“I long, Divinest Star! To bear Thy flames afar” (St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Jesus, My Well Beloved, Remember Thou!).
St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s ardent desire to bring Jesus’ love to all human souls throughout the world, while incapable to leave her Carmel, was, thanks to her testimony and writings, powerful enough to inspire and light the missionary flame in many Christian hearts — most notably including those in her native France.
Patroness of the missions since 1929, the Little Flower remains irreducibly associated with the golden era for France’s missionary apostolate of her time. At the end of the 19th century, according to historical data, almost three-quarters of the Catholic Church’s missionaries in the word were French. And while secularist tendencies have taken their toll on French Catholicism in recent decades, the nation continues to send missionaries to bear witness to the faith in distant lands.
In fact, the particular French attachment with regard to mission goes back several centuries. In particular, the French were considered pioneers of the faith in North America. The first Jesuit missionaries in Acadia in 1611, Father Pierre Biard and Father Enemond Massé, were rapidly followed by a number of their compatriots, such as Joseph Le Caron, Isaac Jogues and Paul Le Jeune. By the middle of the 17th century, the presence of French Catholic missionaries on American soil was substantial.
And in 1658, the Paris Foreign Missions (known today as MEP), the first diocesan priests society dedicated to missions in Asia, was founded by French Bishops François Pallu and Pierre Lambert de la Motte, with the support of emblematic Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes.
Pope Alexander VII chose his first three apostolic vicars among them — Pallu, de la Motte and Ignace Cotolendi — and sent them respectively to southern China, Tonkin (northern Vietnam) and Nankin (a region in eastern China), with the aim to create a well-trained autochthone clergy, able to adapt to local customs and produce dictionaries and linguistic methods to announce the Gospel throughout the Far East. Between 1660 and 1700, more than 100 missionaries were sent to Asia; and, in 1789, on the eve of the French Revolution, the Society of Foreign Missions had more than 60 priests in mission abroad.
From Terror to May 1968
The suppression of the Jesuits by Pope Clement XIV in 1773, followed by the deep political turmoil of the French Revolution and its very anti-clerical Reign of Terror, struck a blow against the dynamism of Western missions at the time. At the turn of the 19th century, the Catholic presence in mission territories was practically wiped out.
If the resumption of missionary activities was relatively slow at the beginning of the 19th century — the Jesuits were restored in 1814, and the MEP reopened its Paris seminary in 1815 — the development of missions enjoyed an extraordinary success from the 1820s, especially thanks to the foundation of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith by Pauline Jaricot in 1822, an association providing financial support to foreign missions. The revival — which was further consolidated by a spirit of Catholic resistance rooted among the French rural population since the Revolution and the sense of solidarity that the wave of martyrdoms in the mission territories aroused in France — resulted in the country becoming the primary provider of Catholic missions in the world.
“Mission became a sort of French specialty at that time,” Bishop Dominique You of Conceição do Araguaia in Brazil told the Register, noting that his own diocese was founded in 1897 by the Dominicans of Toulouse in southern France. Just like two of his uncles — one was a White Father in Africa; the other was a priest of Prado in Algeria — Bishop You received the missionary call after 20 years of priesthood in the Diocese of Brive-la-Gaillarde in southwestern France.
“I was very inspired and fascinated as a child by the incredible stories of French missionaries from all times such as Théophane Vénard or the testimony of Thérèse of Lisieux, as comics about their lives were very popular,” he said. “Mission is part of the French Catholic soul; Italians, Polish, Spanish and even Dutch congregations were and continue to be effective providers, too, but mission will always be part of the French soul.”
Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Fidei Donum (The Gift of Faith) in 1957, which encourages dioceses to make their priests available to go evangelize on other continents, changed the face of mission in the second part of the 20th century.
“Before that, Pope Benedict XV’s apostolic letter Maximum Illud [the 100th anniversary of which we are celebrating during this ‘Missionary Month’ declared by Pope Francis] already had a very positive impact on the way mission was perceived, as it tried to dissociate mission from colonialism in a sensitive period of history,” Bishop Emmanuel Lafont of Cayenne, in French Guiana, and a fidei donum priest himself, told the Register. “But it is Vatican II that gave fresh impetus to mission, as, for the first time, we were given a real theology of mission, built on the Trinity, through the Second Vatican Council’s decree Ad Gentes; it was the first time bishops from all around the world were gathering, and it was definitely a turning point.”
The continued expansion of Catholicism outside Europe was hampered by a large secularization movement following 1968 cultural and social protests, mostly in the Western countries. France was not spared by the wave of civil unrests. In fact, ’68 events have deeply modified the country’s cultural landscape and traditions. In the 1970s and ’80s, French missions (as well as in many European countries) almost entirely dissolved.
John Paul II and the Call to the Laity
It was not until Pope John Paul II’s pontificate — which featured a record number of apostolic trips — that a new missionary fervor was instilled again into the hearts of Catholic youth.
His 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio — in which he called attention to “the dawning of a new missionary age,” and in which he recalled that “all the laity are missionaries by baptism” — marked the beginning of a new era for mission.
In France, it was notably reflected in a massive increase of young lay volunteers involved in missionary programs launched by dynamic movements such as Emmanuel Community or the Chemin Neuf Community and, of course, in the MEP, which is celebrating its 360th anniversary this year.
“It was urgent for John Paul II to recall that a missionary is no substitute for NGOs and that mission was a very topical and urgent vocation as well as a duty for all the Christian faithful,” Father Will Conquer, a French-American priest of the MEP, told the Register.
This 30-year-old missionary understood his vocation to priesthood at the end of a year spent as a volunteer in Vietnam. He was ordained a priest in 2018 and was sent in an ad vitam (“to life”) mission for the MEP to Cambodia on Oct. 6.
“Pope John Paul II also massively canonized missionary martyrs during his pontificate, and, by doing so, he encouraged the young generations, showing that mission was definitely a path to sanctity,” he said.
In 1984, John Paul II canonized the 103 martyrs of Korea in Seoul and then the 117 martyrs of Vietnam in 1986, followed by the 120 martyrs of China in 2000. Among them, 23 were part of the MEP, which made the society gain 23 new saints in only 14 years.
“John Paul II restored the missionary impulse, recalling that we are sentinels of hope and that we must go to the heart of the world to bear witness to Christ,” the superior general of the MEP, Father Gilles Reithinger, told the Register. “He put back Christ, prayer and adoration at the center of everything; and, by doing so, he recharacterized ad gentes mission and initiated this movement, also through World Youth Day, which allowed so many young people to realize that, together, they make the Church.”
A Thirst for Radicality of the Gospel
The significant rise in missionary vocations in France is attested by Father Reithinger. Over the past 15 years, the MEP has sent around 2,300 lay volunteers abroad. It has an average of five ordinations every year and as many missionary mandates.
“We are not as numerically large as we used to be in the 19th century, but I have seen a significant increase and a renewal in France since the 1990s,” Father Reithinger said, mentioning that the last session of Congrès Mission, an event that gathers every year young Christians from around France in Paris to discuss the various aspects of mission for the country, gathered about 6,000 people Sept. 27-29.
“We can definitely see the missionary flame in these young people, a flame they want to share with the world: They are less numerous, but they are strongly committed, and it is a source of hope for the Church in Europe,” he said.
Indeed, at a time when relativism has invaded every sphere of its society, the youth of today are more and more attracted by the deep and radical dimension of mission. The clear identity of mission — which is very different from any purely humanitarian trip — is an important aspect for the young people, who put their human and professional skills, or even their entire life, at the service of other local Churches.
“The world doesn’t need us to build schools and hospitals, nor to spread moral values or universal fraternity people wouldn’t care about without the presence of Christ; it needs us to announce salvation,” Father Conquer told the Register. “And if I have made the radical choice to go away, if I give my own life to mission, it is, of course, not to announce damnation to young children that will not be baptized, but to hope with them the promise of salvation.”
Rescuing France’s Soul
Paradoxically, such a missionary surge in France is coupled with a very alarming and continued decline of Christianity in the whole country.
At a time when the vocation crisis reaches unprecedented levels, some Catholics (including clergymen) take a dim view of the departures of promising young French priests toward distant lands.
“I once said to a bishop that he wasn’t losing a priest, but gaining a new missionary,” Father Reithinger told the Register, adding that, to this extent, this year’s Missionary Month in October — which occurred at the conclusion of the MEP’s jubilee year for its 360 years of existence — was providential, as it reminded people of the urgency and timeliness of mission.
As superior general of the MEP, he regularly witnesses the strong evangelizing power of such a vocation. He was particularly edified by the case of a diocese that hadn’t had any vocations for 25 years. After more than two decades of a vocational desert, the only ordained priest for this diocese was part of the MEP and was therefore sent in ad vitam mission to Asia.
“The following years, several men entered the diocese’s seminary, inspired by his testimony, and then remained in the diocese after their ordination,” Father Reithinger said.
A similar experience is reported by Bishop You, who left his parish of Brive-la-Gaillarde in 1992 for São Salvador da Bahia in Brazil as a fidei donum priest. He took the decision because he felt young people needed something more than “just words or nice experiences like camps on the footsteps of saints.”
He wanted to give a testimony with his own life by showing he was capable to “take a big step forward, even in the dark,” to reach out to the many people who didn’t know Jesus.
“The fecundity of my ‘Yes’ was very visible in my chaplaincy of Brive, as it aroused a number of vocations to priesthood or consecrated life, and many lay volunteers came to work with me in Salvador,” he told the Register.
He is convinced, like many other missionaries, that this is how France, the “Eldest Daughter of the Church,” will recover its Catholic soul.
For Father Conquer, who sees Archangel Gabriel’s Ave Maria, gratia plena as the first missionary proclamation and the highest model of mission, his vocation is a way to remain faithful to the “Gospel greeting” he received on the day of his baptism.
“I also leave to remind my people that they must maintain the flame of Resurrection at the heart of France,” he said in October. “In this Missionary Month, every one of us, each one from his own place and condition, is called to bear witness of the cross of Christ and save the soul of France, which used to be Christian and must become so again.”
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.