1. An introduction
The Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) dates back to 1850, when the Bishops’ Conference of Lombardy (Northern Italy) erected the Seminario Lombardo per le Missioni Eslere (Lombard Seminary for Foreign Missions) to send out priests and lay catechists to the missions. To make this foundation possible, the work of the Milanese priest Angelo Ramazzotti was determinant. The model they followed was that of the Missions Etrangeres de Paris (M.E.P. or Paris Foreign Missions Society), which started in France in the XVII century. It may be worth recalling that Lombardy was not a power, but a small region subjugated to the power of the large Austro-Hungarian Empire and swept by the winds of independence. Also the other Italian states were at that time certainly small and of scarce political weight, far from thinking of participating in any colonial adventure. A few years later, in 1874, a Seminary with similar characteristics as those of the Seminario Lombardo, was founded in Rome by a priest called Pietro Avanzini, at the request of Pope Pius IX: the Pontificio Seminario dei Santi Apostoli Pietro e Paolo per le Missioni Estere (Pontifical Seminary of the Holy Apostles, the Saints Peter and Paul, for Foreign Missions). These two structures remained autonomous for several decades, before merging in 1926, when they adopted the present name of Pontificio Istituto Missioni Estere- PIME.
Historically, this specific aim was carried out in PIME, as in nearly all the Institutes of this type, by sending their members to work in non-Christian areas, in Asia and in Africa. In the case of the Seminario Lombardo, the first assignment given to it by the Holy See way back in 1850, was in the Melanesian Islands of Oceania. As for the Roman Seminary, the first assignments given to it by the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide were in different areas of the world, and then mainland China. The very first generous attempt of the Milan Fathers in the Islands of Woodlark and Rook (in the present day Papua New Guinee) ended with the destruction of the mission and the martyrdom, in 1855, of one of the first young priests (John Mazzucconi, beatified by John Paul II in 1983). The apparent failure of this first mission did not hamper the enthusiasm of those Fathers who, the following year, were offered by Propaganda Fide the opportunity to work in Hong Kong, which had been established as a British colony two decades earlier. The newly erected Hong Kong Prefecture Apostolic was soon entrusted to the Milan Fathers, who expanded their mission work from there into China and particularly to the Honan central province of the Chinese empire, while the missionaries of the Roman Seminary were assigned to work in the far away Shaanxi province of China. In the meantime ( 1854/85), other big mission territories were entrusted to the activities of PIME Fathers in India (particularly Andhra Pradesh and Bengal), and then in 1866 the mountain areas of East Burma.
The basic orientation of the PlME work for almost a century was towards the great masses in Asia.
More recently, particularly after the Second World War, the service of PIME was extended to a few countries in West Africa and also in Latin America (concretely Brazil), where the Church lived in extremely precarious social situations and with a severe scarcity of clergy, This extension to Latin America indicates a difficulty in which PlME and similar Institutes find themselves still today: the difficulty of maintaining in an exclusive way their specific charism ad gentes, that is to the non-Christians, The desire to keep the missionary purpose firmly as their priority is shown in PIME, as in other Societies of Apostolic Life (SAL), also through the debate on the definition of the ‘primary purpose’ in their constitutions. In 1886, the expression used was: “The purpose of the Institute in foreign missions is the announcement of the Gospel in non-Christian lands ,..”. This remained practically unchanged until 1947, when pressure was placed on this type of Institutes to adopt the formulation used by the religious orders: “The purpose of the PIME is to procure God’s glory, first of all by personal sanctification of its members and then by preaching the Gospel”. A primary or general purpose and a secondary or specific purpose was clearly specified. But this fomulation did not respond to the mentality prevailing in the Institute in the years that followed the Vatican Council II, and so it was changed back in the Renewal Chapter (1971 ). Today, the aim of PIME is clearly expressed in Article 1 of its Constitutions, approved by the Holy See in 1991: “Within the Church, which is the universal sacrament of salvation, the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions recognizes as its own purpose the conducting of missionary activity, and in particular, the evangelization of peoples and groups of people who are not yet Christians”. And Article 2 of the new Constitutions states without hesitation: “The members of PIME realize their specific way of giving glory to God and sanctifying themselves by a total dedication to this specific end”. Therefore, they do not choose a form of life proper to the religious orders and congregations, but commit themselves totally to announcing the Gospel.
2. Present Statistics
The PlME missionary society is not a big institution. Up today (2009) the total number of its members is 541. There are also a few associate members. Of these, around 200 are presently in Italy or in the USA, either engaged in missionary animation and formation activities, or retired and in need of medical care. The other 341, that is, the great majority of members, are doing direct missionary work. A major portion of them, are scattered in different countries of Asia and Oceania ; others in Africa and Latin America. The PlME, like the other western religious and missionary institutions, has been experiencing over the past decades a serious vocation problem, and this has resulted in a higher average age of the membership and a noticeable decrease in the overall numbers. However vocations have never been totally absent in our seminaries, though fewer than in the past. In the course of its history, 18 PIME missionaries have given the supreme testimony of their dedication to the Gospel, by enduring a violent death ( 1 in Oceania, 9 in China and Hong Kong, 5 in Burma, 1 in Bangladesh and 2 in the Philippines). The martyrdom of two of them has been already officially recognized by the Church. Structurally, PIME is organized in 15 Circumscriptions that cover the mission lands where we operate, plus the General Directorate, a Lay Missionary Delegation and some structures taking care of animation, formation and assistance to the elderly and sick members in Italy and the USA.
3. Present Work in Asia
The PIME missionary initiatives have always developed along these lines: from the local Church to mission ad gentes, by way of the Institute, and under the authority of Propaganda Fide. The basic assignment that the mission institution had to carry out right from its start was threefold, and this remains true even today:
– to test the vocation of aspirants to the missions; – to cultivate and mature their capacity for missionary service; – to send out and assist the missionaries in carrying out their mission.
With regard to PIME-ASIA, while many years ago we had 120 missionaries working in China, we are now present with only 40 in the Hong Kong Region. In Burma, no PIME remain today after the expulsion of the majority of foreign personnel three decades ago and the deaths of those already aged who preferred to remain, but local vocations and apostolic activities are flourishing in the 5 Local Churches initiated by the mission work a century ago. In India, where the zeal of several generations of PIME priests (30 are still there) contributed to the establishment of new dioceses. In the past almost 50 years, new initiatives were undertaken in Japan ( in1950), in the Philippines (1968), in Thailand ( 1972), Papua New Guinea (1981), Taiwan ( 1985), and Cambodia (1991)
4. Future Planning for Asia
Missionary animation and formation is to be given greater importance in all the Local Churches where PIME missionaries are serving, placing our structures at the disposal of such animation services wherever possible. For this reason PlME intends to offer support and practical help to encourage those who intend to do a temporary mission service in other Churches. This may be in the form of associate members who can avail themselves of the PIME community structures in the missions where already operate, or in other forms of co-operation to be agreed upon with the interested Bishops. A few years ago, the PIME General Assembly approved ( after long debates) the suggestion to accept missionary vocations also from the Local Churches where we are working, As for the choice made by PIME it has been qualified by specific criteria, which are different from country to country and have been expressed according to concrete ecclesial and social conditions,
One other form of animation and formation can be seen on Euntes Mission Center, established in Zamboanga (Philippines) in 1992 as a service to the Asian Churches to promote and train mission personnel, is to be continued and strengthened. It has a strong connotation ad gentes, stressing also the importance to ‘go beyond’ one’s culture in order to announce the Gospel. More then two hundred personnel (Priests, Sisters and lay people) from Asian countries, have so far taken part in the two yearly programs that aims to give, with a theoretical basis, the opportunity to have practical field experiences.
5. Reflecting on the Future of Evangelization in Asia
All the members were urged to re-examine their understanding of the work of evangelization in which we are engaged, to accept the new visions and the new challenges which we encounter, brought about by social and cultural transformations, In particular, at the inter-ecclesial level, the need to be humble servants in the Church: to recall, interpret, and live the primacy of the spiritual dimension in order to construct alternative models of society according to the evangelical demands: to alleviate the poverty of the masses who find themselves in a process of liberation; the need to be promoters of unity at this moment of emerging and emigrating peoples in a world where economic and political issues run the risk of ending in internal and international division.
In this context, some of the challenges we are called to confront in Asia were specifically recalled:
– the re-emergence, or better, the inclusivist self-affirmation of religious and cultural systems, which can result in religious or cultural tribalism,
– new forms of the culture of death and of discrimination,
– increasing secularism, resulting from the invasion of the media and by the concentration of large masses of destitute people in the metropolis:
– the encounter, dialogue and collaboration with the great organized religions. Without which any attempt at transforming society for the better is impossible;
– new fields of presence among people in those places where there is need for signs of solidarity after the painful experiences to which they have been subjected.