Vincentian View: “The Vincentian Mission”

Fr. Patrick J. Griffin, CM, Special to the Torch

As many of us know, St. John’s University was founded in 1870 by the Congregation of the Mission.  Many of the priests who make up our campus family are members of this religious group, but what do we know about their origin and focus?  In this anniversary year, we can allow ourselves to be enlightened on this topic.

St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) founded the community of priests and brothers which he called the “Congregation of the Mission.”  This religious community of men, as all members of the Vincentian Family, traces its origin to the homily which he preached on January 25, 1617—400 years ago.  Vincent called that presentation “the first sermon of the mission.”  But, one may ask, what was the mission?  Most simply put: it was the preaching of parish retreats to the rural poor.

From the very beginning, Vincent gave careful instructions on the means of carrying out the mission.  First of all, he said that it should only be given in country villages.  He excluded the cities from his efforts because the cities had enough religious to tend to their needs.  The people of the country, on the other hand, often went without the regular service of a trained minister.  In keeping with this first restriction, Vincent said that the mission was only to be given to the poor.  Once again, he reasoned, the wealthy and influential had sufficient means of providing for their spiritual well-being while the poor could (justly) feel abandoned. A third restriction was that the mission was to be given without charge.  The missionaries were forbidden to ask or accept any payment for their service.  Vincent did not want anyone denied the possibility of this parish retreat simply because they were unable to “pay” for it.  He also did not want people to think that the missioners were there for their own profit or to support themselves.  It was always to be free.

Aside from these restrictions, there were positive directives.  Vincent instructed that the priests of the mission work hand-in-hand with the local clergy.  This was intended because of respect for these men, but also to recognize that when the missionaries left, these pastors would continue to care for their people.  Thus, collaboration was important.  Secondly, the time of the year for the mission was to be carefully determined by the needs of the people.  Those who worked the land—such as farmers and herders—needed to cooperate with the rhythm of nature.  The missionaries needed to do likewise.  They could not schedule the months of the mission nor the daily schedule in a fashion which made life difficult for the people whom they were there to serve.  Finally, the mission should last some months (perhaps three or four).  The importance and needs of the people should be represented in the time and effort dedicated to them.

By these preliminary conditions, Vincent gave direction to the work of the priests and brothers of the Congregation of the Mission.  The content of the mission itself was also planned. That will be the topic of another essay as we continue to pay attention to the community and values which led to our University.