On July 29, Saint Martha is celebrated, which, traditionally, has been the patron saint of the Brothers in the Congregation of the Mission. This tradition comes from St. Vincent de Paul himself, who said that the Brothers were destined to fulfill the purpose of Martha, making reference to the passage of the Gospel of Luke (chapter 10, verses 32 to 42) in which Jesus is received in a house where there are two sisters: Mary, who is “sitting at the feet of the Lord, listened to his words”, and Marta, who “struggled in multiple services.”
On the occasion of the celebration of my patron saint, Saint Martha, I wonder: What does Vincent de Paul mean when he uses that image?
In the Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission, written by St. Vincent himself and delivered to the Missionaries in 1658, 33 years after the founding of the Congregation, this image of Martha is quoted twice in reference to the Brothers.
The first one is in chapter 1, entitled “On the end and nature of the Congregation”, number 2 says:
“There are both clerical and lay members in the Congregation. The work of the former is to travel around through towns and villages, as Christ himself and his disciples did, breaking the bread of the divine word for the neglected, by preaching and catechizing. They also should urge people to make general confessions of their entire life and hear these confessions. Their ministry also includes settling quarrels and disputes, establishing the Confraternity of Charity, staffing seminaries which have been set up in our houses for diocesan clergy, giving retreats, and organizing meetings of priests in our houses. Their work also includes any other ministry which is supportive of those mentioned. The lay members help in these ministries like Marthain whatever way the superior wants them to. This help includes “prayers and tears” [Heb 5:7, 12:17], mortification, and good example.”
The second quote is found in chapter 5, entitled “On obedience”. In number 16, it is written:
“None of our lay brothers should want to study Latin or wish to become clerics. Their role is that of Martha. If any of them feel such an inclination, they should try to get rid of it at once as something suggested by the evil spirit, who perhaps is aiming at their ruin by disguising pride as zeal. They also need the superior general’s explicit permission to learn reading and writing.”
First thing to be said, and I think it is understandable for everyone, is that Vincent de Paul is a son of his time. Today, we understand things differently. Especially on the second date, this idea of not studying, of not learning to read or write, doesn’t sound right to us. But today I do not want to talk about the functions, of the trades, of the Brothers’ ministries in the Congregation of the Mission, but about the image of Marta as an evocation of what the Brothers are.
I think that understanding the Vincentian Brother under Martha’s prism is having a limited idea of his identity and mission. It seems like the Brother is the one whose vocation is to “do things”, and not to be a missionary and follow Jesus Christ, evangelizing the poor, as indicated in the number one of the Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission for all its members.
In addition, the current interpretation of Luke’s passage agrees that both sisters, Martha and Mary, are complementary. The two attitudes that each woman represents are necessary and must occur in the life of every Christian. Vincent de Paul understood this, and thus expresses the number 42 of the Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission:
“Apostolic involvement with the world, community life, and the experience of God in prayer complement one another and make an organic unity in the life of a missioner. For, when we pray, faith, fraternal love, and apostolic zeal are constantly renewed; and in action, the love of God and neighbor is effectively manifested. Through the intimate union of prayer and apostolate a missioner becomes a contemplative in action and an apostle in prayer.”
Finally, I would like to propose another image in order to talk about the members of the Congregation of the Mission, and to understand the Vincentian Brother, which is, from my point of view, more appropriate, as it is a Christological image. I’m referring to Jesus at the last supper. The synoptic gospels present us with the image of Jesus splitting and delivering his body and blood, and entrusting his disciples “do this in memory of me” (Lk 22, 19); what could be a suitable image for Priests in the Congregation. But the passage of the last supper narrated by the evangelist John presents us the image of a Jesus with a towel hugged to his waist and washing the feet of his disciples, telling them “you also must wash each other’s feet. I have set an example for you to do the same as I have done” (Jn 13, 14-15). This could be a suitable image for the Brothers in the Congregation of the Mission, that of Christ as a servant, who can be the realization of fraternal love in multiple services, in the Congregation, in the Church and in the world, especially towards the most disadvantaged.
Congratulations to all the Brothers of the Congregation of the Mission on this day! And, hopefully, all missionaries can make this vocation be maintained and updated in today’s world.
Francisco Berbegal Vázquez, CM
Province of Saint Vincent, Spain