VINCENTIAN SPIRITUALITY: THE CONGREGATION OF THE MISSION
by: José María Román, CM
(This article in Spanish on the web site Somos and has been translated for its presentation on this web site).
The Congregation of the Mission is a society of apostolic life, composed of priests and lay brothers, founded by Saint Vincent de Paul in Paris on April 17, 1625 and approved by Pope Urban VII on January 12, 1633 with the publication of the bull Salvatoris Nostri. The members of this Congregation are known as Paules in Spain, Lazarists in France, and Vincentians in other countries. Origins/foundation (1617-1625)
The origin of the Congregation of the Mission is inseparable from the personal vocation of Vincent de Paul. In January 1617 Vincent, who served as tutor for the de Gondi children, had a decisive experience. Vincent was asked to go to Gannes, a village that was part of the de Gondi estate, in order to hear the confession of a dying man. He exhorted the man to make a general confession. The sick man confessed and then in the presence of all those who accompanied Vincent (Madame de Gondi was part of this group) publicly stated that if it had not been for that confession he would have been condemned since for many years he had been embarrassed to confess his sins honestly. Madame de Gondi reflected on this event and told Vincent: if this man, who is considered an upright man, was in a state of damnation, what will it be like for others who live more badly? (CCD:XI:3). Vincent had the same thought. It was then decided that the following week Vincent would go to Folleville and preach on the need to make a general confession. Vincent’s preaching was successful and all the people confessed their sins. Vincent and another priest, who accompanied him, were unable to provide for all these people. They asked for assistance from the Jesuits in Amiens who sent them a priest. This sermon was repeated in neighboring towns and villages with the same results. Later, Vincent would say that that sermon was the first sermon of the mission and he considered the date, January 25, 1617, as the day on which the Congregation was born. It reality, nothing was founded on that day but Vincent’s experience led him to discover his personal vocation: the evangelization of the poor and, specifically, the poor peasants … the process of evangelization would involve the preaching of missions. The personal vocation of Vincent is often referred to as the communal vocation of the Congregation of the Mission.
Later events in Vincent’s life would fill out and complete the original intuition. Among those events we recount here another experience that was shared by Madame de Gondi and Vincent. They both noticed that some priests did not know the words of absolution. Vincent understood that the evils which the Christian community complained about would not be resolved until there were priests who were well prepared to carry out their priestly functions. Therefore, it was necessary to evangelize the poor and equally necessary to prepare good priests and both of these programs coincided with the reform of the Church as proposed by the Council of Trent.
Another event that occurred in 1617 also influenced Vincent’s personal vocation and the beginning of the Congregation. Here we refer to Châtillon-les-Dombes (a village in Bresse, near Lyon and the place where Vincent went after leaving the de Gondi’s, a place where he was able to be faithful to his vocation to evangelize the poor in the rural areas). There he obtained firsthand knowledge of the physical misery of the poor as he witnessed the suffering of one of the families. It was also in this village that he had the idea to establish an association that would resolve the situation: the Confraternity of Charity (an initiative that would later give rise to the Daughters of Charity). The events surrounding the establishment of the Congregation of the Mission reveal the dual dimension of Vincent’s vocation: the poor people are dying of hunger and are condemned. Therefore it was not enough to preach the Word of God. People who were lacking basic necessities needed bread for their bodies as well as bread for their souls. These two dimensions of the Vincentian vocation would become mission and charity … each one implying the other.
A third important event occurred some years later when Vincent was preaching missions in Montmirail (1620) and Marchais (1621). A Protestant from Montmirail found it difficult to become a Catholic because he saw that many priests and religious were living in the city while Catholic men and women in the rural regions were served by ignorant and wayward priests. This difficulty was overcome when he saw Vincent and his confreres preaching a mission in Marchais the following year. Vincent saw in this event the confirmation of his convictions, namely, that the two great plagues of the Church were first, the spiritual abandonment of the poor and second, the ignorance and the lack of zeal on the part of many priests. Vincent saw that it was necessary to root these out of the life of the Church. This would become the objective of the Congregation that he established. Between 1618-1625 Vincent dedicated his time to preaching missions on the lands of the de Gondi estate (Vincent had returned to renew his ministry with the de Gondi family). In the beginning he engaged in this ministry alone but occasionally sought out collaborators from other known members of the clergy in Paris. Madame de Gondi wanted to give permanence and stability to this occasional activity and considered the establishment of a foundation that would allow all the people on the de Gondi estate to receive the benefits of a mission that would be preached on a periodic basis. She presented her idea to several communities, in particular, the Jesuits and the Oratorians. For different reasons both congregations rejected the proposal. Then Madame de Gondi presented this idea to Vincent who would create a new community to carry out this plan. Vincent delayed in making a decision on this matter. He reflected on whether such an activity was in conformity with the will of God. It was his confessor and spiritual director, Monsieur Duval, who gave him a definitive push in this matter. Vincent accepted Madame de Gondi’s suggestion and he began to make preparations for this new undertaking. He received his licentiate in Canon Law from the Sorbonne and was named Principal of the Coll?ge des Bons-Enfants and which he took possession of on March 16, 1624. In this way he established a residence which would enable him to accommodate the future congregation. One year later, on April 17, 1625, in the presence of a notary, Vincent and the de Gondi’s signed the foundational contract of the company, congregation or confraternity of the mission.
As can be seen from these three possible names, the juridical nature of the new association was not well defined. On the other hand, however, its objectives were quite clear: they would devote themselves entirely and exclusively to the salvation of the poor common people. They would go from village to village, at the expense of their common purse, to preach, instruct, exhort, and catechize those poor people and encourage all of them to make a good general confessions of their whole past life (CCD:XIIIa:214). `The juridical structure was also very basic: it simply named Vincent de Paul as superior and director for life and enabled the members of this institute to elect Vincent’s successor (that is, it enabled the members who during eight or ten years would renounce any other ecclesiastical responsibility or dignity). The elaboration of some rule was foreseen and it was stipulated that the members of said congregation would not preach in the cities but do so only in the towns and villages in the countryside. In the beginning the association accepted the responsibility of giving missions every five years on the lands of the de Gondi estate. In exchange for these services, the de Gondi’s gave the new institution 45,000 livres, which sum was taken from the income of the Abbé de Buzay, the title to which belonged to the youngest son of the de Gondi’s who would become the famous Cardinal de Retz. Because of this Vincent considered Madame de Gondi the foundress of his Congregation. Viewing the situation from a financial perspective, she was certainly the foundress. From a spiritual perspective, Vincent always insisted that he had no intention of establishing a new congregation and all of this happened in accord with God’s plan. This is not an unusual attitude and in fact we see many founders of religious institutes who viewed their works as integral parts of God’s plans.
Despite all the formalities of the foundational contract, the company or confraternity of the mission was only an idea that was written down on a piece of paper. Therefore, Vincent’s primary concern was to give form to this idea and consolidate this new community. Therefore he dedicated much effort to this plan in the year following the signing of the contract.
First, on a personal level … In the beginning, Vincent relied on a young priest, a constant companion, Antoine Portail who had faithfully followed Vincent for twelve or thirteen years. In order to tend to the obligations of the foundation, Vincent contracted with a priest friend who was paid fifty livres. When Vincent was giving a mission he closed the residence, the Coll?ge des Bons-Efants, and left the key with a neighbor. Vincent obtained the first canonical approval for his association through a decree from the Archbishop of Paris, Jean François de Gondi, a brother of the founders. This decree was dated April 26, 1626. Four months later, on September 4, the first three missionaries signed the Act of Association: M. Antoine Portail and two priests from the diocese of Amiens, François du Coudray and Jean de Salle. Soon after four others joined this group: Jean Becu, Antoine Lucas, Jean-Joseph Brunet and Jean D’Horgny. The “little company of the mission” (a name which Vincent gave to the company) began to become a reality.
The same occurred on the apostolic level. The first missionaries dedicated all their time to the missions (they were involved in this activity from October to June). This meant that they were ministering during 290 days of the year. Soon an initial rule was formulated that regulated their community life and their apostolic activity. The same rule outlined a spirituality that was proper to the members of an apostolic community. The missions were given at no cost and the missionaries even brought their beds with them when they were giving a mission. They were very strict in fulfilling the obligations of the foundational contract but they also accepted new obligations. For example, they established a custom of forming a Confraternity of Charity in all the places where they preached a mission. This was a way of giving life to the double vocation of the community: mission and charity. In a few years, in 1628, a new task would add diversity to the activities of the missionaries. As a result of the insistence of the Ordinary of Beauvais, Bishop Potier, Vincent’s community was entrusted with preaching a spiritual retreat to the ordinands of said diocese, thus preparing them for ordination to the priesthood. These retreats were a mini-course that provided the ordinands of the diocese with an opportunity to reflect seriously on their vocation and the spiritual demands of their state in life. These retreats also offered the ordinands basic theoretical and practical knowledge with regard to their pastoral obligations. This experience was so successful that three years later the diocese of Paris asked Vincent to provide the same services to its ordinands.
Financially, the Congregation of the Mission seems to have done well during the initial years. The income from the foundational grant, as well as the income from the Coll?ge des Bons-Efants provided support for a reduced group of missionaries, six or seven, as foreseen in the initial contract. But as the number of members increased (there were twenty-six confreres in 1631) the needs also multiplied. Vincent received and allowed for donations from places other than those areas where the Missionaries were ministering: we have no right to refuse what he gives us for the love of God (CCD:I:133). But this was not enough. Financial funding also came from unexpected sources. Outside Paris there was an ancient priory, Saint-Lazare, a medieval foundation established to help lepers. At the beginning of the seventeenth century there were hardly any lepers there. This establishment was maintained by the Canons of Saint Victor, a group that had been part of the Augustinian Order. Community disagreements led the superior, Adrian Le Bon, to resign his position. Some friends of Le Bon suggested Vincent de Paul and his new Congregation as the possible beneficiaries of this property. It was noted that the Missionaries were doing much good on behalf of poor people. After lengthy conversations, in which paradoxically, the primary resistance came from the presumed beneficiary of the donation, an agreement was reached. The Congregation of the Mission received the property and all the goods connected to it (which were certainly substantial). In turn the Congregation committed itself to continue to assist lepers; to provide an annual pension to the Canons and the prior who had the right to continue to reside at the priory; to provide at least eight missionaries who would be constantly occupied in preaching free missions in the diocese of Paris; to receive into the Priory and offer food and lodging for a period of fifteen days to all the clerics of the diocese who were to receive sacred orders. This contract was signed on January 7, 1632 after having received authorization from the Archbishop. During the same month the King’s Letters Patent were made public and on March 24 the Provost and the sheriff of Paris gave their consent. With the acquisition of Saint-Lazare it could be said that the Congregation of the Mission, with all its problems, saw itself freed from many uncertainties with regard to its financial situation. In this sense Saint-Lazare could be viewed as a second foundation.
Institutional consolidation occurred parallel to the apostolic and financial consolidation. From the very beginning the Congregation worked diligently in order to obtain this institutional consolidation on an ecclesiastical and civil level. As we have already seen, the Archbishop of Paris approved the Congregation one month after the first contract was signed. Royal approval also came early and was granted in May 1627. Problems began, however, when the Congregation attempted to obtain Parliament’s ratification of the King’s Letters Patent. The pastors in Paris opposed the Congregation and their Syndic sent to Parliament a lengthy explanation of their objections. In the first place they feared the new Congregation would diminish the rights of the pastors. Therefore the pastors demanded that the Missionaries sign a document in which they would renounce every form of remuneration and salary for their ministry and they would agree to preach at no cost to their beneficiaries. In the name of his Congregation Vincent gladly accepted these demands which coincided with the distinctive characteristics of the Congregation that were formulated in the foundational contract. On April 4, 1631, Parliament approved the Congregation of the Mission. Now only the approval of Rome was needed.
The procedures to obtain the approval of the Holy See were initiated very early. In 1627, that is, two years after its establishment, the first Roman approval of the Congregation was granted by the Propagation of the Faith. This was an important, though modest, achievement since the institution founded by Vincent was recognized as a “mission” but was not given the status of being a congregation or a company. Therefore a year later another attempt was made to obtain further recognition. This time, however, the procedures and arrangements resulted in failure despite the recommendation of the Nuncio and the King of France. The sacred congregation responded that it could not grant Vincent’s request because said establishment exceed the limits of the Mission and tend toward the founding of a new religious Institute (CCD:XIIIa:250). It is certain that Cardinal Bérulle, Vincent’s former spiritual director, influenced Rome as well as France’s opposition to and rejection of Vincent’s request. None of this, however, discouraged Vincent. He continued to take steps and made arrangements in another direction. This time he began to dialogue with the Congregation of Bishops and Clergy rather than the Propagation of the Faith. In the person of one of the first Missionaries, François du Coudray, Vincent had a direct agent in Rome who was given the mission of making the Pope and cardinals aware of the fact that the poor people are being damned for want of knowing the things necessary for salvation, and for lack of confession. If his Holiness were aware of this necessity, he would have no rest until he had done all he could to set things right (CCD:I:112). Du Coudray was a capable agent and in the span of two years obtained approval in a most solemn manner: a pontifical bull, Salvatoris Nostri, dated January 12, 1633. This document recognized and approved the Congregation of the Mission. In the same document, after affirming the divine inspiration of this work, the basic outlines of the institution are formulated. The institute is configured as a Congregation composed of secular priests and lay persons and subject to their Superior General, Vincent de Paul, who can establish rules for the community and submit them to the Archbishop of Paris for approval. The aims of said Congregation are also stated: members will dedicate themselves to their own salvation and the salvation of the poor country people. They will not preach in cities except for those occasions when preaching retreats to the ordinands. The ministries of the Congregation are listed: teaching the truths of the faith, general confessions, preaching, catechizing, establishing the Confraternities of Charity, conferences and retreats for priests. Finally, the notable characteristics of the spirituality of the Missionaries are pointed out: devotion to the Blessed Trinity and to the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Blessed Virgin, daily meditation for one hour, and an examination of conscience to be made three times a day. With the publication of Salvaroris Nostri the essential finality of the Congregation of the Mission was outlined and as a result, the institutional consolidation of the Congregation became a reality. Eight years after its establishment the Congregation was able to rejoice in a clear and sound juridical status which sharply defined its place and role within the church.
Constitutional configuration: rules and vows
The bull, Salvatoris Nostri, gave an elementary juridical structure to the new congregation. But the Congregation had to undertake a process which was composed of three stages. The first stage (1633-1642) can be seen as one that was wholly dependent on the personal will of the Founder. There was no collegial structure of government and no advisory council. At this time a number of practices were introduced, among which we mention the profession of simple, perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (1641). The later codification of these practices resulted in the Rules and constitutions of the Congregation. In 1642 an important events occurred that marked the beginning of the second stage (1642-1653). At that time Vincent convoked the first General Assembly of the Congregation and all the superiors participated in this gathering. Said Assembly dedicated itself to the study of the Rules and constitutions that were written by the Founder with the help of some of the more distinguished Missionaries. Eighteen sessions were dedicated to this study. Since the participants were unable to finish this work a commission was assigned the task of concluding the work. Vincent took advantage of this first plenary meeting of the Congregation to present his resignation as Superior General. According to Vincent’s vision, once the Congregation had an established form of government, it should then elect its own Superior General. The Assembly refused to accept Vincent’s resignation and ultimately decided that it could not elect another Superior during the lifetime of the one whom God in His goodness has elected for them (CCD:XIIIa:329). The founder could do nothing but submit himself to the unanimous will of the Assembly, thus this was the first act of obedience he thought he was rendering to the Assembly (CCD:XIIIa:329-330). In reality, what had been achieved --- and this was probably Vincent’s objective at that time --- was the formal establishment of the Congregation as an institution. The Congregation was no longer a mere appendage of the founder but was constituted as a sovereign corporation, responsible for its own destiny. In fact the Assembly proceeded to structure the Congregation in a new way, according to provinces and also gave the Superior General an advisory council composed to two assistants. In the years that followed, the Rules and constitutions continued to be studied and the final text was completed in 1651. At that time another General Assembly was convoked (July-August, 1651) and the participants approved the Rules which then, in accord with the bull Salvatoris Nostri, were submitted to the Archbishop of Paris for his approval (which was granted on August 23, 1653). The final stage in the formulation of the Rules and constitutions (1653-1658) was concerned with the task of printing the Rule and submitting it to the Holy See for approval. Some further modifications were made and in 1658 the Rules were finally made public. The Common Rules was distributed to the missionaries in an emotional ceremony that was celebrated on May 17, 1658. Here we refer only to the Common Rules since the juridical prescriptions or constitutions were not approved by the Holy See until after the death of the founder.
The Common Rules are the code of perfection for the members of the Congregation of the Mission. In this rule we find the definitive understanding with regard to the spiritual life of the Missionaries. The Rules are contained in a book that has about a hundred pages and in twelve chapters defines the fundamental obligation of the members: the purpose and nature of the Congregation, gospel teachings, poverty, chastity, obedience, matters concerning the sick, decorum, getting along with others, getting along with non-confreres, spiritual practices used in the Congregation, missions and other ministries of the Congregation on behalf of the people, and some useful means needed for properly and effectively carrying out the ministries just mentioned. Rather than define in a meticulous way the daily life of the Missionary, the Common Rules focus on the spirit which ought to guide the missionaries as they confront the demands of their vocation. Each chapter begins with a call to imitate Christ in the matter that is being presented. In the section dedicated to the gospel teaching or gospel maxims the proper spirit of the Congregation is defined and the missionaries are exhorted to clothe themselves with the interior dispositions of Christ: love and reverence toward the Father, compassionate and effective charity toward the poor, docility to divine Providence and molding one’s self in accord with the five characteristic virtues of simplicity, humility, meekness, mortification and zeal for the salvation of men and women. When referring to an effective means to acquire, conserve and maintain the ideal of the Congregation (means based on being in the most perfect state without entering the state of religion), the Founder had recourse to the profession of simple vows of poverty, chastity and obedience --- and as such, private vows. A fourth vow was added, that of stability in the Congregation and therefore the members dedicated their whole life to the salvation of the poor country people. The constitutional regulations with regard to the vows moved along a very similar path as that of the Rules. In 1627-1628 the missionaries began to profess vows on a voluntary basis. Later, in 1639 or 1640 the Founder promulgated an ordinance which obliged all future members of the Congregation to profess the four vows. In accord with the faculties granted to the Archbishop of Paris in the bull Salvatoris Nostri, this ordinance was approved on October 19, 1641. In the decree of approval it was stated very clearly that the Congregation must never be considered one of the Religious Order by virtue of taking these vows, nor cease to be part of the body of the clergy (CCD:XIIIb:316). On the following February 24 the majority of the missionaries professed or renewed their vows. As a result of this an intense debate began among the members of the Congregation, a debate that neither the prestige nor the authority of the Founder could silence. It was argued that the vows structured the Congregation as a religious institute and therefore were invalid since the faculties that were given to the Archbishop of Paris to approve the rules of the Congregation could not be extended to approving the vows. The debate reached its climax during the Assembly of 1651 which spent a considerable amount of time on the study of this question. It was decided to submit this matter to the Holy See. On September 22, 1655 Pope Alexander VII published the brief Ex Commissa Nobis which approved the profession of vows in the Congregation and granted the missionaries an exemption from the Ordinary. These vows were to be simple and perpetual and reserved to the Holy Father and the Superior General of the Congregation. Nevertheless the brief also stated that the Congregation should not therefore be considered of the number of religious Orders, but that it is of the body of the secular clergy (CCD:XIIIa:418). Thus thirty years after its foundation the Congregation of the Mission was given a definitive juridical character, a character which made the Congregation a very original creation in the Church: a Congregation composed of secular clergy yet exempt from the Ordinary, but nevertheless endowed with vows.
In the beginning the Congregation was very faithful to its two initial ministries: missions and the formation of ordinands. In this way it lived in conformity with the words of its Founder: our Institute has only two principal ends, namely, the instruction of poor people in the rural areas, and seminaries (CCD:III:273).
The objective of the Mission was to make God known to poor persons (CCD:XII:71). Thus the catechism was a very important instrument in the ministry of the Missionaries. The Missionaries were also exhorted to preach in accord with “the little method” that was explained by Vincent. This method demands, on the one hand, simple language that is accommodated to the people’s level of understanding. At the same time this method makes use of an outline that is very easy to assimilate and is composed of three points: the motives to practice some virtue or avoid some vice, the nature of the virtue/vice, and the means to accomplish this. The highpoint of the mission was the general confession of the people and their reception of the Eucharist in accord with the reforms of Trent. There are no existing statistics with regard to the number of missions that were preached during Vincent’s lifetime. We do know, however, that the two houses in Paris, Saint-Lazare and the Coll?ge des Bons-Enfants, gave a total of 840 missions. The missions given by the confreres living in other houses outside of France and in other parts of France would have to be added to this total. These missions were very effective and we witness the results of these missions in the conversion of public sinners and others who had become lax in living out their commitment. Even though there were people who criticized these missions, nevertheless this way of reaching out to people in the rural areas was very effective in reforming the lives of Christians and in re-evangelizing the Christian community. In accord with its foundational principle, the Congregation always rejected offers to preach in the cities and carefully restricted its preaching to people living in the rural areas. If there was any exception then this occurred during the time of the Fronde but even in this situation the preaching of the Missionaries was directed to those men and women who fled the countryside and sought refuge in Paris. Whenever the Congregation was requested to preach at the Royal Court or in large cities, like Metz, the Founder entrusted this ministry to those priests who participated in the Tuesday Conferences, priests who were often referred to him by some of the Missionaries. The preaching of missions often involved the Missionaries in other ministries. An example of this can be seen in the retreats that were offered at Saint-Lazare to people from every walk of life as well as the retreats that were offered during many of the innumerable campaigns of that era. Charitable assistance was also provided to the people living in those areas that were devastated during the Fronde and Thirty Years War, especially Lorraine, Champagne, Picardy, and the Isle of France.
As we have already seen, the formation of the clergy was one of the objectives of the Congregation of the Mission and was developed in a very significant manner. Beginning in Beauvais and Paris the retreats for ordinands spread (in seeming concentric circles) to the other dioceses of France. All the houses of the Congregation were dedicated to giving retreats to ordinands and preaching missions. The work with the clergy reached a high point in 1659 when Pope Alexander VII published a decree that obliged all the candidates for the priesthood in the diocese of Rome to make their retreat in the house of the Missionaries.
Gradually these preparatory ordination retreats evolved into the creation of seminaries. Aware of the fact that ten or eleven days was not enough time to provide the candidates with the formation that they needed, the time of preparation began to be lengthened, first, to two months, and then, to six months. Later the time of preparation was organized around two events, deaconate ordination and ordination to the priesthood. Finally, it was decided to set aside a period of two or three years for the preparations of these candidates. The original concept of the seminary was not one of a school of theology. During the time of preparation the essential elements were seen as the spiritual formation of the candidates and providing them with training in their priestly ministries. The ideal seminary was seen as a technical school that provided the Church with holy and zealous priests who were well-trained in their pastoral ministries. The intellectual formation of these men was entrusted to the faculties at different universities. Because of the great distance that separated some of the dioceses from a university, seminary schools of philosophy and theology were soon established. As this became a general custom, seminaries became centers for intellectual learning. The first seminary that was formally accepted by the Congregation of the Mission was that of Annecy (1642). At the same time another seminary was established at the Coll?ge des Bons Enfants, the first residence of the Congregation. Other dioceses followed this example and in a short period of time the Congregation of the Mission became one of the most significant forces in the area of the reform of the clergy.
A third means that was utilized by the Congregation to promote the reform of the clergy was the Tuesday Conferences. These Conferences involved groups of ecclesiastics who committed themselves to come together once a week in order to reflect on their moral and pastoral obligations. Under the inspiration of Vincent de Paul, the Congregation instituted and promoted these Conferences not only in the motherhouse at Saint-Lazare, but also in the other houses of the Congregation. These Conferences created a close network of priests who took on a role of leadership as they embraced new priestly lifestyle, a lifestyle that was in accord with the demands of Trent.
Growth and expansion (1633-1660)
In the first years of the Congregation, the number of new members was very small. In 1636 there were fewer than fifty members. These low numbers were due to the fact that Vincent was opposed to vocational promotion and in fact was also opposed to praying for vocations. In 1637 the Internal Seminary or Novitiate was established and this contributed to the increase in numbers. In 1660, at the time of Vincent’s death, there were about 250 Missionaries and a total of about 425 individuals had entered the Congregation. The majority of the early vocations came from the Northeastern part of France. A large number of these men came from humble backgrounds, men whose families were farmers or artisans and some came from distinguished families. All of this was very pleasing to Vincent. The age of the new members also evolved. In the beginning almost all of the new members were already ordained priests. Later the number of non-ordained young aspirants to the priesthood/brotherhood increased.
The number of houses followed a similar pattern. Vincent was opposed to looking for places to establish a new house and was content to accept what Divine Providence offered. Up until 1635 there were only the two houses in Paris. Between 1635 and 1642 eight more houses were established. The year 1642 marked a turning point. The number of houses not only increased to thirty by the time of Vincent’s death but this was a time of geographical expansion outside of France: Italy (1642), Tunis (1645), the British Isles (1646), Madagascar (1648), and Poland (1651). Vincent also had plans to send Missionaries to Spain, Braxil, and Canada but, for different reasons, was unable to fulfill these plans.
The expansion outside of France began in Italy. In 1631 Vincent sent M. du Coudray to Rome and entrusted him with the mission of obtaining Pontifical approval for the Congregation of the Mission. In 1639 Vincent sent another missionary, M. Louis Lebreton and asked him to establish a house in Rome. This was accomplished when a favorable rescript was granted on July 11, 1641. The establishment of the house was initiated the following year but it was not until 1659 that the Missionaries had their own house on the heights of Monte Citorio. The establishment of the house in Rome was followed by the establishment of a house in Genoa in 1645 as a result of the initiative that was taken by Cardinal Durazzo. Then in 1655, the Marquis de Pianezze influenced the establishment of a house in Turin. The Missionaries in these three houses dedicated themselves to the twofold ministry of retreats for ordinands and missions and engaged in these ministries with noteworthy success. This was especially true of the missions that were preached which resulted in spectacular conversions and the pacification of the region of Corsica which had been assaulted by banditry and the “vendetta”. Vincent commented on the conversion of bandits. The Italian mission is also significant because very soon thereafter young men from this country requested to become members of the Congregation. It was for this reasons that the houses in Rome and Genoa became Internal Seminaries.
After the establishment of a house in Italy, the mission to Ireland began. In 1645 the Propagation of the Faith asked the Congregation of the Mission to send priests to Ireland. Rome was interested in supporting the Catholic rebirth in that country during the era of struggles for independence from England. It was hoped that the Congregation would minister in the area of reforming the clergy. The Congregation had about fifteen members who were Irish and who had fled their country during the time of religious persecution. Six of these Missionaries were sent to Ireland where they arrived at the beginning of 1647. They initiated their work in the diocese of Cashel and Limerick. But just six years later the repression of the English brought the mission to an end. All the missionaries but one were able to return to France. Only the youngest, Thaddeus Lee, was unable to escape and was cruelly executed by the English. He was the first martyr of the Congregation.
In 1650 the mission in Ireland was surprisingly able to be continued as Missionaries were sent to Scotland, the Orkney Islands and the Hebrides. Some of the Missionaries who had previously ministered in Ireland were sent there. Their ministry was quite different. They moved throughout the country in a clandestine manner and gathered together with groups of Christians whom they affirmed in their faith and with whom they celebrated the sacraments. They disguised themselves in different ways and they were always in danger of being captured, imprisoned or executed. They ministered in the midst of incredible difficulties and on several occasions were imprisoned. The mission in Scotland did not end until 1704.
The mission to Poland came about through the initiative of Louise Marie de Gonzague, a French woman and former Lady of Charity who married Ladislaus IV and John Casamir II, kings of Poland. When she was settled in Poland she requested Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity. The first group of Missionaries, composed of two priests, two clerics and a brother, was led by Monsieur Lambert aux Couteaux and arrived in Warsaw in November 1651. Unforeseen difficulties prevented them from taking charge of the seminary in Vilna (a plan that had been proposed by the Queen). They were obliged to accepted parishes (always unstable) and eventually they were appointed to the parish of Holy Cross in Warsaw which became the motherhouse of the Congregation in Poland. At the same time the various wars that broke out in this country made it difficult for the Missionaries to engage in their primary work of preaching missions. They were, however, given the opportunity to provide charitable assistance to those infected by the plague and to those wounded and injured during these wars. Several missionaries died as a result of this ministry and Monsieur Lambert aux Couteaux was the first to give his life in this manner.
During Vincent’s lifetime charitable heroism was the fundamental characteristic of the mission in Poland.
The mission that was undertaken by the Congregation in Tunis and Algeria (1645) was even more dangerous. These two North African enclaves of the Turkish Empire were involved in piracy which enabled them to harass the Christian powers and also became a source of free laborers and financial resources that were derived from the efforts to rescue those who were being held captive. As a result of the piracy there was a Christian population that was being held in captivity that numbered 50,000 men and women. From a physical, as well as a spiritual and religious perspective, their situation was quite lamentable. In 1645 the Congregation committed itself to send priests and brothers to these North African communities in order to assist the captives. Their mission was neither the conversion of the Muslims nor the rescue of the captives but rather they were to care for the religious needs of the men and women who were prisoners there. To make their work easier the Missionaries took on the responsibility of French consuls and also served as Vicar-general to the Archbishop of Carthage. In these positions of leadership they provided many different forms of valuable assistance: they protested the injustices and abuses that these individuals suffered; they served as mediators between Christian and Muslim businessmen; they negotiated ransoms; they served as couriers between the captives and their families and above all, they provided spiritual comfort through their preaching, catechesis, missions, and the administration of the sacraments in the galleys and prisons and other places of detention, including those places in the interior of the country. Two brothers were engaged in these activities: Monsieur Jean Le Vacher (Tunis) and Monsieur Philippe Le Vacher (Algeria). Among the more notable fruits of their ministry we mention here the martyrdom of a young prisoner from Majorca, Peter Borguny. He had been converted through the preaching of Monsieur Philippe Le Vacher and returned to the practice of the faith in the Catholic Church. He publically professed his faith and as a result was condemned to death. He was burned alive but heroically and fervently accepted this suffering. Some of the Missionaries were also martyred. Monsieur Julien Guérin died as a result of his zeal in assisting those infected with the plague. After Vincent’s death in 1660 Jean Le Vacher and François Francillo were executed in a cruel manner: they were tied to the mouth of a canon which was then fired. Their bodies were shattered and scattered in the waters at the Port of Algeria.
During Vincent’s lifetime Madagascar was the furthest missionary expedition of the Congregation of the Mission. At the insistence of the Propagation of the Faith the Congregation in 1648 accepted the commitment to send Missionaries to this island off the coast of Africa in order to accompany the French colonists of the East India Company who were living there and in order to convert the natives of this country. This was a very difficult, an almost impossible mission. Besides the very lengthy distance that had to be traveled in order to arrive there, one also had to deal with inadequate sanitary conditions as well as the attitude of the French colonists whose sole motivation was to deceive and exploit the native population. Missionaries departed from Saint-Lazare on six different occasions (1648, 1654, 1655, 1656, 1658, 1659). Three of these expeditions never arrived and the other three arrived after many months at sea and more than one shipwreck. The missionaries who did reach Madagascar died within a short period of time after their arrival and others died during the journey to this mission. Despite all of this, the Congregation of the Mission, under the leadership of Vincent, made every effort to honor their commitment. During the time that the Missionaries ministered on this island they were able to convert many people and sent some young black men to Paris to study for the priesthood. They also engaged in some creative projects of evangelization and here we highlight the translation of the catechism into Malagasy … the first book printed in that language. This translation was the work of the first Missionary sent by Vincent to Madagascar, Monsieur Charles Nacquart.
When Vincent de Paul died in 1660, the Congregation of the Mission was not large in numbers, and in fact, there were no more than 250 members. But the Congregation had gone through a process of consolidation during which its spiritual profile was defined by the Rule and the vows and its juridical status secured on the civil as well as the ecclesiastical level. It was financially sound and was established in different countries and had found its unique place within the Church as it moved forward to accomplish its fundamental task: the evangelization of the poor.
Besides the biographies mentioned in the article see also:
Allou, A., Précis de l’historie de la C.M. depuis sa fondation en 1625 jusqu’a la mort de M. Entienne en 1874. – Separata de Annales t.89-90 (1925-1925). Coste, P., La Congregation de la Mission, dite de Saint Lazare, Gabalda, Paris, 1927. Herrera J., Historia de la Congregación de la Misión, La Milagrosa, Madrid, 1949. Lacour, Cl. J., Historie génerale de la Congrégation de la Mission depuis sa fondation jusque’a 1725, in Annales vol. 62-67 Anonymous, Mémoires de la Congrégation de la Mission, Maison principale de la C.M., Paris 1863-1899, 11 volumes. Poole, Stafford, A History of the Congregation of the Mission 1625-1843.
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM