15th General Chapter, Mission

Epiphany – The Feast of Global Mission

The feast of Epiphany (January 6), because of its significance, was chosen to begin the year of Passion for Global Mission, which is the theme that will accompany the Missionary Servants of the Holy Spirit throughout the year 2023.

This article offers a perspective on the solemnity from the Arnoldus family history. In a second part, a brief commentary points out some aspects of the gospel of the Epiphany.

The Missionary Feast of the Arnoldus Family

For Saint Arnold and his Mission Society at Steyl, Epiphany was one of the most significant feasts. All SVD and SSpS communities celebrated it with utmost solemnity. Together with Christmas and Pentecost, it was one of the three feasts with a festive procession through the convent to the church. Important events were scheduled on Epiphany day, such as mission sending, chapter convocations and induction of superiors.

Already very early on in the Middle Ages, tradition saw the Wise Men as representing the (then known) continents Africa, Asia and Europe converting to Christ. Epiphany celebrates Christ, the Morning Star, revealing his glory to the whole world. This makes it the missionary feast par excellence.

In his Epiphany homilies, Father Arnold pointed out that this solemnity, together with Easter, is the oldest liturgical feast of the Church. He stressed that it is the great missionary feast: God reveals the Messiah to the pagans, represented by the wise men. Arnold made his listeners aware of the huge number of people on earth who still did not know Christ. They too, he stressed, are beloved children of God destined for salvation. But in order to find their way to Christ, they need the help of missionaries. Father Arnold was especially thinking of the people of China. China is the country of age-old wisdom traditions, and so he saw the Wise Men coming from the East prefiguring the conversion of China to Christ.

The Historical Context – Gravity and Centrifugal Force

In the 19th century, people in Europe developed a huge interest in foreign lands. Colonies were established in Africa, Asia and Oceania, and via the travellers and traders not only foreign goods, but also news and photographs of exotic parts of the world poured into Europe. Missionaries published their reports and stories in mission magazines. This is the way how, among others, Mother Maria, Theresia Messner and Joseph Freinademetz also found their missionary vocation.

Besides colonialism, migration was the second source of people starting to “think globally”. Because of economic constraints, Europeans emigrated in their thousands to find work and livelihood, mostly in the Americas. In this enterprising and outgoing spirit of this time, our founding generation, too, left their small worlds at home and exchanged them for the worldwide mission of the Church.

In another sense, though, it is surprising that our first generation SVD and SSpS were drawn beyond the borders. After all, they would have had good reasons to stay at home. Firstly, there were millions of people in need of social assistance. The industrialisation had produced an impoverished working class, destitute families that could hardly make ends meet, and scores of children without education. Secondly, the so-called culture war (Kulturkampf) was raging in Germany. We can hardly imagine what it meant for Catholics at that time: priests were forbidden to talk about politics (and criticise the government); schools in Catholic agency were usurped by the government, and the clergy was no longer allowed to teach (so as not to influence the youth); church property was confiscated; convents had to close, and only Sisters with “useful” ministries in hospitals and schools were allowed to continue. It must have felt like the end of times for the Catholic Church in Germany. Was that a good time to worry about other countries, even other continents? Yes, it was, decided Arnold Janssen. The seeming breakdown of the church in one part of the world affords opportunities for the growth of the church in other parts. The crisis situation in Germany is not a reason to stay home and commiserate, but to employ one’s energies elsewhere. Seeing the dramatic political situation, it is really surprising to read through Father Arnolds correspondence and not to find the slightest worry about it. He is absolutely unconcerned and steadfastly directs his prayers, thoughts and plans towards the foreign mission. The millions of “heathens”, people living without Christ – these were his worry. He was convinced that “Sharing the Good News is the first and greatest work of our love of neighbour.”

It is well known that the Founder was deeply committed to the so-called apostolate of prayer. Here too we see that he encouraged Catholics to look beyond, to open their hearts and minds to a worldwide perspective. For instance, he designed a global mission rosary.


The Living Rosary – Informed Missionary Prayer


In France, the young woman Pauline Jaricot, who had founded the Society of the Propagation of the Faith for the Catholic laity, “invented” the so-called Living Rosary. Groups of fifteen people pledged to pray daily a certain decade, so that together they formed a human rosary, each person representing one of the fifteen mysteries. Father Arnold took up her ingenious idea and developed it to make it a global mission prayer. In his version of the Living Rosary, each mystery was assigned an intention, which filled four pages of a prayer leaflet: for the Jews; the Muslims; the people of Africa; for China, Japan, the Pacific Islands and Australia; for the schismatics; for Poland and Russia; for the Protestants of Central Europe, England, Scotland, Sweden and Norway and America; for the Catholics of Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Central Europe, America and the Philippines. For each country and region Father Arnold added a demographic figure (we recognise Arnold the mathematician …) – the vast numbers showing the importance of intercessory prayer for these people. The Living Rosary was also practiced in the SVD and SSpS convents.


Fr. Arnold’s Living Rosary

1st Mystery: For the Jews (7 million) and the Muslims (150-200 million)

2nd For China – in 1852, according to official census, 537 million people. Among them about ½ million Catholics. Thus, in this kingdom alone there are certainly 2 ½ times as many heathens as there are Catholics in the whole world.

3rd For the heathens of Africa, over 100 million

4th For the Protestants in Central Europe, i.e. Germany, Austria-Hungary, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and Denmark – 34 million

5th For the East Indies, about 237 million, mostly pagans, including about 7-10 million Catholics.

6th For France, Spain and Portugal, 59 million, including 1 ½ million Protestants, otherwise nearly all Catholics.

7th For China, again.

8th For Poland, Russia and all schismatic Christians, 113 million, including about 7 million Catholics, mostly living in Poland.

9th For America, probably 80 million, including 6 million pagans and 38 million Protestants.

(10th mystery is omitted.)

11th For Italy (27 million, nearly all Catholic), and the Catholics scattered among the heathens.

12th For England, Scotland and Ireland, Sweden and Norway, i.e. 33+6 = 39 million of which about 8 million Catholics (mostly in Ireland) and 31 million Protestants.

(13th mystery is omitted.)

14th For the Pacific Islands (including Japan and the Philippines), Australia, and Australasia – altogether perhaps 6 1/5 million Catholics (mostly in the Philippines) and 74 million inhabitants.

15th For the Catholics of Central Europe, 51 million.

(There is no explanation given why the mysteries 10 and 13 are omitted.)

Furthermore, Father Arnold added information about the country and its people, and a list of the local saints. “These data show how relatively few Catholics there are on earth and how great, therefore, is the need for prayer”, he wrote and remarked, “Through this [missionary living rosary], the view of the spirit is expanded in all directions.” The Living Rosary was for him a means of popular religious education – people should learn to think and pray globally.

A Glance at the Gospel

Reading the Gospel of Matthew is like going to the opera: before the story of the opera begins, there is first the so-called overture, the opening piece of music that introduces all the major themes and melodies of the opera itself. Matthew’s nativity story is such an overture; one could also call it a miniature gospel. In the nativity story, Matthew presents in a nutshell the major themes of his gospel:

  • Jesus is the “Son of David”, i.e. the promised Messiah; he is born of the lineage of David, and in the city of David, Bethlehem.
  • He is Emmanuel, the God-with-us (1:23; Matthew will repeat this name in the middle of his gospel 18:20 and at the end 28:20).
  • From the beginning, Jewish authorities try to destroy him (2:13).
  • Jesus’ sacrificial death for the salvation of others is prefigured in the death of the Innocents.

And then, of course, there are the wise men. Nowadays we would call them scientists-philosophers. It is pure irony: the chief priests and scribes have the Thora, God’s Word; but even so they are unable to recognise the Messiah. The pagan wise men, by contrast, watch the stars, the signs of the time, and understand. Their gifts show that they have recognised Jesus for what he really is. They honour the divine King-Messiah who will suffer and die for us: gold for his royal nature; incense, which is used in the Temple worship, for his divine nature; and myrrh that hints at his death out of love.

Note the differences with Luke’s nativity story. While Luke presents to us the poor Jesus, born in a stable and discovered by shepherds, Matthew’s Jesus is born in a house, and kings bow to this royal child.

Interestingly, myrrh is mentioned twice in the story of Joseph (Gen 37:25; 43:11): once when Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery, and then again before Joseph and his brothers reconcile. Like Joseph, Jesus will also be betrayed but will bring salvation and reconciliation.

In Ex 30:22-25 myrrh is an ingredient of the sacred anointing oil for priests.

In the Song of Songs, we find myrrh numerous times in the context of love and consummation.

But myrrh was also used to alleviate pain and for the preparation of the body for burial (see Mark 15:23 and John 19:39)


Written by Sr. Anna Damas, SSpS