Vincent de Paul in Gannes-Folleville --- Part III
[5.3.] Present day situation of the Congregation of the Mission and the popular missions
Finally, I want to reflect on the present state of the popular missions, as well as that of the Congregation of the Mission. Are they viable? Do they have meaning? Do they require some change, some new strategies, something different from previous eras? Do we have to admit that the time of the popular missions has passed and, as a result, the reason for the continued existence of the Congregation of the Mission has vanished? Have both realities died? If both realities have, indeed, died, then all that remains is to officiate at their burial. But, if on the other hand, they are alive and/or have the possibility of continued existence, then what has to be done?
Before responding to those questions, let us begin by providing greater precision to the concept of the popular missions and the concept of the Congregation of the Mission. On the one hand, popular missions are a form of extraordinary and systematic preaching that are intended to convert, instruct and enflame the members of those communities that have been evangelized, even if only in a superficial manner . On the other hand, it is well-known that the Congregation of the Mission was founded and organized by Vincent de Paul to remedy the religious, moral and material misery of the poor country people through the preaching of popular missions. Thus, we see that the popular missions provided people with a process that enabled them to deepen their faith and to live their lives as better Christians. In other words, the popular missions provided people with an organized means that, as we have already stated, enabled men and women to deepen their faith and to live a Christian life. Thus, the Congregation of the Mission exists to give popular missions and exists in function of the work that needs to be done during the time of the popular mission as well as the work that must be carried out when the mission has been completed.
It can be affirmed that at the present time there are few requests for popular missions. Nevertheless, the situations that gave origin to the popular mission are still a reality in our midst. In fact, we could say that the same situations or some similar situations exist. Why, then, have the popular missions, in general, disappeared from the pastoral ministry calendar and more specifically, disappeared from the schedule of the Congregation of the Mission? At this time there are few bishops and pastors who request a popular mission for their diocese or parish. There is little demand and as a result there are not many offers. The provinces of the Congregation of the Mission, at least in Spain, do not have a significant number of confreres who dedicate their time to preaching popular missions. In fact, it would be difficult to gather together a team that would spend time preparing and giving such a mission. Therefore, it becomes obvious that there is neither the facility nor the willingness to offer popular missions to persons who might be interested in such a possibility. Why is this the situation? What is lacking, especially when we are aware of the fact that so many people call themselves Christian and yet are hungry for the Word of God and are in need of instruction and formation with regard to the truths of their faith and with regard to living a life that is in accord with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Some aspects of the definition that we have previously offered provide us with some insights into this matter, even though these same insights might not be applicable to all the existing causes of the present situation. In the definition that we have offered, we referred to an extraordinary preaching. How do we understand that word “preaching”? … and what do we mean when we use the word “extraordinary”? In the present linguistic context, preaching is an action. That word can also be used when referring to the explanation or some doctrine of some teaching. When, however, we reflect on the significance of the action of preaching, we discover the following characteristics: “to publish, to make something clear; to proclaim a sermon; to praise in an excessive manner; to reprimand someone or some group of people because of some vice or defect; to advise or make an observation; to affirm or deny something about a particular subject”. What have we done in our preaching? … sermonize, reprimand, advise? If such was our preaching then we should not be surprised that no one is interested in anything of that nature. What should have been a proclamation of the Lord Jesus Christ in order to make him present in the midst of the world, so often became a proclamation against this or that sin/vice/practice. Who today wants to listen to something so displeasing or something so far removed from the primary purpose of preaching which, in reality, should always be the joyful proclamation of the salvific gospel of the Kingdom of God and the building up of that kingdom in the midst of our present day situation? Furthermore, it is said that the action of preaching is “extraordinary”. By using that phrase we are implying that in the case of the popular mission, such preaching is “outside the general norm or the common rule or order” or is “better or greater than the ordinary rule or order”. This does not need any further clarification. It is understood, then, that a popular mission demands a preaching that is not ordinary, but that is bound up with and related to the life of the faithful, the life of the people to whom the mission is directed.
Thus, preaching is considered to be extraordinary when it takes place during some exceptional and yet precise moment in the life of a parish community and also occurs during a brief period of time. In other words, it is a preaching that does not last for many days. In fact, such preaching did not last longer than a month. Therefore, it may well have been the combination of these two elements that caused the disappearance or the waning of the desire for popular missions, both on the part of those who gave those missions and on the part of those who received them. It is also because of those reasons that the popular mission has ceased to be that opportune and necessary moment to convert people anew to the path of Christian living. Perhaps these are the same reasons that have made popular missions lose their effectiveness at the present time. Furthermore, in the definition that we have given to the popular mission, it is stated that the purpose of this extraordinary preaching was to convert, instruct and enflame the members of the Christian community. Conversion, in reality, is a very lengthy process and it would be very difficult to achieve such a conversion through preaching for just a few days. At the same time not much could be achieved with just a few day of religious instruction. Therefore, have not the popular missions lost their effectiveness because they promoted a passing enthusiasm? In other words, have not the popular missions become a type of “artificial fire” that continues to burn for some brief moments, has superficial effects and then is extinguished after a brief period of time? Is it not the combination of all these factors that has caused the decline and the disappearance of the popular missions?
On the other hand, the Congregation of the Mission was established to offer popular missions; its reason for existence is the popular mission. So what is happening at the present time? What are the Vincentian missionaries doing and where are they to be found? Are they missionaries? Are they engaged in the mission? Have they adjusted their lifestyle in such a way that they live in accord with the primary and the original purpose of the Congregation of the Mission? For some time there have been fewer and fewer popular missions and those that are currently given involve fewer missionaries and occupy a very brief period of time of the year. At the same time the missionaries have had to abandon the ministry in seminaries, a ministry that in its origins was closely related to the ministry of popular missions. So where are the Vincentian missionaries at the present time? Where are they to be found? According to the statistics published in the general and in the provincial catalogue, the large majority of the missionaries are ministering in parishes. Then, are those parishes that are administered by the missionaries … are they missionary parishes? I fear that the answer would be no or that such would be the situation in only a few instances. The missionaries have left behind the difficult ministry of the popular missions and have found a more comfortable life and apparently a more bearable and up-lifting life in parish ministry. The lack of demand for popular missions had led the confreres to engage in a more comfortable, calmer and less difficult form of ministry. Yet, in their ministry in the parishes, the missionaries have left aside and put little emphasis on the faith formation of the members of the Christian community and focused their energy on sacramental and liturgical celebrations. I have no doubt that all of this has created a lessening of our zeal and made us less concerned about formation and at the same time we have simply become another parish priest. Evangelization and making the gospel of Jesus Christ effective have become very superficial elements or simply nominal elements.
Nevertheless, at the present time popular missions have meaning and they are both useful and necessary. They were valid yesterday and they ought to be valid today. In the more or less recent past and during the time of Vincent de Paul, the popular missions were a means that was used to instruct people, especially the poor country people, in the moral and religious truths that were necessary for salvation and that would enable people to live a Christian life. At the same time, the popular missions brought about a moral reform in the life of the people, restored them to grace and established bonds of love and harmony and peace among people in both the temporal and the religious order. In other words, the popular missions made the Kingdom of God accessible to people and encouraged people to build up the same Kingdom of God. At the present time we should not lose sight of the fact that the great majority of people are greatly lacking in their knowledge of the God of Jesus Christ. That lack of knowledge prevents people from loving God and from loving one another in the manner that they should and in the manner that is commanded by the gospel. It was for all of those reasons that the popular missions were viewed as necessary in previous eras. At the present time these mission can become meaningful once again if they confront the situation of religious and human ignorance that is experienced by so many people who live in areas that have already been evangelized as well as in areas that have not been evangelized. If people do not know Jesus Christ then they cannot love him … and if they do not love Jesus Christ then it is impossible for men and women to be renewed and to lead a dignified life … without a dignified life, violence and the principle of “might makes right” will rule the world and we will witness more war and more injustice and death.
The popular missions had meaning and were necessary and useful during the time of Vincent de Paul. There is absolutely no doubt about that. In fact, Abelly reminds us of that fact when he writes: Monsieur Vincent was only too well convinced by his own experience of the extreme need the people had of being instructed in what was required for their own salvation, and of being encouraged to make a good general confession. And since it was in the missions that one could fulfill these duties of charity with the greatest fruit and success, he applied himself to them with all of his power. In so far as he could, he recruited for the work those whom he judged to be suited, both of his own Congregation and of others (Abelly II:14).
Vincent de Paul was convinced of the power of the missions to reform the Christian life of the poor country people. They were also useful because they achieved the proposed goal. They were a fruitful service and they were also successful. As a result of the popular missions every aspect of the life of the people was reformed, people experienced the mercy of God and felt that they were both saved and loved. People were able to lead happy lives in accord with God’s plan. Why, today, do we not have the same conviction? Why do our popular missions not achieve their purpose? Today people need to be instructed with regard to the gospel which they know so little about; they need to be formed in order to live the Christian life with dignity and courage. Good popular missions, profoundly renewed, can provide people with the opportunity for such instruction to be fruitful and successful. Do we not believe this? Are we willing to take up the challenge of renewing the popular missions so that they meet the needs of people today and so that they can achieve the goals and objectives that would be expected from such an important method of evangelization?
During Vincent’s time and at the present time, the popular missions need a sufficient period of time in order to achieve their purpose. Once again, Abelly reminds us of that reality: Monsieur did not want his Missionaries to conduct the mission in haste or on the run. He wanted them to take all the time necessary to accomplish all they had set out to do, that is, instruct the people, convert sinners, sanctify souls, and reestablish the service of God. When working in a particular place they would not leave until all the people had been well taught, their status rectified, using for this all the time necessary (Abelly II:29).
According to Abelly, Vincent did not want the missionaries to give the popular missions in a hurried manner. Rather he wanted them to dedicate sufficient time to this ministry so that the work that was begun could be brought to maturity and thus, they would be able to harvest the fruit that would result from such dedication. The instruction of the unlearned, the conversion of sinners, the necessary reparation for offenses committed and the establishment of the ministry of charity… these were the tasks that could not be completed in a few hours or a few days. According to the number of faithful these task required a minimum of between fifteen and thirty day. Furthermore, the pastors had to be formed so that they would continue that arduous labor. Perhaps this might appear as though we are speaking in hyperboles, but today it would be good to remember the affirmation of Abelly: When working in a particular place the missionaries should not leave until all the people have been well taught, their status rectified, using for this all the time necessary.
The planning of popular missions today must take into consideration the fact that a sufficient period of time will be needed so that the mission can produce results. The brief fifteen or twenty-one days that were dedicated to preaching a popular mission in past … could not this also be another factor that led to the destruction and the almost complete disappearance of the popular missions? I am convinced that if we dedicate a sufficient length of time to this ministry, then, the popular missions will provide us with the results that are expected. The time frame will have to be lengthy so that good Christian formation can be given and so that people become rooted and grounded in those new teachings. If we want to renew the Christian life of the parish and if we want to transform society, then we have to dedicate more than one month to this ministry; perhaps we will need several months, perhaps a year or even more than a year.
The popular missions require mobility and incarnation on the part of the missionaries ... not some hurried movement but one that is constant and lasting. Then there must also be a type of incarnation that is substantial and interior rather than superficial and exterior. Jesus of Nazareth was an itinerant missionary and he remained among the people for as long as necessary. His message was not ethereal but touched the very heart of the people and healed them. Therefore, Jesus dedicated himself to reaching out to the poor country people rather than those who lived in the cities because they had a greater need for liberation and because they also had preserved the long history of the people of God. A recent author describes the mission of Jesus in Galilee in a manner that we could say was a widespread and authentic popular Mission: Jesus discovered in the poor people the original deep roots of ancient Israel, and saw them as the most significant representative of the humiliated and oppressed people who were in need of liberation. It was the poor who had been deprived of their right to rejoice in the land, an inheritance that they had received from God. The poor were the representative of Israel, ailing and possessed, and dominated by enslaving powers that condemned them to a disgraceful life that was unworthy of a free people who were chosen by God. The poor suffered the consequences of the evil that was unleashed by sin and therefore needed to be freed from their situation. If the events surrounding the coming of the Kingdom of God were to be good news and the cause of hope for the oppressed people of Israel, then the proclamation of that news had to begin with the “least of those” and with the most humiliated among the people.
Vincent de Paul, like Jesus of Nazareth, ministered among the poor in order to free them from all the slaveries that shattered their lives. He dedicated a prudential period of time, about fifteen to thirty days to the task of transforming their lives. According to the synoptic gospels, Jesus spent about three years among the people in various towns and villages and proclaimed to them God’s mercy and love and liberating action. True, his ministry ended in disaster … and that disaster should not be attributed to Jesus or his ministry but rather to the hardness of heart of the people. The missionary has to minister, has to plant the Word of God and has to attempt to make the Kingdom of God effective. Missionaries do this by dedicating whatever time is needed in order to accomplish this task of “planting” in an adequate manner … there is no need for them to be concerned about the success or the failure of their ministry. They simply have to work for the building up of the Kingdom of God without any concern about the time and/or the effort that will be needed to accomplish that task and most of all, they should not become discouraged with that ministry.
For Vincent de Paul the central activity of the popular mission was the explanation of the catechism (CCD:IV:48-49; XI:120-124; XII:3-4, 71-72). Through means of that instruction or explanation Vincent hoped to bring about the moral reform of the poor country people. Vincent’s activity in this regard is described for us in the following manner: The explanation of the catechism was the center of the mission’s activity and the ultimate objective of the Vincentian mission was to Christianize the poor country people through means of religious instruction, thus providing people with knowledge concerning the truths of the faith. Through such instruction in the religious and moral truths it was hoped that there would be moral reform in the life of the people, that they would return to living a life of grace and would walk in the ways that would lead to eternal salvation.
Even though today there is a need to explain the new catechism and to instruct the faithful concerning its content, nevertheless the popular missions should focus first of all on biblical formation and only later on the moral and dogmatic truths. I believe that the most urgent and necessary task is to dedicate time to instructing people on how to read the Bible, how to understand it and how to discover in it that which God wants to give to each person and that which God asks of each person … thus making possible a change of heart that leads people to become true followers of Jesus Christ. The great need of people who have been baptized, that which people are lacking at the present time is knowledge of God, a knowledge which demands a response of love (love that becomes translated into service on behalf of others). Today evangelization must involve dedicating sufficient (and abundant) time to the formation of people with regard to their knowledge about the Word of God and their ability to discern reality in light of the same Word. To teach people how to understand the Word of God is to educate people in love, in the love of God and in the love of their neighbor. Therefore, we affirm once again that at the present time popular missions continue to be necessary, especially in light of the urgent need for biblical knowledge and knowledge about God. This will be the way to renew the Christian life of those people who have been baptized and who are living in the countryside and in the city … a way to transform people as persons and as members of society.
Vincent taught that catechetical formation was more necessary than preaching. He was intransigent in this regard because the purpose of the missions and the Congregation of the Mission consisted of that type of formation. He was so convinced of this that he stated: Everybody invariably agrees that the fruit of a mission stems from the catechism lessons (CCD:I:419). Yes, Vincent stated that the sermons could be suspended but the time that was dedicated to Christian formation through teaching the catechism should never be cancelled. Therefore, the pastoral ministry of catechesis was Vincent’s preferred method of evangelizing the poor country people and he insisted that the sermon should also have a catechetical focus in its style, its fundamental content, as well as its simple and familiar language. Mindful of Vincent’s experience and teachings, would it not be more feasible and useful to establish an adult catechumenate during the time of the mission and focus on the formation of renewed Christian communities rather than waste time on obsolete preaching and unconvincing sermons that perhaps move those seated in the back pews of our churches but do not change the hearts of people? There is absolutely no doubt about the answer.
The people need to be evangelized and evangelization is the ministry that the Congregation of the Mission has received from God. In the mind of Vincent de Paul, the missionaries are to make the mission of Jesus Christ their own and indeed, are to continue the mission of Jesus. According to Vincent, acting in such a manner is to make the gospel effect, to contribute to the building up of the Kingdom of God and to bring to reality God’s plan for humanity. In other words, for Vincent de Paul, to evangelize is to translate the gospel into the practical realm, to live the gospel and to believe in the gospel, that is, to believe in Jesus Christ, to live in Jesus Christ and to follow Jesus Christ. The missionaries evangelize, first of all, through the example of their life and then, with their words. Only when the missionaries are able to communicate their own personal faith in Jesus Christ will they be able “to plant” the gospel and to build up the Kingdom of God. Therefore, popular missions, which still have meaning today, have to change their strategies … and that change of strategy is demanded by need for a new evangelization which has been proposed by the Church. A new evangelization can only be accomplished with a new ardor, with new words and with new methods … and in this regard we must be inventive. We must investigate and seek solutions … and to do this we must look carefully at the origins of the first Christian communities and the origins of the Congregation of the Mission and as a result learn how to be transmitters of the gospel and builders of the Kingdom of God. In order to do this effectively it is absolutely necessary to know the living conditions of the people, to know their spiritual and material needs; to analyze those conditions and needs and then to look for the most appropriate response in order to satisfy those needs. In all of this Vincent de Paul was both inventive and innovative. How did he do this? We know that he dedicated his life to the poor country people and that he utilized the means that he discovered, means that enabled him to satisfy the material and spiritual needs of the people. Therefore, to proclaim the gospel and to make the gospel effective should be constituted as one and the same ministry for Vincentian missionaries.
In order to evangelize according to the demands of his era, Vincent de Paul oriented his mission and the mission of the Congregation of the Mission in three directions that involved certain attitudes and objectives. What did the mission consist of? We can answer that question by referring to the words of José María Ibáñez Burgos: to evangelize the poor, abandoned people; to initiate them in an adult Christian life; to organize an adequate catechetical program for them, a program that would focus on the proclamation of the mystery of God, the celebration of the sacraments and the witness of charity. For Vincent de Paul those three paths make the gospel effective. At the present time in order to give life to the gospel we have to carry out our mission/vocation as Vincentian missionaries by giving our ministry a catechetical or formational focus, by facilitating a real renewal of society and finally, by forming lay missionaries on the local level.
First, we must make a radical option on behalf of the poor. The option for the poor must be a constitutive element of every process of evangelization. Indeed, the Apostolic Exhortation of Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, makes that reality quite clear. Vincent lived that reality in a similar manner … to evangelize according to Vincent, meant not only proclaiming the Word of God and instructing people with regard to the demands of the Word, but also meant making the gospel effective, that is, to do what was foretold and prefigured by the prophets (CCD:XII:75). This radical option on behalf of the poor is especially urgent at the present time when our society finds itself saturated by words and unfulfilled promises … a reality that occurs on every level, including the religious level. Therefore, people find themselves adrift, swept along by unbelief and neo-paganism.
Today, the option for the poor is still a much discussed them in both ordinary pastoral ministry as well as in extraordinary or missionary ministry. In this regard we affirm the words that were written some years ago by the missionary A. Arregui. The option for the poor or the commitment to evangelize them and liberate them from their situation is one of the few realities that raises questions about meaning of life and the dignity of the human person, and therefore, questions that can make the explicit proclamation of the good news a real possibility. The Huguenot in Montmirail converted because he saw that Vincent de Paul and the other missionaries made the option for the poor a reality that they had embraced with all of its consequences. The problems and the questions that Vincent raised continue to be problems and questions today … and there are also many people who view those problems and questions in the same manner. In other words, if the Church and the Congregation of the Mission ignore the poor country people and the people who live on the peripheries of our cities, if they ignore the growing pockets of poverty, if they do not reach out to these people and assist them, if they do not become incarnated in the midst of those situations and there make the gospel effective, then they will lose credibility and become a countersign to the gospel and to Jesus Christ.
What must be done? How are we to act? In order to offer a popular mission it is indispensable to study in great detail the reality of the people who will receive the mission, to sensitize and motivate people and to help them to understand that the mission will present them with a new vision of the gospel and other neo-testament writings. At the same time during the popular mission it is necessary to organize the charitable and social justice activity of the people before declaring the mission to be completed.
The second step is to give a catechetical/formation orientation to the popular missions. It is one of the most characteristic elements of the popular missions. After a first, rather rapid process of evangelization, the primitive church saw that it was necessary to provide deeper roots to this process. Therefore, there arose the need to catechize and to consolidate the initial process … and this in turn gave rise to the corresponding ministries and an appropriate pedagogy. We thus come into contact with “the masters” and “the doctors”, men and women who were given that title because they dedicated their life to teaching. This form of teaching was called mistagogia and was composed to two elements: catechetical and dogmatic. The catechetical element was intended to solicit a concrete commitment. This was a stage of personal discernment and deepening one’s understanding with regard to Christ and the demands of Christianity. This discernment and knowledge became very important because the Christians were very demanding in the recruitment of new members. They took this initial stage of formation very seriously and thus it is very obvious that all the Christian communities were very serious and rigorous with regard to the catechumenate formation that was demanded before Baptism. The consolidation of this initial stage of formation was of primary importance … and here we are referring to dogmatic formation. This formation was nourished by two sources: commentary on the Bible and the explanation of the symbols of the Creed. Those were the two firm pillars that enabled the building up of the Christian faith and the Christian life. We have already spoken about the importance of catechesis in the popular missions and in the thinking of Vincent de Paul and so we will not take up that discussion anew.
Today, however, the panorama is different. Has something become better in this regard? In reality there are few opportunities for catechetical instruction and formation. A. Arregui points out: at the present time Catholics are offered many opportunities that allow them to participate in the celebration of the sacraments, but they are not properly evangelized and not provided with the opportunity to engage in a serious catechetical process. Those words express the current reality. There are many opportunities to participate in worship and much fewer opportunities for catechetical, moral and dogmatic formation. There are many opportunities to participate in Mass, the recitation of the Rosary and other sacramental celebrations and at the same time there is a great hunger for biblical and dogmatic formation. We have to reverse this order of things. As we engage in changing this order, new/renewed popular missions can play an important role. In saying this we also want to point out the objectives of these new popular missions: one of the objectives of the popular mission today is to sensitize, motivate and organize groups that will engage in Christian reflection and dialogue, thus giving priority to the catechesis of adults, as well as young men and women. It is indispensable that the Vincentian popular missions recover the catechetical character that they had at the time of their origin … popular missions today will be valid to the extent that they respect this catechetical dimension. Thus we can see that the popular mission is composed of three dimensions: a formation/catechetical dimension, the option for the poor (both of which we have spoken about) and the renewal of society (a dimension that we will now address).
In their origin the popular missions had social repercussions, that is, they influenced both the private life of individuals and the social relationships among people. The popular mission renewed and regenerated individuals as well as whole communities. There were two noteworthy results: reconciliation and charity. Preaching and catechetical formation, built upon a healthy fear of God, produced fruit as the missionaries reached out to broken and disintegrated families and to the people who lived in the various towns and villages. The missionaries always encountered situations of hatred that had to be put aside, situations of homicide that had to be forgiven, situations of disunity where unity had to be restored, scandalous situation that had to be regulated. Through grace and the help of God, the missionaries were able to put a halt to personal as well as social/community divisions. Those moments of reconciliation were not limited to the time of confession but also had their solemn and public moments.
The social renovation of individuals and groups of individuals was achieved through the establishment of the Confraternities of Charity. Every Vincentian popular mission had to conclude with the establishment of a confraternity of charity. Those confraternities not only provided for the material needs of people who were in need or who had been devastated by the plague, war and/or some other catastrophe but those confraternities revealed a new way of understanding the Christian life. Here we should also state that these confraternities revealed a new way of living as a Christian but many of them were also committed to providing a contract for a school teacher in that particular town or village. Thus the confraternities provided religious and cultural nourishment. They were concerned about forming good Christians and honorable and honest citizens. Therefore, at the present time, popular missions (if they want to be worthy of that name) should, as we have pointed out, be concerned about the renewal of society. There are many problems and multiple difficulties that configure the social and religious life of the people. The popular missions ought to attempt to find satisfactory solutions to those problems and difficulties. If this is not done, the popular missions will never have credibility and they will not be requested.
There is still another aspect that present day popular missions must be mindful of, namely, formation. Now, however, formation is not directed toward the training of priests (a ministry that we must continue to explore in order to discover if it can be recovered) but is directed primarily toward the laity. In order for the results of the mission to be continued, it was necessary that the people would be ministered to by holy and well-prepared priests. On July 26, 1650, Vincent wrote to Philibert de Brandon, the Bishop of Périgueux and stated: You have the seminary in mind and we, our obligation to give missions. Our principal aim is the instruction of the country people, and the service we render to the ecclesiastical slate is merely accessory to that. We know from experience that the fruits of the missions are very great because the needs of the poor people in rural areas are extreme. But, since they are usually rustic and uneducated, they easily forget what they have been taught and the good resolutions they have taken, if they do not have suitable pastors to maintain them in the good state in which they have been placed. That is why we try also to help form good priests through retreats for the ordinands and through seminaries ---not to abandon the missions but to preserve the fruits produced by them. Therefore, Excellency, since you wish to have Missionaries, it is to be hoped that you may have at least four of them for the two functions (CCD:IV:48-49).
From the perspective of the Congregation of the Mission, the primary purpose of the popular missions is the instruction of the poor country people. All the other activities are seen as accessories or complimentary. That is the manner in which we should understand the ministry that the missionaries offered with regard to the formation of the clergy. That service had meaning because it helped to maintain and preserve the fruit of the mission. If the parishes in the villages and towns were not administered by good pastors, then all that had been achieved among the poor men and women during the time of the mission would soon be lost. A concern to form good parish priests led Vincent de Paul to minister in some seminaries, but above all, to offer formation sessions and retreats in the various local houses. His intention was not to have the missionaries abandon the popular mission in order to dedicate themselves to the ministry of priestly formation, but rather he wanted them to engage in both ministries.
At the present time who are the people who will maintain the good fruit that is derived from the popular mission? The priests have become fewer in number with each passing day and many of them are advanced in years. Should not this ministry fall on the shoulders of the laity from the area that receives the mission? Should not a complimentary element of the mission be the formation of lay ministers … and in fact if such formation is not given then are not the missionaries being unfaithful to their Vincentian vocation? At the present time many Vincentians consider the formation of the laity to be a priority … many people view that ministry as a good path to follow and an appropriate ministry for the sons and daughters of Saint Vincent de Paul. A. Arreguir shares that opinion and we refer here to some of his ideas. He states that at the present time we must be mindful of three fundamental ideas in order to offer and give a good popular mission. First, when planning the mission, the priest(s) and committed laity from the parish and/or area being missioned should be intimately involved in this process. Objectives should be agreed upon and the mission should be integrated into the ordinary pastoral activity of the parish. Second, the lay ministers should be involved in the process of evangelization before, during and after the mission. Finally, opportunities should be offered to the laity so that they can assume their responsibilities during the mission and after the mission.
The first step seems to be rather obvious and is not something novel. It is nevertheless, important to be mindful of this element: when giving a mission we must be able to count on the support of the ordinary of the place and the pastor … missions should never be given in places where those authority figures would be opposed to such a ministry. Vincent often spoke about this matter and in fact this principle became part of the Common Rules that guided the missionaries (Common Rules, XI:3-6). On the other hand, it is novel to view the popular mission as part of the ordinary pastoral activity of the parish (and, therefore, not an extraordinary event). This appears to adapt the popular mission to the present day life of the Christian community or to what that life should be like.
The second step is something that has been implemented in more recent years (even though it has not been fully developed). In other words, the laity have been involved in preparing the mission and have been requested to take part in some activity during the mission (usually in logistical activities and not in the process of evangelization). The point here, however, is that the laity should and must be affirmed as missionaries and as evangelizers. In order for the laity to take on these roles, they must be prepared and formed. In the popular missions that have been given after the Second Vatican Council some lay persons and some women religious (especially the Daughters of Charity) have been actively involved in the process of evangelization. Some of these individuals have come from parishes and/or areas that were not being missioned at that time.
The third step is truly novel because it highlights the importance of the formation of lay ministers in order to become involved in the mission, that is, involved in the preparation process, involved in giving the mission, and especially involved in activities after the conclusion of the mission so that the fruit of the mission is preserved. Vincent de Paul spoke about retreats for the ordinands, conferences for priests and the establishment of seminaries. Should not some similar institutions be established for the laity? Many of the various possibilities have already been established and now it is simply a matter of adjusting them and utilizing them for the formation of lay ministers. To be more specific about the possibilities that are being referred to, let me mention the following: prayer and catechetical workshops, lectio divina, biblical catechesis, formation in the social doctrine of the Church, sacramental catechesis for non-christian adults, parent training, Christian family initiation/affirmation, education of children, etc.
This manner of giving a mission and thus, providing for the formation of lay ministers on the local level, would be an authentic and valid form of offering popular missions today. This would also allow the missions to become an effective instrument for the renewal of the parish and the faithful. Are we bold enough to commit ourselves to that task? The article that A. Arregui wrote and that we have referenced, concludes with the following words: As a final conclusion we want to affirm the fact that Vincentian popular missions are a valid pastoral instrument that will allow us to engage in the second evangelization of our country. But we will be able to accomplish that new evangelization only if we are mindful of the three fundamental elements that have discussed. Furthermore, today there is no other means that can provide the needed dynamism to the parishes as a whole, no other means that will empower the parishes to move from a pastoral of conservation to a missionary pastoral approach.
Ten years have passed since those words were written and published … what have the Vincentian missionaries done in this regard? I fear that we have done nothing … or perhaps, to be more just … almost nothing. We are not known for our inventiveness or for our audacity in renewing the missions and in embracing the task of the second/new evangelization. I believe that the proposal presents us with great difficulties in making it a reality. We are trying to update our past, to update that which brought us into existence and gave us meaning. To update and to restructure … why do we not move in that direction? Why do we not imitate Vincent de Paul and become pioneers in this matter? Are we so concerned about our own comfort? Do we feel defeated before we even begin? Do we prefer to see the Congregation die and then preside over its interment? Is not God providing us with an opportunity to save a means of evangelization, a means that has been proven to be effective and valid for every era?
We know what has to be done. Let us proceed then to action! We have pointed out three paths for change and updating and renewal. Let us work on these areas. We reject a pastoral approach of conservation and/or sacramentalization, but we do very little to change that approach. Let us embrace once and for all a missionary pastoral approach. Let us renew our parishes physically and spiritually. May we give a “new face” to the church, one that will allow her to reflect more clearly the face of Jesus Christ! Yes, now is the time to act!!!
 Conclusions or objectives
I believe that I have developed in a sufficient manner the theme that was given to me. Since I was also asked to offer some final conclusions I am now going to formulate them. I would not, however, call these conclusions. What I want to present are some long-term and short-term objectives that I believe would be good to accomplish. These ideas are not wholly novel and/or revolutionary. In light of everything that I have stated here, I present the following, hopefully in a clear and precise manner and I will offer no further commentary.
First. At the present time the Vincentian missionaries will have to analyze in a precise and coherent manner the social, human and religious reality in which they minister. That will allow them to be astute in order to discover the places where those who are most poor and most in need can be found (here we refer to people who are materially poor and spiritually poor). Such an analysis will also enable them to design a plan that will enable them to make the gospel effective among those poor men and women.
Second. At this time the Vincentian missionaries ought to engage in a re-reading of the origins of the Church and the Congregation of the Mission. Such an activity will enable them to discover anew the spirituality that is proper to them and also discover the most appropriate ministries that will allow them to be faithful to the spirit of Vincent de Paul.
Third. On the other hand, the Vincentian missionaries need to return to the spirit of the mission (evangelization) and thus become authentic missionaries who offer the present day Christian communities a Christian and biblical formation, who create adult catechumenates that enable men and women to become more deeply committed as they live their lives with greater integrity, lives that are in harmony with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The missionaries will also have to be mindful of other important aspects in order to offer and give good popular missions, aspects that deal with the creation of schools; formation workshops in the area of catechesis, morality and dogma; new catechumenates and communities for adults; Christian family initiation.
Four. The Vincentian missionaries can never cease organizing charitable activities in those places where the popular missions are given (now and in the future). Indeed, it is in charity, through charity and with charity that renewed communities of men and women can continue to give true witness to their faith and thus, make their faith credible and viable.
Fifth. Finally, the Vincentian missionaries will have to be concerned (primarily and fundamentally) about the formation of lay ministers in those communities where missions are given. These ministers will, in turn , maintain continuity to the mission and fidelity to the spirit of the gospel.
May the members of the Congregation of the Mission return to their roots and do whatever is necessary in order to faithfully develop and fulfill their vocation. May they put aside everything else and do so without fear or reservation. May they place themselves in the hands of God and walk along those paths where God will lead them. May they be inspired by the Spirit and may they be faithful to the end of time.
There will be a future, a meaningful future, if the Congregation recovers its mission and its spirituality, if it takes the time to discover the will of God and, then, lives in accord with that will. Time is of the essence and the poor have many needs. God, the poor, humanity and the Church should be deceived any longer. It is necessary that the Congregation recover the meaning of its vocation and live a life that is in accord with that same vocation. Set out now on that journey and move forward!
- L. Mezzadri, “Missiones populares” [popular missions] in Diccionario de espiritualidad vicenciana [Dictionary of Vincentian Spirituality], CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 1995, p. 389.
- Some days ago I participated in a meeting with some diocesan priests from Madrid and I listened to Antonio María Rouco Varela, the cardinal-archbishop of Madrid, explain his plans to have his whole diocese participate in a popular mission. He asked religious congregations who ministered in this manner to present a plan that would explain how they would conduct such a diocesan wide mission and what themes they would develop (the Vincentians and the Redemptorists were among the congregations invited to present such a plan). The plans that were offered by these Congregations did not convince the members of the Priests’ Council of the Diocese because the plans did not satisfy the needs of the various diocesan parishes. As a result the Council rejected the idea of such a mission.
- M. Alvar, Diccionario de la Lengua Española VOX, [Dictionary of the Spanish Language VOX], Prologue by D. Ramón Mendéndez Pidal and D. Samuel Gili Gaya, Bibliogaf, Barcelona, 1987, “Predicar”, p. 883.
- Ibid., “Extraordinario/-ria”, p. 493.
- S. Vidal, Jesús el Galileo, Sal Terrae, Santander, 2006 pp. 238-239.
- P. Domínguez, “Catequesis”, Diccionario de espiritualidad Vicenciana, CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 1995, p. 54.
- Cf. CCD:VI:399-400; P. Domínguez, article preciously referenced, p. 54.
- Cf. CCD:I:227-229; P. Domínguez, article previously referenced, p. 54-55.
- P. Domínguez, article previously referenced, p. 55.
- I. Zedde, “Evangelización”, Diccionario de espiritualidad Vicenciana, CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 1995, p. 238.
- Cf. J.M. Ibáñez, Vicente de Paúl y los pobres de su tiempo, Sigueme, Salamanca, 1977, p. 313.
- Paul VI, On Evnagelization in the Modern World, December 8, 1975, especially Part III: The Content of Evangelization (#25-39); cf. A. Arregui, “Misiones populares ayer y hoy”, Diccionario de espiritualidad Vicenciana, CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 1995, p. 400.
- A. Arregui, article previously referenced, p. 400-401.
- J.M. Laboa, Cristianismo. Origen, desarrollo, divisiones, expansión, San Pablo, Madrid, 2002, p. 35.
- Ibid., p. 35-36.
- A. Arregui, article previously referenced, [. 400.
- Cf. L. Mezzadri, “Missiones populares”, Diccionario de espiritualidad Vicenciana, CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes. Salamanca, 1995, p. 397.
- A. Arregui, article previously referenced, p. 402.
- Ibid., p.402.
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM