CICM in the World

One Heart, One Soul
The Brotherhood of CICM Missionaries

          On July 5, 1993, Pope John Paul II granted a special audience to the members of the CICM General Chapter. On that occasion, the Holy Father gave a message to the newly elected Superior General, Rev. Fr. Jacques Thomas. The Holy Father recalled, “Since your foundation at the last century by Father Theophile Verbist, your Institute has generously honored its missionary vocation.” He continued, “Present in more than twenty countries, the Scheut Fathers are among those who witness to the fidelity of the Church to her primary mission: to announce the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the peoples who have not yet received it.” The Pope added, “Your history has been through difficulties and trials, especially when you were not able to go on with your apostolate in certain regions, but it also shows the fruitfulness of the religious consecration of missionaries totally devoted to evangelization.” This message is found in At the Service of the Kingdom: Acts of the XIth CICM General Chapter Rome 1993.

          In the CICM Elenchus, the official list of membership published annually, there is a one-page historical survey of the Congregation that lists the following in chronological order: 1) The General Chapters; 2) the years of the General Chapters; 3) the names of the General Superiors elected or re-elected in that Chapter; 4) the countries where CICM is present at that point in history; and 5) the number of the membership. This is the skeleton of CICM, brought to life through the flesh and muscles of all the young people who have joined this big missionary enterprise for more than a century. Its soul has been, and still is, the charisma that animated the Founder from the very beginning, namely the call to leave everything and to go out and spread the Good News. This history of 145 years, filled with many events and memories through the years, has given CICM its own face.

         A main part of the missionary task of the Church is giving the Gospel a voice in those vast developments of history over which she has otherwise but little say. In the 19th century, this was the colonial venture. China occupied a special place in the awareness of the European powers. When he was foreign minister of Prussia in 1862, Bismarck kept referring to “the yellow peril” that was China. That same year, Fr. Verbist came up with a plan for a missionary society that would come to the aid of abandoned Chinese children. The first Statutes of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM according to its Latin initials) were officially signed on November 28, 1862 by Cardinal Engelbert Sterckx, Archbishop of Mechelen.

Fr. Theophile Verbist

Fr. Theophile Verbist

          In 1865, Fr. Verbist left with three confreres and a lay helper for the immense mission field of Inner Mongolia. The quiet heroism of this act of faith was summed up by the founder in a letter of 1867: “I am extremely happy and contented. I would love to leave my bones in China, though I have known many hardships and much opposition… All this makes a missionary feel alive. When I see all the young confreres who are fully engaged in the apostolate, and when I think of all the good they are doing and will be doing, I believe that the good Lord is pleased with us and that he will expand our work.”

          The 1880s saw the first important change of course for the young Congregation. European politics had saddled tiny Belgium with the gigantic African region of the Congo, a veritable mouse leading an elephant. This was the time that the colonial powers were trying to stamp out the evil of Arab slave raids, the main reason why the missionaries had to make an uneasy truce with colonialism. In 1888, the CICM Fathers joined in the effort of bringing the Gospel into that situation.

          Thus began the history of CICM, a period of pioneering that was marked by physical hardships and difficulties of all kinds, a time of reconnoitering uncharted grounds that was fraught with many dangers. Back then, untimely death because of unfamiliar sicknesses seemed to be very much part of the game. In China, the sickness was the louse-borne exanthematic typhus; in Africa, the sickness was not only malaria but a whole range of tropical diseases. The archives preserved a letter that expresses the spirit with which parents saw their sons go to the missions. It was written by the parents of a young missionary, who had pleaded to the Superior General: “Dear Father Superior, We have given with pleasure our son for the missions in China, where he wants to go wholeheartedly. However, we ask you to send him to Congo where he could do good for a long time, and not to China where already two friends of his died before being able to do some work.”

Bishop Ferdinand Hamer and companions, Vicariate Apostolic of Kansu, China, 1875

Bishop Ferdinand Hamer and companions, Vicariate Apostolic of Kansu, China, 1875

          Aside from losing members to illness, CICM had its own list and several waves of martyrs. The first one came in 1900, the year of the Boxers’ revolution that swept through most of the CICM missions in China. A Chinese group calling itself “the united fists for peace and justice,” or “boxers” in simplified translation, were described by CICM archivist Fr. Alfred Raskin as “a sect that fostered a merciless hatred against all foreigners and their followers.” During their few months of rebellion, the Boxers sought to extirpate all the followers of Christianity, which they opposed, and CICM counted seven martyrs among the fallen. The cause of beatification of these CICM martyrs is still pending in Rome: it may have been complicated by the large number of Christians who suffered the same fate. At the end of the 1940s, the second wave came when some confreres died from ill treatment in prison during the communist revolution in China, including one Chinese confrere, Petrus Chang Wen-chao (1894-1948). A third wave of violence struck the mission of Guatemala in the 1980s when government forces, under the guise of anti-communist campaigns, tried to repress any initiative for social justice. A young Filipino confrere, Conrado de la Cruz (1946-1980), was kidnapped in Guatemala City, one of the many church workers that became desaparecidos for taking the side of the poor and oppressed.

          We had our period of grieving in the late 1940s to early 1950s, in the first mission station of China. On March 1948, the General Superior Jozef Vandeputte, who was then on emergency visit in the country, decided to cancel the assignment of young missionaries who were already studying the local language there because of growing difficulties with the communist regime. Soon after, the process of expulsion of the missionaries began and progressed very fast. The last non-Chinese CICM missionary was expelled at the beginning of November 1955. The remaining Chinese confrere, Ch’ang –Shou-Yi Joseph, spent many years in jail but remained a faithful member of CICM until he died in 1991, enjoying the last years of his old age in relative freedom. Despite the setback, the evangelization of the peoples of China remains one of the concerns of the Congregation.

          In the beginning of the 1960s, CICM suffered deeply with the people of Congo when our missions were dragged in the turmoil of the transition to independence. But the missionaries stayed with their Christian communities, “keeping alive among the people the hope for the Kingdom and its justice,” as the Constitutions would say.

          We also suffered pain when there were threats of disunity in our large community. These reminded us of our own sinfulness and called us back to the radical inspiration of our vocation. Our “Cor unum et anima una” (one heart, one soul) is a beautiful logo, but it remains a challenge, an ideal we have to make true every day, lest our message of the Good News becomes “a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal”. (1 Cor 13:1)

          Amid great difficulties, we also had our moments of deep joy. When CICM founder Theophile Verbist and his companions arrived in Shi-wan-tzu after a journey of 103 days, they celebrated the Eucharist in deep gratitude for everything that the Lord had done for them. Fr. Verbist was happy with the mission of Mongolia. What others called an “unimportant and ungrateful mission without revenues,” he saw as “a good and beautiful mission because all the Christians in Mongolia are poor, and therefore belong to the favored part of the flock of the Good Master.”

          There were moments of deep joy when the first novitiates started in our missions: 1953 in Baguio for the Philippines, 1954 in Katoka for the Congo, 1958 in Arlington for the US Province. At that time, the Lord was leading the Congregation in totally uncharted paths of the universal brotherhood. The Chapters of 1967 and 1974 reflected on the challenges confronting CICM with these changes. Twenty years after the first steps in this journey, at the General Conference of 1978, the Superior General would say, “If ever, it is here we have understood that this is the Lord’s calling to our group. Internationalization as universal brotherhood is not a project the Congregation set for itself, but a call from the Lord. It is a challenge, as one confrere put it, to preach the Gospel not only with words, but with our lives.”

          The centennial celebrations of CICM in 1962 became an opportunity to reflect on how the Lord had allowed his Congregation “which he loved from the beginning,” as we said in our evening prayer for many years, to grow and to serve the missions. These celebrations were the right time to revive a common concern for the Institute.

A gallery of all CICM Missionaries at the Scheut House

A gallery of all CICM Missionaries at the Scheut House

          We have also known moments of uncertainty. Since the 1970s, our General Chapters have been called “reflection Chapters” and “discernment Chapters.” The reason is that “Everything which is connected with ‘mission’ or ‘missionary’ has changed more during the last thirty (in fact fifty) years than during the previous four centuries.” Like other religious congregations, our institute has to find its proper place and response in the changed landscape of mission theology, missionary attitudes, dialogue with other religions, the values of other religions, relations with the local churches, and the challenges and needs of a fast changing and troubled world.

          In the midst of these reflections, the focus is now on the changes within the institute itself, mainly the diminishing resources in personnel and finances. There is a call to become smaller but more authentic. Missionary institutes like ours feel the need to revitalize their identity. We need to rediscover the centrality of our religious life as a reference point. We feel the need to revisit our sources. We have to find ways back to our pristine radicalism.

Are we good at it?

          I borrow the question from a little story of Jean Vanier which he took from his friend, a prison chaplain. One day, a detainee asked the chaplain, “Do you like to say Mass? Do you say it well? Do you like to preach? Do you preach well?” And the man continued, “You know, I am the best car thief in Cleveland. And I am happy about it!”

          Are we good at being missionaries? Are we the best? Indeed, the question is a test on our humility. We could also answer the question “Do you like being a missionary?” or “Are you happy to be a missionary?” In 1993 Pope John Paul II told our Chapter delegates, “Much more than many others, you have a keen awareness of the immense field which remains open among the billions of people which the Good News of salvation has not yet explicitly reached.”

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          Our Constitutions have an answer to this question: to be good missionaries, it is essential that we never sit down with the idea that we “made it.” It is our call to go “where we are most needed.” Moreover, “The institute must seriously reflect on whether each one of its members is fully involved in truly missionary work, and whether certain tasks could not be passed on to others.” Last, but not least, “The General Chapter…makes an effort to recognize the missionary needs of the world and the concrete demands these needs impose on the Institute.”

          In other words, to be good “at it” we have to be ready to leave our nets. We have to foster in ourselves this “keen awareness of the immense field.” We have to trust that the mission is “God’s mission.” In truth, we are the “useless” but not unhappy servants.

Countries in which The CICM Missionaries are currently present

Countries in which The CICM Missionaries are currently present

– Fr. Gabriel Dieryck, CICM (with additional information from “The CICM story in the Philippine Setting” in 365 Days with the Lord 2007, CICM Centennial Edition)

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