The missionary dimension of the Congregation of the Mission already appears in its official name and emerges as a fundamental requirement from St. Vincent’s experience and teaching. The Saint of Charity always had a vital missionary yearning that drove him to look toward the outer margins, to the peoples who had not yet been able to encounter Christ. His commitment to preach the Gospel was not satisfied by reaching just the populations within the kingdom of France but needed to go beyond boundaries and to reach other peoples. The initial name of the Community was precisely ‘the Mission,’ almost an augury (nome omen, as the ancients used to say): a reality still without fixed structure and so free to ‘come and go’, to move outwards to a territory to meet the most immediate and urgent needs.
1 – St. Vincent and what brought about his mission.
For St. Vincent, the mission is the result of his faith journey, the fruit of his relationship with Christ, and his openness to the Church’s needs during his own, particular time. The works that gave origin to the Mission were responses to those appeals addressed to him and determined a wide range of activities. The popular missionswere intended to bring to the poor people in the countryside the food of the Word of God and the gift of interior and exterior reconciliation. The mission ad gentes(in Scotland, Ireland, Poland, Algeria, Tunisia, Madagascar, with even the idea of going elsewhere, up to Babylonia) continued to follow a long ecclesial tradition, fulfilling Christ’s mandate: ‘Go throughout the world and preach the Gospel to every creature ‘ (Mt 28:19). In directing seminaries he wanted to help form priests capable of being at the service of the Gospel and witnesses to charity. He thus bound together the gift of the Word with that of bread, spiritual food with material food, anxious that even “poor people” could receive what is necessary for their life of faith, a healthy and robust Christian education, because all are children of the one God, the merciful Father.
This horizon also determines the qualityand contentof missionary activity. At the center and the heart of Vincentian proclamation is Jesus Christ, worshipping the Father, evangelizing and serving the Father’s loving plan. Christ is the important gift to bring to those who are deprived of it due to their poor spiritual support, because their priests were not taking care of this. With Christ comes the gift of mercy, proclaimed and lived out concretely. The saint seeks above all the salvation of every poor person and for this he offers the opportunity to experience reconciliation and forgiveness with God and neighbor through the sacrament and gestures of forgiveness: this is the desired fruit, sought and obtained in every mission preached. Then St. Vincent does not forget to lay the foundations for continuity in assisting the poor, by establishing groups of charity. Thus we see at work a missionary spirit which, beginning with the encounter with Christ, intends to help to re-establish the Christian community, placing the poor alongside Christ, designed as a building’s foundation enlivened by charity, and entrusted to priests who are trained a little more decently. The first Missionaries were continuously called to look beyond the borders of their country and invited to be ready to leave for distant countries, where the Lord had called them, because their vocation was to go not only to some dioceses but also to whole world. When speaking personally to Fr. Bourdaise, who went to Madagascar, Vincent said: ‘It is so brothers, it is in this disposition that we must all have, to be ready and willing to leave everything to serve God and the next, and next, mind you, and the next one for the love of God ‘ (SV 10, 405). It is indeed a question of “continuing the same mission of Jesus Christ in his continuous giving of self to the poor, as he will also write in the Common Rules. ‘If there were anyone among you who thought they belonged to the Mission to evangelize the poor and not to help them, to provide for their spiritual needs and not for the storms, I reply that we must assist them and assist them in all ways, by us and by others’” (ibid. 418). There is no true proclamation of the Gospel without an expression of charity: this is how the Gospel is made effective.
2 – The ‘mission’ in the history of the Congregation of the Mission.
Continuing with the guidelines and choices of the Founder over the centuries, the Congregation has provided space for continuous sending on missions to various parts of the world, always responding to the requests and appeals of the Church, both universal and local. The Community did not craw up into its shell but strongly felt the power of the Spirit that called it to dare to go beyond local boundaries to bring the Gospel not only to those who did not yet know it but also to those who had lost it or forgotten it. This has been achieved both by founding new communities in different countries of the world, and by continuing the work of the Popular Missions to revitalize the faith of Christian communities in countries with a long Christian tradition.
We can identify at least some significant moments in this long missionary surge.
Already by the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Congregation brought about a first mission experience in China, responding to Propaganda Fide. And here we remember Fathers Teodorico Pedrini, Luigi Appiani, Johannes Müllener who, with many difficulties, dedicated their lives to a work made up especially of little public preaching but much personal witnessing to living the Gospel. A century later, towards the end of the eighteenth century, as a consequence of the French revolution, several missionaries, especially French, again departed for China, marking another fruitful period of apostolate and holiness, bathed in the blood of Saint Francis Régis Clet and John Gabriel Perboyre, among others. At the end of the nineteenth century the epic of the mission in Madagascar resumed, the red island so loved by St. Vincent. Now finally the mission could take root, take on some consistency and develop to the point of giving birth to a Province today with the fruits of indigenous apostolates and vocations, and no longer sustained only by confreres from other Provinces.
In the twentieth century, while missionary activity in China was interrupted due to the advent of communism (even though activities of some missionaries continued clandestinely), a new re-launch of the mission took place, as a consequence and fruit of the Second Vatican Council and of the powerful message of Evangelii Nuntiandi, Paul VI’s 1975 encyclical on evangelization in the contemporary world. The General Assembly’s 1992 decision for a new campaign to proclaim the Gospel was a decisive moment. There would arise a new Vincentian presence in Albania, Eastern Europe, the Pacific Islands, as well as the strengthening of communities in traditional settings. And on the horizon the Chinese dream returned with new impetus, with the prospect of a missionary activity that was no longer sporadic but now having the possibility of continuous and lasting work. To this end, there were already missionaries on the island of Taiwan.
One aspect tied to this journey is to notice all activity, not only of the old Provinces but also of confreres of the new Provinces, to the point that we could now say that the whole Congregation has been working in the field of evangelization, through a mutual exchange of human forces and ideas, all at the service of humanity, according to our Founder’s style.
3 – The missionary spirit, soul of the Constitutions.
It is also important that the Constitutions, reviewed after the Church’s requests following the renewal indicated by the Second Vatican Council and promulgated in 1983, fully acknowledge the teaching of St Vincent on this aspect of the missionary vocation of the Congregation, in harmony with the commitment and appeals of the Church that recognizes itself as “missionary by nature and vocation.” Our Constitutions show us how this missionary spirit must permeate and shape the life of every missionary, of every local community, and of the entire Congregation, which is always defined as a “community for the mission.” The mission is not only the purpose of this activity but also and above all the soul of the life of the community within it. Only missionaries who are fervent because they are filled with Christ and his spirit can remain “in a permanent state of mission,” ready to go all over the world, as St. Vincent already desired. The missionaries must be “monks in the house and apostles in the countryside” (SV 10, 674), “contemplatives in action and apostles in prayer” (C 42). Otherwise one is just punching air, ending up preaching oneself and not Jesus Christ.
We can briefly highlight some of these significant aspects of the missionary spirit.
The Mission and vocation.The purpose of the CM (C 1-3) is to “follow Jesus Christ, proclaiming his Gospel to the poor”: only if we clothe ourselves with Christ and pursue His path of perfection can we endure with courage and an authentic life to carry out work of evangelization. All individuals and the whole Congregation must carry out this task, having as essential references both the Gospel of Christ as well as the ‘signs of the times’ and the most urgent appeals of the Church. The mission is never abstract, never outside the historical and cultural context: it is always a question of putting people in contact with Christ in a concrete moment in human history.
The Mission and community life: a community for the mission.We have already recalled the profound and essential bond of the community for the mission: it is the mission that qualifies ‘being together’: this must constantly foster and support the apostolic activity” (C 19). Everyone must strive for continuous renewal in order to best fulfill the common mission. Fraternal charity brings members closer, brings them closer to God and makes them more available to serve the Word and charity. Therefore the mission acquires its own priority also in the way of organizing and carrying out community life and nourishes it and helps the promotion and personal and community growth. We are reminded then that the first evangelization takes place with the witness of one’s life, above all with the example of a great and visible fraternity. St. Vincent spoke of being together as ‘dear brothers’. An evangelically-based community makes the preached Gospel more credible and effective.
The Mission and vows. “Desiring to continue the mission of Christ, we consecrate ourselves to the evangelization of the poor in the Congregation for the whole of life” (C 28). Here is expressed the meaning of the vows that are professed not so much for personal, private and intimate perfection as to make the mission available more effective and total. This is also explained by the fact of the vote of stability placed at the foundation of the other three (chastity, poverty and obedience). Like the Sisters and the Missionaries, our St. Vincent asked us to have a spiritual life like that of the religious, even more, because of the difficulties and responsibilities that derive from the apostolate and service. Only if they are lived with love and joy, can vows be ‘instruments’ for spiritual growth, a more disinterested service, and a truer witness.
The Mission and use of goods. When we talk about goods, whether community and personal, we emphasize the fact that they should be used not only for an ascetic and mortification purpose but also for the needs of the mission. Goods must have a common purpose and be used for the good of the poor and the development of ministries. This is why it is also important to have proper administration, so as not to ruin those assets entrusted to us by benefactors for the purposes of the Institute.
The Mission and prayer. Prayer, especially the Eucharist, is presented as the source not only of spiritual life, but also of the apostolate, following the example of Christ who in his prayer sought out and found God’s will. “Give me a man of prayer and he will be capable of everything” (SV 10,77): these words of St. Vincent tell us everything about the power of prayer, about its necessity and ability to transform people, thus making what is done truly “the work of God” and no longer so much the result of one’s ingenuity and commitment. There is prayer that prepares for the mission; there is that which develops in the fulfillment of the ministry – a prayer done together with the poor; there is the fruit and the stimulus of the mission leading to a more intense and involving prayer. It will then be a prayer of praise and thanksgiving for the work that God accomplishes through the activity of people. “Through the union of prayer with the apostolate, the missionary becomes a contemplative in his activity and an apostle in his prayer” (C 42).
Mission and formation. Formation has the task of preparing confreres to make them suitable for carrying out the mission of the Congregation (C 77). It is a matter of being animated by the spirit of St. Vincent which consists in putting the Christ ‘rule and model’ of life and apostolic activity at the center of his life. It is a task that accompanies every confrere throughout his life, through the various stages: initial, permanent and up to the advanced age. It is beautiful that every confrere can be recognized as a follower of Christ and of St. Vincent precisely because of the lifestyle that he lives every day and that he is able to transmit around himself, with that ‘kindness and sweetness’ that makes the message that is announced.
Mission as involvement of everyone: the priests, even the sick and the elderly (C 26; S 13), the brothers, the students. Precisely because they are members of the same Congregation, everyone is called to share both community life and the mission, each according to their abilities. St. Vincent included even lay brothers in the Missions to help in various activities: the mission is like a building site where each has to play an important part in achieving the common goal. Today we try to have our seminarians and students have a missionary experience so as to gradually introduce them into this specific ministry of the Congregation.
4 – A mission to be realized within and with the Church.
St. Vincent always insisted that the Congregation was not an “outside entity” but was part of the Church. For this reason he struggled for official recognition both from the Archbishop of Paris and from the Pope, in order to be able to move about with authority and recognized freedom in his preaching activity. He did nothing without the permission of bishops and parish priests; he worked (with seminaries and in his role in the Council of Conscience) not only so that priests could be properly formed to carry out their duties as well as possible, but also to ensure that the fruits of the mission would continue. These concerns are still current, even if today there are many other possibilities in pursuing the same formative goals on the part of the various ecclesial realities (dioceses, religious institutes, houses of spirituality). The Constitutions in 3.2 confirm this orientation when they state: “The Congregation of the Mission, according to a tradition that goes back to St. Vincent, exercises its apostolate in close collaboration with the bishops and the diocesan clergy.” Today we also try to involve the laity in the mission, especially those who are part of the Vincentian Family, for which we must have special care (C 1.3), trying to offer the image of a church that evangelizes with all its members in order to strengthen or re-establish the true Christian community.
Fr. Mario Di Carlo, CM
Translation by Dan Paul Borlik, CM
Western Province, USA