MISSIONARY SONS OF THE IMMACULATE HEART OF MARY
With the words “Today a great work begins,” pronounced by Fr. Claret, who was gathered with five young priests in a small room of the Seminary of Vic, on July 16th, 1849, the life of the Congregation of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary took off.
Claret’s initiative was not improvised. For a long time, he had been thinking about the convenience, first of all, of preparing priests for the preaching of the Gospel, and then, of getting together with those who were animated “by his own spirit”, to do with them, what he could not do alone. His experience as an itinerant missionary throughout Catalonia and the Canaries had carried him to the conviction that the people needed to be evangelized and that there were not enough priests prepared and zealous for this mission. However, as Claret himself recognized, it was not his own idea, but a divine inspiration that led him to set in motion an enterprise as risky as it was fragile: «how important could it be, since we were so young and so few?» Fr. Manuel Vilaró exclaimed, one of the priests gathered in the Seminary of Vic.
Had it not been God’s own, the circumstances in which this work had been born, would have precipitated its failure. Twenty days after the foundation, the news reached Fr. Claret of his appointment as Archbishop of Cuba, which he had to accept. The Congregation remained in the hands of God and under the guide of one of the co-founders, Fr. Stephen Sala, who died in 1858.
At this moment, another one of the co-founders, Fr. José Xifré, assumed the leadership. Archbishop Claret, called to Madrid in 1857 to become Confessor of Queen Isabella II, tried to be very close to the new Superior General and to all the missionaries: he participated in the General Chapters, wrote the Constitutions which were approved by the Holy See on February 11st, 1870, gave directives and financially contributed in their needs.
The Congregation suffered a new and serious trial. With the 1868 revolution, the Congregation was civilly suppressed; a good number of missionaries had to take refuge in France and Archbishop Claret had to go into exile. This is the time of the first martyr, Fr. Francis Crusats. However, the Founder could still see with great satisfaction how houses were being founded in different regions of Spain and had even reached Algiers and Chile.
The expansion of the Congregation
Fr. José Xifré’s generalate lasted more than 41 years, from 1858 to 1899. When his mandate began, the Congregation had 1 house and 16 persons; when he died, the Institute had 61 houses and close to 1,300 missionaries.
Once the monarchy was reinstated in Spain in 1875, the Congregation could recover the houses of which it had been dispossessed by the revolution and an era of expansion began, not only in Spain but also in Africa and America.
The missions of Cuba (1880), Equatorial Guinea (1883) and Mexico (1884) deserve to be emphasized. The missionaries developed an impressive apostolic, cultural and social work, in many cases with enormous sacrifices, including the life of the missionaries. Let it suffice to say, as an example, that the 11 missionaries that formed the first expedition to Cuba, except two, died a few weeks after their arrival on the island.
The first half of the XX century
The process of consolidation and expansion was constant. The Congregation was becoming established in several countries of Europe, America and China. It developed its ministry of preaching the Gospel, both in its traditional forms (popular missions and spiritual exercises) and in other new ones for the Congregation (teaching and parishes).
Trials and sufferings were not lacking either in these years: during the Mexican revolution (1927) Fr. Andrés Solá died a martyr; and in the Spanish war (1936) 271 missionaries obtained the palm of martyrdom. In 1949 all the Claretian Missionaries were expelled from China.
After the first centenary
In 1949 the Congregation celebrated the first centenary of its life. It had then 2,638 professed members and 160 novices. The Congregation had become international: it was present in 25 countries and the Superior General, elected that same year, was Fr. Peter Schweiger, a German.
The canonization of the Founder, Anthony Mary Claret, on May 7th, 1950, marked a congregational historic milestone. It was not only the recognition of a man’s holiness, but above all, the Church’s support and acknowledgement of the work of the Congregation.
The celebration of the Vatican II Council had a great importance, because of its effect on the congregational renewal, on the deepening of the very Claretian identity within the Church and in a new missionary impulse. This renewal process continued to be reaffirmed in the following years, simultaneously with the expansion of the Congregation in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. Not only have positions been opened in new countries, but also new fronts and pastoral activities: biblical centres, renewed popular missions, specific service to the consecrated, specific commitments to justice, peace and the safeguard of creation, presence among the poor, marginalized and migrants, promotion of social communications media and interreligious dialogue.
Nowadays the Congregation counts 3,009 members approx. Of them 19 are bishops, 2,234 priests, 1 a permanent deacon, 135 brothers, 423 professed students and 117 novices, scattered in 62 countries in 497 communities.