The Proximate Future of the Congregation of the Mission

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

by: Javier Álvarez, CM

[The presentation of this material was made at the Meeting of the New Visitors, Rome, January 7, 2014 and also published in Anales, volume 122, #3, may-june 2014, p. 251-262]


If it is difficult to speak about something in the present moment, be that an individual person or some institution, then that difficulty is multiplied when one attempts to foresee the future. Unforeseen circumstances escape any profound analysis. With reason, then, it is said that the future is in the hands of God. In even the best of situations, things appear cloudy when one looks forward. Nevertheless, it is necessary to look toward the future when one reflects on an institution. Even though one can be mistaken, yet it is necessary to speak about the future of the Congregation in order to plan and prepare. One cannot improvise. So then, thinking about the future of the Congregation I believe that we are going to see some significant changes both in the short-term and in the long-term and those changes will have consequences. I summarize those changes in the following manner:

The “geography of the Congregation” is changing and this change implies others

In order to develop this point it is necessary to present some statistical data with regard to the Congregation today. I am not going to present many numbers, but just enough so that we can make some conclusions. The information is taken from the statistics that were published in 2011 by the Secretary General, Father Guiseppe Turati, CM (cf., Vincentiana, January-March, 2012, the last two pages that are not numbered)

  • Total number of Missionaries: at the present time there are about 3,274 confreres … 34 of these are bishops, 59 are deacons, 146 are brothers, 41 are incorporarted members and the rest, 2,990 are priests. With regard to previous years (the past 10 or twenty years) it could be said that the Congregation has decreased in numbers but not in some excessive manner … not, for example, like the Daughters of Charity.
  • By continent, where do we find the Missionaries? In Europe there are 1,283 members; 802 in Latin America, 488 in Asia, 326 in Africa; 320 in North America. With regard to previous years it can be said that there are more Europeans (35% of the total members in the Congregation) but Europe together with North America are the continents where the median age of the confreres is the highest. In Asia and Africa the number of confreres is increasing and in Latin America the number remains about the same or is slowly increasing.
  • By the number of vocations we see which provinces are growing and which provinces are either maintaining themselves at the same level or decreasing in numbers. Here we take into consideration those persons who are “admitted” that is, persons in the Internal Seminary and persons who have not taken vows). At the present time there are 417 (and there are 684 aspirants and postulants). Among the “admitted” 155 are from Africa, 140 from Asia, 69 from Latin America, 32 from Eastern Europe, 16 from Western Europe and 9 from the United States.

Some considerations based on the numbers that we have just shared with you:

1] The Congregation of the Mission is decreasing in numbers but not in an alarming way, but nonetheless slowly decreasing in numbers. In the past fifty years the Congregation has decreased by about 1,500 Missionaries … but here we must take into consideration the Post-Conciliar phenomena. In the past twenty years the decrease comes to about 400 Missionaries. If we contrast the number of Missionaries with the number of vocations we see that the pyramid is completely inverted, that is, the greatest number of vocations corresponds exactly to those places with the fewest number of Missionaries. Furthermore, it is in those places that have the lowest median age among the Missionaries. Therefore we see that the vocational crisis is affecting those places where there is the largest number of confreres with the highest median age. Looking at this data together (417 admitted and 684 aspirants) we can conclude that the proportion among members-vocations is acceptable.

2] The center of the Congregation is being displaced: the center is moving from Europe and North America to Asia and Africa. It seems that Latin America is not going to grow much but will maintain itself at the present level. From the perspective of vocations it appears that the Congregation will be less and less European and more and more Asian and African. All of this has important consequences with regard to the inculturation of the charism. Up until the present time our reflection on the Vincentian charism and our lifestyle has been done from a European perspective, and from Europe has then moved out to the rest of the Congregation. The same has occurred in the United States and Latin America (that is, they have reflected on the charism and the proper lifestyle and that has influenced the rest of the world). Now, however, there will be new reflections and new ways of inculturating the Vincentian charism and these reflections will arise from other Missionaries who are living and ministering on other continents with distinct attitudes and formation.

3] The Congregation is growing in those parts of the world where the needs are most serious and is decreasing in numbers in those societies of a more ancient Christianity. In light of this third conclusion we can ask the following questions: How will this phenomenon affect the Congregation? Does this mean a change in mentality? How will this new reality be reflected in the general government of the Company? What aspects of Vincentian spirituality will be emphasized? What aspects of our spirituality will be weakened? And going further we can ask: What form of ecclesiology will be imposed? What kind of Missionaries will we have? These are questions that we have no answers to at the present time, but little by little we will find those answers.

4] The greatest number of vocations is seen in the youngest provinces, that is, where the Missionaries have less experience. This can present some problems in the area of initial formation. For example, the provinces with large numbers of candidates do not have a sufficient number of prepared formators to guarantee a good formation in the Vincentian spirit and in Vincentian spirituality. Should the provinces with more experience in this area consider helping in formation? In 1996 Father José Ignacio Fernández de Mendoza expressed this same concern. The lack of formators is notable in the provinces in which the number of aspirants is growing. This means a lack which has negative consequences in the long run and which is not easily remedied. It would be desirable that the provinces find ways to help each other by interchanging formation personnel (Vincentiana, #41.2 [March-April 1997], p. 95).

Reconfiguration will lead to other changes

In order to understand what these changes might involve, let us look at the process of reconfiguration as it is unfolding at the present time. But first of all it must be stated that this line of action that is spoken about in the Final Document of the 2010 General Assembly has been taken very seriously by the general council and by many provinces. At the same time we would add here that, in general, this question of reconfiguration is not viewed as some technical resource or some means of survival but rather it is seen as an opportunity and a means to revitalize our charismatic identity within the church, to review our ministries so that they are an expression of our charism and to review our communities so that they are able to generate charismatic life. It is true, however, that not everything related to this theme is positive. There is resistance on the part of some provinces and some Missionaries … but we also understand that that is very normal.

So then how is this process of reconfiguration unfolding in the Congregation?

  • North America: the first reconfiguration has taken place … in January 2010 the five provinces became three provinces.
  • France, the province of Paris and the province of Toulouse: this process was initiated some years ago but no reconfiguration has occurred. In the 2012 Provincial Assembly it appeared that this was going to happen but at the last moment, any definitive decision was postponed. Fear on the part of the province of Toulouse? To fast a process on the part of the province of Paris? Lack of calm dialogue on the part of both provinces? This matter has once again been taken up and even though there has been no determination with regard to a date for the union of the two provinces, such unification is not far off.
  • The three provinces in Spain (Barcelona, Madrid, Salamanca): this process is moving forward with commissions, a time schedule and a date for the beginning of the new province (September 27, 2016).
  • The three Italian provinces: the process here is very similar to that which is taking place in Spain. There are commissions, a time schedule and an approximate date for the beginning of the new province (after the Provincial Assembly of 2015 and before the General Assembly of 2016).
  • Central Europe (the provinces of Austria and Germany): some months ago dialogue was initiated and it is hoped that at the beginning of 2015 there will one province with two regions.
  • The province of Holland: because of the high median age, reconfiguration is not seen as a possibility at this time.
  • CLAPVI-North and the Caribbean: after prolonged reflection the provinces of Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Cuba have begun a process that will result in the fusion of the three provincial structures. The remainder of the provinces (Mexico, Central America and the Vice-province of Costa Rica) have committed themselves to intensify the collaboration among them but at the present time no reconfiguration is envisioned.
  • The Brazilian provinces: these provinces have initiated a process of reconfiguration. They are exploring ways to participate in a common project with some common structures. No other developments have taken place.
  • Latin American-South (provinces of Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina): in March 2013 they began a process of reflection on reconfiguration. At the present time this idea does not seem viable. Nevertheless they have agreed to intensify the process of collaboration among the provinces and will continue to collaborate in the area of initial formation. They have also agreed to establish an inter-provincial team to give popular missions. This team will be composed of four Missionaries (one confrere from each province) and it is hoped that they will give missions in the four countries.
  • The mission in Honduras which corresponds to the province of Barcelona, Slovakia and Zaragoza: here there is also collaboration with some missionary from the province of Colombia and from Central America. In December of 2013 there was a first review of the existing structures with a view toward simplifying the mission’s complex structures.
  • Particular situation with regard to some provinces (Portugal, Ireland, Zaragoza, Australia, the Vice-Province of Costa Rica): these are provinces with few vocations and have rejected any form of reconfiguration and/or have shown no interest in approaching another province.

Reconfiguration is a relatively new process and difficult to assess how it is affecting consecrated life in Europe and America. With regard to the Congregation, reconfiguration will give a new face to some provinces and at the same time will reveal the ability of the Congregation to adapt to new times.

The structures and the lifestyle of the Congregation are evolving

Let us look at this from the perspective that more recent changes have given to us. On many occasions Father Flores has repeatedly stated that until the Second Vatican Council the Congregation lived a spirituality that was focused on elements common to consecrated life rather than on elements that were specific to our charism. The formation that we received was traditional, rigid and “somewhat religious” and we had a centralized form of government and there was little room for dialogue. Our ministries were primarily popular missions and the formation of the clergy. We can say that perhaps those times required the Congregation to have those structures and that style of life.

With the Second Vatican Council we have seen an overall change in the church: a change in the way to do and to teach theology, a change in many ecclesial structures and a change in lifestyle. The Congregation was also affected by this new reality. As a result of the renewal of the Constitutions and the new ratio for formation and plans for the development of Vincentian studies, our spirituality became more focused on Vincentian elements. Communities became more flexible and our form of government was opened to participation and dialogue and co-responsibility and subsidarity. The exercise of ministry was opened to collaboration with the laity.

At the present time the situation is changing once again as the result of a new cultural movement that is leading us to a new evolution. For example, the omnipresence of the means of communication and the media is so powerful that it is revolutionizing the manner in which we communicate. All of this naturally influences our community reality. On the one hand there are some very real cultural realities that we must face, for example, the value of freedom, greater openness to the world as a result of the means of communication, greater pluralism on every level, openness to other religious traditions, multiculturalism. Today we cannot ignore these realities. Furthermore, they call for and demand from us an attitude of dialogue and openness, an ability to accept these and other realities and to see the value in those realities.

With this simple description of some of our values, there immediately arise the following questions: how should we exercise our ministry in the midst of this culture? It is no coincidence that the last General Assembly dedicated much time to a reflection on “creativity in ministry”. How should we plan our community life in the midst of this culture? And what about our form of governance? These are logical questions that flow from our attempt to live out our Vincentian vocation in the midst of today’s culture. We call this “inculturation”. The opposite would consist of attempting to live these new values in forms that have been handed down to us from the past and then, as a result, these values would actually cease to be significant in this new world in which they originated. We must remember that we are indebted to God who calls us and indebted to the poor to whom we are sent. Everything else (the specific manner in which we live together as a community, our style of evangelizing and ministering on behalf of the poor, our form of governance) is relative … and all of these things can and ought to change in accord with the culture and the circumstances.

In light of the proximate future of our Congregation and the inevitable changes, some questions are placed before us?

When we dream about the Congregation of the future or the future of the Congregation, we are also able to envision some of the obstacles that might hinder the evolution and the development of the Congregation. To put this another way, dreaming should not be viewed as opposed to constructive criticism. In order to assure a good future for the Congregation we must be attentive to certain attitudes. Here I will highlight those attitudes that I consider to be most important.

The question of individualism

Individualism is an evil of our era and it is also very present in the midst of our Congregation … it destroys everything that is involved with a “community understanding” and a common mission. I have seen more than one community work fail because each individual was focused on “his” part in the ministry as though “his contribution” was independent of everyone else’s contribution, … completely unaware of the fact that the work of one must be done in collaboration with the work of others. Without this attitude nothing will be accomplished. Individualism allows for no restriction to be placed on the autonomy of the individual. Frequently in the Congregation individualism is revealed through a partial belonging to the Congregation, to the province or to the community … and this in turn disrupts the balance between the personal and the community levels of life (the personal level is always given preference over the community or provincial level). When this occurs the individual views the community as a filling station or a hotel. The document, Authority and Obedience (#3) refers to this point.

The same number (#3) in the above mentioned document affirms the fact that cultural influence is a factor that has facilitated the appearance of this attitude. The search for personal fulfillment and well-being, no matter what the cost, is another manifestation of the same reality. Moreover, today individualism may go by other names such as particular charisms, cultural differences or personal processes … and this can lead to more confusion. We are not in any way attempting to deny legitimate diversity, personal responsibility and necessary personal creativity … these realities are one thing and individualism is something quite distinct.

Questions regarding a weakened sense of identity and a weakened sense of belonging to the Congregation

In theory no one denies the beauty and the validity of our charism. the problem arises, however, when our charism and our spirituality are not reflected in our life together and in our ministry. What causes this to occur? We can certainly say that in such a situation individuals have not sufficiently internalized the charism … and at the present time that which is not well-rotted will be carried away by the wind. Thus, we can see the importance of intensifying initial formation and the need to be mindful of on-going formation.

The lack of identity is revealed in everything: in our lifestyle and in our ministry. Thus, many Missionaries frequently ask, what distinguishes us from diocesan priests or other religious? When there is a profound identification with the charism (the internalization of the charism), then appropriate ministries are easily found that express the charism and/or people minister in a way that gives a Vincentian meaning to their activity. When they meet people who are hungry and thirsty we can be sure that those individuals will be given food and drink. We can see then that when ministry is in accord with the charism it creates greater identification. We can say that in this manner people enter into the positive spiral of identification.

On the other hand when one does not experience the power and the passion of the Vincentian vocation then it is impossible that the Vincentian charism and the Vincentian spirituality would be reflected in ministry. In this case, ministry would intensify the disconnect with the charism and as a result one enters the spiral of the loss of identity.

Together with identity we must also speak about the sense of belonging because the two are related: when there is a sense of Vincentian identity, then the sense of belonging to the Congregation is firm, but when there is no identity, then the sense of belonging can sound like some far distant melody. Thus the two themes, identity and belonging, point toward one and the same reality: identity relates us to the charism and belonging relates us to the institution … they are like the two sides of a coin.

Notice that the lack of identity and belonging can be viewed as the root cause and the explanation of several problems and situations that presently afflict the Congregation. For example, why are there Missionaries who, after only a few years as priests, decide with joy to seek incardination into a diocese? Do they see any importance to the fact of being able to discover a missionary vocation and being able to belong to a Congregation that allows them to live out their vocation? Why is it so difficult for the provinces to allow their ministries to evolve in such a way that they are in greater harmony with the demands of our charism and with the calls of the Church? The lack of vocations and the aging of the Congregation do not explain all of this because in some places where there are vocations and where the median age is not exceedingly high, we find similar resistance. Therefore should we not consider here that it is some lack of Vincentian identity that makes it difficult to see (as something very natural to our life) that our heritage is the poor … to see that the poor provide an evangelizing orientation to all our ministries … to see that mobility is a permanent instrument that allows us to continually refocus ourselves on that which is essential to our vocation?

Questions that flow from fulfilling the mission in the Congregation

Established to evangelize the poor, the Congregation can easily understand the urgency for evangelization that has been stressed from the time of Paul VI (Evnagelii Nuntiandi) until the present. Now we want to give a new impulse to this process; we want to initiate a new evangelization in order to respond to the call from the 2012 synod of Bishops. The recent popes (Francis, Benedict XVI and John Paul II) have all been concerned about this reality. In fact, given the reality that today the world is experiencing a profound moral and existential crisis, as well as a great lack of human and Christian values, evangelization is all the more urgent.

At the same time it is quite evident that the reality of poverty is becoming more prominent in our society. In countries on the path to development, poverty cries out to heaven. We need projects that will promote the dignity of the poor. In this sense we welcome the methodology of systemic change that provides us with the means to put in place plans for development and promotion. In those countries of the so-called “first world” the poverty rate is also increasing … and with this persistent crisis we can see more clearly than ever that poverty is a situation that demands our attention. In light of such a situation the Church must commit herself from the perspective of a preferential option for the poor.

In such a situation our Vincentian vocation involves us in a very relevant commitment, especially since our mission is to evangelize and our heritage is the poor. Could there be a more relevant vocation in the Church? In 1985 Pope John Paul II gifted the Vincentian Family with this pearl: your charism has indisputable relevance. That which the whole world understands theoretically, is that understanding the primary concern of the missionaries and of the local community? Are the poor at the center of our ministries? Have our communities and ministries changed in some way so that they are more capable of serving in new situations of evangelization.

With a critical eye let us look at the distribution of the Missionaries according to their ministry in the Congregation. This information is taken from the statistics that were published in the January-March, 2012 edition of Vincentiana. Missionaries in parishes, 890 (29%); retired, ill, convalescing, 348 (11%); missionary parishes or districts, 232 (7%); schools [primary, secondary, superior, professional], 190 (6%); formation of our own, 168 (5%); missions ad gentes, 158 (5%); administration, 152 (5%); Daughters of Charity [director, chaplain], 139 (4%); seminaries and formation of clergy, 133 (4%); other, 128 (4%); chaplains [military, immigrants, hospitals, associations], 121 (4%); popular missions, 91 (3%); chaplains to Vincentian lay groups, 77 (2%), direct service to the poor, 61 (2%); pilgrimage sanctuaries, 48 (2%); manual labor, 26 (1%); social communication [publications, radio, television], 24 (1%).

What is the meaning of these statistics? Many more things need to be balanced in order to call ourselves a missionary congregation that is at the service of the poor. This is especially true when more than half the members are dedicated to stable, permanent ministries which are focused on preserving the faith and administering the sacraments. Only about fifteen percent of the Missionaries are committed to ministries that are clearly missionary or creative.

It must also be said however that in the Congregation there are admirable examples of creativity in ministry. Article 5 of the Synthesis from the 2010 General Assembly points out the following: renewed means of popular mission, itinerant missions and missions to indigenous peoples, formation of the clergy and laity for the service of the church (especially in Colombia, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea as well as in some Asian and African countries); ministry to the clergy beyond the seminary apostolate, dialogue with culture in the world today, engagement in ecumenism and work for justice and peace … in the videos that were shown each day during the Assembly we were able to see some of the ministries that had been renewed.

Certainly the numbers make us question ourselves: a large percentage of the Missionaries are involved in ministries that are focused on preserving the faith and the administration of sacraments and very few are ministries are directly related to the mission … and so?

Questions about personal renewal

The Church is calling us to a new evangelization. We can forget about this process if we believe that this can be done with “old men” … old men in the Pauline sense of the phrase. There is a saying in theology that states that the evangelizer evangelizes to the degree that he or she has been transformed by the gospel. People are not able to give that which they themselves do not possess. As we apply this to the Congregation we have to affirm that only “new Missionaries” who have been personally transformed by the grace of God and who are convinced of their vocation, only such Missionaries are able to build a renewed Congregation and a renewed mission.

In the Congregation, the vocation of many Missionaries has arisen in the context of an inherited faith and of a sociological Christianity. I believe that in countries with an older Christian tradition this type of option was favored. If those who have made such an option do not personalize and purify this option, then they run the risk of living out this option as some profession or even worse, to bear it as a burden. In those countries where the Church is “younger” one feels the need and the desire to struggle against injustice (this is both very gratifying and also makes one feel fulfilled). Such a struggle enlivens one’s faith and leads to a social commitment. In other words, one’s vocation is concretized in a style of life that is in accord with the characteristics of the individual rather than as a response to Jesus Christ who calls people to follow him and to evangelize the poor.

In both of these cases there is need to purify one’s motivation (why and for whom do I do the things that I do?) … there is also a need to internalize and deepen one’s relationship with God, to seek God in prayer (prayer must be deepened if it is going to move us to do something) … God must be experienced in communion and our ears must be attentive to his call and, regardless of our age, we must become involved in the process of evangelization. Only in this way can we be truly converted, only in this way can our communities be transformed and can we engage in the process of evangelization. We should not forget the words that Vincent spoke to the Missionaries: The interior life is essential; it has to be our aim; if we lack that, we lack everything (CCD:XII:111).

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM