mission. For such experience is the experience of being chosen by God or of being loved by God—an experience which impels us to share the Gospel with others. Thus mission no longer seems like an obligation or a duty, but an expression of our experience of belonging to God or of being of God. It is in this light that St. Joseph Freinademetz could say: “I do not consider being a missionary as a sacrifice which I offer to God but as the greatest grace that God gives me.”

Today we bring to a close the “Centennial Year of Arnold and Joseph” with the theme, “Precious is the Life given for Mission.” We opened the year with a reflection on St. Joseph Freinademetz and dwelt on the marble plaque which announced his death in Taikia on 28 January 1908. “Infatigabilis Evangelii praeco, verbo et opere clarus”! We close our centennial year with a reflection on the image of St. Arnold Janssen breathing his last and praying for his followers. Et tui erant. For they are yours. Contemplating his life and work, we his followers can only whisper in prayer: “Et tuus erat!” For he was yours. Totally yours. The inscription on his tomb reads: “Dulcissimus in Christo. Arnoldus Janssen. Pater, Dux, Fundator noster. In pace.”

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