Responding to the will of the church, and inspired by the Second Vatican Council, the Congregation of the Mission, founded by St. Vincent de Paul, has revised its own fundamental law in order to revitalize its apostolic activity and its life in the modern world.
The Congregation feels that it is living in a unique time of grace. It senses the action of the Spirit of the Lord coming upon it urging it to renewal, following the steps of St. Vincent.
The Congregation considers it necessary to go back to its roots, and to St. Vincent's lifelong conversion and original vision, so that it may continue to witness to its role within the Church. This is how it seeks to affirm more forcefully, and loyally maintain, its original identity and the spirit of its Holy Founder, and to draw greater inspiration from these sources. In this way, attentive to the will of God, it seeks to respond to its calling which is manifested in a special way, today as in St. Vincent's time, in the needs of the poor.
Vincent de Paul was born in the village of Pouy in 1581. As a boy he lived among the poor and experienced the conditions under which they lived. In 1600 he became a priest. For a time he sought to escape from the poverty of his origins, but with the help of spiritual directors he felt himself called to deeper holiness and, through the events of his life, was finally led by divine providence to a firm determination to dedicate himself to the salvation of the poor. While he was exercising his ministry in Gannes and, on the 25th of January 1617, in Folleville, he saw that the evangelization of the poor was an urgent need. He himself held that this was the origin of his vocation, and of the Congregation of the Mission.
When, in August of the same year in Chatillon-les-Dombes, he founded “La Charite” [The Confraternities of Charity] to assist the sick who lacked all help, he discovered for himself, and showed others, the close link that exists between evangelization and the service of the poor.
Gradually his religious development led to contemplating and serving Christ in the person of the poor. The vision of Christ, sent by the Father to evangelize the poor, was central to his life and ministry. Hearing the call of people in the world of his own day, learning to listen with an ever more intense love of God and of poor people who were burdened with hardships of all kinds, Vincent felt himself called to alleviate sufferings of every sort.
Among all his commitments he always had a special care for the Mission, and he gathered the first members to join with him in evangelization of the country people; this was set out in a contract dated the 17th of April 1625. They bound themselves to form a Congregation in which, living as a community, they would devote themselves to the salvation of the country poor; this was by an Act of Association which they signed on the 4th of September 1626. While Vincent and his confreres were giving themselves to the evangelization of the poor, they clearly saw that the effectiveness of their mission to the people could not be sustained unless they also provided for the formation of the clergy. They began this work in 1628 in Beauvais when, at the request of the bishop, they held retreats for those being advanced to orders. In this way they were providing good pastors for the Church.
In order that he might better respond to a wide variety of needs, St. Vincent brought together as many people as he could, rich and poor, humble and powerful, and used every means to inspire in them a seminary to the poor, who are the privileged image of Christ. He moved them to help the poor, directly and indirectly. They made this voluntary and generous dedication their own. There followed the Company of the Daughters of Charity and the Confraternities of Charity founded by him, and other Associations derived from these as well as individuals who, up to our own day, have resolved to take on this same spirit.
His zeal for the poor developed further with the start of foreign missions when, in 1648, he sent confreres for the first time to Madagascar.
As it was growing, the Congregation as an Institute gradually clarified its vocation, its thrust, and its community life. It was also insistent on its secular character, even though its members grounded their stability in the Congregation by a special vow, and by the practice of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Such characteristics constitute the heritage of the Congregation even to our day.
In complete accord with the intentions of the Founder, all these things are formally set out in documents describing the origin and thrust of the Congregation. On the 12th of January 1633, in the Bull Salvatoris Nostri, Urban VIII decreed:
“The principal object and special aim of this Congregation and its members is, by the grace of God, to work both for their own salvation and for the salvation of those living on farms; in villages, on the land, and in the poorer localities and towns; but in the cities and urban areas . . . they shall give retreats privately to those about to be advanced to orders, and instruct those preparing for orders.” In the Brief Ex Commissa Nobis, dated the 22nd of September 1655, Alexander VII approved taking "simple vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, as also of stability in the Congregation, with the object of devoting oneself all one's life to the salvation of poor country people. While these vows are being pronounced, no one shall assist with the purpose of accepting them in the name of the Congregation, or of Ourselves, or of the Roman Pontiff at the time.” Moreover, he declared that “the Congregation of the Mission be exempt from the jurisdiction of the local Ordinaries in all things except for the persons who have been assigned to the missions by the Superiors of the Congregation . . . and those things which concern the missions. We establish also 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.”
St. Vincent took great care to form the Congregation in the spirit of the Lord and, after many years of experience, he gave it the Rules or Common Constitutions [traditionally called “The Common Rules”]. Here he offered from the gospel examples of holiness which might more deeply motivate the spirituality, apostolic activity, and fraternal life of his foundation. This came from his profound awareness of what the Lord did and taught in fulfilling the will of his Father who sent him to evangelize the poor.
At the beginning of the Common Rules, he sets out in more detail the vocation and mission of the Congregation, indicating at the same time how this is to be achieved:
We read in sacred scripture that our Lord, Jesus Christ, sent on earth for the salvation of the human race, did not begin by teaching; he began by doing. And what he did was to integrate fully into his life every type of virtue. He then went on to teach, by preaching the good news of salvation to poor people, and by passing on to his apostles and disciples what they needed to know to become guides for others. Now the little Congregation of the Mission wants, with God's grace, to imitate Christ, the Lord, in so far as that is possible in view of its limitations. It seeks to imitate his virtues as well as what he did for the salvation of others. It is only right that if the Congregation is to do the same sort of work, it should act in the same sort of way This means that the whole purpose of the Congregation is: ‘to have a genuine commitment to grow in holiness, patterning ourselves, as far as possible, on the virtues which the great Master himself graciously taught us in what he said and did; ‘to preach the good news of salvation to poor people, especially in rural areas;’ to help seminarians and priests to grow in knowledge and virtue, so that they can be effective in their ministry.”(CR, I, 1).
In these words, St. Vincent entrusted to the confreres of the Congregation, his followers in the Lord, a unique vocation, a new kind of community life, and an exacting purpose that, with wisdom, should be continually adapted to each new age.