Arnold Janssen was born in Goch in the German Lower Rhineland on November 5, 1837. His parents were simple folks whose religiosity was influenced by the Rhineland mysticism cultivated in the neighboring Marian pilgrimage town of Kevelaer. Early in life Arnold felt drawn to the priesthood, as well as to the teaching profession. Quiet and reserved like many of his countryfolk, he expressed his religiosity in poetry and prayer rather than the spoken word. While still at school, he composed evening devotions for his family in which the spirituality of his mature years is already recognizable. Before becoming a priest he obtained a teaching qualification in his favorite subjects, mathematics and science.
On August 15, 1861, he was ordained in Muenster. The readings at his first Mass were like a motto for his life: “Anyone who sows sparsely will reap sparsely as well – and anyone who sows generously will reap generously as well” (2 Cor 9:6); and “Unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain” (John 12:24). Soon after ordination, Arnold was asked to teach at the high school in Bocholt and for 12 years he taught almost every subject. Alongside the teaching, he furthered his theological knowledge by studying Thomas Aquinas and the works of the Cologne theologian Matthias Scheeben; the latter had a long-lasting influence on the development of his spiritual life
The mystery of the Triune God and his revelation in salvation history were at the core of his prayer life. In 1866 Arnold joined the Apostolate of Prayer that promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart; he sought tirelessly to gain new members, especially during vacation time. Working for the Apostolate transformed him, helping him to look beyond the bounds of his teaching profession. The great needs of the Church and the divisions among Christians in Germany weighed on him. In March 1873 he resigned from his high school teaching post and dedicated himself entirely to the Apostolate of Prayer. While others considered that an imprudent move, it was in fact a significant step that led Arnold to his true life’s task.
His attention was focused more and more on the universal mission of the Church. In 1874 he founded a monthly periodical, “Little Messenger of the Sacred Heart”, to bring the needs of mission work to a broader Catholic public. He became increasingly aware of the need for a German mission house that could send out missionary priests. Ultimately, the Apostolic Administrator of Hong Kong Msgr. Raimondi encouraged him to found such an institute himself.
When Arnold finally decided, after much hesitation, to take up the task, he was already 38. His only capital was his unshakable trust in God, his unconditional dedication to the Sacred Heart and the conviction that God was calling him to the work. A foundation was not possible in Germany due to the Kulturkampf, and consequently he crossed the border into the Netherlands where he was hospitably received
In September 1875 he laid the foundations for the “Society of the Divine Word” in Steyl, near the town of Venlo, a society dedicated to spreading the faith. His mottos were: “May the heart of Jesus live in the hearts of all people!” and also: “May the holy triune God live in our hearts and in the hearts of all people!”
Although initially beset by great difficulties, the work grew rapidly. The foundations of a large mission house were laid, he opened an apostolic school to educate prospective missionaries in his spirit, and he established his own printing press to serve the developing apostolate of the press. The modest beginning developed into a religious institute that included priests and lay brothers. In 1879, the first missionaries were already sent to China. That was the beginning of annual mission departures to countries in all continents.
Very soon Arnold Janssen also thought of rousing the enthusiasm of women for world missions. In 1889, together with Helena Stollenwerk and Hendrina Stenmanns, he founded the “Mission Congregation of the Servants of the Holy Spirit”. That was followed in 1896 by the “Servants of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration”, or “Adoration Sisters” for short.
Arnold Janssen was deeply concerned for the spiritual growth of his foundations. He passed on the missionary fire burning within him to his young foundations. He wished to help others look beyond their own horizons, forget themselves and dedicate their lives to God’s work. Constant growth can also be detected in his own spiritual life. The mysteries of faith: life of the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Divine Word, God’s presence in the Eucharist and the action of the Holy Spirit became the wellsprings of his life.
When Arnold Janssen died in 1909, his foundations numbered around 600 finally professed brothers, 430 priests and over 800 sisters, including sister novices and postulants. On October 5, 2003, he was “canonized” by the Church. Today around 10,000 “Missionaries of Steyl” are active on all continents.
October 5, 2003