Background and Early Life
Fr René Alméras CM was the second Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission, and the immediate successor of Vincent de Paul. Elected in January 17, 1661 following the death of Vincent de Paul in 1660, Fr Alméras held the office of Superior General till his own death on September 22, 1672.
René Alméras was born in Paris, France, on February 5, 1613, one of six children of his father’s second marriage. His father, also named René, was at one time Secretary to Henry IV of France and his wife Marie de Medici, and later Maítre des Comptes, a somewhat prestigious position in France in the seventeenth century. René Almeras (senior) was originally opposed to his son’s vocation to the Congregation of the Mission, but eventually, impressed by the lives of Vincent’s missionaries, he himself, at the age of 81, entered the Congregation. He died at Saint Lazare on January 4, 1658.
In 1637, at the age of 24, and after significant experience as an advisor in public administration, young René entered the Congregation of the Mission. After ordination, he threw himself into his work with great zeal, having little regard for his own health. He was given responsibility for visitng the parish houses of the Cogregation and was Superior of Rome from 1647-1651. He was then recalled to France and appointed Superior of the Seminary of Saint Charles. Later he was entrusted with distributing assistance to the poor in Picardy and Champagne. In the following years, he was appointed Assistant General and Visitor of the Province of Poitou.
René Alméras had a frank and open nature, speaking his views with candour. At times, in meetings, he openly disagreed even with Vincent de Paul, but was always ready to abide by decisions that were made. This characteristic remained with him throughout his life.
Election to the Office of Superior General
At the death of Vincent de Paul in 1660, there were some 250 members of the Congregation of the Mission. For administrative purposes, the Congregation was divided into six provinces – France, Poitou, Champagne, Aquitaine, Savoie and Italy. But these divisions were not totally rigid -. the Visitors did not necessarily reside in their own provinces, and confreres commonly moved from one Province to another.
The need for a smooth transition of governance had been foreseen, and Vincent de Paul had nominated a Vicar General, René Alméras, to take on the role of steering the community through the choice of a Superior General after he, Vincent, had died. It was thus the role of René Alméras to organize a General Assembly to elect a Superior General as successor to Vincent. This Assembly was convoked at Saint Lazare in Paris on January 15, 1661. Nineteen Confreres of the Congregation took part, three from each of the Provinces, together with an Assembly Secretary.
Vincent de Paul had, during a retreat in 1659, written down the names of two confreres whom he considered would be suitable for the role of Superior General of the Congregation, The document on which these names were recorded had been sealed and placed in two containers, one inside the other. Two keys were required for the inner container, and these had been given to two confreres – one to Fr Antoine Portail CM and the other to an older confrere in the House. When the containers were opened at the Assembly on January 17, 1661, the two names were revealed as those of Frs René Alméras and Thomas Berthe. In the document indicating these two names, Vincent had also observed that the electors of the Assembly were not bound to follow his nominations. When the election was held, René Alméras was elected at the first ballot with 11 votes, just a few more than that required for a majority.
Alméras as Superior General
René Alméras had been of sickly disposition for some years, and his Generalship could have been merely a continuation of what Vincent de Paul had begun. However, in his eleven years as Superior General of the Congregation, he made some significant contributions to the life of the Community, with the help of three Assistants – Frs Jean Dehorgny, Thomas Berthe and Edmond Jolly. In collaboration with these men, he took some important steps for the Congregation.
He initiated the preparation of a biography of the founder of the Congregation of the Mission, Vincent de Paul. This work was entrusted Louis Abelly, a personal friend of Vincent de Paul, and was published in 1664, four years after Vincent’s death, under the title: La vie du vénérable serviteur de Dieu, Vincent de Paul, instituteur et premier supérieur général de la Congrégation de la Mission. (See FURTHER RESOURCES below).
In 1666, he published a document on preaching. The document indicated that Alméras regarded preaching as consisting of three parts – an opening, the body of the discoourse, and the conclusion. The principal part of the discourse would contain motives, definition of the topic, and means. He also produced documents on ceremonies, rules of office, and as well makde recommendations to the houses of the Congregation concerning Acts of Dedication to Mary and Jesus Christ to be made on the Feast of the Assumption and the New Year respectively. He emphasised a spirit of poverty in the Community and gave detailed guidelines on the spending of money in the houses of the Community.
Alméras convoked the General Assembly of 1668 to deal with matters of government within the Congregation. The Assembly lasted from July 16 till September 1 and approved the “Major Constitutions” of the Congregation of the Mission. These brought together a whole group of documents and regulations, and formed the so-called “Constitutiones majores” or “Constitutiones quae Superiorem Generalem totiusque Congregationis gubernationem spectant,” (:”Major Constitutions”: or “Constitutions which concern the Superior General and the government of the whole Congregation”), These “Major Constitutions” were approved in the following October by the Archbishop of Paris, Harduin de Péréfixe, with authority granted him by the Bull of Urban VIII in 1633. A selected portion of these Constitutions, known as Constitutiones selectae, was later approved by Pope Clement X in 1670. The “Major Constitutions” of this Assembly of 1668 would guide the life of the Congregation until 1954, when their contents would be absorbed by the Constitutions approved by Pius XII. (Note: For more information on the historical development of the Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission, see the article by Carlo Braga CM titled The Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission – Historical Notes referred to in FURTHER RESOURCES below. The current version of the Constitutions of the Congregation is the version approved in 1984).
Some Hard Choices
Among the issues which faced Fr Alméras during his time as Superior General were some which impinged quite signifcantly on the Congregation.
A difficult decision that had to be made was to cease sending missionaries to Madagascar. This was a work dear to the heart of Vincent de Paul – but the Congregation had sent nine missionary expeditions to Madagascar, and most of the Missionaries had perished on the sea voyage. Those who survived were not very successful in their missionary endeavours. Happily, after many years, but not in Alméras’ time as Superior General, missionaries of the Congregation were able to return to Madagascar, and it is now a province of the Congregation of the Mission with some eighty members.
Another decison made was to continue with the work of Seminaries. In Alméras’ time as Superior General, Seminaries were founded at Metz, Amien, Troyes, Noyon, Sanit-Brieue, and Narbonne.
A third issue that arose was whether or not to accept royal chaplaincies and parishes. Pressure came first in regard to Fontainebleau with a request from the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria. Initially Alméras was determined to resist Anne’s entreaties, but eventually, on November 27, 1661, the Congregation took responsibility for the royal parish of Fontainebleau. In 1672, Louis XIV, having seen the good work of the Congregation of the Mission at Fontainebleau, made a request through the Archbishop of Paris to Fr Alméras that the Congregation would assume the care of the parish of Versailles. This was not formalised in Alméras’ time, but the trend to such works was continued during the time of his successor Fr Edmond Jolly CM, and was to have serious consequences for the Congregation of the Mission in later years.