Our Vincentian Identity in Today’s Church
by: Father José Ignacio Fernández Mendoza, CM, Visitor of the Province of Ecuador
[This material was presented at the 2013 meeting of the Visitors, St. John’s University, New York, 2013]
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Identity
- 3 The identity of the Congregation of the Mission according to its Founder
- 4 The identity of the Congregation of the Mission according to some significant documents
- 5 The identity of the Congregation of the Mission according to the present Constitutions
- 6 More about the objective identity of the Congregation of the Mission
- 7 The identity of the Congregation of the Mission is dynamic
On April 21st, 2012 I received a message, signed by Father Gregory Gay, CM, superior general, in which he invited me to direct the spiritual retreat at Saint John’s University that was planned for July 1st, 2013. Father General indicated that the theme of the Visitors’ meeting was: the lines of action in action. The theme of the retreat, however, was: Our Vincentian Identity in today’s Church. The message from Rome contained these final words: you will preside at the Eucharist and schedule the events and activities that will take place during this day of retreat.
I want to thank the superior general for the trust that he has placed in me, even though, to be quite honest, I am not the most appropriate persons to address these words to such an honorable assembly composed of the members of the General Curia and the Visitors of the Congregation of the Mission. My dear confreres I am a member of the Province of Ecuador, a very small province, a province that is like a hinge between the sister provinces of Colombia and Peru.
At this time I want to take a moment to welcome all of you who have traveled here from the five continents. At the same time, in the name of all the Visitors I want to thank the Visitor and all the confreres of the Province of Philadelphia who have welcomed and received us here in such a fraternal manner during these days.
On August 15th, 2012, the feast of the Assumption, I traveled by bus from Santo Domingo de los Colorados to the city of Quito, the capital of Ecuador … a journey of one hundred kilometers (sixty-two miles). During the trip I had an interesting conversation with an unknown gentleman seated next to me. As we traveled toward our destination this man, somewhat intrigued, asked me: Please, would you tell me who you are and what is your profession? I tried to explain to him as best as I could my situation: I am a priest and I belong to a missionary community whose task it is to evangelize and serve the poor. The man’s eyes opened wide and he stated: I thought something like that. Now I understand! When we greeted one another at the beginning of the trip I suspected that you were someone special. So you are a priest … I like the fact that you serve the poor. This unknown individual had obliged me to reveal, to a certain degree, my heart and to describe in a few words some of the characteristics of my Vincentian identity.
This matter of identity is quite complex. It can be reflected on from various perspectives. It pertains to individual persons as well as groups of people. The word identity is derived from two Latin words: idem and identitas which means the same or, in other words, that which is proper and unique, that which characterizes an individual or a group of people. Individuals have an identity to the degree that they have clothed themselves in the qualities proper to their condition. They have this identity when they are truly that which others expect of them; when their life and activity bridge the gap between the ideals that they have accepted and the response that they have made in light of those ideals.
Vincentian identity of the Congregation of the Mission refers to its relationship as a whole: provinces, local communities, and individual missionaries in as much as they are followers of Saint Vincent de Paul … the identity that is lived and revealed through word and action.
Identity in today’s church
Within the Church there are various charisms, each one with its own uniqueness. Charisms handed down by the respective Founders and recognized by the Church compliment and give character to the visible presence of the Church in every era. The Holy Spirit gifted our Founder with a particular gift that led him to follow Jesus Christ evangelizing the poor. Therefore in the heart of the Church and in every era the Congregation of the Mission must give new life to the charismatic Vincentian identity that it has received from the Founder.
Experts presently speak about two identities: objective and subjective. Allow me to briefly present some documents and statements which in the course of history gave concrete form to the [objective] identity of the Congregation of the Mission. In order to do so I will refer to the writings of Saint Vincent and to certain historically significant documents, especially the Constitutions that were formulated after the Second Vatican Council.
The identity of the Congregation of the Mission according to its Founder
The identity of an institution can be expressed in various ways: through its life, activity, events, and customs; through written statements and in particular, through the formulation of constitutions. The Congregation of the Mission is no exception. Our Founder designed a way of being for his most beloved establishment, the Congregation of the Mission. The proof of this is seen in the numerous statements that reveal to us that which from the beginning was proper and unique to the Company.
The spirit that animated Saint Vincent as well as the Missionaries of the Little Company was the same: to dedicate their life to the evangelization of the poor … providing for their corporal and spiritual needs. What follows are some words that reveal the personal spirit of our Founder … a spirit that he communicated to the Missionaries. For the sake of brevity I will cite three passages from Vincent’s later conferences that were addressed to the first Missionaries.
In the October 15th, 1655 conference on Conformity to the Will of God, we read: The Son of God came to evangelize the poor. And are not we, Messieurs, sent for the same purpose? Yes, Missioners are sent to evangelize the poor. Oh, what a happiness to do on earth the same thing Our Lord did there, which is to teach poor persons the way to heaven (CCD:XI:283-284). In light of the referenced text we can conclude that a characteristic, a very special characteristic, of the identity of the Congregation of the Mission is found in the following of Jesus Christ evangelizing the poor.
In the conference dated May 17th, 1658 on Observance of the Rules, we find the following words: Our Lord came and was sent by His Father to evangelize poor persons. Pauperibus evangelizare misit me. Pauperibus, to the poor, Messieurs, to the poor, as, by the grace of God, the Little Company strives to do (CCD:XII:3).
During the December 6th, 1658 conference on the Purpose of the Congregation of the Mission, Vincent stated: Our Lord asks us to evangelize the poor; that’s what He did, and what He wants to continue to do through us. We have great reason to humble ourselves here, seeing that the Eternal Father is using us for the plans of His Son, who came to preach the Gospel to poor persons … So then, what a great obligation we have to His Infinite Goodness for having associated us with Him in this divine ministry … but there isn’t a single Company in the Church of God that has for its portion persons who are poor, devoting itself totally to the poor and never preaching … that’s what Missioners profess to do; it’s their special characteristic to be, like Jesus Christ, committed to the poor (CCD:XII:71). According to Vincent de Paul the Congregation of the Mission lives in accord with the plan of God the Father who sent his Son to evangelize the poor. The Missionaries commit themselves to journey along the same path that the Son of God traveled while he was on earth.
The identity of the Congregation of the Mission according to some significant documents
On January 12th, 1632, Pope Urban VII in the bull Salvatoris Nostri, wrote the following: The principal purpose and special goal of this Congregation and its members is, by the grace of God, along with their own salvation, to dedicate themselves to the salvation of those who live on the estates, in the countryside, on farms, in hamlets, and in insignificant places (CCD:XIIIa:298).
In the Common Rules that Vincent distributed to the Missionaries on May 17th, 1658 we read the following words: The whole purpose of the Congregation is: 1] 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; 2] to preach the good news of salvation to poor people, especially in rural areas; 3] to help seminarians and priests to grow in knowledge and virtue, so that they can be effective in their ministry (Common Rules, I:1).
On September 22nd, 1655, Pope Alexander VII, through the brief Ex Commisa Nobis, approved vows for the Congregation of the Mission whose members would dedicate their whole life to the salvation of poor country people (CCD:XIIIa:417)
The Constitutions of July 19th, 1953 contain the following text: Its general purpose is to labor for the glory of God and the perfection of its members; its special purpose is: 1]to preach the Gospel to the poor, especially the country people; 2]to help ecclesiastics to acquire the knowledge and virtues required by their state of life; 3]to carry on works of charity and education (Constitutions, article 2).
According to the present Constitutions that were promulgated in 1984: The purpose of the Congregation of the Mission is to follow Christ evangelizing the poor. This purpose is achieved when, faithful to Saint Vincent, the members individually and collectively: 1] make every effort to put on the spirit of Christ himself (CR I,3) in order to acquire a holiness appropriate to their vocation (CR XII, 13); 2] work at evangelizing the poor, especially the more abandoned; 3] help the clergy and laity in their formation and lead them to a fuller participation in the evangelization of the poor (Constitutions, #1).
Some have said that the Congregation of the Mission has been affected by ambiguity from the time of its origin. There have been multiple formulations of our purpose. We are known by different names. We are clerics but not religious and also not diocesan priests. Nevertheless it is true that successive formulations of the purpose of the Congregation all coincide with one essential point: the evangelization of the poor predominates. The same documents however do not agree in the area of making explicit one purpose or numerous purposes and also do not agree when giving an order of priority to these different purposes.
The identity of the Congregation of the Mission according to the present Constitutions
In speaking about the objective identity of the Congregation we should reflect on the new Constitutions, written during the 1980 General Assembly, approved by the Holy See on June 29th, 1984 and promulgated by the then superior general, Richard McCullen on September 27th, 1984. After a period of transition these Constitutions took effect on January 25th, 1985 … thus in this year of 2013 our present Constitutions are twenty-eight years old.
We should give thanks to those confreres who followed the directives of the Second Vatican Council: to return to the original sources and to read the signs of the times … a process of reflection and research that led to the formulation of our new Constitutions. The Congregation, as a whole, made a praiseworthy effort to rediscover and redefine its proper identity. To arrive at that point the efforts of the local communities, the provinces and the General Assembly of 1968-1969, 1974, and 1980 were all needed. Here also we must mention Father William Slattery who initiated the search for our post-conciliar identity by convoking the 1968 General Assembly.
The Little Company as a whole entered into a search for its nature, a search for its place within the present day church and world. Because of the diversity of cultures and ministries and the individual history of the provinces, it was a long and difficult journey. On the other hand during the fifty post-conciliar years innumerable Vincentian studies (the fruit of much research) have been published in various parts of the world … all of this has contributed to greater knowledge about the identity of the Congregation. Viewing events from an historical perspective we can now understand what the Congregation had proposed for herself and what she desired to achieve, namely, to define herself and to clarify her nature and proper identity. What does the Congregation say about itself? How does the Congregation want to be known? What is the Congregation of the Mission? What are its characteristics? During that era these and other questions were experienced and reflected upon by Vincentian throughout the world.
During the process of identifying and clarifying the purpose of the Congregation and, consequently, clarifying its proper identity, the path remained open so that changes and modifications could be made in the various areas that would eventually given form to our new Constitutions. Then and now a satisfactory response was/is required with regard to the proper nature of the Congregation. An institution without an identity, without a plan or guidelines, will lose its way. It will lose its sense of direction and its members will become confused and dissatisfied and thus will opt to retire early or, in the worst case scenario, will leave said institution. On the other hand, when the identity of the institution is accepted individuals, in our case the individuals are the confreres of the Congregation, will recover a sense of belonging to the Congregation and will experience themselves as protagonist of their history.
The decree of approval (June 29, 1984) refers to the Founder of the Mission, the purpose of the Congregation and the process of revision that occurred in light of the norms set forth by the Second Vatican Council. In the same decree we are reminded that the Constitutions are a firm means to achieve perfect charity, an instrument at the service of the charism and at the present time the best expression of our institutional identity. The members of the Congregation have the obligation to know and to accept these Constitutions.
In the decree of promulgation, dated September 27th, 1984, we read the following words: Between the covers of this book our identity as a Congregation in the Church is delineated. We must not be content to leave that delineation on paper alone. The text must now be imprinted on our hearts and lived out in our vocation to preach the gospel to the poor (Constitutions and Statutes of the Congregation of the Mission, p. 14). The introduction that precedes the Constitutions expresses the same idea in similar words. The Congregation founded by Saint Vincent, docile to the will of the Church, has revised its fundamental law in order to revitalize its proper identity, it proper purpose, its life and its mission in the present day world.
More about the objective identity of the Congregation of the Mission
The first part of our Constitutions, entitled Vocation, gather together constitutive elements of the theology and canonical identity of the Congregation. The title, Vocation¸ somewhat complex, refers to God’s calling of Vincent de Paul to participate in a mission: to establish the Congregation of the Mission in order to evangelize the poor. Under the same heading of Vocation the Constitutions deal with matters that refer to our purpose, nature and spirit. Those three words (purpose, nature and spirit) contain the essential elements of our congregational identity.
We read in our Constitutions: the purpose of the Congregation is to follow Christ evangelizing the poor. Nothing more and nothing less! To define the purpose is always important. The Congregation has a purpose and everything is ordered around that purpose: its life and its mission. Following Jesus Christ evangelizing the poor (and not the ministries or the three means which Vincent called purposes) unifies and gives a focus to everything. The articles in the various sections of our Constitutions will be fruitful and helpful to the degree that they are related to the purpose, that is, to the degree that they are related to that which is most unique with regard to the Vincentian charism which consists of following Jesus Christ evangelizing the poor. The other facets outlined in the first article of our Constitutions only have meaning in light of our purpose: to put on the spirit of Christ himself in order to acquire holiness; to work at evangelizing the poor, especially the most abandoned; to help the clergy and laity in their formation and to lead them to a fuller participation in the evangelization of the poor. According to our new Constitutions our purpose is the arbiter of our apostolic and community life, of the evangelical counsels that are confirmed through the profession of vows and of our prayer life. Our purpose is also the arbiter of the general governance of the Congregation. Our purpose and the other articles in the part entitled Vocation beside containing fundamental principles have another objective, namely they provide us with a point of reference that enables us to orient and direct and even evaluate everything in light of the time honored purpose, nature and spirit. The section vocation clearly indicates where the present, objective identity of the Congregation is found … where its authentic face, its reason for being, its personality and its essential constitutive elements are found. All of this is in harmony with and follows the path that was traveled by Vincent de Paul.
As we reflect on the plans of our Founder and our present Constitutions do we as Missionaries of the Congregation of the Mission feel a healthy pride in being members of said Institute? Do we see ourselves as active subjects and protagonists in our home, that is, protagonist in the heart of the Congregation of the Mission? With what degree of empathy do we relate to the Congregation of the Mission? To what degree do we accept (personally and as a community) that which is most unique with regard to Vincentian spirituality.
During a gathering for on-going formation a group of Missionaries from the Congregation of the Mission reflected on the identity of Vincentians. One of the confreres who participated in this gathering expressed with great simplicity that he preferred to talk about the activities and ministries that he was engaged in on a daily basis rather than to speak about his identity. The same confrere stated that he was aware of the various activities that he carried on from day to day but these activities did not lead him to question his personal identity. He really did not see the difference here. He continued to speak and said that in the practical order the Vincentian catalog of ministries includes in its pages a great number of activities and nothing seems to be excluded. He said he could not find that which is specifically Vincentian and which differentiates him from others. This was expressed by one of our confreres who, without being aware of it, had become a victim of assimilation. He was unaware of the fact that he was a member of a specific community, in this case, the Vincentian community. Unfortunately the situation is repeated with some frequency among the present members of the Congregation of the Mission.
Healthy subjective identity
Let us consider the situation of a confrere whose life unfolds in a normal manner. One day he experienced the Lord’s call to follow a certain path. He became a member of the Vincentian community and with the passing of years he experienced the normal “ups and downs”. Said confrere leads a lifestyle that provides for his growth. Like so many others he belongs to a local community and engages in a specific ministry. Consciously and unconsciously he identifies himself with the Vincentian charism and despite some difficult moments he never ceases to affirm his proper vocation as a Vincentian and as a member of the Congregation of the Mission of which he is a member. As time passes he has internalized the community values that give meaning to his life as a member of the Congregation. His house, his home is the Congregation of the Mission. There is no doubt that this is a Missionary with a very clear Vincentian identity. In my opinion the Missionaries whose situation is similar to that of the confrere I have just described are the most numerous group in the Congregation. Said confreres are satisfied and identify themselves with the community that has given meaning to their life. Their subjective identity, ever more explicit and intentional, is maintained despite the changes that occur as the result of the passing of time and the ever new circumstances that affect the Congregation of the Mission. I repeat, the greater majority of the confreres are part of this group of Missionaries who love the Congregation with their whole heart.
Mediocre subjective identity
There is another situation that is not uncommon among the Missionaries of the Congregation. In this group I would have to include those confreres who, because of certain acquired habits, have come to a standstill with regard to their personal identification as Vincentians … they find themselves in no man’s land. The author of the book of Revelation includes such individuals among those who are lukewarm. Today we might refer to these confreres as men who have no depth. They have been incorporated into the Congregation of the Mission and are content with doing the bare minimum and view as suspicious any innovation with a charismatic tone. They consider as too theoretical anything related to the objective identity of the Congregation and therefore the writings of Saint Vincent and our new Constitutions are seen as pure theory. These confreres are caught up in mediocrity and frequently move about in a small circle of friends. They have no vitality and are not involved in the new congregational horizons that are the fruit of collective reflection.
As I put these thoughts into writing it seemed right to classify as mediocre the Vincentian identity of this group of dear confreres, confreres worthy of our consideration.
Broken subjective identity
Here I describe the situation of vessels of great value that are broken. Experience has shown us this. We have all lived with excellent Missionaries, grounded in their vocation and identified with the purpose of the Congregation. Their life unfolded over a long period of time within more or less acceptable parameters. Then one day, for no detectable reason, said confreres lost their first fervor. Their initial plan collapsed. Allow me to say that in those cases (which occurred in the past and which also occur today) the deterioration was usually gradual … the deterioration slowly surfaced and then at a specific moment expressed itself in all its harshness. What happened is that the subjective identity of those Missionaries faded. In their personal world they began to experience psychological separation from that which is central to Vincentian spirituality. Then came the break.
The Vincentian Missionaries loss of identity is attributed to multiple factors among which we list the following.
- An activism that has claimed not just a few confreres as victims. With the passing of time these individuals become impoverished interiorly and consequently no long feel identified with the Vincentian community.
- The lack of on-going formation. What is not known cannot be loved. The lack of information about our past history and about the present evolution of the Congregation leads certain Missionaries to a state of disinterest and isolation from the community which in turn often results in separation from the Congregation of the Mission. Therefore it would be good to grapple with this issue of on-going formation so that as individuals and as a community we can grow in our Vincentian identity.
- The deterioration of community life produces a great restless and/or discomfort in the Missionaries and ultimately the confrere wants to distance himself from the Congregation in order to find another healthier environment. There is no doubt that personal and community Vincentian identity has to be strengthened through the re-creation of a fraternal spirit in the local communities.
- As a result of spiritual inertia and more specifically neglect with regard to the life of prayer, some confreres are victims of disorientation and as a result lose their Vincentian identity. In these cases the decision to leave the Congregation of the Mission looms on the horizons.
- The desire to break with congregational structures that one has not freely accepted produces in some confreres a loss of Vincentian identity. This leads some individuals to abandon the Congregation in order to become members of the diocesan clergy.
The identity of the Congregation of the Mission is dynamic
I refer to the objective and subjective identity of our Congregation as such and in as much as it is understood and accepted by the individual Missionaries who are members. Both identities, the objective and subjective identity, are dynamic and active not static. The proof of this is found in the Constitutions that were formulated during the General Assemblies of 1968-1969, 1974, and 1980 and later Assemblies (even though these later assemblies were more pastoral/functional in character). We do not exaggerate when we say that today the objective identity of the Congregation is found in certain recent document which must be taken into consideration. The Spirit blows where it wills. We must certainly include in the list of new institutional currents and signs of the time some of the guidelines that have been presented during the past twelve years, especially those that appear in the Lines of Action 2010-2016 that were approved by the 2010 General Assembly and subtitled: Creative Fidelity for the Mission.
This being understood, the following concepts that have been universally accepted now have a place within the Congregation of the Mission.
First, the concept of systemic change as an adequate method to provide charitable assistance to the poor. At the present time there is nothing worse than to approach those in need with methods that were useful yesterday but today are no longer valid. We therefore have an obligation to emphasize this method and we have a similar obligation to accept it wholeheartedly. The General Assembly which took place in Paris from June 28, 2010 – July 16, 2010 gave a decisive impulse to systemic change as “the” method to evangelize the poor … we must understand the needs of those who are poor and at the same time we must be aware of those structures that create situations of poverty and marginalization … we must also remember that the poor are agents of their own liberation.
Second, reconfiguration of the Congregation of the Mission: here we are dealing with a profound concept that involves the individual Missionaries and the institutions of the Little Company. Some confreres, it seems, reduce reconfiguration to the union of various provinces without being aware of the superficiality of such a view. Reconfiguration suggests a profound reform of the communities, the individual persons, the works and the institutions and is always mindful of the fact that the purpose of the Congregation consists of following Jesus Christ evangelizing the poor. The General Assembly of 2010 approved a text which refers to “intra”-provincial and “inter”-provincial reconfiguration.
Third, another congregational sign of the present era is seen in the emphasis that for some years has been given to the Vincentian Family that is composed of those who follow Jesus Christ in the same way as Vincent de Paul did. Decisive steps have been taken in this regard. Nevertheless as a Congregation we must become more involved in this activity that makes our evangelization of the poor ever more effective. With regard to our participation within the Vincentian Family there is no room for clericalism or indifference. Indeed the Congregation of the Mission must encourage ever more collaboration among the groups and associations that are inspired by the charism of Vincent de Paul. At stake here is our role as Vincentians in the evangelization of the world.
Fourth, the Regional Conferences of Visitors came into existence for practical reasons. Today we view these conferences as an accomplishment of interprovincial collaboration in various places throughout the world, for example, in the area of initial formation and interprovincial missions. We have only to recall Statute 79:1-3 which was approved by the XLI General Assembly and that includes numerous wise consideration with regard to the Conference of Visitors.
Fifth, initial and on-going formation: in accord with the 2010 General Assembly, we, as Missionaries of the Congregation of the Mission, need to give a new impulse to the process of integral formation in order to evangelize the poor … we need to give a new impulse to the formation of aspirants and the on-going formation of the Missionaries in order to strengthen our proper identity, guarantee Vincentian fidelity and promote creativity in ministry. Creativity is the concretization of our identity for the mission.
These are some of the concepts (by no means was this meant to be a comprehensive list) that the Congregation has assumed ownership of during recent years. In the context of this presentation I would include those elements which I have referred to when speaking about objective identity. In accord with our creative fidelity for the missions these new rays of light have now become part of our renewed and dynamic identity.
At this time of retreat allow me, the Visitor of a small province, to question myself and to ask you, the members of the General Curia and the visitors of the various provinces, if the new concepts and directives that have been embodied in recent documents … have these ideas been accepted readily and wholeheartedly by the Missionaries. Let us sincerely ask ourselves if the subjective identity, that is, if the warm acceptance on the part the Missionaries remains assured in the various areas of the Congregation of the Mission. The acceptance of these new concepts is not an act that is accomplished in one single moment. We need time and we also need to renew our commitment … and renew it again and again. Let us attempt to reflect on the depth with which the confreres of the provinces have accepted the new institutional signs that are proper to the present era. It is good to engage in this reflection in order to set out once again upon our journey … and what appropriate moment to do this then during this day of retreat.
Whatever the situation, we as visitors, have before us a wonderful task, namely that of serving and encouraging the confreres of our respective provinces … and we can rely on the intercession of Saint Vincent de Paul.
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM