The Birth and Establishment of the Congregation of the Mission
We could truthfully say that this Congregation in its beginnings was that small mustard seed spoken of in the Gospel: although the least of all the seeds, it becomes a great tree in which the birds of the air build their nests. Nothing was so small as the Congregation at its commencement, not only in external things, but in the mind of Monsieur Vincent and the first priests associated with him. They thought of themselves as the least of all those engaged in Church ministry. They committed themselves to the humblest tasks, serving the lowest and least appreciated in the common opinion of the world, such as instructing and catechizing the poor, particularly in the small villages and the most abandoned places. They would help, assist, and aid the sick poor, and disposing both the poor and the sick to make good general confessions. They thought of themselves as servants of the pastors and other priests, but also of the villagers, the galley slaves, or any other person in need. They were of a mind to do this gratuitously, with no recompense whatever. They considered it an honor to serve Jesus Christ in the person of the poor and accepted it as a favor that pastors would allow them to carry out these works of charity in their parishes.
It pleased God to pour out abundant blessings upon these small beginnings, and there soon developed a large community which happily has expanded to many other places, as we shall describe below. This community has contributed, and continues to contribute, with special benediction, to the advancement of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
As has already been said, in 1625 after the death of Madame de Gondi, Monsieur Vincent moved to the principalship of the College des Bons Enfants, following the archbishop’s efforts, supported by the lady and the general, to carry out the purpose of their foundation. Monsieur Portail, of whom we have already spoken, and who had already spent twelve or fifteen years with Monsieur Vincent, now saw a new opportunity to devote himself to God. He moved to the College des Bons Enfants with Monsieur Vincent, deciding to join the new company of priests and to commit himself to the missions. He persuaded another priest to join him in this decision, promising him fifty ecus each year for personal expenses. 1 The three went from village to village, catechizing, exhorting, hearing confessions, and performing the other exercises of the mission with simplicity, humility, and charity, all at their own expense, not asking for anything for themselves. They worked first in those places where the missions had already been set up, but gradually moved to other parishes, chiefly in the diocese of Paris. Since they did not have the means to engage watchmen to live in the College des Bons Enfants, in their absence they left the keys with one of the neighbors.
Who would have thought that from such modest beginnings great progress would be made, such as we now see? Or that two poor priests going out to the smallest villages and other forgotten places would actually be laying the foundations of such a large spiritual edifice which God was pleased to raise up in his Church? Monsieur Vincent spoke of this marvel one day to his community at Saint Lazare:
We went plainly and simply, sent by their lordships the bishops, to evangelize the poor, just as our Lord did. That is all we did. And for his part, God accomplished what he had foreseen from all eternity. He so blessed our work that other clerics joined us, asking to be received into our Company, not all at once, but from time to time. O Lord, who would ever have thought we would develop to our present state? If anyone had said as much then, I would have thought he was mocking me. And yet, that is how God began the Company. Oh well, would you call that human which no one even thought of? Neither myself nor Monsieur Portail ever did. Alas, we were far from that! 2
The archbishop of Paris, John Francis de Gondi, later gave official approbation to the institution of the Congregation of the Mission, by a decree dated April 24, 1626, in the same style as he used in the contract of foundation. Two good priests from Picardy, Fathers Francois du Coudray 3 and Jean de la Salle, 4 came to Monsieur Vincent and offered to join Monsieur Portail in living and working under Monsieur Vincent’s direction. He received them and associated them with himself in executing the foundation set up for the purpose, by an act certified by two notaries of the Chatelet on September 4, 1626.
The late King, Louis XIII, of glorious memory, by letters patent of May 1627, at the recommendation of the general of the galleys, confirmed and approved the contract of foundation allowing the Association or Congregation of the Priests of the Mission to live in common, to reside in various parts of the kingdom of France as shall seem good to them, and to accept all legacies, alms, or other gifts which shall be made to them. 5
God thus blessed the beginnings of the Congregation of the Mission by the special gift of his merciful Providence. By this same Providence he allowed it to increase and multiply. For this purpose he inspired several other clerics to work with Monsieur Vincent at the harvest of souls. Four other priests joined, besides the three already mentioned, that is, Jean Becu of the village of Brache in the diocese of Amiens, 6 Antoine Lucas of Paris, 7 Jean Brunet of the village of Rion in Auvergne in the diocese of Clermont, 8 and Jean Dehorgny of the village of Estrees in the diocese of Noyon. 9
These seven thus associated themselves and joined Monsieur Vincent to live and die in the Congregation of the Mission, promising God to remain faithful their entire life in working for the salvation and sanctification of the poor country people. This they faithfully accomplished. We could say these men were like the seven priests of Joshua. Their trumpets broke down the walls of Jericho, and their example, zeal, and virtue attracted several others to this holy army.
By a papal bull of Urban VIII dated January [12,] 1632, this pious Company was raised formally to the status of a Congregation, the Priests of the Congregation of the Mission, under the direction of Monsieur Vincent. 10 The pope gave him the authority to set down regulations for the good order of the community. To further the work of the institute, the king gave new letters patent, dated May 1642, approved by the Parlement of Paris in September of that same year. 11
The bull of Urban VIII gave the name Priests of the Congregation of the Mission to those of this community. By this name they are distinguished from all other communities, even those who work at the same sort of mission as those of Monsieur Vincent. We have thought it necessary to underline this to avoid possible misunderstandings, if this distinction is not kept in mind. 12
- Adrien Gambart, priest of the diocese of Noyon. Among other works he published Le Missionnaire paroissial, 10 vols., Paris, 1668, which reflects the method of preaching recommended by Saint Vincent.
- CED XI:8-9.
- Francois du Coudray, 1586-1649, joined the Congregation in 1626, whose only other members were the founder and Antoine Portail. Saint Vincent chose him to go to Rome to negotiate the approbation of the Congregation; he remained there from 1631 to 1635. He served in many houses: Paris, Toul, Marseilles, La Rose, Richelieu. His theological knowledge was marred by some unorthodox opinions, and Saint Vincent took steps to prevent him from spreading errors.
- Jean de la Salle, 1598-1639, was a gifted biblical expositor (see CED XII:293), came to Monsieur Vincent in 1626. He was the first director of the internal seminary (novitiate), 1637.
- CED XIII:225-26.
- Jean Becu, 1592-1667, ordained a priest in 1616, came to the Congregation in 1626. Two of his brothers followed him, and one of his sisters became a Daughter of Charity.
- Antoine Lucas, 1600-1656, entered the Congregation in 1626, and was ordained two years later. He was known for his zeal and talent for preaching. He died a victim of his zeal for the plague-stricken.
- Jean-Joseph Brunet, 1597-1649, joined Saint Vincent in 1627. He died a victim of his zeal for the plague-stricken.
- Jean Dehorgny (or d’Horgny), ?-1667, joined Saint Vincent in 1627, and was ordained a priest a year later. He directed the College des Bons Enfants on three occasions. He was assistant to the superior general twice, superior of the house in Rome twice, and director of the Daughters of Charity from 1660 to 1667. Several of his conferences to them are still extant.
- CED XIII:257-67. By contemporary reckoning, the year was 1633, since the papal year began not on January 1 but on March 25.
- CED XIII:286-87.
- Alexander VII completed the work of Urban VIII by the approving the constitution of the company, 22 September 1655 (CED XIII:380-83). By this brief he approved the taking of vows, while explaining their exact nature for the Congregation of the Mission. He further legislated the exemption of the congregation from the jurisdiction of bishops in matters of internal administration, but respecting their jurisdiction in those things regarding the missions to be given in their dioceses. The first vows were taken by Saint Vincent and his confreres September 8, 1629.