Missionaries of Africa

Letter to an Aspirant from Bishop Livinhac (+)

Letter to an Aspirant Bishop Livinhac wrote in 1921. The letter is taken from ‘NOTICE’, Maison Carrée, Algiers, printed in 1921 at the Missionaries of Africa Press. Here we find the origins of the Society as told by Lavigerie in 1878.

You ask me for information about our Society, its origins, its works, its rules, its problems and hopes for the African apostolate. We posed these same questions before now to our venerable Founder. In order to reply, all I need do is copy the explanations he gave in 1878, in his Letter to a French Seminarian, updating them and completing them with some personal remarks. Read them, and if you need any more details, write to the Father Superior at the Saint Mary Novitiate at Maison Carrée, Algiers. He will be delighted to give them to you. I pray that the Master of the Apostles will enlighten you and I send you my paternal heartfelt blessing in Our Lord.

Bishop of Pacando
Superior General of the Society of Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers)

Origins of the Society of Missionaries of Africa
MGR LEON LIVINHACHere is how Cardinal Lavigerie, as modestly as possible, liked to relate the origins of our Society, (Annals of the Propagation of the Faith, T. LIII, p. 104). ‘It came into being, as it were, by itself, just like all the works that come from God. Up till my arrival in Algeria in 1867, the local authorities had prevented the preaching of the Gospel to the local population. That same year, however, the two terrible scourges of famine and plague suddenly sprang up to change this state of affairs. Striking down thousands of victims, they left countless orphans in their wake. The Catholic clergy rescued them, parenting them. Moreover, at the sight of so much charity, the eyes of these children began to open.

They understood that only the true Faith could create such dedication, especially when they compared it to the abandonment and savage cruelty to which they were victim on the part of the Muslims.

However, the clergy of the colony, brought up to think that they would never be allowed to develop a rapport with the local population, based even on charity, had not learned their language. I therefore tried to find priests among them who would take charge of the management of our Arabic orphanages and I regretted not finding a society of apostolic men who could come to my aid.

One day, having meditated on these ideas, I had the revered Father Girard, Superior of Kouba, our Major Seminary, in my office. The Algerian clergy, entirely educated under his care, called him the Eternal Father, because of his age and venerable looks. He, too, after twenty-five years, longed for the time the clergy would finally be allowed to become involved with the local populations of Africa, with all the required good judgment. It seemed to him that the gates of this huge continent had been opened by the armaments of Christian France; Providence therefore imposed on him the obligation of bringing charity and justice to it, i.e., the Gospel of Our Lord. He knew I shared his thoughts on the matter and that the hope of implementing them had obliged me to give up an episcopal see in France for a mission diocese. On that day, therefore, this venerable son of Saint Vincent de Paul, worthy in all respects of such a forebear, came into my office and said, ‘There are three students at the Seminary who wish to offer themselves to you for the African apostolate. With the grace of God, it will be the beginning of the Enterprise we have been hoping for.’

A few days later, in January 1868, these three seminarians were presented to me. I can still see them kneeling before me, asking me to bless them and accept their dedication. I blessed them, indeed, full of a mixture of amazement and emotion, because this offer that corresponded to my concerns appeared to me as supernatural. I gave them leave to rise and sit; I questioned them closely and at length, raising every possible objection, as I was required to do. They responded and I finally gave my consent for a trial, as an experiment. In this way, the Enterprise began very humbly, through apparently very weak elements: an old man with one foot in the grave and three young men whose lives were just beginning.’

Pope Pius IX, of happy memory, encouraged the Archbishop of Algiers. An initial Brief, dated the 27th May 1868 concluded with these words that would appear prophetic: ‘Persevere, therefore, in your enterprise, and may the obstacles only increase your courage; for it is in the midst of obstacles that the works of God usually proceed and become stronger. With the help of God, neither grace, nor strength, nor the necessary material means to implement your work will be lacking, neither to you nor to yours.’ Some months later (the 6th August) Pius IX did even more: he appointed Archbishop Lavigerie Apostolic Delegate for the Sahara and the (French) Sudan.

‘I was unable,’ continued the Founder when speaking of the first aspirants, ‘to take charge of the work of their formation myself. However, we had to detach them from the Major Seminary for a special vocation. Providence provided me with everything needed by sending two holy priests, now both dead, to Algiers, in search of a milder climate. One belonged to the Company of Jesus, the other to Saint Sulpice. They asked me, at that very point, for an occupation compatible with their health that had been undermined. I entrusted our three seminarians to them, along with some others who had followed their example.

The little community lived in a poor rented house, on the heights of El-Biar, overlooking the Bay of Algiers. It was there in 1830 that the French Army had pitched its encampments to force this old den of pirates to open its gates to the civilised world. Such was the first Novitiate. I remember, because it touched me, as you too will be, I believe, to see around the cradle of our African enterprises a son of Saint Vincent de Paul, the apostle of charity; a son of Saint Ignatius, the apostle of faith and a son of the Venerable M. Olier, the apostle of ecclesiastical holiness. This seemed an anticipated indication to our missionaries of the three most essential virtues for our apostolate.’

In 1879, the problems following on the declaration of the Franco-Prussian War caused the ‘little flock’ to be hurriedly dispersed. Archbishop Lavigerie transferred them from El-Biar to Saint-Eugène, his own residence. However, once the storm was over, he found the aspirants who had remained faithful to the Enterprise gathered at the Maison Carrée Orphanage. ‘Then,’ he continued, ‘another Religious from the Company of Jesus arrived. He too was a man of God. This Fr. Terrasse, whose name I write only with veneration and gratitude, took over the Novitiate.’
On the 1st October 1872, twelve aspirants, seven already priests, took the Oath to the Apostolic Delegate to consecrate themselves until death to the work of the African Missions. The Society was conclusively founded. Three years later, it was able to provide its own government through Superiors taken from within it, but nevertheless placed under the authority of its Founder.

Cardinal Lavigerie’s worldwide activity, his bold initiatives, has such a place in the history of the second half of the nineteenth century that I can spare myself from speaking about his person. He died on the 26th November 1892.
Our own part in his heritage is the Missions.

2 The Works of the Society
The initial works of the Society, as I already indicated, were the orphanages and charitable institutions in favour of the Muslims of Algeria. They gradually extended to south of the Sahara and to the east into Tunisia.’

The Carthage Scholasticate, where generations of missionaries were trained.At the outset, the missionaries had to install themselves by serving European parishes in order to enter into relation with the local inhabitants. Today, they are established among unbelievers, working to win their confidence and affection in the exercise of charity; they treat their sick, school their children and thus prepare the ground for the seed of the Gospel. In Tunisia, the work is less advanced because the subjects of the Bey do not yet enjoy religious freedom. In 1875, the Society was called upon to take custody of the chapel built by France in memory of King St Louis, in the midst of the ruins of Carthage. The Society founded its scholasticate there that also serves as the seminary for the Tunisian clergy.

St Anne’s Basilica, Jerusalem. Here, we trained the Greek Melkite clergy of Syria and Palestine. Jerusalem is an exception, as the Society insists on remaining exclusively African. It was charged by the Holy See to serve the sanctuary of St Anne’s, where, according to an enduring tradition of the Oriental Churches, the Most Blessed Virgin was conceived without sin and lived there during her childhood. There also, the Missionaries exercise a fruitful apostolate in forming the clergy for the Greek Melkite Churches of Palestine and Syria.

However, the north of Africa is the least part of the field the Society has been called upon to harrow. From the beginning, it received the mission to evangelise the eastern (French) Sudan; in 1878, Leo XIII opened the vast region of the Great Lakes of Equatorial Africa to it. The Society penetrated it, preaching the Gospel; God visibly blessed the works of his Missionaries. Indeed, from 1883 till 1897, seven Vicariates Apostolic were erected there. All together, they number nearly 130,000 neophytes and over 180,000 catechumens, according to the latest statistics.

It is few, I admit, in comparison to the millions of souls that are still left to convert. However, it is a lot if we consider the limited number of workers of the Gospel who have been able to be employed in this massive enterprise and the enormous difficulties they had to overcome, particularly at the beginning. Indeed, in 1878, when Archbishop Lavigerie sent ten Missionaries to take possession in the name of the Catholic Church of these countries hardly known in the accounts of a few rare explorers, the Society still had only 75 members, Fathers and Brothers. Today, it is true, in spite of gaps created by deaths each year in its ranks, this figure has multiplied tenfold. ‘However, once again, I would say with the Founder, what is this for the countries as extensive as those of Europe and for the millions of unbelievers to be converted? For such an apostolate, it would take thousands of apostles. Moreover, I do not believe any missionary society at this time has greater need of truly solid vocations than that of the Missionaries of Africa.’

If therefore God is calling you, my dear friend, come: the harvest is great and the workers will never be enough.
However, you may say, to which of these missions shall I consecrate myself? Will I be sent to Kabylia, the Sahara, the (French) Sudan, or else Nyanza, Tanganyika, Congo or Nyassa?

It would be premature to reply. Remember, we form a Society. Now, in any society it is a basic rule that the Superiors allot roles, taking account of the aptitudes and legitimate aspirations of each one, but also of the needs of the various enterprises for which it is responsible.

The small church at Bukumbi, Tanzania, built in 1883 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Three bishops were consecrated here: Bishop Hirth, by Bishop Livinhac in 1890; Bishop Gerboin
by Bishop Hirth in 1896 and Bishop Streicher by Bishop Hirth in 1897

Therefore, do not be concerned yet for your future destination. God will provide it in due course by means of the Superiors and will give you the graces related to the task with which you will be charged and with the good will you will apply in adapting yourself to it.

Rules of the Society

You wish to know the Rules of the Society. The details would be long and of little interest; rules gain from being practiced. I will therefore limit myself to the broad outlines, but enough to give you an idea of our organisation and lifestyle.

Our government more or less resembles that of other Societies. The Chapter, composed of a small number of office-bearers and delegates elected by the missionaries, meets every six years to nominate the Superior General and his four Assistants who make up his Council. The Council selects its general staff: Procurator, Treasurer, Secretary and Bursar, as well as Superiors of Circumscriptions or Provinces. These last-mentioned, in agreement with the Vicars Apostolic, designate the Local Superiors.

Concerning conditions for admission and the training of Missionaries, here are the prescriptions according to our Rules. No one is admitted to Novitiate before reaching the age of 16. Boys and young men who have not completed their ordinary studies may enter the Apostolic School (at St. Laurent d’Olt,) (at Aveyron). Those who have not yet done Philosophy (one year) and the Prolegomena of Theology (one year) are admitted to our seminary at Binson (two similar seminaries exists in Belgium and Canada.) The pupils at Binson and other postulants who have reached the required age and have done the required studies enter the Novitiate after a week’s retreat concluding in the Clothing Ceremony.

By its name and form, our regular habit is reminiscent of the clothing of the inhabitants of North Africa. It consists of a gandourah or long tunic and a burnous, or cloak, all in white. (From this attire, popular acclaim took the opportunity of giving the name of White Fathers to the Missionaries of Africa.) This name has even become that of their Mother House. People say, ‘…at the White Fathers, via Maison Carrée’, (Algiers). For the Novitiate beside it, they say, ‘…Sainte-Marie of the White Fathers’, via Maison Carrée, (Algiers). A red wool chechia (brimless hat) is worn as ordinary headgear. In addition, the missionaries wear a pectoral rosary of black and white beads.

The Novitiate lasts a year. The rules of the Scholasticate resemble those of major seminaries. Seminarians study ecclesiastical subjects and their application to apostolic tasks. At the Novitiate, it is slightly different. There is more room for spiritual exercises, and study is limited to Holy Scripture and African languages. Naturally, the Novitiate year is not enough to become a distinguished linguist, or even to learn a single language. It is enough to acquire some principles and to discover if someone would be suited for studies of this kind.

Add to the language study the Rules of the Society, some lessons in hygiene and practical medicine, as well as a little manual work daily, a useful work for physical and spiritual health, and you will have an idea of the Novitiate. Here, moreover, is the definition given by our Constitutions:

‘The aim proper to the Novitiate is the spiritual training of the aspirants. For models, they take the Apostles Our Lord gathered around himself during his earthly life and they mould themselves under the guidance and grace of their Divine Head in all the Christian and apostolic virtues, in particular the love of God and souls. Thus, by sanctifying themselves, they prepare to become co-operators with God in extending his Divine Life to the lost sheep to whom they will be sent.’

I would only add a word based on quite a long experience. All those who come sincerely resolved to give themselves to God without reserve find the Novitiate year short and sweet, even if some temptations arise to trouble the calm and serenity. However, if by chance, someone lacks these dispositions and if the atmosphere of the house does not inspire them from the very start, they do not delay in showing symptoms of unease, boredom and withdraw, finding themselves out of place. This is quite true, because no one enters an apostolic society and far less remains there unless to sanctify oneself and become ready to work later, through prayer and word, by example and charity, at the conversion and salvation of those who do not believe. Such is the spirit of the Missionaries of Africa.

If, therefore, at the end of this testing, they are considered worthy to be admitted to the Society, the aspirants commit themselves to the Work by the following Oath, ‘In the presence of my brothers here assembled, I, NN, swear on the Holy Gospels to consecrate myself henceforth until death to the Work of the African Missions, according to the Constitutions of the Society of Missionaries, placed under the protection of Mary Immaculate, Queen of Africa. Consequently, I promise and swear to the Superior of the said Society, submission and obedience in all that concerns the practice of apostolic zeal and community life, according to the same Constitutions.’

This Oath, written by hand by the Novice, is signed by him on the steps of the altar. It is done in this way so that the Superior General, after the advice of his Council and in conformity with this advice, may release him from it for canonical reasons he finds sufficient. Once the Oath is taken, a person becomes a member of the Society, which takes on commitments towards the Missionary and cannot dismiss him except for a serious fault or acknowledged unsuitability for regular and apostolic life, and by a decision motivated by the Council. For his part, a Missionary may not, without incurring very serious culpability in the eyes of God, use false pretexts or fraudulent means to be released from his Oath.

The Society takes charge of the maintenance of all its members in sickness and in health. It takes on all the expenses of board and lodging, food and medicine, as well as journeys, even short ones, undertaken for the Work and at the order of the Superiors, all within the limits of the Rules prescribed in the chapter on Material Life.

These Rules lay down a poor lifestyle, but not the Religious Poverty as such that presupposes a Vow. That is why Missionaries continue to enjoy the unrestricted use of their patrimony and Mass stipends. Accordingly, after providing for their clothing and small requirements for personal upkeep, they can, in case of need, help their parents. The absence of the Vow does not mean that everyone is free to live as they like; this would be contrary to self-sacrifice, which is the backbone of apostolic life and to brotherly equality, which is one of the building blocks of the Society.

From what I have said, it will be easy for you to conclude that the Missionaries of Africa do not form a Religious Congregation strictly speaking, since their Institute is not founded on Vows. It is a Society whose members, living in community, observe the same Rule, are tied to one another and to their mutual Work by the Oath of consecrating themselves to the African Missions in the Society, according to the Constitutions and under the obedience of the Superiors.

+ Léon Livinhac

Petit Echo N° 1004, 1005 et 1006