The American Vincentians. 02 – I. A survey of American Vincentian History: 1815-1987 (cont 5)

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoHistory of the Congregation of the MissionLeave a Comment

Author: The Editorial Staff of the Vincentian Studies Institute · Year of first publication: 1988 · Source: "The American Vincentians: A Popular History of the Congregation of the Mission in the United States 1815-1987". Vincentian Studies Institute. New City Pressm Brooklyn, New York, 1988..
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From World War II to Vatican 1945-1965

It should go without saying that the great expansion of church life in the United States after the World War II found a parallel within the Vincentian Community. The upheavals in society caused by the war exercised a profound influence in general religious prac­tice. At the same time, American Catholics enjoyed greater accep­tance as Americans. Catholic identity and visibility were high and respected in many fields.

Large ordination classes in both provinces characterized the immediate prewar period. After interruptions caused by the war, numbers rose again at all levels of formation, from high school through theology. At the same time, provincial leadership began to urge vocational recruitment. James Stakelum in the Western Prov­ince made this a theme of many of his circular letters. Although the province’s first full time vocation recruiter, Father Joseph Wagner, had been assigned in 1946 during Father Marshall Winne’s term, over the objections of many confreres who considered it a departure from Vincentian tradition, Stakelum was the one who systematized and consistently urged on the recruitment program. The Eastern Province appointed its first vocation director, Father William McClimont, in 1948.

James Stakelum was born in New Orleans in 1904. He entered the Community in 1922 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1931 by Bishop Edward Sheehan, C.M. After serving at the Barrens as a faculty member and assistant novice director, he was sent to Rome in 1935 for higher study. In 1936 he was trapped in Barcelona by the Spanish Civil War and was rescued by an American ship. After obtaining his Ph.D. in philosophy he returned to the United States and served for thirteen years in the seminary apostolate. He was named provincial in 1950 and remained in office until 1962.

Daniel Leary was the first post-war provincial in the East, where he succeeded Slattery in 1945. He was born at Emporium, Penn­sylvania, on 18 August 1901 and entered the Community in 1920. Most of his priestly life was spent in educational work, both at Saint John’s University and Mary Immaculate Seminary a; Northampton (Pennsylvania). He was provincial from 1945 to 1954 and died at Germantown, 2 July 1982.

Growth in the American provinces took the traditional forms of more members and more secure financial resources. These in turn led to the opening of new houses, although it should be noted that these houses did not generally enlarge the type of works the Vincentians were engaged in. Rather, they generally expanded apostolates already undertaken. Breadth of expansion was gradu­ally matched in depth, such as the movement for accreditation of academic institutions, the appointment of provincial deans of studies, and greater professional preparation of the confreres for their works. One concomitant experience, however, was the need to decline the increasing number of requests to staff seminaries. These came from bishops who were, in their turn, experiencing an increase of candidates just as the Community was.

Together with growth in resources came a more active and centralized provincial administration. Areas previously left to individual decisions in matters of observance were now tightly regulated. Fathers Slattery and Taggart in the East and Stakelum in the West were scrupulous in demanding observance of the tradi­tional Common Rules, as well as the increasing number of general and provincial regulations. The number of rules about the time of rising, the length of vacations, reading at meals and the form of grace to be said before them, the use of automobiles, even the style of coffms, came under close scrutiny. The demand for uniformity and obedience reached to the minutest details. In the theoretical framework of the day, the will of God was manifested through duly appointed superiors.

This outlook was reinforced by the publication of the long-delayed Constitutions of 1954. Although these were to govern the Community only briefly (1954-1969), their origins reached back to the general assembly of 1919, which was responding to the demands of the 1918 code of canon law. There was great insistence at that time, as during the two succeeding assemblies (1931, 1933) on the secular nature of the Congregation of the Mission, that is, that it was not a religious community in the canonical sense of the term. The process of bringing the Vincentian constitutions into line with canon law was interrupted by the Second World War. After the war, when communication and travel became possible again, a draft constitution was accepted by the thirty-first general assembly (1947), and this text eventually received papal approval in 1953. Father Slat­tery, now the superior general, promulgated the new constitutions in 1954.

These constitutions brought centralisation to its peak. They were largely legal in tone, regulating the life and works of the Congrega­tion of the Mission in precise detail. Laws were laid down for prece­dence among members (provincial first, then local superiors, priests, clerics, and brothers), the duties of superiors, the vow of poverty, entering and leaving the house, the rule of silence, the prac­tice of austerity, and the exercises of piety. It also brought the Vincentian Community much more under the common law for reli­gious.

Though some parts of these constitutions were unenforceable, they, together with provincial regulations, served as the subject of the official visitations made every year or at least every other year by the provincials. In the West, geographical distances made such frequent visitations impossible. For that reason Stakelum asked Paris to establish two vice-provinces in the western region. His council discussed the matter in mid-1957, and he formulated the proposal early in 1958. It was quickly approved by the superior general and announced on 19 July 1958, the date of the dedication of Saint Vincent’s Seminary in Montebello, California, and at that time the feastday of Saint Vincent de Paul. The two vice-provinces that resulted were those of the South, with headquarters in New Orleans, and Los Angeles. Father Maurice Hymel was the first vice-provincial of the South (1958-1970), followed by Bernard Degan (1970-1973), and Louis Franz (1973-1975). In California Father James Richardson was the first vice-provincial (1958-1968) and was succeeded by Joseph Falanga (1968-1975).

Since the territory of the Eastern Province was less extensive and its houses more concentrated, there was no need for such a division. The East, however, had the Polish Vice-Province within its own borders. The overlapping of territorial jurisdictions caused difficulties, especially as the vice-province began to lose its Polish character and its members increasingly pressed to become an independent American province.

In both provinces, as the number of houses and men grew and financial viability increased, the spirit among the Vincentians often appeared to be contented and self-satisfied. There was a great deal of overwork, but it was often accepted as an essential part of Vincentian life. The Vincentians of the period knew who they were, what they were about, the value of their ministries, and the direc­tion in which they were going. This outlook, largely shared by the overall American church, was to be rudely challenged within a few years.

The Impact of Vatican II: 1965-1987

The period from the end of the Second Vatican Council (1965) to the present has decisively affected the Vincentian Community in the United States, just as it has every other aspect of the Catholic Church. They have been two decades of change, questioning, turmoil, confusion, discovery, and progress. This period is so recent and the events so close that it is difficult to write it as history. The treatment that follows is more personal and impressionistic than scientifically historic.

During that period, the Eastern Province was led by Fathers Sylvester Taggart (1955-1967), James Collins (1967-1972), John Nugent (1972-1981), and Gerard Mahoney (1981—). The provincials of the Western Province were Fathers James Fischer (1961-1971), Cecil Panes (1971-1975), and after the division of the provinces 1975-1978), Hugh O’Donnell (1978-1987), and John Gagnepain (1987—).

In the decree Perfectae Charitatis the Vatican Council had decreed that each community should study and seek anew its particular charism, particularly as found in the work and teachings of its founder. The thirty-third general assembly, held in 1963 while the Council was still in session, decreed that the superior general should establish a commission to examine the whole life of the Community in the light of Vatican II and help prepare for adapta­tion. Father Slattery did so on 27 November 1965. From that point on, the move toward aggiornamento (updating) was officially sanc­tioned in the Congregation of the Mission. This decision was to be the primary object of the extraordinary general assembly of 1968­-1969.

The commission undertook the laborious task of preparing ques­tionnaires and position papers for the use of the provinces in working toward their own concept of adaptation. In the United States this usually took the form of meetings, almost innumerable ones in the recollections of those who took part. These concen­trated on the spirit of Saint Vincent, decentralization and colle­giality, the role of superiors as fraternal rather than paternal, the meaning of poverty, common prayer, and the role of brothers. The responses from the provinces were returned to the commission which collated them and distributed them as a working document. And so more meetings followed.

In the United States the provincial and vice-provincial assemblies became the forums for extensive, and even acrimonious, debate over the future life of the Congregation of the Mission. Differences of opinion on how fast the changes should come and what their direc­tion should be were deep-rooted. There was a wide representation of opinion and an open forum for discussion at these assemblies. The Western Province, following a lead from the house at DeAn­dreis Seminary in Lemont, Illinois, rejected the preparatory docu­ment altogether and formulated its own.

The thirty-forth general assembly met over a two-year period (1968-1969) and, by any standard, was a difficult series of meetings. Much that was new was argued and debated with great heat. In general the contribution of the American provinces was substantial, perhaps even pivotal, in the deliberations of the assembly. Father Slattery, following the wishes of the majority of delegates, resigned in order to permit the election of a successor who would have a fixed term. Father James Richardson, who had distinguished himself on the preparatory commission, was elected on the fifth ballot and became the second American-born superior general.

It fell to Father Richardson to implement the interim constitu­tions formulated by the assembly. The issues of subsidiarity and accountability in governance at all levels, with legislative power given to provincial assemblies, brought into question the underlying issue of the nature of the Community in terms of governance. The experience of the Americans led them to work out of a constitu­tional background of religious freedom, with a democratic and egalitarian tone. They ordinarily sided with the individual against the commonality and set a tone of tolerance and flexibility, imitating the pluralism which they knew in the United States. On these bases, the Americans tended to view the Community as a federation of provinces with the superior general as the guarantor of unity. The more traditional view saw the Community as an extension of the superior general, successor to Saint Vincent de Paul, with provincials acting as his delegates on the local level. The federalist view prevailed, though in subsequent assemblies many delegates moved to return to the traditional one.

None of this took place without tension. For some too rapid a change had taken place and they felt dislocated. For others the renewal had been unnecessarily slow. These tensions surfaced in the conflict between corporate and individual needs (“doing one’s thing” in the expression of the time) and in disagreement over the meaning of the vows, especially poverty and obedience, in an age of affluence and freedom. Many left the Community and the priesthood, embracing the new freedom, at some times feeling cut loose from accustomed support systems, and at others discouraged over the whole process of aggiornamento. This situation led provin­cial authorities to pay greater attention tb the care of individual confreres. Issues such as hospitalization insurance, attention to chemical dependency and mental health, the use of professional counseling services, retirement, and institutionalized sabbatical programs for all confreres, and not just for those involved in academics, came to have a regular place in the thinking of the prov­inces.

Understandably, renewal varied from place to place. Some houses, often the larger ones, retained a major part of the familiar structure, such as clerical dress, traditional daily vocal prayers, and private celebrations of the Eucharist. Others experimented broadly. Through it all, the inexorable force of change brought about many adaptations in lifestyle. Predominant among these was a change in the role of the superior. Once an office to be coveted for its authority and prestige, a superiorship was now difficult to fill as provincials found the leadership role held in low esteem. The superior found his function to be that of a coordinator and animator of community life, not its center. The superior could no longer command as he once had. Sometimes younger and inex­perienced men had to take the job, with a consequent weakening of their authority.

The same tensions were to be found in the discussions about apostolates. In all the provinces, each work received a thorough, if not always unbiased, review. These reviews or studies showed basic agreement on fundamental values but questioned methods of prov­incial organization for long-range planning. They likewise highlighted tensions between the demands of community living and the demands of the apostolate. A review of the numbers of institu­tions opened and closed after 1965 shows that, at least until the 1980s, few if any works were begun and many were closed. In some cases traditional works moved from one location to another, or living arrangements were changed so that the confreres would not be working in the same place in which they were living.

In 1974 the joint assemblies of the province and vice-provinces of the western region voted in favor of erecting the vice-provinces into independent provinces. The issue of permanent province divi­sion was both a practical and an emotional one, and the debate was intense. Father Richardson and his council acted on the recommen­dation, and the effective division took place in 1975. The new prov­inces kept the same boundaries that they had as vice-provinces, but entered into complex agreements concerning common formation and its fmances. Father Louis Franz became the first provincial of the Southern Province (1975-1982), followed by Dennis Martin (1982—). In California Father Joseph Falanga was named provin­cial (1975-1978), followed by John Grindel (1978-1987) and Jerome Herff (1987—). In that same year, after a long series of requests, meetings, and official visits, the Utica (Polish) vice-province became the independent Province of New England. Father Henry Sawicki, the last vice-provincial, was the first provincial for a brief period.

The general assembly of 1974 reelected Father Richardson as superior general but produced little more than declarations of a hortatory character for the worldwide Community. Nevertheless, the issue of service to the poor, already faced in the 1968-1969 assembly, loomed ever larger and called into question the funda­mental end of the Community. This issue was gradually translated into positive action in the provinces and involved matters of life­style and concern for the poor, the object of so many of Saint Vincent’s activities.

The general assembly of 1980 had as its task the definitive edition of the constitutions and statutes. Not unexpectedly, the most diffi­cult part of the work was the definition of the very nature of the Congregation of the Mission, that is, its purpose. Intense discus­sion, maneuvering, and eventually compromise produced a clear statement: “The end of the Congregation of the Mission is to follow Christ, the evangelizer of the poor.”

The twenty years following the close of Vatican II brought rapid and sometimes traumatic change to the American Vincentians. There was a serious loss of personnel who already belonged to the Community, as well as decline in the number of recruits.The apos­tolic schools at Cape Girardeau, Beaumont, and Montebello were closed and those at Lemont and Princeton faced serious questions about their future. The direction of diocesan seminaries, the tradi­tional Vincentian work that had first brought the Congregation of the Mission to the United States, declined to such an extent that could no longer be considered a major apostolate. Closures of or withdrawals from diocesan seminaries in the western region included the minor seminaries in Kansas City, San Fernando, and Tucson, and the major seminaries in Houston and San Antonio. In the same period, the Eastern Province withdrew from its seminaries in the archdiocese of Miami, both major and minor, and from Albany, the successor to Our Lady of the Angels in Niagara. All the provinces recast the style and location of training given to their own candidates to a greater or lesser degree.

During this same period, the confreres withdrew from a number of parishes, though with less overall impact on identity as the with­drawal from seminaries entailed. Within the parishes themselves, the confreres experienced major tensions, since the local church no longer existed as the center of Catholic life. Their parishioners, part of a mobile society, came to pick and choose parishes outside of their geographical areas, and parish devotions often moved away from being private and individual to public and communitarian. Symptomatic of this was the decline in the Marian orientation of the Community, as attested by the cessation of special prayers and devotions to Mary, and the virtual demise of the Miraculous Medal Novena Band, especially in the West.

At the same time the individual provinces undertook many initiatives, such as revived interest in parish missions, new foreign mission assignments (Kenya, Burundi, Guatemala), and a more conscious attempt to work with the materially poor, especially with those who had not been evangelized or who lived without the pres­ence of a priest. Several new parishes began, especially in areas in need of priests, and some of these assignments were accepted on a limited time basis, as a way of maintaining a certain kind of missionary mobility. Paradoxically, as the number of recruits to the Community declined, the number of co-workers from outside the Community grew. Vincentian works began to employ more laypeople and religious women, especially Daughters of Charity, in significant and collaborative positions. Many apostolates and individual confreres experienced demands for better professional training and certification where it had not previously been considered necessary—for example, in hospital chaplaincies. Increasing interest was also shown in prayer, simple living, a home­like quality of common life, and in the personal relationships that should exist among the confreres.

These changes, viewed from the perspective of the 172 years since Bishop Dubourg first met Felix De Andreis, seem rapid and revolu­tionary to some, overdue and improvised to others. Only the future will tell whether the Community’s attempt to return to its sources and original charism will allow the Congregation of the Mission to continue to proclaim Saint Vincent’s living of the gospel to the modem world.

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