FORMATION FOR THE MISSION: From Biblical Perspectives
[Paper presented in Mysore, February 2006]
Not being a specialist in missiology, I may not use the correct and technical expressions involved in a discussion on such a topic as this. I would use ‘mission’ and ‘evangelization’ almost interchangeably, though I believe that evangelization constitutes the core of the mission.
I will try to relate, as far as I can, mission and formation. As my topic ‘formation for mission’ indicates, I have two concepts to deal with – formation and mission. Though it appears that the emphasis must be on the formation aspect, I believe I have to start with mission, as it is mission that orients formation or serves as the goal of formation. Mission remains as the core of vocation and formation.
I suppose this is imperative, as all of us belong to a company called the ‘Congregation of the Mission’, which gives priority to a missionary oriented formation to its future members.
We are familiar with the Vincentian concept of ‘mission’, which gave identity to the Congregation that St. Vincent founded in the France of the 17th century. The title ‘Priests of the Mission’ (given by the people) further provided an identity to the members of the Congregation. The ‘mission’ in the mind of Vincent was a service that fused together two activities: faith formation (spiritual-pastoral) on the one hand, and organized charity (socio-economic) on the other.
Vincent firmly believed that spiritual well being of the people has to go hand-in-hand with their humanization. This was a type of reform of the Church and society, which was unique to St. Vincent.
In January 1617 at a village called Gannes/Folleville Vincent became aware one type of poverty that afflicted the poor – spiritual poverty. Some seven months later (August 1617) the experience at Chatillon revealed to Vincent one another grave evil, – material poverty. These two experiences would orient his belief that spiritual and humanitarian concerns should go together.
Thus his concept of ‘Mission’ included both – catechizing and humanizing, and they went hand in hand. Today we might combine both and call it ‘evangelizing’. For Vincent these were two organizations – albeit intrinsically related. Both sprang from the same basic experience, the needs of a people who were abandoned, exploited and humiliated at the hands of the rich and powerful of the day. These people also suffered spiritual abandonment, as their pastors were ignorant as well as seeking benefices in the comfortable parishes in the cities and towns and were not willing to be in the midst of poor peasants. So Vincent would often say, “the poor country people are dying of hunger and risk damnation”. He envisioned a two-sided mission:
– to evangelize the poor (catechizing)
– to organize charities (humanizing)
Thus in Vincent’s mind ‘mission’ had to begin with evangelization and catechesis of the community, which simultaneously had to be helped also in its holistic or integral development. The ‘mission’ preached by the Priests of the Mission always had in its scope instructions on the fundamental goal of Christian vocation, i.e., the practice of charity. Thus the missions invariably ended with the formal founding a confraternity of charity, following established guidelines.
Related to these great works, especially the first, was the need of a well-formed and even reformed clergy. Vincent realized that the spiritual abandonment of the rural poor is caused by the absence (in spite of their number) as well as inadequately trained or prepared clergy. So while he contemplated some line of action to rehabilitate the existing clergy, he also thought of preparing the future clergy by means of adequate formation. Though the Council of Trent had insisted on this point and had taken initiatives in this regard, France had yet to implement these measures. Vincent launched a formation programme intended for three categories of people: Retreat for the Ordinands, Tuesday Conferences for the clergy, and Seminaries for the formation of future missionaries. We may have to come to his ‘formation programme for the seminarians’ at a later point in our discussion on Vincentian formation.
Coming back to the Vincentian concept of ‘holistic/integral mission’, meaning evangelization comprising of an improvement both in the spiritual and material aspects of human life, I think such a concept was not an invention of St.Vincent. Here I come to the concept in the Bible.
Mission in the Bible
The model for the understanding of mission for St. Vincent, as well as for us, is Jesus. What Jesus said and he did, as remembered and reflected on by the first Christians, is what we have before us as the source of Vincentian Mission and inspiration behind all our missionary undertakings. The same is true also for ‘formation for mission’. I keep this in mind when I venture into the vast territory covered by the reality of ‘mission’ and ‘evangelization’ in the Bible.
Of course the Judeo-Christian Scriptures do not refer to mission, evangelization, development and social concern in the sense they are used in the contemporary times. My intention here is not to present an exhaustive list of the occurrences of such expressions in the Bible. We are more concerned here with the reality of evangelization and mission, and the presence of such a reality does not call for the occurrence of the term itself.
A. Is. 61,1-3:
I begin with Is 61,1-3, a passage that Jesus cited to justify his mission in Galilee (cf. Lk 4,18). Jesus places himself as the one about whom the Prophet spoke some 500 years earlier. The passage reads:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me; he has sent me
to bring the good news to the oppressed (anawim = poor),
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives and liberty to the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of the vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion –
to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness in stead of mourning, the mantle
of praise instead of faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
To generate reflection and further discussion on this passage, I would like to ask the passage three questions:
(1) Who is the bearer or the ‘messenger’ of the good news?
(2) What is the ‘good news’? What is its content?
(3) Who are the ‘recipients’ of the good news?
1. The ‘Messenger’ of the Good News: The affinity of this passage to the four ‘Servant Songs’ of Second Isaiah (Is 42,1-4; 49,1-7; 50,4-9; 52,13-53,12) has been acknowledged by many scholars. It is not our intention here to establish the identity of the ‘Servant’. The variety of interpretations of the figure of the Servant is great and varied. From the earliest times, the main exegetical division has been between corporate or collective theories (eg. people of Israel) on the one hand, and individual ones (eg. the prophet himself, Moses, one of the last kings of Judah, the Messiah to come, Jesus) on the other. The fact that these poems have given rise to so many theologically and religiously significant interpretations should warn us of the danger of finding a simple solution to the problem of the identity of the Servant.
To my mind the search for the precise identity of the Servant is misconceived. The Servant is the result of a superb poetic imagination. Appearing in the context of the exilic and post-exilic situation, the figure seems to be a composite one in which, for example, individual traits – prophetic, royal and priestly – have been fitted together to create a mysterious but imprecise image of a future Servant who in some way embodies the Prophet’s confident message of imminent national redemption. However, the importance of the passage transcends its historical context and presents the summary of the mission of hope of a ‘Servant of God’ in any age.
The bottom line is this: the task of liberation is primarily of the Lord. It is he who takes the initiative of anointing and sending the prophet. The mission is assigned by God, and with the divine mission goes the equipment of the Spirit. The Spirit of God is personally present and active in his appointed agents, giving them wisdom and power to discharge the mission. Ignorance or forgetfulness of the divine help is the weakness of the leader. When people devote themselves to the work God lays upon them, they may be confident of the ability through Him to accomplish it. (2 Cor 3,5; Cf. Ps. 127,1-2).
2. ‘The Good News’: The servant is anointed and sent to bring the ‘good news’ to the poor. This is not the first time in the Bible that we come across this expression. I would like to look for some precedents ‘Good News’. We come to realize that whatever may be the spiritualization that the expression has undergone due to the theological clout that it enjoys, its usage in its first instance indicated a reality which was not so theological.
The first instance of the use of ‘Good News’ or ‘Good Tidings’ (euanggelian agathen) is found in the well known story narrating the death of Absalom, the son of David, in 2 Sam 18. Absalom who had risen against David and his men made himself easy target when the mule on which he was riding went under the thick branches of a great oak, leaving him hanging by his hair between heaven and earth. Joab, a commander of David’s army who slew Absalom, dispatches a messenger to carry the ‘good tidings’ to King David who had remained back home (2 Sam 18, 27. 31). Ironically the ‘good tidings’ did not find favour with David, as instead of rejoicing over the death of his enemy, he set about lamenting the death of his son Absalom.
So ‘Good News’ in the very first instance of its occurrence in the Bible has to do with the defeat of the enemy. I have always believed that Jesus’ use of ‘good news’ in his Nazareth manifesto is not without the sense that it has in 2 Sam 18, as Jesus himself would shortly enumerate a list of enemies that he planned to defeat later during his public ministry. Good news is presented in the context of a bad news.
The Servant’s mission is to carry the good news to the poor. Those who would come under this category and the kind of consolation the Servant would provide are the following:
Binding up the brokenhearted,
Giving liberty to the captives/prisoners
Comforting all who mourn
In the context of the post-exilic situation, the good news was no mere advice. It was a proclamation of what God had done in the lives of the people. We might compare the proclamation the news of armistice to the war-weary peoples of the world at the end of World War II, with the surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945 (the defeat of an enemy!).
The Book of Isaiah is part of the Old Testament. This section of the Bible, like the whole Bible itself, is defined as the Word of God in human words, i.e., it is written by people of a particular time, culture and place, being inspired by God. The Old Testament has its origins in the life of a people who were landless and on the margins of the society of the city-states of the Ancient Near East. It is the story of the how these people came to posses a land (given to them by God), how they managed to keep their land (by means of a tribal confederation and then by monarchic rule), and finally how they lost their land (to the foreigners because of their unfaithfulness to the covenant by God).
Thus the Old Testament is also a socio-political document. It is a faith-record of what they had been and what has become of them. The important point in this record is that God is the protagonist of this history. Dt 26,5-9 is a concise faith-formula that states this belief. Practically every book of the Old Testament refers to the ‘saving deeds of Yahweh’ for his people. Prophets are those who warned people and their leaders of their errors of the impending disasters and instilled hope in them when actually such disasters struck.
Seen from this wider perspective, the mission of the Servant in Trito-Isaiah is to proclaim the wondrous deeds of Yahweh on behalf of His people. The concern for the poor is the highlight of the mission of the prophet. It is a mission to raise the up the lower strata of the society. He has been equipped to do that by the Lord’s own Spirit who remains with him.
3. ‘The Recipients’ of the Good News:
a) Israel (Particularism): The OT is the product of a particular group of people, who considered themselves as the chosen people, belonging to God by means of a covenantal relationship. It is the ‘People of God’ and it is in this capacity that the group distinguishes itself from other ‘nations’. A certain sense of particularism and exclusivism is clear in a belief of this sort. There are a host of passages that corroborate the concept of the chosen status of Israel, exemplified with metaphors and symbols (vine: Hos 10,1; Is 5,1-6; Sheepfold: Ps 23; Jer 23,1-6; Beloved: Hos 2,25; Servant: Is 41,8; 61,1-3). The metaphor of ‘servant’, as mentioned above, is one such case. Thus our passage too has in its purview the consolation of that people, in the context of the exile.
b) Nations (Universalism): While characterized by this sense of election and chosenness, Israel’s thinking is not fully exclusivist. It has a mission to the nations. The servant is the light of the nations, not by becoming Yahweh’s propagandist beyond the sees, but by manifesting the divine power that has delivered his people (Is 42,7; 49,8-11). At the sight of the liberation of the exiled peoples, nations will acknowledge the Lord (cf. Is 45,14-16).
Thus the servant, the light of the nations, is a missionary figure, not in the sense of a converter of the pagans but as a witness. Israel is to testify or bear witness to the greatness of the Lord and his deeds in favour of the poor and weak of the earth.
Thus election is not exclusivism. And universalism should not be understood as dis-incarnation (devoid of socio-spatial-temporal-contextual aspects of redemption). Universalism is the invitation addressed to all human beings to join with the people of divine adoption. Thus universalism has its basis in the election of a particular people.
These (three) perspectives of the mission will continue to prevail also in the NT and the history of Christian mission. We will ask the same three questions to the NT passage to be seen next.
B. Lk 4,18-19:
At the outset of his career Jesus reads the above-cited passage from Isaiah in a Synagogue in Nazareth and applies it to himself. The passage is a slightly modified version of the prophecy in Is. 61,1-3. It reads:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
1. The ‘Messenger’ of the Good News: In the Christian context the originator of mission is Jesus himself. The understanding of historical Jesus, as indeed of the Gospel texts, has largely depended on the lenses through which he has been seen. One finds only what one seeks. And so down the centuries the image of Jesus has been variously interpreted as being a mystic, a romantic hero, a social worker, a hero of non-violence, and many others. No generation, no ideology has failed to recreate Jesus in its own image and likeness. Though the fullness of Jesus Christ is too rich to be exhausted, it might be too subjective to make his role fit our current notions.
So who is the messenger? The passage in Luke presents a self-understanding of Jesus. The bearer of the good tidings is Jesus. He speaks of himself as the anointed one. This may have a reference to the episode of his baptism recounted in the previous chapter (Lk 3,21-22) where he was initiated into his mission by the descent of the Holy Spirit. The declaration of Jesus that the ‘Spirit of the Lord was upon him’ and that ‘He has anointed him’ already indicates that what Jesus did was the result of his being rooted in God.
Once again the point made is: there is no meaningful nor authentic mission apart from the work of God’s Spirit, who works in and through the messenger. Jesus was never tired of repeating that he was ‘sent’ by his Father to accomplish certain tasks that are entrusted to him. The mission was not his; it was his Father’s, and he was only its messenger.
Our mission, as St.Vincent would have us to understand, is to be modeled on the mission of Jesus himself. However, Jesus (as well as Vincent) had to go through a certain process of personal discernment and self-searching before he settled once and for all the principles to which his life would be committed. This took place in the beginning of his ministry in what is recorded as the episode of the temptations of Jesus. Significantly these are reported by Luke to have taken place immediately after Jesus’ baptism and before he presented his ‘manifesto’ in the Nazareth Synagogue. I would like to make a few reflections on the temptations of Jesus which, to my mind, will later serve as a link between our mission and our formation for the same.
JESUS’ THREE TEMPTATIONS (Mt 4 and Lk 4): It is important to recall that all the Evangelists (except John) make mention of the fact that Jesus had to face temptations, all of which are related to his mission as evangelizer of the poor (Mt 4,1-11; Lk 4,1-13; cf. Mk 1,12-13). Mathew and Luke clearly and in some detail mention that Jesus was tempted by the Evil Spirit in the wilderness before he began his public ministry or mission in Galilee. To my mind these may not have taken place dramatically just within the duration of a few moments, somewhere in a desert before he began his public ministry. A cursory look at these temptations would show that these were temptations that Jesus faced, not in so theatric a manner in a distant desert and away from the people, but during the actual course of his public life and ministry. However, the evangelists place these at the beginning, to highlight the fact that Jesus stood in need of a real ‘conversion’ in the sense of an orientation for his mission.
Let us follow the order given in Luke. However, at the outset I would say that the temptations, three in number, could be reduced to one – the question of Jesus’ identity. Though Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is established for the readers in the scene of the baptism of Jesus (Lk 2,21-22) and later in his genealogy (Lk 3,23-38), this had not been done by Jesus himself. The Spirit in the desert provokes and challenges Jesus to reveal his identity by suggesting, “If you are the Son of God… (in the first as well as the last temptations). What kind of Messiah is he to be? In what sense is he the Son of God? A real sense of mission to the people based on love must confront Jesus with decisions that are difficult to make. And for this he has to be aware of false but apparently right alternatives, making him commit himself to what is true.
Temptation 1: Being hungry, Jesus would be aware of the hungry people amidst whom he lived. He knew the lot of his people and how many had little to eat. Did he not teach his disciples a prayer to God the Father that included the words, “Give us today our daily bread”? He knew that nothing could give him so quick and large a following as to give people what they wanted – food. What is wrong with providing relative abundance instead of poverty? Why couldn’t he make use of his leadership to this end? Thus people would follow him for loaves and fishes (Jn 6,26; 30-31). And indeed he did multiply bread for the hungry. But as far his missionary identity was concerned, Jesus knew where the emphasis had to be. He would not take a short cut to popularity. He would, primarily, be a spiritual leader.
We might also interpret the first temptation as one of declaring himself independent from God’s providence in his ministry. By making bread for himself from stone, he would be abusing his status as Messiah and Son of God to serve his own ends.
In either case he would be deviating from the mission entrusted to him by making it to serve his personal end.
Temptation 2: If the first temptation for Jesus was to be a Messiah for the people to better their material conditions, the second one was to satisfy the political and patriotic passion of his people. Obviously the people wanted power wrested away from the occupiers. They wanted leadership from within their own. Who else would be able to accomplish this feat, but the glorious Messiah of their expectations?
Jesus knew that power by the people implies power and authority invested in the leader, and limitless, as one could observe those days. Indeed Jesus had authority and exercised it. He taught with authority (Mt 7,29; Mk 1,22), he commanded the unclean spirits to come out of people (Mk 5,8: Lk 4,36) and he had authority to forgive sins (Mk 2,10; Lk 5,24). He gave authority to the twelve to caste out demons (Mt 10,1; Lk 10,19). A centurion recognized his authority (Mt 8,8; Lk 7,8). However, the authority he had was given to him by his father (Mt 28,18) and he admitted that he could do nothing by himself (Jn 5,30).
What the tempter offers here in a very subtle manner is power and authority by compromise. Jesus always considered himself as one who was sent on a mission. Therefore the authority belonged to the one who sent him (Jn12, 49). Again, he would not make his Father’s mission his own.
Temptation 3: Who wouldn’t perform a miracle, were he capable of that? (The ‘Grand Inquisitor’ of Dostoyevsky hinted at this in his dialogue with Jesus). Numerous are the occasions in which people demanded miracles or ‘signs’ to confirm Jesus authority. As a ‘miracle-worker’ his followers would have been numerous. If ‘casting himself down from the pinnacle of the temple’ was the temptation here, it would be ‘coming down from the cross and saving himself’ at Golgotha (Mt 27,39-40).
Jesus would not put God to test. He had cast out devils by the finger of God (Lk 11,20) and the miracles he performed are called ‘signs’ of the kingdom, pointing away from him to the one whose Kingdom he had come to proclaim.
Thus Jesus had to purify his intentions; his ambitions had to be bridled and the temptations to be what others expected of him had to be overcome. What would he want to be? – a wonderworker, a reformer of society or even a political leader? Overcoming the temptation Jesus had his future course of action well oriented – he would be an evangelizer, a bringer of the Good News of God, especially among the poor and the oppressed. To this effect he presented his ‘manifesto’ in the Synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown (Lk 4,16-19), and for the ensuing years of his public life and ministry he never deviated from the ‘agenda’ that he had framed. Jesus knew that he had to do what his Father had wanted him to do (cf. Jn 6,38).
So who was he? A carpenter? An itinerant charismatic preacher? A wonder-worker? A teacher? Whatever may be the sociological model we have in mind, one thing is clear: he roused the hearts of the people, he reached to the poor of the land and more importantly, he proclaimed that God’s rule was present in him.
Conclusion: To fulfil the expectation of the people by being their Messiah who dispensed food in abundance for the poor, who ruled the land like a king and who did wonders before the multitudes was a real and sure temptation that Jesus continually faced through out his missionary life. He gradually overcame all these temptations when he realized what his mission was and what the poor of his time (as indeed always) wanted from him.
2. The ‘Good News’: We may note that it was characteristic of Jesus that he should have selected the passage from Isaiah that highlights God’s mercy and compassion for the poor and the weak. It is also possible that the Evangelist as well as the early Christians saw in Jesus and in his mission a fulfilment of the prophecy in Is 61,1-3. The same passage also underlies Jesus’ reply to the emissaries of John the Baptist, who had come to ascertain the messianic character of Jesus. Jesus had told them,
“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news brought to them” (Lk 7,22; Mt. 11,5).
In Luke 4,18-19 Jesus’ being sent to bring or preach the ‘Good News’ to the poor implies four activities: proclaiming liberty to the captives, bring about recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. The ‘Good News’ here consists of these four-fold activities or mission.
As mentioned earlier, The Good News has to do with God’s kingdom, which is not a place – It is God’s kingly activity and the results of such activity. In his presence and activity the Kingdom was present. He did feed the poor, raise the dead, heal the sick and restore sight to the blind. But these feats pointed not to him but to the one by whose authority he did those things. That is the reason his miracles are called ‘signs’. These were mere pointers.
We could call the passage in Lk 4,18-19 as the ‘mission statement of Jesus’. It is a presentation of the agenda or a manifesto of his future ministry. Let there be no doubt, Jesus would have said to the worshipping assembly of his fellow Jews, this is what I have come for and not to fulfil your expectation of a royal messiah. My being anointed is not to rule, but to fulfil my father’s will of being a spiritual leader, liberating people both spiritually and physically (integral/holistic mission).
In our own times, we are aware that historically a gap has existed between the advocates of evangelism, aimed at conversion and salvation of souls, and the advocates of social action known for advocating social activism and political involvement. Thus we have the ‘Tele-Evangelists’ both foreign and Indian, preaching to us through the media like radio and television, and most of the time reminding us of our sins, and how we really stand in need of spiritual redemption (scare them and save them). They are never tired of repeating the slogan that Jesus is the redeemer of the human race, of course redeemer of our sinful state. For them Jesus’ agenda in Luke 4 was clearly spiritual one. On the other hand we have the ‘Liberation Theologians’ who are intent on speaking and writing about the praxis-oriented methodology of Jesus, which should guide every missionary to be a social activist. These latter would interpret the mission of Jesus from a liberation activist’s point of view. The spiritual – social dichotomy has refused to go away from our missiology.
For me it is proper to see in this passage a view of a mission and evangelization, which is holistic and integral, happily combining both spiritual and temporal liberation. Rightly conducted, our educational institutions, health care and social service centres, legal aid programme, homes for the orphans and street children, rehabilitation centres for lepers and mentally and physically challenged, schools for the dropouts and for the blind and the deaf and dumb, printing presses and vocational training centres and similar other services are not only agencies for evangelization, they are evangelization. Evangelization is nothing less than God News in action. We can find a similar model demonstrated in Jesus’ own ministry of healing preaching and teaching.
The four-fold missionary activities mentioned in the Nazareth manifesto would, at the face of it, point to the physical healing and restoration activity that has been undoubtedly reported about Jesus by all the four evangelists.
Thus the Good News is holistic, affecting every area of human life. Adapting the research findings of Jean-Paul Heldt (‘Revisiting the “Whole Gospel”, Missiology, An International Review, Vol XXXII, No. 2, April 2004, pp 151-169) I divide these areas into four – spiritual, economic, physical and socio-political, illustrated by the following figures. In fact these four-fold perspectives of human life and nature are expressed in a number of biblical passages (Dt 6,5; Mt 22,37; Mk 12,30; Lk 10,27) and were well understood both by Isaiah and Jesus.
These dimensions of our lives apply not only to our individual lives; they are equally valid for families, communities and nations.
Spiritual (Greed, Selfishness)
These four dimensions of human life are all interlocked as well as interrelated. A mere physical cure would not root out the evil that pervades every aspect of life.
As an example we could mention TB, a physical illness (physical, biological dimension). This is an ailment that affects the undernourished segment of our population. Malnutrition happens due to poverty (economic dimension), and poverty, in turn, is often the consequence of social injustice such as corruption, inequitable land distribution, unfair wage structures, structural classification of the society into castes, etc. (social dimension). Finally at the root of social injustice lie greed and selfishness, in other words, ‘sin’ (spiritual dimension).
Therefore it is not realistic to cure TB with food, medicines and vitamins unless we also address and confront the issues of malnutrition, poverty, social justice, and ultimately sin in the form of selfishness and greed. The ‘good news’ of Lk 14,18 also presents a similar multi-faceted ministry.
3. The ‘Recipients’ of the Good News: We must not consider secondary the fact that Jesus’ reading and application of the passage took place in a Synagogue on a Sabbath day. Significantly the reflection on Isaiah’s passage was done in the context of a public worship or prayer. No one, least of all Jesus, would deny that God’s presence is everywhere; however, synagogue was a house of worship consecrated to God’s presence. Moreover, synagogue linked the present with the past. While the congregation professed its faith in the power of God who did great things in the past in favour of the poor, it also looked forward to the same in the present as well as in the future.
Thus Jesus spoke to a worshipping assembly, of which he himself was a member. If it has been noted more than once that Jesus took recourse to unite himself to God his Father in prayer before serious personal decisions were made, here is a case where he announces his public ministry directed to the poor in the context of a community prayer. An intimate God experience, words that would flow from personal convictions, and actions that would correspond to the words are the three related factors in the mission of Jesus.
a) The Location of his Mission (Galilee and Judea) It appears that Jesus’ proclaiming the Good News in word and deed was confined to a very limited geographical sphere – Galilee and Nazareth, and to a limited extent in Judea and Jerusalem. This appears to be in stark contrast to the great missionary journeys undertaken by Paul and the other apostles in the post-resurrection period. Could one say that these ‘carrying of the Good News to the ends of the earth’ (cf. Mt 28,18-19; Mk 13,10; Lk 24,47; Acts 1,8) was not in the purview of Jesus, but super- imposed on him by the evangelists as this so happened? This need not be so.
b) Universalism: Galilee itself symbolized the frontiers of Judaism – away from Jerusalem, the seat of the Temple and official Judaism, the priesthood and the Sanhedrin. A Galilean mission was all the more peripheral in that it touched the humble folk, the common people or the ‘people of the land’, a people who lived on the margins of Judaism. For Jesus ‘moving on’ (Mk 1,38) was probably more socio-religious than geographical.
Thus Jesus’ mission mandate to the ‘ends of the earth’, carried out by Paul and the other apostles would be more according to the spirit of Jesus. Thus the Early Church took on a missionary nature, fully believing that Jesus was with them wherever they were and always till end of the age (Mt 28,20). The Acts of the Apostles bears witness to the missionary activity of the early Church. Three major ‘summaries’ present the nature of the early church and the life-style of the early Christians (Acts 2,42-47; 4,32-35; 4,12-16). Thus the early Christian communities had succeeded in copying features intended by Jesus.
I would like to summarize what I have to say on the concept of mission in the Bible. Our mission is patterned on the mission and ministry of Jesus. This entails the following:
The requirement of being roots in God: that we be persons captured by God, having a mission and the corresponding authority to carry it out that come from Him; that we have our priorities well-defined and focused. Whose mission is it? Is it mine? Or is it of Jesus who acts in and through the Church, the Congregation, the Province, the Community, me?
What is the nature of our evangelizing mission? It primarily consists in proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God in the context of the bad news. So it is primarily directed to those areas of human situation where there is bad news.
The bad news is found in the context of greed and selfishness of human being. This is sin. Thus evangelization is a call to denounce sin and sinful structures.
Evangelizing mission does not consist primarily in asking people to change their religion. The change of religion may take place as an exigency, but that flows from the proclamation of the Good News. Good news should be affecting all aspects or dimension human life and nature.
Who are the recipients our mission? What about Isaiah? Jesus? Vincent De Paul? Should our mission be confined to one particular place and a particular community? Should these not be the starting points for my availability anywhere where similar conditions exist?
Fr. Robert Maloney, our former Superior General, in his talk titled ‘Vincentian Family as Missionary’, given during the General Assembly in 1998, mentions that our mission is global. Even with the limited travel and conveyance facility, St. Vincent sent missionaries to distant countries. Vincent was also equally eloquent on missionary mobility, the readiness of the missionaries to leave established works to go to the neediest and the abandoned.
The Church is to live and proclaim the Gospel boldly until the end of this age. In each time and place, it must discern how best to communicate the Good News.
Formation for the Mission
An apostolate, which St. Vincent always associated with the concept of the ‘mission’, was the formation of the clergy. It appears that together with giving missions, reform of the clergy was understood by him as part of his vocation. People could be reformed only through the formation of its clergy. The new company dedicated itself for the first few years of its existence only to the giving of the missions in the rural areas. But starting from 1628 it ventured into this ministry of the formation of the clergy. In course of time this activity became incorporated into the activity of the missionaries, as an essential corollary of giving ‘mission’.
Church has always been essentially missionary in nature. Mission is the reason to be of the Church. Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity (Evangelii Nunciandi, 14). Hence all vocations, ministries, and formation programs should be formulated by this single most consideration. In the biblical narratives of the vocation of individuals like the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles we notice that they were transformed by their mission and its concern. Being sent on a mission has the potent of self-transforming power and a driving force. The mission shaped and structured their personality. Their sole source of commitment was the mission itself. They allowed God to take the initiative; as they progress in their vocation they abandon every other objective in life than that of the sender. They allowed themselves to be formed by him.
However, it so happens that in the scheme of priestly formation today, generally mission does not occupy an important place. When the very ground principle for which priesthood exists has been thrown overboard, and the horse has been tied behind the cart, the formation to priesthood and religious life itself is bereft of a transforming power.
Literature and documents on formation is enormous. The Church has always reflected on the formation of priests in order to make it relevant and efficient. A good percentage of its finance and qualified personnel are set aside for formation. What about the proportionate out-put?
It has been noted by people who have in the field of formation for long that formation depends 70 percent on the candidates, 20 percent on the staff and 10 percent on the formation program. While giving less importance to the formation program as such, the emphasis intended in the above-mentioned view is on the motivation of the candidate himself. I need to come to the motivation factor later on, but for the time let me have a closer look at a ‘program of formation’ that we try to formulate in our formation houses. For this, as I am expected to do, I will refer to the Bible and this time, obviously, to the Gospels only. Later, I hope to make my reflections on formation.
Jesus’ ‘Formation Program’
Any civil society, industry, business, etc, have their clear objectives. They chalk out training programs for their employees in a very precise manner in order to train them to achieve their goals. The management makes some demands on their trainees and looks for some basic attitudes in them, for instance, certain basic skills, ability to perform, capacity to produce, plan, work together, etc. Those who satisfy these requirements are accepted and not others.
Any formation program stresses two aspects (a) a clear vision/objectives/goals, (2) training of the personnel to achieve these objectives. We have seen earlier that Jesus’ life, ministry and preaching were entirely focused on one mission – the realization of the Kingdom of God in fidelity to the will of his Heavenly Father. When he chose his disciples he had in mind those who would continue this mission and achieve this same goal. Therefore the training or the formation that he gave them was entirely oriented towards it. It was a ‘formation for mission’. Later his apostles and disciples made themselves worthy of having been formed in the ‘school of Jesus’.
The objectives that Jesus had in mind and the method he used to form his followers have always remained as the paradigm for missionary formation.
The passage that immediately comes to our minds when we think of the ‘school of Jesus’ in which his disciples were formed and his program of formation is Mk 3,13-14, which reads:
He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons.
We could start with the question: what was the goal that Jesus had in mind in selecting the group? Or in other words, what was the purpose of their formation? Obviously the goal determined and guided the method of their formation that he adopted. I suppose the answer boils down to the question of the very identity of an apostle of Jesus.
Before we take up the formation program followed by Jesus we take note of one thing: the call of the disciples is done Jesus, and they were those whom ‘he desired’. So the first point is this: the initiative of the mission is from Jesus; it is he who calls. He goes out, he meets, he calls and appoints his collaborators for his mission (Mt 4,18-22). He secures their perseverance and co-operation, despite their unworthiness and unwillingness. Recalling this experience John would one day write remembering the words of Jesus, “you did not choose me but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit” (Jn 15,16). Or again, “we love because God first loved us” (1 Jn 4,19).
This is true not only in the case of the disciples of Jesus but also of those who co-operated with God in His mission in the OT (eg. Moses, prophets).
Secondly the training of a few has an important implication, verified in history. Jesus knew that one trained and dedicated disciple is better than a thousand causal hearers. “Give me a man prayer, and he will be able to do all things”, said St. Vincent centuries later.
As the core of the intensive training program for the few disciples of Jesus, Mark has listed three things they were supposed to do, a sort of timeless three-point formation program for a good Christian missionary. Forms of those activities have changed and continue to change, but the essence will always remain the same.
a) To be with him: We would rather think that what was immediately required was some crash course or seminar in contemporary socio-political and religious problems by experts and resource persons, including Jesus himself. Such type of formation had to wait for a few centuries in the Church. With Jesus something else came first, i.e., ‘to be with him’ – to see what he saw, to hear what he heard and to feel what he felt. The might of the tree and its fruit-bearing capacity depend on its roots; the amount of good a missionary does depends on how much he/she has been with Jesus.
b) To be sent out to proclaim the message: Notice the passive voice – to be sent. As already seen, missionary task is God’s commission. All of us are sent to proclaim the Good News (either by preaching the word or by proclaiming it by our life and activities).
[In 1997 the world celebrated the 150th birthday Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of telephone. Much was made of the fact that Bell ‘gave the world a new voice’. It is true; making use of that device a mere whisper can be heard thousands of kilometers away. However, today that whisper might be of some terrorists and would carry really bad news: ‘destroy New York’ or ‘destroy New Delhi’. The world needs good news and that is what the disciples are sent to proclaim].
c) To have authority to cast out demons: This is the real proclamation in action. Strange though it may seem to be demons have been pictured in human forms and speaking in human language. Is it possible that we are the ones in whose form the demons feel at home? Apart from taking human forms, it is also possible that the demons put on the garb of evil in its various forms, affecting individual, society, family, Church, etc. Each age and each society has suffered from its share of ‘demons’. We have a good share of those in India. As a man of God and a man of moral integrity Jesus had the authority to cast out the demons. The formation to discipleship of Jesus ensured this. It was a formation in a few basic convictions, something that our formation today does not seem to ensure. In the school of Jesus good convictions were a must though it look long time even for his own disciples.
I place in parallels the three passages we have seen, the first two in connection with mission and the last, formation. I find remarkable resemblance of ideas between the first two on the one hand and the last, on the other.
Is 61,1-4 Lk 4,18-19 Mk 3,14-15
The Spirit of the Lord The spirit of the Lord Jesus appointed twelve
is upon me is upon me to be with him
He has anointed me He has anointed me to be sent out
He has sent me He has sent me
to bring the good news to bring the good news to proclaim the message
to the oppressed … to the poor … and to have authority
to cast out demons.
The converging ideas in these biblical passages are these:
- The initiative of the missionary vocation is from God
- The mission belongs to God; the one who is called cooperates with God in His mission.
- The mission consists in proclaiming the good news in word and deed.
The Goal of Formation: Jesus had a clear vision about what his mission was and what his disciples would do. So he had clear plan for the formation of his future missionaries. Today the question to be asked is: do we have a clear vision about what a missionary, or more precisely a Vincentian missionary, should be? A river creates its own banks, and once the banks are formed, these latter would guide the course of river. Once we have a vision of our goal, it will guide us in our vocation.
May I mention below certain reflections of mine on the present scenario in formation (The talk given by Fr. Joe Mannath, SDB, to the Rectors of Major Seminaries in India [Sept. 2002] titled, “Priestly Formation Today: The Rhetoric and Reality”, is particularly thought provoking in this regard).
(1) Vocation & Profession: First let me mention what a religious and missionary vocation is not. It is not profession. While in a profession what is important is the building up of oneself, one’s family and one’s name and fame, in a missionary vocation it is the building up of others, especially the marginalized that matters.
This is the rhetoric, the ideal or what should be. But the reality is somewhat different. The idea of priesthood and missionary life that a candidate gets is that of a secure jobholder. Most of us are financially better off than our counterparts in society or our own married brothers and sisters. A life bordering on affluence is very inviting and tempting for any young man to set his goal on. The seminaries face the danger of becoming refuge for people who would not succeed in life elsewhere.
(2) Professionalism & Bureaucratization (Institutionalization): In saying that missionary vocation is not a profession I am not ruling out the necessity of ‘professionalism’ in vocation. Priests and missionaries should be ‘professionals’, competent in their area of spiritual leadership. Today a jobholder in any field is expected to be competent in what he/she does. Our unusually long formation program must aim at a similar competency in what the missionary does.
However, one of the major trends in Indian Catholic Church is institutionalization. I do not deny that certain amount of bureaucratization or institutionalization is necessary for the smooth running of any society. The number of dioceses, schools, colleges, social service centers and charitable institutions has grown, and as consequence more and more missionaries are absorbed into bureaucracy. But the immediate fallout of this is the power struggle and conflicts to occupy prestigious offices in these institutions of power, money and status. The image of a missionary as a competent spiritual leader is being replaced by that of an able administrator. Unfortunately such an impression of the priest and missionary spills out into the area of formation, already becoming a major motivating factor.
(3) Seminarian & Priest/Missionary: What is taught and practiced in the period of formation is to be continued in priestly life; on the other hand, the ideals of Priestly and missionary life should be the guiding principles of formation in seminaries. ‘Formation for mission means’ this reciprocity. So we set about teaching the Bible and the Church doctrines, we speak of holiness and spiritual dimension of priesthood, we exhort the seminarians on the virtues of accountability and social justice, we hold conferences on vows, etc.
However, in reality a seminarian knows that whatever he may hear, learn and even practice in the seminary, he can get away with a lot once he is ordained. He will be safe unless he gets into serious trouble or creates a scandal in a very sensational manner. The problem therefore does not lie so much with his formators or the formation program, as with the very image of the Church and the life of the Priests.
(4) Teachers & Formators: One of the areas of the Church in which a major portion of finance and personnel is deployed is in the field of the formation of its future priests and missionaries. This is the age of specialization and one or two staff members handling every conceivable topic is fast becoming a thing of the past. Many priests who have been trained or qualified and obtained degrees especially in foreign countries have been appointed to formation houses.
However, needless to say, a priest, good as he might be as a teacher, need not necessarily be a good formator. A formator is a teacher and much more. He needs also managerial skills, conflict resolution skills and skills in interpersonal relationships. This fact has not been taken into consideration with due seriousness.
(5) Education & Formation: This is closely related to what is said above. Unlike the less sophisticated type of philosophy and theology taught years ago by priests with or without any degrees, today’s seminary syllabus, updated every year, includes a variety of subjects dealt with by competent teachers.
Again, while a well-educated and well-informed priest is an asset to the community, the seminaries will do well to have among the staff persons who would help the candidate to be a mature, responsible and dependable person.
(6) Spirituality & Social Commitment: By placing the goal of formation as creating good ‘spiritual leaders’ I do not intent to dichotomize spirituality and social involvement. For long a ‘person of prayer’ was considered to be one who did not involve himself in secular affairs. In fact the opposite of spirituality is not social involvement but laziness and self-centeredness. A truly spiritual person will not close his eyes on the realities that surround him.
(7) Motivation, the guiding Factor: A survey on priestly and religious vocations conducted a few years in the state of Kerala revealed that most of the vocations come from large families and from those which are poor and of low social status. However, in the final analysis the study states that such factors really do not matter. What matters in missionary vocation is right motivation, regardless of the provenance of the candidate. For along with those who are joining in and staying for very genuine reasons, people may be getting and staying in for the wrong reasons. So ultimately everything boils down to one thing – right motivation.
Our Apostolic Character: Having stated certain general principles of formation and shown the wide gap that exists between what should be and what actually is I now venture into a more specific realm – that of Vincentian Missionary formation. As the objectives guide the formative process, it is imperative to search for such objectives. These objectives would serve to establish the profile of a Vincentian missionary.
We would do well to say that St. Vincent’s idea of formation of missionaries was basically patterned on what Jesus did when he began his evangelizing mission in Galilee and Judea. We have seen that Jesus’ life, ministry and preaching were entirely focused on one mission – bringing the good news of God’s Kingdom to the peoples, especially the poor. Following Jesus and Vincent, the Congregation of the Mission too has formulated clear objectives for itself. During the last 381 years of its formal existence, these objectives have been reviewed and studied by various General Assemblies, and further clarified by documents from Superior Generals and Provincials.
All these documents portray the profile of a genuine and true Vincentian Missionary. The responsibility of formators is to form this Vincentian missionary out of every candidate during their formation. What is the profile of a Vincentian Missionary in India today? Obviously the identity or profile of a Vincentian is based on the aim of the Congregation as envisioned by its founder St. Vincent.
In the introduction to our Constitutions a Vincentian is referred to as “a person who is always attentive to the will of God which is manifested in a special way in the needs of the poor”. Apart from the general profile of a consecrated person in the Church, the Constitutions spell out the following characteristics for a Vincentian, especially with reference to his apostolate. After having quoted these from no.12, I will try to relate each to formation (given in nos. 77-95).
(1) Clear and expressed preference to the apostolate among the poor, for their evangelization is the sign that the Kingdom of God is present on the earth.
(2) Attention to the realities of the present day society, especially to the factors that cause an unequal distribution of the world’s goods, so that we may better carry out our prophetic task of evangelization.
(3) Some sharing in the condition of the poor, so that not only will we attend to their evangelization, but we ourselves may be evangelized by them.
All these three goals of a Vincentian have something in common – attention to the needs of the poor and expression of solidarity with them. The idea is reiterated in no.78,4, where formation process is explained. For this reason, St.Vincent accepted parishes in the area of the seminary to give the students the possibility of some pastoral experience and first-hand experience of the life of the poor.
“Experience has helped us to recognize that where there is a seminary, it is good for us to have a parish to give the seminarians a place to work so that they can better learn priestly functions by practice as well as by theory” (SV VII, p. 253-254).
It is fitting to mention some characteristics of the ‘Indian context’ where our formation takes place.
(1) A Multi-religious Setting:
In our country religion is strong and pervasive; it is the strongest element in Indian culture. Pilgrim centres get increasing crowds. Religious leaders are powerful and influential with increasing number of followers and enjoy political clout. There is also a growing nexus between political power centres and religious groups. Religious symbols, yatras and shrines increase vote banks. Ironically in India the greatest threat to religion is not secularization but religious intolerance that tends to reduce India into to a mono-cultural and mono-religious country. Thus ‘Indian culture’ is interpreted by many as if it can be reduced to one group’s understanding of it.
We may mention here that the political clout of the Christian minority is very small. We constitute less than 3% of the Indian population. Our impact in education, health care and social services, however, is far beyond our numerical strength. Our educational and welfare activities provide us with valuable contacts with persons of other faiths, most of whom treat us with trust and respect.
(2) An Economic Order that favors the Rich:
The so-called ‘globalized free market economy’ mostly serves the interest of the rich and powerful in the world, who enjoy higher income and have access to Indian as well as foreign consumer goods. The plight of the poor remains the same, or even gets worse. Stampede deaths during the distribution of sarees to the poor women or food/money coupons to the flood victims expose the hollowness of our ‘economic revolution and achievements’.
Our politicians make tall claims about India’s wonderful achievements. But these must be matched by certain embarrassing and even shameful statistics. In a survey made by ‘Indian Express’ in 1994 it was found that India has the dubious distinction of having the world’s largest number of out-of-school-children and illiterates. Twelve years later the fact remains unchanged, though we heard the ‘India Shining’ slogan by a Government in the meantime. According to the recent Human Development Report, India ranks among the very last in the list of 174 countries – with regard to education, life-expectancy, purchasing power, etc. Speaking of education, it may be noted that only 60% of our people are literate, and merely 40% of the women.
Let us not forget that we live in one of the poorest parts of the world, with world’s largest number of people who are homeless, destitute and illiterate.
But this dismal picture must be contrasted with a well-known fact – Indians residing in foreign countries form the wealthiest minorities or ethnic groups. So the poor performance of Indian economy is not due to the lack of brains. The reason is simply political. We have institutionalized corruption in our political system.
(3) The Mass Media:
The media is controlled by powerful business groups, aimed at profit making and do not care much for ethical niceties. They project questionable models of life for the youth. India is the largest producer of feature films, but most of it only provides a dreamy world providing a sort of addiction to the poor. Our students in formation are easy prey to such allurements.
The people, whom one admires, reveal much about that person. A nation, whose young people have only celebrities like film and sport stars as their models and idols, has done a very poor job of education the young. In fact the young people need to know more about those men and women who have tried to improve the lot of the fellow humans and emulate their examples. It is not the question of rejecting what is new and trendy. Knowing what to preserve, whom to imitate and what to discard may be a significant achievement in life.
(4) An Increasing Chauvinism
There is the rise of a false sense of nationalism that exaggerates ‘Indian culture’, trumpeted by certain political parties. This tends to disregard or even eliminate less powerful groups. We know that there is no such thing as a pan-Indian culture. This is indicated by the increasing consciousness of one’s own cultural and linguistic backgrounds, however small it be. As the seminaries have stopped using a syllabus prepared for the whole world by Rome, or teaching everything in Latin, so the increasing awareness of one’s own ethic identity helps to counteract the chauvinistic cultural nationalism.
(5) Situation of Women
The Indian situation in this regard is complex and contradictory. While a few women have risen to the positions of prominence, the predicament of the vast majority of them is cruel. The treatment meted out to them in every stage – fetal, early childhood, education, employment and decision-making – is unfair. India is one of the countries where the male-female ratio is negative and is steady falling. A growing number of women’s’ organizations are helping to alter the picture to certain extent.
Not only women’s education and empowerment are crucial to India’s development, they are also very effective agents of social change, even better than men.
(6) Young Population:
In India nearly 50% of the population is below 15 years, and 66% below 24 years. This 66% would mean 660 million young people. With an inadequate educational system and extremely poor prospects of employment, most of India’s young generation faces a bleak future. Thus they become easy prey to political manipulation and lure of the underworld.
The presence of the Church in the field of education of the young is undeniable. According to a study done last year, the Catholic Church in India educates about 6 million (60 lakhs) students in 12,297 educational institutions, of which 66% are in the rural sector and 34% in the urban sector. However, as of now we, with all our educational institutions, have touched only a tiny portion of this 660 million. The youth today in India belong the following categories:
a. Students: These are the lucky ones, but even in this group there is disparity. Most attend government run schools, where the teachers, teaching and sometimes even a school building is absent. (It had been found that 40% of the govt. primary schools do not have a black board). Contrasted with this is the condition of the fortunate few (only a 4% total) who attend private, English-medium and residential schools. These two groups of children grow up in two different worlds. It appears as though there is already a First and Third world right here!
b. School Drop-outs: In some states, the drop-outs outnumber those who complete high school.
c. Child Laborers: These not only miss their education, they miss also their precious childhood. They work in inhuman conditions. It is the extreme poverty of the parents that forces them to send their children to work like this.
d. The Physically and Mentally Disadvantaged: Malnutrition and poor hygienic conditions cause ill health and weakness.
e. The Crooks and Street-smart: Given the rampant corruption, who can afford to remain honest? What they say is this: “it is easy for you to teach and preach truth and honesty, but you do not have to face what we face – get a job, borrow money, buy land or find a house, pay fees, get medical treatment”. So there are many who take short cuts. If others can get degrees by cheating at the exams or buying the certificates, why take the trouble of studying? If corruption is the way of life, what is the use of being truthful and honest?
Any formation of the future spiritual leaders and missionaries cannot be blind to this a realistic picture of the contemporary India. It is not that these are new to us, or that we do not know these, but our set up has always insulated the candidates against being affected by them. Const. No. 78,4 refers to this when it recommends discovery of the candidates’ vocation within the context of the lot of the poor.
On Living Together: No. 12,4 says that ‘we should foster a genuine community spirit in all our apostolic works, so that we may be supported by one another in our common vocation’. No. 79 demands the same of those in formation. The select few that Jesus had came from a bewildering variety of backgrounds, and obviously with varying motivations. However, he formed them into a fine mosaic of a community. Their hidden agendas, private ideas and personal ambitions had to be kept aside in order to be a member of the ‘school of Jesus’, in the manner Moses was asked to take off his shoes in order to enter the holy ground of God’s presence (Ex 3,5).
‘Missionary Mindedness’: A quality of a member of the Congregation is his readiness to go to any part of the world, according to the example of the first missionaries of the Congregation (12,5). This was the spirit of Jesus as clear is from what he said, “I must proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Lk 4,43; Con. 10). “To be sent out to proclaim the Good News” was one of the prerequisite of being in the ‘school of Jesus’.
Regionalism, positively considered, promotes a sense of belonging and encourages the study of local culture, local situation, etc. It can build up individual character rooted in culture. As mentioned at an earlier point, increasing awareness of one’s own ethic identity helps to counteract the chauvinistic cultural nationalism.
However, there is a clear danger that regionalism can negatively influence formation program. Instances are not lacking where unhealthy tendencies are infiltrating even religious houses and formation houses. It negatively affects our recruitment, promotion of students, establishment of new formation houses, selection of staff, etc.
Coming back to the ‘school of Jesus’ and his ‘formation for mission’ it could be said that although they were intended for his times, they have a perennial value and could serve as a paradigm for us today. The same could be said of St.Vincent and the formation program he chalked out for the missionaries. We live in a different part of the world and at a different time in history. But there is one thing that does not change – the mandate to proclaim the Good News to the poor. The identification of the poor of our times and places, the manner in which the Good News is to be proclaimed to them, and the preparedness of the missionaries for these is our concern today.
St. Vincent and Formation for Mission
St. Vincent is recognized as one of the pioneers in devising evangelizing methods meant to instruct the people, especially the ‘poor country people’. He is also universally acclaimed as the great inspirer of organized works of charity. But what about his contribution to the realm of training future priests and missionaries? He may not be a pioneer in this field, but his contribution in this regard was well related to the need of the times.
(1) Why the Reform of the Clergy?
The Church of the time in France clearly stood in need of reform. It had yet to reach out to the masses with necessary religious and moral instructions and a life of witnessing. This last aspect of the Church was clearly lacking in the life of the clergy of his time, which was the immediate link between the official Church and the people. The people were deprived of pastoral care because many of their priests were unworthy of their calling and lack of proper training. During his ‘missionary expeditions’ Vincent personally came to know this alarming state of affairs. The moral laxity, coupled with certain amount of ignorance regarding essential matters like liturgy and the teaching of the church, was clearly perceived due to the following reasons:
(1) The system of allocating funds or benefices for the clergy was largely in the hands of the laity (especially the nobility).
(2) There was the practice of lay people, even minors, to assume the title of abbot, prior or even bishop.
(3) There were irregular ordinations and appointment of the Bishops; some who had no such vocation to the post sought ecclesiastical benefices by hereditary right.
(4) There were no centres for the formal training of the clergy.
It would be interesting to know how the French clergy were formed in the beginning of the 17th century. France then did not have the centres of formation, which we would call seminaries today. Those who wanted to enter the priesthood enrolled at a university where they attended courses and sacred sciences. As far as virtues proper to the priestly life was concerned they picked them up as best as they could. There were many great schools of theology where dogma was taught with competence and brilliance. But courses in applied morals, virtues, administration of sacraments, etc. were not offered in any place. Besides, the rich and well to do, when they wanted to enter priesthood, studied in the university of Paris and Sorbonne where education catered to the needs of the elite. However, these candidates found themselves too educated to serve as pastors in the rural areas. In that way villages were left with ignorant and rough living priests, and in the city there were lazy ones living in pursuit of well paying benefices.
(2) What did St. Vincent do?
In 1563 the Council of Trent had already proposed the idea of setting up setting up ‘seminaries’ or houses of formation for the young candidates to priesthood. The French Church had been late in enforcing the Tridentine reforms as a whole, and even when these were implemented they were half hazard.
From the part of the French Church, in the beginning of 17th century there were some men, besides Vincent, who made efforts to train young people to this lofty calling (de Berulle, A. Duval, Adrien Bourdoise, Jean Olier).
What was the contribution of St.Vincent?
While St.Vincent could not directly solve the first three anomalies seen in the case of the French clergy, mentioned earlier, he tried to deal with the fourth, which in his vision would solve all the others. But primarily he was concerned about the spiritual and material well being of the poor, who would be the immediate beneficiaries of a well-informed and zealous clergy. Thus formation of the clergy became closely associated with the idea of the ‘mission’ and the activities of the Congregation of the Mission.
(3) How was it done?
Vincent had a three-fold program designed for the purpose: Retreats for the Ordinands; Tuesday Conferences for the Ecclesiastics and Seminary for the Candidates.
I. Retreats for the Ordinands
Typical of Vincent, even when he saw the need for a particular project, he waited for its confirmation from the part of the divine will. Very often such divine will was manifested to him by means of lawful ecclesiastical authorities. Thus in 1628 at the invitation of Bishop Augustine Potier of the Diocese of Beauvais, Vincent conducted a retreat for those who were to be ordained from that Diocese. That was the beginning of one of the activities for which Vincentians were known: the ‘Retreats for the Ordinands’, first conducted in the respective Dioceses, but later on centralized at the Missionaries’ house at St. Lazare, when that house was transferred to the Congregation. In the Bull Salvatoris Nostri, these retreats are listed as one of the principal activities of the Congregation. Thus the new ministry came in response to a pressing need and at the command of the Church authorities.
However, the ‘retreats for the Ordinands’ were no retreats, as we understand them. They were more of the type of a ‘crash course’, strictly following a ‘manual’, which had been prepared for the purpose. The candidates to priesthood, immediately before their ordination, received instructions on morality and doctrine and some basic and practical training in administering the sacraments, as they had no previous knowledge of any of these. The candidates also assured themselves of their vocation in an atmosphere of prayer. These ten to fifteen days, which in fact included also a traditional ‘spiritual retreat’, was the actual time that a candidate spent for the sake of preparing himself in order to take up the ministry of priesthood. These Ordinands had not gone through any formal seminary formation, of which their immediate preparation by of these ‘retreats’ should have been the culmination. But as it turned out to be, these ‘retreats’ were the only time the candidates got by way of their formation. Obviously, the preparation was inadequate, and it did not remedy all the evil which inflicted the clergy.
However, given the then state of affairs within the clergy, the ‘retreats for the Ordinands’ conducted by the Priests of the Mission became very popular in many dioceses in France as well as outside of it. Priesthood, which had fallen into a state disrespect, was being reinstated to its due dignity at least to certain measure. This too was a ‘mission’ for St. Vincent. Thus he involved everyone in the house, not only those who actually directed or trained the Ordinands, to be actively involved in the program.
II. Tuesday Conferences for the Ecclesiastics
The ecclesiastics, even when they received orders with true divine vocation and proper motivation, needed other helps to persevere in their good dispositions. Thus besides the immediate preparation for those who were going to be ordained by means of the above-mentioned ‘retreats’, St. Vincent also had some plan for the on-going formation of the clergy, as its logical extension. In fact this was the continuation of the positive experience of the ‘retreat for the Ordinands’. This project involving establishment of sacerdotal associations or confraternities came to be known as the ‘Tuesday Conferences’. There were already associations of clergy in which the members met at regular intervals to discus cases of conscience and practical moral questions. But when Vincent undertook to organize the ‘Conferences’ of priests in 1633, he included also reflections on virtues related to priestly life. The purpose of the weekly assembly was to offer mutual support to keep alive the grace of vocation. The members also prepared themselves to preach missions, which they did especially in the Galley slaves’ hospital.
The venue for the Conference was St. Lazare or Bons Enfants and later in other places. Those who attended it were ecclesiastics who came to update themselves in the knowledge of priestly duties and attain spiritual perfection. There were rules related to the membership in this confraternity of priests. A new member had to make an eight-day spiritual retreat and a general confession. The order of the day and the programs were well planned organized. On Holy Thursday the participants renewed their baptismal promises and their promise of obedience.
One can imagine the positive results such union of clergy produced. Togetherness in such atmosphere brought about reconciliation, mutual encouragement and surprising changes in life. Above all by getting involved in the ministry of preaching missions, these clergy also became aware of the needs of the poor whom they had to serve.
From 1633 till the death of the Saint in 1660, over 250 names of the participants were enrolled in the Conferences. Many of them held important offices in the church – bishops, professors of theology, founders of religious communities, chaplains of royal courts, etc. Besides at St. Lazare and Bons Enfants, Tuesday Conferences were founded also in a number of cities and towns in France as well as in Italy and Ireland.
Obviously a better solution to the problem of the lack of good clergy was to form young candidates to priesthood in seminaries or in the houses of formation. Remedies to the ills that plagued the clergy had to be applied to the very foundation of priesthood and not just before their ordination. This would ensure a future clergy which were motivated to be at the service of the people. They would be better educated and disciplined, and above all would be those who have discerned their vocation under the guidance of able formators.
The Council of Trent had this in mind when it proposed setting up seminaries in the Dioceses (in July 1563). There were attempts to this effect in Catholic Europe, including France, but these efforts did not bear expected fruits. One of the main hurdles was to have under the same roof those ranging from age of 10 to those preparing to receive orders. Solving this problem would be credited to two men: Jean Olier (Founder of the Sulpicians) and Vincent de Paul. They did this by separating the ‘minor seminary’ from the ‘major seminary’, to use the terms we are familiar with.
St. Vincent attempted to implement the Council’s proposal by taking the initiative of starting a ‘minor seminary’ at Bons-Enfants in 1636. We know very little about its functioning. The project, even in the opinion of Vincent himself, was not a promising one, if not a waste of time and energy. St. Vincent would not recommend such seminaries for teen-agers to others who sought his advice on the matter. It also appears that similar attempts elsewhere in France as well as in Italy were not yielding expected fruits. However, despite the negative and disappointing outcome, St. Vincent persisted in this project. In Fr. Roman’s view Vincent did not want to go against the Council’s plans. However, there may have been some thing more than obedience to the Council’s demand. Abelly says that Bourdoise, Vincent’s friend, once told him:
“to give a mission is like giving the poor starving man a meal, but to set up a seminary is to aim at feeding him all his life” (Quoted in P. Coste, Life of Vincent, I, 259).
What good it did it do, after all, to revitalize a parish by means of a mission, and leave it in the hands of ignorant and unworthy priests? Vincent also knew this from experience.
While the unsuccessful ‘minor seminary’ project was still on at Bons Enfants, in 1642 St.Vincent embarked on another project in the same direction – setting up a seminary in the same house for clerics above 20 years of age. This was thus the first Vincentian ‘major seminary’. Obviously for Vincent it made more sense in spending time and energy for training people who would be ordained.
However, for all practical purposes the formation in this ‘major seminary’ amounted to extending the duration of the ‘retreat for the Ordinands’. Instead of ten to fifteen days that the ‘retreats’ lasted, it now extended up to six months. Gradually the program extended to two or three years prior to the Ordination. Moreover, in this Vincentian major seminary at Bons Enfants, not only those to be ordained priests but also those who were already ordained and who wanted on-going formation found place. Gradually this second group disappeared from the program.
(In the meantime Vincent withdrew the ‘minor seminarians’ from Bons Enfants and took them to St. Lazare. There he installed them in a separate house within the premises, which served as a minor seminary. There it had some amount of success and lasted till the French Revolution).
What the candidates received in the ‘major seminary’ was not courses in Philosophy and Theology but instructions in virtues and practical training in the administration of sacraments, especially hearing confessions and celebration of the Eucharist. Intellectual training was still confined to universities and colleges. Obviously the Vincentian seminary of that day did not attempt to produce learned men but only good parish priests who are spiritual and committed to their task. Vincent was convinced that the purpose of formation was not so much intellectual but pastoral competence. He wished to educate good pastors who would know how to preach, catechize, administer the sacraments, resolve cases of conscience, etc. Even when he followed the example of others’ seminaries and introduced more academic activities, Vincent was of opinion was that the candidates should be given what is most useful. For him competence in the field was more important than intellectual acumen.
For this reason, St.Vincent accepted parishes in the area of the seminary to give the students the possibility of some pastoral experience.
“Experience has helped us to recognize that where there is a seminary, it is good for us to have a parish to give the seminarians a place to work so that they can better learn priestly functions by practice as well as by theory” (SV VII, p. 253-254).
Being aware of the importance of this ministry the Providence had entrusted him, he assigned to this work to the best and most prepared Confreres. For him the candidates to priesthood constitute the most precious treasure of the Church.
We would do well to make a comparison between Jesus and Vincent on the point of formation. Jesus’ life, ministry and preaching were entirely focused on one mission – the realization of the Kingdom of God, in fidelity to the will of his Heavenly Father. When he chose his disciples he had in mind those who would continue this mission. Therefore the training or the formation that he gave them was entirely oriented towards it. It was a formation for mission. Later his apostles and disciples made themselves worthy of having been formed in the school of Jesus.
St. Vincent’s idea of formation of the clergy was similar. Seeing and experiencing the condition of the people and the clergy of his time and having known the will of God (through the will of the Council) Vincent had his mission well-focused. If the poor people are to be helped spiritually, it has to be done through their Priests who are spiritual themselves. Thus he set about forming them for their mission. It was a formation for mission. As mentioned earlier, those who were formed by him (the Ordinands as well as the members of the Tuesday Conference) had a first hand experience in the preaching of the mission to the poor.
St. Vincent may not have been the pioneer in setting up seminaries in France but what is important for us to note is that he had the people out there, especially the poor in the countryside in his mind when he embarked on the project. He might be accused of having given the candidates a ‘text-bookish’ and technical kind of training; but he should be pardoned, nay more praised for having given the clergy of France some dignity and certain amount of learning.
In remembering about the work of the ‘mission’ by Vincent, we might ask this question: did he and his missionaries bring plight of the poor and the oppressed before the ruling class and the elite? Or was he satisfied by just being a missionary?
Well, the answer is that Vincent was no revolutionary. He did not work for social change. He had no intention of changing the structures of his society. He did not think of empowerment of the poor. He was a child of his time and accepted the social frame-work in lived in. His objective was charity, aimed at making the society a more humane one. He only attempted to change the conscience of the people, by serving as their conscience himself.
Vincent’s mode of embarking on a project comprised of four elements: need, event (experience), calmness and submission to the authority. The Saint applied this his own ministry and it came to be the vocation of the Congregation.
The Saint’s method of discernment has much to teach his disciples even today. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Congregation has struggled to rediscover the spirit of its founder and to redefine its apostolate. The Constitution of 1984 declared that the Congregation existed for the evangelization of the poor and the formation of the clergy. However, while stressing this end it has also made allowance for other works by offering an aside that the community ‘be always attentive to the signs of the times and the more urgent petitions of the Church’ (Const. I:2). Whether these ‘urgent petitions’ also have the poor in their purview should be our constant concern. Only then we would be worth our name.