Most Jesuit aspirants wanted to go on mission, but how many actually became missionaries? Very few, compared to the initial requests, let us read together some stories of vocation and ‘failed’ mission.
Dreaming of the mission
Apostolins and novices, that is, even very young boys, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, addressed enthusiastic proposals to the Provincial to be destined for the missions.
The letters were called “Indipetae”.
It was a desire shared by many and shared by both the Jesuit aspirants of the 19th century and those of the first half of the 20th century.
Where did this desire come from? Mainly from reading the lives of the saints, especially the Jesuit saints and martyrs who had died in the missions, as the boys themselves wrote to the Provincial, in other cases the desire arose from the desire to evangelise the most distant populations, disregarding customs, habits and different cultures. Political propaganda also influenced this, during fascism for example, but also missionary exhibitions that often presented mission populations as “infidels”, “godless”, “savages”.
Implicit in this is also the desire to learn about the world, to face the same difficulties as the missionaries of the past and to shed their blood for the Church.
Compared to this high number of requests, only a small percentage of them will fill a suitcase with destinations as far away as Africa, China, South America.
Why do most Jesuits not see their request granted?
Fr Mario Delmirani’s requests
Among the many letters received by the Provincials, we read today those of the future Fr Mario Delminari who on 3 December 1946, not by chance the feast day of St Francis Xavier the Jesuit missionary, when he was twenty-two years old, six of which had already been spent in the Society of Jesus, writes
Rev. Father, Pax Christi,
After having thought seriously and calmly about my desire, expressed on other occasions, to go to the Mission; after having prayed to the Lord and to Our Blessed Lady Most Holy to give me light and grace on this very important matter, I believe I can say that I have always remained firm in my desire to leave for China, if this is the will of God.
Therefore, I hereby intend to renew my request and solicit your attention to my miserable person should I seriously consider leaving. In the confidence of being heard […].
In another enclosed and undated letter, Delmirani states that he had already felt this desire for three years.
He returned to the same subject exactly one year later, in December 1947, again on the feast of St Francis Xavier, this time expressing his wish in Latin: “mea epistula ad te venio renovaturus petitionem proficiscendi in missionem”.
Still two years later he writes:
Rev Father Provincial, Pax Christi,
the memory and example of St Francis Xavier, whose feast we celebrate today, have confirmed me once again in my desire to go on mission. This is why I took the opportunity to renew with you my request made several years ago and renewed at the time, to leave for the missions of China if it pleases the Lord and seems opportune to you. I know the current difficult political conditions but these do not prevent me from being able to give my life for those places so in need is the Lord’s greatest grace.
The last request that Delminari entrusts to paper, since he must surely have spoken about it also verbally with his superiors and the Provincial, is dated October 1950:
“Rev Father Provincial […] I am writing this to you to renew once again my request to go as a missionary in our mission in China. This would be for me the greatest grace after that of the Priesthood, therefore I ask it of the Lord first of all and then of you who represent his will. In the meantime, however Providence wills to dispose of me, I will try to do God’s will always and everywhere in that place and office that obedience will give me. […] […]
P. Delmirani would not only never see China, but would spend his religious life in various Italian residences, colleges and seminaries after a brief interlude in New York for study purposes, dying in 2013 at the age of eighty-nine.
Why was his request, like that of many others, not accepted?
The reasons for the missed mission
There are many reasons why Delmirani and so many young brothers have never been assigned to the missions.
Some depended on historical periods and political situations. Fr Mario dreamt of China, but he did so between 1946 and 1950, the years in which the Catholic clergy were exiled and persecuted by the Chinese communist authorities, so a missionary experience in China was decidedly unfeasible, due to the impossibility of entering and surviving there.
The Jesuits expressed their desire for the mission but, as Delmirani himself writes, they also took a vow of obedience, so any destination received, even if far from their own inclinations or interests, had to be accepted.
In the twentieth century, the provinces began to come to terms with the decline in vocations, still not as evident as at the end of the century, but already noticeably noticeable compared to the previous one. Provincials need Jesuits within the province, for the apostolate in the colleges, in the parishes, also to respond to new missionary fronts.
Spiritual assistance is no longer directed only to the faithful or to prayer groups, but to workers and specific categories such as labourers, professionals from different sectors increasingly drawn to socialism and communism.
In addition, many former missions became vice-provinces or autonomous provinces during the 20th century, so Jesuits came from their own territory and there was less and less need for non-native missionaries. Foreign missionaries in fact had to learn the local language, which was often difficult as they had to learn a system based on other scriptures such as Chinese, Japanese, languages based on the Cyrillic alphabet. Many European missionaries preferred to impose Latin or their own language on the population, as was the case in Madagascar for example, and this did not foster a good relationship with the local population.
Jesuits and native religious, on the other hand, could get to know the local language, customs and traditions and have a different approach.
To each his own charism
The Provincial also verified that the desire was genuine and not driven by the myth of martyrdom and giving blood in the mission that we today would call religious fanaticism.
In addition to these reasons, the Provincial, through interviews with the formators and those responsible for the young Jesuits, ascertained their character and abilities, and decided to assign them to certain tasks and roles, both on the basis of the needs of his own Province, and on the basis of the proposals of the brothers.
Fr. Delmirani and other confreres have thus served dozens of faithful, students, people in Italy, leaving their mark anyway, even if not as missionaries, obeying what their leaders decided for them.
Pictured are some Jesuit missionaries in Brazil.