The Society of Foreign Missions of Paris was established in 1658-63, its chief founders being Mgr Pallu, Bishop of Heliopolis, Vicar Apostolic of Tongking, and Mgr Lambert de la Motte, Bishop of Bertyus, Vicar Apostolic of Conchin-China. Both bishops left France (1660-62) to go to their respective missions and as true travellers of Christ they crossed Persia and India on foot. The object of the new society was and is still the evangelization of infidel countries, by founding churches and raising up a native clergy under the jurisdiction of the bishops. In order that the society might recruit members and administer its property, a house was established in 1663 by the priests whom the vicars Apostolic had appointed their agents. This house, whose directors were to form young priests to the apostolic life and transmit to the bishops the offerings made by charity, was, and is still situated in Paris in the Rue de Bac. Known from the beginning as the seminary of Foreign Missions, its secured the approval of Alexander VII, and the legal recognition, still in force, of the French Government.
The nature and organization of the society deserves special mention. It is not a religious order but a congregation, a society of secular priests, united as members of the same body, not by vows but by the rule approved by the Holy See, by community of object, and the seminary of Foreign Missions, which is the centre of the society and the common basis which sustains the other parts. On entering the society the missionaries promise to devote themselves until death to the service of the missions, while the society assures them in return, besides the means of sanctification and perseverance, all necessary temporal support and assistance. There is no superior general; the bishops, vicars Apostolic , superiors of missions and board of directors of the seminary are the superiors of the society. The directors of the seminary are chosen from among the missionaries and each group of missions is represented by a director. The bishops and vicars Apostolic are appointed by the pope, after nomination by the missionaries, and presentation by the directors of the seminary. In their missions they depend only on Propaganda and through it on the pope. No subject aged more than thirty-five may be admitted to the seminary nor may anyone become a member of the society before having spent three years in the mission field. Several points of this rule were determined from the earliest year of the society's existence, and others were established by degrees and as experience pointed out their usefulness. By this rule the society has lived and according to it its history has been outlined.
This history is difficult, for owing to the length of the journeys, the infrequent communication, and the poverty of resources the missions have developed with difficulty. The chief events of the first period (1658-1700) are: the publication of the book "Institutions apostoliques", which contains the germ of the principles of the rule, the foundation of the general seminary at Juthia, (Siam), the evangelization of Tongking, Cochin China, Cambodia, and Siam, where more than 40,000 Christians were baptized, the creation of an institute of Annamite nuns known as "Lovers of the Cross", the establishment of rules among catechists, the ordination of thirty native priests. Besides these events of purely religious interest there were others in the political order which emphasized the patriotism of these evangelical labourers: through their initiative a more active trade was established between Indo-China, the Indies, and France ; embassies were sent from place to place; treaties were signed; a French expedition to Siam took possession of Bangkok, Mergin, and Jonselang, and France was on the verge of possessing an Indo-Chinese empire when the blundering of subalterns ruined an undertaking the failure of which had an unfortunate influence on the missions. But the most important work of the vicars Apostolic and the society is the application of the fruitful principle of the organization of churches by native priests and bishops. Thenceforth the apostolate in its progress has has followed this plan in every part of the world with scrupulous fidelity and increasing success. In the second half of the eighteenth century it was charged with the missions which the Jesuits had possessed in India prior to their suppression in Portugal. Many of the Jesuits remained there. The missions thereupon assumed new life, especially at Setchoan, where remarkable bishops, Mgr Pottier and Mgr Dufresse, gave a strong impulse to evangelical work; and in Cochin China, where Mgr Pineau de Behaine performed signal service for the king of that country as his agent in making with France a treaty, which was the first step towards the splendid situation of France in Indo-China. At the end of the eighteenth century the French revolution halted the growth of the society, which had previously been very rapid. At that time it had six bishops, a score of missionaries, assisted by 135 native priests ; in the various missions there were nine seminaries with 250 students, and 300,000 Christians. Each year the number of baptisms rose on a average of 3000 to 3500; that of infant baptisms in articulo mortis was more than 100,000.
In the nineteenth century the development of the society and its missions was rapid and considerable. Several causes contributed to this; chiefly the charity of the Propagation of the Faith and the Society of the Holy Childhood; each bishop receives annually 1200 francs, each mission has its general needs and works allowance, which varies according to its importance, and may amount to from 10,000 to 30,000 francs. The second cause was persecution. Fifteen missionaries died in prison or were beheaded during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the beginning of the nineteenth century; but after that the martyrs among the missionaries were very numerous. The best known are Mgr Dufresse, vicar Apostolic of Se-tchoan, beheaded in 1815; Gagelin, Marchand, Jaccard, Cornay, and Dumoulin-Borie from 1833 to 1838; and from 1850 to 1862 Schoeffler, Vénard, Bonnard, Néron, Chapdelaine, Néel, Cuenot, vicar Apostolic of Eastern Cochin China. If, besides these, mention were made of the native priests, catechists, and nuns, in short of all who died for Christ, we should have a record of one of the bloodiest holocausts in history. These persecutions were described in Europe by books, pamphlets, annals, and journals, arousing the pity of some and the anger of others, and inspiring numerous young men either with the desire or martyrdom or that of evangelization. They moved European nations, especially France and England, to intervene in Indo-China and China, and open up in these countries an era of liberty and protection till then unknown. Another cause of the progress of the missionaries was the ease and frequency of communication in consequence of the invention of steam and the opening of the Suez Canal. A voyage could be made safely in one month which formerly required eight to ten months amid many dangers.
The following statistics of the missions confided to the Society will show this development at a glance: Missions of Japan and Korea — Tokio, Nagasaki, Osaka, Hakodate, Korea, total number of Catholics, 138,624; churches or chapels, 238; bishops and missionaries, 166; native priests, 48; catechists, 517; seminaries, 4; seminarists, 81; communities of men and women, 44, containing 390 persons ; schools, 161, with 9024 pupils; orphanages and work-rooms, 38, with 988 children; pharmacies, dispensaries, and hospitals, 19. Missions of China and Tibet — Western, Eastern, and Southern Se-tchoan, Yun-nan, Kouy-tcheou, Kouang-ton, Kouang-si, Southern Manchuria, Northern Manchuria. — Catholics, 272,792; churches or chapels, 1392; bishops and missionaries, 408; native priests, 191; catechists, 998; seminaries, 19; seminarists, 661; communities of men and women, 23, with 222 members; schools, 1879, with 31,971 pupils; orphanages and work-rooms, 132, with 4134 children; pharmacies, dispensaries, and hospitals, 364. Missions of Eastern Indo-China — Tongking, Cochin China, Cambodia — Catholic population, 632,830; churches or chapels, 2609; bishops and missionaries, 365; native priests, 491; catechists, 1153; seminaries, 14; seminarists, 1271; communities of men and women, 91, with 2538 persons ; schools, 1859, with 58,434 pupils; orphanages and work-rooms, 106, with 7217 children; pharmacies, dispensaries, and hospitals, 107. Missions of Western Indo-China — Siam, Malacca, Laos, Southern Burma, Northern Burma — Catholics, 132,226; churches or chapels, 451; bishops and missionaries, 199; native priests, 42; catechists, 242; seminaries, 3; seminarists, 81; communities of men and women, 47, with 529 members; schools, 320, with 21,306 pupils; orphanages and work-rooms, 132, with 3757 children; pharmacies, dispensaries, and hospitals, 86. Missions of India — Pondicherry, Mysore, Coimbatore, Kumbakonam. — Catholics, 324,050; churches or chapels, 1048; bishops and missionaries, 207; native priests, 67; catechists, 274; seminaries, 4; seminarists, 80; communities of men and women, 54, with 787 members; schools, 315, with 18,693 pupils; orphanages and work-rooms, 57, with 2046 children; pharmacies, dispensaries, and hospitals, 41.
In addition to these missionaries actively engaged in mission work, there are some occupied in the establishments called common, because they are used by the whole society. Indeed the development of the society necessitated undertakings which were not needed in the past. Hence a sanatorium for sick missionaries has been established at Hong-Kong on the coast of China ; another in India among the Nilgiri mountains, of radiant appearance and invigorating climate, and a third in France. In thinking of the welfare of the body, that of the soul was not lost sight of, and a house of spiritual retreat was founded at Hong-Kong, wither all the priests of the society may repair to renew their priestly and apostolic fervour. To this house was added a printing establishment whence issue the most beautiful works of the Far East, dictionaries, grammars, books of theology, piety, Christian doctrine, and pedagogy. Houses of correspondence, or agencies, were established in the Far East, at Shanghai, Hong-Kong, Saigon, Singapore, and one at Marseilles, France. The Seminary of the Foreign Missions which long had only one section, has for twenty years had two.
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