OUR SPIRITAN MISSION AND APOSTOLIC PRIORITY AS CONCEIVED BY CLAUDE POULLART DES PLACES
**Anthony ISAH, CSSp**
The mission and apostolic priority as conceived by Claude Poullart Des Places for over three centuries is the story of thousands of Spiritans; priests, brothers and lay persons who have forgone society’s aspirations to power, prestige, and wealth. Rather, they made and continue to make profound sacrifices to minister to the poor and the disadvantaged. They have crossed economic, social, cultural, racial and ethnic boundaries as they proclaim the Good News in diverse parts of the world.
The Spiritan International Formation community Attakwu (SIFCA) and all her associates have gathered together in solidarity and love to commemorate our 54th Independence Day as a nation as well as the death anniversary of our noble founder whose story and humble beginning cannot be forgotten especially in our context as a nation where the poor are grossly marginalized. The story of this young Breton is key to the mission and apostolic priority of the Holy Ghost Congregation.
History of Claude Poullart des Places
Claude Poullart Des Places (1679-1709) founded the Congregation of the Holy Ghost in 1703, for the purpose of preparing missionaries for the most abandoned souls, whether in Christian or pagan countries. He was a young holy ecclesiastic of noble Breton birth and of brilliant talents, who, three years previously, in the twenty-first year of his age, had given up the bright prospects of a parliamentary lawyer to embrace the ecclesiastical state. From the very beginning of his ecclesiastical studies he manifested a particular attraction for lowly and neglected works of charity. This unique and special attraction for the lowly, the poor and the neglected of the society as manifested by Claude Poullart Des Places constitute the base of our mission priority.
Claude Poullart Des Places became especially interested in poor, deserving student on whom he frequently spent all his own private means and as much as he could collect from his friends. With a dozen of these gathered round him, he opened the Seminary of the Holy Ghost, which afterwards developed into a religious society. The work grew rapidly; but the labours and anxieties connected with the foundation proved too much for the frail health of the founder. When but thirty years of age, in the second year of his priesthood, Father Poullart des Places died on October 2, 1709.
His only concern was how he could best follow Jesus Christ and imitates Him in working, suffering, and striving constantly and single-mindedly for the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls. With great sensitivity to the signs of the times, he committed himself to combat social evils by practicing poverty and renouncing all power, especially the power of money and ambition. He set his missionary service in line with the redemption, promotion and liberation of his neighbour, even at the risk of his own life, thus, continuing in time the saving love of Christ. He felt called to an evangelization of the poor rather than to other forms of ecclesial services.
Our Mission and Apostolic Priority
Mission along the lines defined by the Spiritan Rule of Life no. 4 is central to our apostolic priority, which states that: “The evangelization of the ‘poor’ (cf Lk 4:18) is our purpose (cf N.D. XIII, 170) therefore, we go especially to peoples, groups and individuals who have not yet heard the message of the gospel or who have scarcely heard it, to those whose needs are the greatest, and to the oppressed (cf N.D. II, 241). We also willingly accept tasks for which the Church has difficulty in finding workers.
The evangelization of the poor is our priority; fidelity to this commitment, which is at the heart of the charism we have inherited from our founders, is what truly defines our mission as Spiritans. We take Claude Poullart des Places and Francis Libermann as our inspirations and founding fathers and, together with the institutes they founded, make up the Spiritan Family.
Our way of mission also consists of community life; it is the strongest symbol of who we are,our foremost form of evangelization and of experiencing God (Torre d’Aguila 13.4.2). Prayer nourishes the life of the community and the mission which it has received. Des Places knew how essential it was to favour mutual understanding, for him “the life of our missionaries is a community life; they must never remain isolated” (ND VI, p. 438). But, he also knew the difficulties due to character and cultural differences. For communities to be “cor unum et anima una”, the import of prayer, which is the point of departure and arrival of all missionary activity was needed. Evangelization is done to generate Christian community; it is the way we do mission. It is by living in community that the Spiritans show signs of the objective of mission and apostolic priority.
Our mission is linked to our identity and our personal and community relationship with the Lord, our relationship to one another as friends in the Lord, our solidarity with the poor and marginalised, and a life style responsible to creation are all important aspects of our priorities as Spiritans. They authenticate what we proclaim and what we do in fulfilling our mission. The privileged place of this collective witness is our life in community, Thus, Spiritan community is not just for mission: it is itself mission.
Our Mission Priority vis-à-vis Our Nigerian Experience
Contextually, we find in many parts of Nigeria, churches where lies, heresy, half-truth are fed to the increasingly spiritually hungry congregants, who are encouraged to depend on the leaders for their spiritual blessings and uplift. The vessel is now the focus, the men of God have become the gods of men and worst still, the people of God often enjoyed being told what they wanted to hear and abhor the very few messages and messengers who tell them what they should hear.
The very people who are to keep the church are the same people who have led the schemes that have brought it down to its knees; the same people who are to help build the church to stop the gates of hell from prevailing are the very ones who have made become the gateway of hell for those who are gullible. The leaders of the church have become the real enemies of the church in our modern time. They have helped build a church that has grown massively in size as much as in ungodliness.
Each time we commemorate the death anniversary of Claude Poullart Des Places, it gives us the opportunity to rediscover our own personal inspiration in re-reading and re-living the stories of the early Spiritan pioneers: Spiritans such as Fr. Allenou, a canon in Quebec who gave everything he owned for the poor and died in the “odour of sanctity”; Bishop Kerhervé of Indo-China, whose Episcopal wardrobe consisted of an old cassock and a worn-out pair of shoes; Fr. Maillard, whose secret of success among the Micmac Indians is ascribed to the fact that he identified totally with the lifestyle of the people he served; Bishop Pottier of China who wrote. “The fewer needs we create for ourselves, the richer we are”; Fr. Lanoë, a missionary in Guyana who stated: “I would like to see us here ‘one heart and one soul’ without that wretched ‘mine and yours’ which causes so many disorders”.
Each of us can certainly add other more contemporary names of Spiritans who have provided personal inspiration to us on our Spiritan journey and who have helped us to remain faithful to our Spiritan mission and apostolic priority.
Finally, one of the ways of re-calling, renewing and re-living our unique Spiritan mission and apostolic priority is by genuinely challenging one another not by much talk and empty criticism but by the quality of our lives, especially our attitude to the poor. There is a need to return to our Spiritan origins and to rebuild anew. Hence, just like Des Places, we are all enjoined to be people of impeccable characters and religious who would be able put their lives on the line for the sake of the Gospel.
Editor’s note: Anthony ISAH, CSSp is a student of theology at the Spiritan International School of Theology (SIST). We thank him for this beautiful piece.