– Robert Carroll
St Joseph Freinademetz The First Saint To Ever Serve in Hong Kong. A Catholic Musical produced in Hong Kong is planned to be staged in Macau. The show’s producer Fr Tan Lei Tao has long been hugely inspired by Freinademetz who’s still “a big influence” in his life. The Saint was a devoted missionary dedicated to China where he arduously built church community after community. Though a multilingualist his motto was: “The language that all people understand is that of love.”
St Joseph Freinademetz SVD (Society of Divine Word) served in China until his death after two years as a priest in his native Austria and missionary preparation. He fervently wanted to be a Chinese among Chinese, writing to his family: “I love China and the Chinese. I want to die among them and be laid to rest among them.” His last work was helping tend typhus victims and died of the disease too, buried in Shandong province. “Missionary work is useless if one does not love and is not loved.”
His two-year stay in Hong Kong, his first mission, came after a hard journey from Italy in a small ship where he vomited daily from seasickness. Fr Joseph Tan Lei Tao SVD, inspired by Freinademetz, produced the show to coincide with the saint’s 140th anniversary of arrival in Hong Kong in 1879. His mission was on a small salt producing island in Sai Kung district, Yim Tin Tsai island which, with its award winning chapel, has become a local tourist attraction. St Joseph’s Chapel was rebuilt in 1890 in Italian romanesque style. After renovation it earned Award of Merit in 2005 by UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards.
Fr Tan’s first reaction to reading about Freinademetz was, “a saint, a very lovely missionary. I wanted to become like him that’s why I joined the mission. Twenty years later I read the book again. I found something new, his spirituality for today’s priests and for today’s Catholic Church.” Fr Tan praised the saint’s openness “crossing the borders or race or nations especially today. St Joseph Freinademetz gives us only one nation, one homeland which is heaven. In this world we should live out this kind of spirituality, live out the love.” He added the the saint is a “big influence in his life.”
Pope John Paul II’s homily during the Saint’s canonisztion in 2003 quoted Freinademetz: “I do not consider missionary life as a sacrifice I offer to God, but as the greatest grace that God could ever have lavished upon me. Missionary work is useless if one does not love and is not loved.” The homily also declared the Saint as: “An exemplary model of Gospel inculturation. This Saint imitated Jesus who saved men and women sharing their existence to the very end,” and “made a gift of himself to the Chinese peoples.”
The musical is based on the book of lifelong letters of Freinademetz. The Society of the Divine Word (SVD) sends missionaries to establish new or strengthen old missions in over 70 countries. The show’s producer, SVD father Joseph Tan Lei Tao said Freinademetz’s story is a passion for him, and inspired him to be a missonary too.
The show focuses on the Austrian’s spiritual calling for the mission, where he worked, his life journey and death. Shortly before he became a priest, as a seminarian, Freinademetz made his vocation to mission in China preparing himself in the Netherlands as a novitiate missionary, as well as at his home in Austria where he had support from friends teachers and colleagues. Before he came to Hong Kong he had learned to speak and write (Hebei dialect) Chinese from a priest from China in the Netherlands. In Hong Kong he learned Cantonese and Hakka and began to adapt himself to Chinese culture.
The book that inspired the musical also the included the Saint’s “own letters, reports to the Society, Church, about his life – spiritual and missionary – the places he missioned, the churches, activities. Also many life stories, missionary stories.”
Fr Tan adds, “SVD missionaries go where there’s no mission yet or they look for the next mission and start from the beginning.” Likewise in “Hong Kong I am doing the Mandarin group because I see the need. Before there was one Mandarin mass but not a community a group who can stay together, pray together, make activities together to make a community that’s quite a difference. Then they know each other, have the same dreams, same ideas and help each other.”
Tan said especially new immigrants need to “feel a little bit home.” But he added at least today in Hong Kong that attitude towards immigrants from the mainland is lacking in many locals.
“We are not just doing this in Hong Kong but in other countries we are doing the same helping the new migrants. That’s one of the SVD missions: help people stay in a new culture, new language, new places. We have members from sixty plus countries, missions for more than seventy countries. In Hong Kong we have thirty people who come from eighteen different countries who work together.” He added: “We do that on purpose – to have members from different countries in one place. Like here.”
SVD is also linked to Macau through an Overseas Training Progam seminary and one parish, Fatima. “Macau is the mother of the Church in China. Everything came from there first.” Hong Kong Catholics and its first church began in 1820s, centuries after Macau.
The musical is tentatively planned for Easter 2019.