The mission at the Assumption in the spirit of father D'Alzon
Emmanuel d’Alzon does not speak of mission in the singular; he favors the expression, « the missions ». Or else, he speak more readily of the goals of the congregation and lists the activities to which the Assumption should dedicate itself, the works that we are called to animate. Having said this, from the beginning of the foundation, it is clear that our founder designated « foreign missions » as an important activity of the congregation. [cf. « Notes for a draft of the Constitutions 1849-1850 » (E.S. pp. 649, 656). And the Instruction de 1873 (E.S. p.185) where Fr. d’Alzon speaks about the difficulties involved with the Australia mission and the first results of the one in Bulgaria.] « Love of the Church stirs up another love in our hearts. The apostles were commissioned to preach Christ’s message not only in Jerusalem but ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). Yes, our ambition extends also to foreign missions. It is such a providential grace to be given so many missionaries when we are still in fact not very numerous! But at the same time, look at the auxiliaries we have called upon to assist us. In the past, virgin women consecrated to the Lord were hidden behind very strict cloister walls. Today we are telling them: ‘Daughters, you will go beyond the seas’. » (Instruction de 1868, E.S. p.144)
Emmanuel d’Alzon did not found a missionary institute as those many founded in the 19th century. He founded a religious congregation ready to obey the Pope in extending the Kingdom of God. This is what he was thinking of when he proposed the 4th vow. But d’Alzon had a concern for going beyond the frontiers of his homeland. If the development of the Assumption beyond these borders was, on the whole, limited, it was, first of all, because of a lack of workers for the mission.
The Assumption has experienced a real missionary zeal over the course of its history, even though it must be recalled that the internationalization of the congregation was, after all, chaotic. While we may have gone to Australia and to the Ottoman Empire during Fr. d’Alzon’s lifetime, the years following the founder’s death were characterized rather by numerous difficulties caused by anticlericalism in France and by expulsions. These ‘earned’ us the chance to leave France and go to Spain, Belgium, Italy, and England, but this was not the principal aim for the foundations in these countries. Rather, the idea was to prepare many religious to return to France when the time was once again favourable. One significant indication of this intention was the fact that the alumnates founded outside of France welcomed, for the most part, young Frenchmen. Still the diaspora that arose in this way (don’t forget that the title of the Congregation’s newsletter at the time was called « Lettre à la dispersion ») nevertheless favoured the implantation of the Assumption outside of France. Let us also point out in this troubled period the foundation of Chile in South America (1890) and that of the U.S.A. in North America (1895) under François Picard. The generalate of Gervais Quenard was 10 characterized by a significant missionary expansion: the Congo (1929), Brazil (1935) and Mexico (1948) in Latin America, and Manchuria (1935). After him, with the generalate of Fr. Wilfrid Dufault the missionary expansion continued with, among others, Ivory Coast and Madagascar, but it was also a time of contraction with the persecution in the Near East (‘Mission d’Orient’) and the arrival of independence in North Africa, which led to us leaving Tunisia and Algeria quite quickly.
Then came the era of Vatican II. The council brought an air of renewal, but both the new concept of the Church and the decree on religious freedom contributed to a slow-down of the mission ad gentes. The nosedive in the number of vocations also complicated the desire for new foundations. One missionary out of three in the world in 1960 was Dutch…. To a greater or lesser extent, there took root in the minds of religious and certain Christians the idea that human salvation did not necessarily mean conversion to Christianity. I name this period that of the « de-mission ». It was the triumph of the theory of immersing oneself where one’s witness of life would take place in a manner that was silent and not explicit. However, Pope Paul VI spared no efforts. His apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi is probably one of the most beautiful texts on missionary activity. Paul VI vigorously recalls that whoever receives the Gospel becomes ipso facto an evangelizer: « the person who has been evangelized goes on to evangelize others. Here lies the test of truth, the touchstone of evangelization: it is unthinkable that a person should accept the Word and give himself to the kingdom without becoming a person who bears witness to it and proclaims it in his turn. »
But this was a time of secularism and doubts. It was John Paul II who powerfully aroused the Church with the theme of the new evangelization and a text like Redemptoris Missio, among others, that called to mind once again the role of the Church in the proclamation of salvation. The Church regained confidence in itself to reach out to new cultures. As for the Assumption she went from 1900 religious in 1960 to less than 1000 in the year 2000. Communities closed, novitiates were almost empty. We left Ivory Coast, but we gave new life to the adventure of the Near Eastern Mission after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then a missionary dream came alive anew. A study group to consider a foundation in Asia was constituted in France during the provincialate of Fr. Claude Maréchal. The Congo undertook its first missionary initiative outside of the country by cooperating in the new foundation in Kenya launched by the USA and England (1988); later they lent a hand in the Tanzania adventure and finally in 1998 assumed responsibility for all the communities in East Africa. Assumption returned to Asia in 1991 with a foundation in Korea. Finally, beginning in the year 2000, tentative plans took shape to found in West Africa, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
It must be mentioned that we have experienced « an erosion of the missionary spirit » (Christoph Theobald, cf. p. 7). The withdrawal of Christians, the fear of impinging on the individual freedom of non-believers, and respect for diversity of thought are some possible factors that might explain the slowdown in missionary activity. It is likely that reflection on inter-religious dialogue and ecumenism were also factors favoring a new attitude and the rejection of proselytism.
Letter of the Superior General father Benoit GRIERE n° 7