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The Spiritans

by Msgr. Paul E. Campbell, M.A., Litt.D., Ed.D.

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  • Description:
    Msgr. Paul Campbell gives the history of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost founded by Claude-Francois Poullart des Places. He also mentions St. Louis Marie de Montfort's influence on the life of the founder, and recounts the missionary activity of Venerable Francis Liberman.
  • Larger Work:
    The Homiletic and Pastoral Review
  • Pages: 471-477
  • Publisher & Date:
    Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., February 1959

A member of the faculty of Duquesne University, the Reverend Henry J. Koren, C.S.Sp., S.T.D., has written the story of the Holy Ghost Fathers.1 He entitles his work The Spiritans, and explains that "Spiritans" is the familiar equivalent of "Holy Ghost Fathers." For generations members of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost and the secular priests trained by them had been known everywhere as Holy Ghost Fathers. Henceforth this title, or its popular form "Spiritan," is reserved exclusively for members of the Congregation.

The purpose of his work is to present in documented but readable fashion the history of one of the Church's great clerical societies. The Congregation of the Holy Ghost is one of the oldest congregations (as opposed to orders) and ranks fourth among them in size. It began in 1703 and, after attaining a period of bloom during which it served the Church nobly throughout the greater part of the eighteenth century, it came close to utter destruction in the French Revolution of 1792. Restored in 1804, but kept weak by recurrent persecution, criticized by all and vilified by many, it strove to continue its task in the first decades of the nineteenth century. This dark era ended and the tired society felt a burst of new life when the Venerable Francis Libermann and his confreres entered it in 1848. Since then the Congregation has enjoyed a period of steady growth and achievement.

SPIRITANS' FOUNDER

A word about its talented and saintly founder is in order at this point. Claude-Francois Poullart des Places founded the Congregation of the Holy Ghost and of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on Whitsunday, 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.

Claude-Francois became especially interested in poor, deserving students, 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 labors 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 October 2, 1709.

After the founder's death, the Congregation of the Holy Ghost continued to progress, became fully organized, and received the approbation of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities. It sent missionaries to the French colonies, and to India and China, but suffered much from the French Revolution. When that scourge had passed away, only one member, Father Bertout, remained. He had survived miraculously, as it were, all manner of vicissitudes, and after peace was restored to the Church, he re-established the Congregation, and continued its work. But it was found impossible to recover adequately from the disastrous effects of the dispersion caused by the Revolution, and the restored society was threatened with extinction.

FATHER LIBERMANN

It was at this juncture that there came to its relief Father Libermann and his fellow-missionaries of the Society of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which he had founded in 1842. Since the object of both societies was the same, the Holy See requested the founder of the new society to engraft it on the older Congregation of the Holy Ghost. This was done in 1848. The Venerable Francis Mary Libermann was made the first Superior General of the united societies, and the whole body became so impregnated with his spirit and that of his first followers that he is rightly regarded as the chief father and founder of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost and of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, such as it exists today.

Doctor Koren in his Foreword speaks of the chief accomplishments of the Congregation in modern times:

One may call attention to its introduction of a more human or, to use a currently fashionable term, a more existential form of spirituality; its powerful influence in eradicating the last traces of Gallicanism; and above all, its pioneering role in the systematic evangelization of Africa. While there were only a few stray Negro Catholics on the African continent when Bishop Edward Barron landed at Cape Palmas in 1841, there are now nearly twenty-four million, of whom some four million live in territories still served by Holy Ghost Fathers. In terms of human life, the price these missionaries paid was frightfully high. . . . The African landscape is dotted with more than a thousand graves in which Spiritans await the final resurrection among the peoples they have Christianized.

EARLY YEARS OF DES PLACES

The earliest years of the founder were blessed by careful and pious upbringing at home. His home was to Claude the nursery of his character and of his vocation. His mental gifts are apparent in the fact that he entered into the study of philosophy at a very early age. It was during this period that he became the intimate friend of a boy, six years his senior, who was destined to make history in the Church under the name of St. Louis Mary Grignion de Montfort, the apostle of Mary and the founder of at least two religious orders: the Society of Mary and the Daughters of Wisdom. Claude was but thirteen years of age at the time but was giving evidence of a maturity much beyond his years. It did not take the two companions long to realize that they had much in common. The future apostle of Mary kindled in the heart of his young companion the flame of a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin, which was to remain burning forever in his soul and which prompted him later to add her Immaculate Conception to the title of his Congregation.

A second priest who had a profound influence upon him was Jesuit Father Descartes, a nephew of the famous philosopher and mathematician. As spiritual director Father Descartes had much to do with the early formation of Claude, and was again associated with him at the College of Louis the Great, where the number of Jesuit Fathers on the faculty exceeded one hundred. Fortunately Claude did not fall under the influence of Voltaire, who became a student there while Claude was studying theology.

He gathered a selected number of his fellow students together, endeavored to give them spiritual training, preached a retreat to the little group, and on Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 1703, while only an aspirant to the ecclesiastical state, began within the seminary the establishment of a Community of the Seminary consecrated to the Holy Ghost under the invocation of the Blessed Virgin conceived without sin.

Claude had severe difficulties in making his final decision to become a priest. Qualms of conscience rose up to plague him and he reproached himself bitterly for having started his seminary without being sufficiently prepared for such a great responsibility. He postponed his ordination to the priesthood for three years. Finally, peace restored to his troubled soul, he decided to present himself as a candidate for ordination, and became a priest forever on December 17, 1707. His arduous labors had exhausted his physical strength and he died without seeing his work brought to completion. Father Poullart des Places has never been formally proposed for canonization, but there is substantial evidence that his brief span of years encompassed a record of heroic virtue. Doctor Koren tells us that it is only since the beginning of this century that the original Founder is being accorded the attention which he so richly deserves.

BEFORE THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

The members of the Congregation founded by des Places were secular priests who lived in common, promised obedience to their superiors, and surrendered the income from their ministry to a common fund. His was a teaching society, and its educational activities were to be directed for the most part toward training priests for the domestic and foreign missions. "To this day," writes Doctor Koren, "both the Seminary and the Congregation still exist, but it was the Congregation that later developed, through the vivifying influence of the Venerable Francis Libermann, into the present world-wide organization known as the Holy Ghost Fathers or, more briefly, Spiritans."

The immediate successor of Father des Places was Father James Gamier. Though a young man of twenty-three, he lived but six months after his election. Providence then came forward with the priest destined to rule the Congregation and its works for fifty-three years, 1710-1763. Father Louis Bouic had talent for government and administration, and was able with God's grace to consolidate the young society firmly and build up its defenses against a variety of hostile forces that soon began to threaten its very existence.

Although Kings and Cardinals, Bishops and nobles made frequent gifts to the seminary, most of its support came from the voluntary contributions of the ordinary faithful. A new seminary building was constructed in Paris and dedicated in 1734. To this day it still serves as the Motherhouse of the Congregation. In a struggle with the Jansenists that threatened the seminary with a denial of legal recognition, the society finally won out and, in addition, gained control of the seminary of Verdun. It is worthy of note that not a single one of the priests trained at the Holy Ghost seminary had ever gone over to the Jansenists. For the first time in the history of the Congregation, territories were officially entrusted to its spiritual care, and, for the first time also, members of the Congregation departed for the foreign missions. The missions entrusted to them by the Propaganda were the tiny islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland. The suppression of the Jesuits in France led to the transfer of French Guiana to the Spiritans. A few years later African Senegal came under the spiritual care of the Congregation. These were but the humble beginnings of the mighty missionary effort that was to become the principal work of the Holy Ghost Fathers.

AFTER THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

The French Revolution led quickly to the sequestration of the Congregation's assets. This was followed by outright suppression on August 10, 1792. The very existence of the Congregation vanished before the law, but not a single Holy Ghost Father took the schismatic oath demanded of the clergy by the Revolutionary Government. During the period from 1703 to 1792 the Spiritans had educated and trained about 1,600 priests in their Paris seminary alone. "Throughout France and far beyond its borders," writes Doctor Koren, "Spiritans were known for their unshakable adherence to the Holy See, their purity of doctrine, and the careful way in which they trained students in the duties and virtues of the priestly life."

Father James Bertout (1753-1832) was elected Assistant to the General in 1787. In that capacity he had witnessed the horrors of the Revolution. In 1802 he took advantage of the opportunity offered, through peace between Church and State, to seek for the restoration of the Congregation. The badly scattered members showed little interest in the project, but Father Bertout almost single handedly effected what is now known as the first restoration of the Congregation. His victory was far from complete. Napoleon smiled upon his request for restoration, but Napoleon's smile was a fickle thing. After Napoleon's defeat in 1815 a royal decree of February 3, 1816, proclaimed the re-establishment of the Congregation and officially charged it with providing clergy for all French colonies.

Opposition continued to harry Father Bertout who from 1805 to 1832 served as the sixth Superior General of the Congregation, but his energy, perseverance, and diplomatic skill won for his Rule the approval of the Holy See in 1824. Undaunted, he continued to struggle for full restoration, an end he was not able to achieve. This intrepid champion saved the Congregation from what would otherwise have been inevitable extinction. He died in 1832. In the 15 years preceding his death he sent 97 priests to the colonies, an achievement unequalled by any other mission organization of that time.

FELICITOUS AMALGAMATION

No one of the four immediate successors of Father Bertout during the next sixteen years was able to absolve the crisis in the affairs of the Congregation. It was at this point, in 1848, that the Venerable Francis Mary Libermann and his Congregation of the Holy Heart of Mary agreed to the Holy See's request that he engraft his new society on the older Congregation of the Holy Ghost. Doctor Koren has this to say about the amalgamation of the two religious societies: "The admission of the convert Jew and his confreres into the Congregation was destined to revitalize the old Society of the Holy Ghost, renovate its antiquated structure, flood it with a fervor it had not experienced for decades, and thus turn it into one of the greatest forces in the whole history of missionary activity."

Libermann, a convert from Judaism, received baptism in 1826, at 22 years of age. After years of prayer and patience he accomplished the foundation of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in September, 1841, for the great work of evangelizing the Negroes. Father Libermann's sons were, practically, the first since the downfall of the African Church to penetrate the Dark Continent. "The widespread prosperity of the Church in Africa, at the present day," writes John T. Murphy in The Catholic Encyclopedia (IX, 223). "is, in large measure, due to the initiative and self-sacrifice of the first members of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary." When, in 1848, Libermann had accomplished, at the request of the Holy See, the unique and difficult task of uniting two Congregations, he was chosen Superior General of the united societies, a post he occupied till his death in 1852. The holy convert was declared Venerable in 1876.

Several thousand of his letters have been preserved; and these, together with all his other writings, have been examined and approved by the Holy See. His method of spiritual direction, was, like his life, a mingling of sweetness and self-denial, breathing peace and courage, in the midst of all manner of trials. Pope Pius XII called him "an outstanding master of the spiritual life." Doctor Koren tells us that the spiritual and apostolic doctrine of Libermann is the driving force which, since the middle of the nineteenth century, has animated the Congregation of the Holy Ghost and influenced the accomplishments of its members.

SPIRITANS AND THE DARK CONTINENT

The new Superior General turned first to organizing on a solid basis the religious service of the old French colonies. He secured the establishment of bishoprics and made provision for supplying clergy through the Seminary of the Holy Ghost, which was continued on the lines of its original purpose, namely, to serve as a colonial seminary for the French colonies. But Father Libermann set himself to cultivate still wider fields of missionary enterprise. The first members of his Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as we have seen, did yeoman service in the African mission field. The vast domain of Africa, in a missionary sense, had been opened to him and his new society, and now, as Superior General of the united societies, he continued to look upon Africa as the chief field of labor of his disciples.

It is a matter of pride to us as Americans that the taking-up of the African missions by the Venerable Libermann was due to the initiative of two American prelates under the encouragement of the first Council of Baltimore. In 1833 Dr. England, bishop of Charleston, had drawn the attention of the Propaganda to the activity of heretics on the west coast of Africa, and had urged the sending of missioners to those benighted regions. This appeal was renewed at the Council of Baltimore in 1833. The Fathers there assembled commissioned the Rev. Dr. Barron, who was then Vicar-General of Philadelphia, to undertake the work at Cape Palmas. That zealous priest went over the ground carefully for a few years, and then went to Rome to give an account of the work and to receive further instructions. He was consecrated bishop and appointed Vicar-Apostolic of the Two Guineas. As he had only one priest and a catechist at his disposal, he now went to France in search of missioners. There he found a dynamo of mission work in the person of Father Libermann. This zealous apostle supplied him at once with seven priests and three coadjutor brothers.

The deadly climate played havoc with the ill-prepared first missionaries. All but one perished in the course of a few months and Dr. Barron returned in despair to America, where he devoted himself to missionary work. At the age of fifty-two he died from the effects of his zeal during the yellow fever epidemic in Savannah, in 1853.

New missionaries volunteered to go out and take the places of those who had perished; gradually there began to be built up in Darkest Africa the series of Christian communities which give form and substance to the Herculean efforts of Libermann and his followers. It has proved to be a work of continued sacrifice. Over 1,000 missionaries have laid down their lives in Africa during the past 110 years. They and their companions served their Master well, not with parade and ostentation, but in the pursuit of their ordinary duty, and, when the time came for them, they lay down in simple dignity and died amidst their flock. "The Holy Ghost Fathers have never given up the great work Libermann inaugurated," writes Koren, "and they are not likely to do so until Africa's Church is well-established with a native hierarchy and a native clergy, capable of carrying on without the assistance of foreign priests and religious."

SPIRITANS' GROWTH

Under the impetus of the reorganization of 1848, the burgeoning Congregation established itself in many countries and geographic areas. Father Libermann's immediate successor as Superior General, Father Schwindenhammer, loosely organized all communities and residences into a number of Provinces and Vice-Provinces. Later a norm was established to distinguish Provinces from Districts. Those countries which supplied their own personnel were to become Provinces; the others could not be Provinces and would be called Districts.

At present there are nine Provinces: France, Ireland, Germany, Portugal, United States of America, Belgium, Netherlands, Great Britain, and (French) Canada. Poland and Switzerland are Vice-Provinces. Five other Provinces are in preparation: Spain, English Canada, Nigeria, and South East Brazil with two divisions—the Rio de Janeiro and the Sao Paulo. The thirty Districts are spread over America, Africa, the Indian Ocean, and Europe. With these Provinces and Districts the work of the Congregation reaches much of the missionary territory of the world. Its work in God's vineyard is circumscribed only by the limits of its personnel.

Many educational institutions and works of charity operate under the aegis of the Spiritans. Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, is its outstanding school of higher studies in America. But to the reader of the Spiritans' story the missionary apostolate in Africa, now ministering to four million Catholic Negroes, is the outstanding achievement of the Congregation.

Notes

1 The Spiritans, by Henry J. Koren, C.S.Sp., S.T.D., Duquesne Universtiy (Ad Press, Ltd., New York; 1958).

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