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Catholic Parochial Missions

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This term is used to designate certain special exertions of the Church's pastoral agencies, made, for the most part, among Catholics, to instruct them more fully in the truths of their religion, to convert sinners, rouse the torpid and indifferent, and lift the good to a still higher plane of spiritual effort. To distinguish them from those missions which represent the apostolic activity of the Church among pagans and heretics, these home missions are known in some communities of English-speaking Catholics as "parochial missions". Such missions usually consist of a systematic course of preaching and instruction, extending over a stated number of days, performed by authorized missionaries. The present article treats of:

Necessity and utility

From the above definition it is evident that the primary object of a popular mission is not the making of converts to the Faith. However, owing to the familiar relations between Catholics and non-Catholics in the United States this is so common a result that it may be regarded as normally a part of the work in that country, and, beginning from the last decade of the nineteenth century, an organized missionary movement for the conversion of non-Catholics has been carried on throughout that country. (See MISSIONARY SOCIETY OF ST. PAUL THE APOSTLE.) But the converts whom a pastor most of all seeks during a regular parish mission are among his own people. And it cannot be denied that the clear, forcible, and consecutive exposition of the most important truths of salvation, together with a course of instructions to prepare the people for the worthy reception of the sacraments and enlighten them on the duties of their daily lives, affords a powerful means to renovate a parish spiritually. Everyone finds in these sermons and instructions something that appeals peculiarly to him, and is likely to bear fruit in the future. These missions are for the laity what retreats are for the clergy and religious communities. In fact they are an adaptation to the needs and capacities of the faithful of the spiritual exercises long traditional in the Church, and made use of especially during the Ages of Faith when people were in the habit of retiring to monasteries to devote themselves for a certain period of time to that renewal in the spirit of their mind, which the Apostle recommends: "And be renewed in the spirit of your mind: and put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth" (Ephesians 4:23, 24). In view, then, of the many benefits that accrue from a retreat, it is no exaggeration to say that, in the ordinary course of Divine Providence, a mission is the greatest grace that God can confer upon any parish. "There is nothing", says St. Alphonsus, "that is better adapted than missions or retreats to enlighten the minds of men, to purify corrupt hearts and to lead all to the exercise of a truly Christian life".

The usefulness of missions, moreover, for the sanctification and salvation of souls has received not a little recognition from various popes during the last two centuries. Paul III recommended the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius as "full of piety and sanctity and very useful and salutary for the edification and spiritual advancement of the faithful". Benedict XIV, after comparing missionaries to those whom the Apostles Peter and Andrew called to assist them in landing their nets, says that for "purifying corrupt morals . . . nothing is more effective than to solicit the aid of others, namely to establish everywhere (that is in every diocese) sacred missions. Nor can this be called a new and uncertain remedy which is proposed for purifying the morals of the people. It is an old one and indeed the only one suitably adapted to cure existing evils, one which many bishops have employed in their dioceses with extraordinary results" ("Gravissimum", 8 Sept., 1745). Pius VI condemned the proposition of those who called missions an empty noise with at most a transient effect (Auct. Fid., prop. 65). Leo XII granted a plenary indulgence to the missions given by the Fathers of the Society of Jesus. Gregory XVI extended this indulgence to the sick who could not attend the missions, but complied with the required conditions at their homes; and in 1834 the same pontiff extended it to all missions, irrespective of the orders to which the missionaries belonged. In 1849 Pius IX wrote to the bishops of Italy urging the work of spiritual exercises and missions, declaring them very useful for fostering piety and exciting confirmed sinners to repentance ("Nostris", 8 Dec., 1849); and he made this appeal again to the bishops of Austria in the "Singulari quidem", 17 March, 1856.

The mission is an appeal to the intellect and the will. The general end to be obtained is the enlightenment of the former and the movement and elevation of the latter. The necessity of these are apparent. It is the experience of missionaries that, owing to the pressing material necessities of modern life, much ignorance prevails among the Catholic laity as a class in matters pertaining to their religion. It is true, there is no dearth of good reading matter whereby the deficiencies of religious education might to some extent be supplied, but it is equally true that such reading is sadly neglected. To supply this defect is one of the aims of the mission. The missionary comes to instruct, to present the truths of salvation clearly, forcibly, consecutively, and in such language as shall reach the entire audience. The end of man, the need of grace, the Divine Attributes, the essential parts of the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, and the conditions required for their worthy reception; matrimony, the laws of the Church governing it, and the right way of preparing for it and entering it — such are some familiar themes of the mission. In times like the present, and in the social conditions of modern life, the ordinary "cure of souls" hardly suffices to protect souls against the deadly influences of constant friction with a materialistic world, and against the all-pervading atmosphere of sensuality and worldliness. Passing their lives face to face with extraordinary spiritual perils, Catholics in the twentieth century need the extraordinary succour and protection which are furnished only by the mission. Thus the instructions given to the intelligences of the faithful at a mission are of no less importance than the sermons which are addressed to their wills. The duties and responsibilities of parents towards their children, and of children towards their parents, the mutual obligations of employers and employed, as the Church views them, are by no means to be taken for granted as fully grasped even by the more intelligent among average well-meaning Catholics.

Here, lastly, it is important to note one vital purpose which the parochial, or popular, mission serves in many dioceses of the United States. With a rapidly increasing Catholic population, the organization of new parishes is a frequent necessity. It is not assumed by any means that the majority of the faithful are grievous sinners, nor do the diocesan clergy lose sight of the truth that the popular mission is no less efficacious for making the good better, and stimulating further effort on the part of those who are already willing, than for reclaiming those who have taken the broad path of evil. In this view, it is the common practice to commence the life of a new parish with a mission conducted by priests of some specially chosen missionary institute. In such a mission the fervour of the new parishioners is not only increased, but effectively applied to the purpose of solidifying and organizing their corporate religious life. One chief means to this end is the erection of pious confraternities for which the mission affords opportunity. Thus the League of the Sacred Heart, the Holy Name Society, the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin, or the Rosary Confraternity becomes at the very outset the instrument of incalculable spiritual benefit, and a fulcrum by means of which the efforts of the new pastor attain more than double the results which might otherwise have been expected of them.

Origin and history

In substance, missions are coeval with Christianity. The Founder of the Church was also its first missionary. His life was a missionary life, "teaching daily in the temple", "preaching to the multitude from the ship", and, at the close of His life's work, entrusting its continuation to His Apostles — "Going therefore, teach ye all nations; . . . Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19, 20). Obedient to this injunction, the history of the Church has become a history of missionary activity, whether by it be understood the prolonged missionary labour among heathen tribes, or the exercise of regular mission work among the faithful.

It is true that until the beginning of the seventeenth century there existed no organized form of popular missionary work exactly as it is now understood. But even in the early ages of the Church we find such eminent saints and doctors as the two Gregories (of Nazianzus and of Nyssa), Basil, and Chrysostom, Ambrose, Leo, Augustine, and Gregory the Great making special efforts on special occasions to strengthen faith and foster piety by extraordinary series of instructions, exhortations, and devotions. The good work of the wandering Celtic missionaries in the sixth and seventh centuries — e.g., Sts. Columbanus, Gall, Kilian, Fridolin — may also be taken as, in some sense, an early type of the popular mission. Sts. Bernard, Peter Damian, Peter the Hermit, and the other great preachers of the Crusades were eminent popular missionaries, and their appeals to the Christian zeal of Europe were splendid instances of popular missions adapted to the conditions of the age. With the rise of the mendicant orders began a new era in the history of missionary endeavour. The Dominicans and Franciscans were popular missionaries in the truest sense of the word. They went from town to town preaching to the people everywhere, in the public places as well as in the churches. They preached chiefly to the masses, the poor people, using simple, unadorned language. As a consequence, the people followed them in crowds, drawn by their simple eloquence. Their strict rule of life and renunciation exercised during the Middle Ages a most salutary social influence over the enslaved and un privileged classes of the population. In the fourteenth century we have the eminent Dominican preachers, Tauler and Henry Suso. in the fifteenth, St. Vincent Ferrer and Savonarola; in the sixteenth, Louis of Granada. The acme of Franciscan preaching was reached by the Observants in the fifteenth century, especially in Italy and Germany. Famous popular missionaries of the Franciscan Order were Sts. Bernardine of Siena, John Capistran, and Peter of Alcantara. By the middle of the sixteenth century the Society of Jesus took up this work. St. Ignatius combatted chiefly the errors of the Reformers. In 1592 the Ven. César de Bus (q.v.) founded the "Prêtres seculiers de la doctrine chrétienne", a congregation devoting itself entirely to the work of catechizing and preaching the Christian doctrine.

All these saints, religious institutes, and preachers may be said to have represented the work of popular missions in its rudimentary form. That work was not reduced to a system until the foundation of the Congregation of Priests of the Mission early in the seventeenth century by St. Vincent de Paul. The circumstances which led to St. Vincent's taking up this work, together with a full account of his institute (commonly called the Lazarists) and its methods, will be found under CONGREGATION OF PRIESTS OF THE MISSIONS. The holy enterprise of St. Vincent de Paul had France for its birthplace; in Italy, a century later (1732), St. Alphonsus founded his congregation (see CONGREGATION OF THE MOST HOLY REDEEMER). Their primary occupation is the apostolic ministry in the preaching of missions and retreats to all classes of Catholics, but especially to the most neglected. The congregation spread rapidly throughout Europe. About one hundred years later Venerable Gaspar Bufalo (died 1837) founded in Rome the Congregation of the Most Precious Blood (see CONGREGATION OF THE MOST PRECIOUS BLOOD), to devote itself exclusively to parochial mission work. The causes which have led to the rapid diffusion of this newly organized mission work in the last three centuries are not far to seek. Owing to the changed conditions, intellectual, social, as well as religious, the older style of popular preaching had become inadequate to the exigencies of the age. The increasing number of sects with itinerant representatives, and a corresponding spread of religious indifference, called for specially organized effort on the part of the Church.

The work, once begun, was soon taken up by other orders whose primary end was different. Notable among these were the Jesuits, who were the foremost labourers in the field, the Dominicans, Franciscans, Capuchins. The apostolic labours of these missionaries were everywhere blessed with remarkable success. In France, the birthplace of popular missions, the Lazarists and the Jesuits were the pioneers of a missionary activity which stirred up the faithful to greater zeal and devotion in every part of the country. Other orders and congregations gradually came to their assistance, and, though there was a slight falling off in this respect during the period of the French Revolution, yet, in the reign of Napoleon I, the emperor himself arranged for missions in the dioceses of Troyes, Poitiers, La Rochelle, and Metz, to be conducted at the expense of the Government. After the Restoration in 1815, a new impetus was given to missionary work by the Abbé Forbin-Janson, who, with his friend the Abbé de Rauzan, founded the Missionaires de France, and by Charles de Mazenod, who founded the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, at Marseilles, in 1815. In Germany parochial missions had been given sporadically, chiefly by the Jesuits and the Redemptorists, before 1848; after that date they became more general. The bishops everywhere encouraged and urged them. The Cardinal Archbishop of Mechlin, in 1843, maintained that the people of every parish are entitled, at least ex car-date, to have the benefit of a mission. During this period the German Church could pride itself on many eminent missionaries — Redemptorists, Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans — who devoted themselves entirely to popular mission work: the names of Fathers Roh, Klinkhofström, Pottgieser, and others are still held in benediction. On the expulsion of the Jesuits, Redemptorists and other orders from the German Empire, in 1872, there was a short interruption, but the work was soon taken up and carried on with the richest results by the congregations which had been permitted to remain. The Redemptorists, on their return in 1894, entered the field with renewed vigour.

In Italy systematic mission work was introduced by the Lazarists during the lifetime of their founder. With the rise of the Redemptorists, the Passionists, the Fathers of the Precious Blood, and several other congregations, the work spread rapidly over the entire peninsula, and, in spite of the disturbances of the nineteenth century, popular missions have flourished there. In Austria they developed during the reign of Maria Theresa, but under her successor, Joseph II, missions were to a great extent prohibited, and missionaries banished. The Redemptorists were recalled, but could labour only on condition of submitting to official persecution. It was only after the Revolution of 1848 had spent itself that the Redemptorists, Jesuits, Capuchins, and Franciscans could carry on the work of missions unmolested, especially in Bohemia and the Tyrol, in Westphalia, Bavaria, and Würtemberg. On the expulsion of the Jesuits and Redemptorists, missions were again prohibited. Later, however, Capuchins and Franciscans took up the work, and diocesan priests also entered the field as missionaries and directors of retreats. In 1786, St. Clement Mary Hofbauer, second founder of the Redemptorists, with his friend Thadäus Hübl, founded a house of the congregation in Warsaw, where King Stanislaus Poniatowski placed the German national church of St. Benno at their disposal. The labours of St. Clement and his companions at Warsaw from 1786 to 1808 were crowned with extraordinary success.

After the death of St. Alphonsus, his missionaries evangelized the deserted Catholics in the Russian Provinces of Courland and Livonia, on the invitation of Monsignor Saluzzo, Apostolic Nuncio in Poland. In Belgium and in Holland the missionary spirit has, with one or two slight interruptions, always been active. The Lazarists laboured in Great Britain as early as 1640, and until the penal laws made organized mission work impossible. It was not until about 1850 that the work was effectively begun in that country. In Ireland, missions were recommended by national and provincial synods — e.g., by the Plenary Synod of Thurles, in 1850; by the Synods of Cashel, 1853, and of Tuam, 1854, and the Plenary Synod of Maynooth, 1875. In England they were recommended by the Provincial Council of Westminster, in 1852, and again in 1859; in Scotland by the Plenary Council of 1886. The Plenary Council of Australia, held at Sydney in 1885, and, in Canada, the Provincial Council of Quebec, in 1863, strongly urged parochial missions.

In the United States there was no systematic popular missionary work until about 1860, though missions had been given earlier. The Lazarist Fathers arrived in 1816, the Redemptorists in 1832, and the Passionists in 1852; but, although missions and spiritual retreats are the special work of these congregations, the scarcity of priests in this country compelled them at first to postpone such work to the ordinary spiritual wants of a scattered population. In 1839 Gregory XVI sent the Abbé Forbin-Janson on a missionary tour through the United States, where, for two years, he gave missions to the people and retreats to the clergy, bringing the faithful to the sacraments in numbers which since then have scarcely been equalled. In the Second Provincial Council of Cincinnati (1858), the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore (1866), and the Tenth Provincial Council of Baltimore (1869), parochial missions are strongly recommended. Among the more active missionaries of this period, Fathers Smarius, Weninger, Damen, D. Young, O.P., and Hewit are still gratefully remembered.

With the increase in the number of priests, the parochial mission has, during the last century, become an extremely influential element in the life of the Catholic Church in the United States. Besides the Lazarists, Redemptorists, and Passionists already mentioned, Dominicans, Augustinians, Paulists, and Marists have been active in this field. To supply the lack of missionaries of the regular institutes, a highly satisfactory expedient has been devised in "diocesan apostolates". These groups of priests, selected from the secular clergy, are trained for mission work with special reference to the conversion of non-Catholics. They are exempted from ordinary pastoral work, and held in readiness to give missions whenever needed. Under various names — as "Apostolic Missionary Band", "Diocesan Mission Band", etc. — the system has become established in the Archdioceses of New York, St. Louis, St. Paul, and San Francisco, and the Dioceses of Alton, Burlington, Oklahoma, Peoria, Pittsburg, Providence, Richmond, San Antonio, Scranton, and Wheeling. In the average American parish there is a mission every three years, in some every second year, and many make it an annual event. In 1903 Pope Leo XIII addressed a letter to the Church in the Philippine Islands, in which he strongly recommended the giving of missions. For an account of the Church Extension Society founded by the Rev. Francis Kelley, of Lapeer, Mich., and organized at Chicago, 19 October, 1905, for the development of the missionary spirit among the faithful and the support of the Church in poor or pioneer localities, see CATHOLIC SOCIETIES.


While all missionary bodies pursue the same end, their methods of conducting missions vary according to the genius of each institute and its traditions. In general, however, it may be said that purely dogmatic sermons are avoided, as well as mere appeals to the emotions and the assumption that all that is, is bad. The aim is rather to seek the virtue that lies in the middle course of sound doctrine and wholesome religious sentiment. It is with this end in view that the subjects of the mission sermons are chosen, and, as the number of sermons is limited, only the most practical topics, bearing on the everyday lives of the people, are selected. If the mission lasts two weeks, the first week is usually for women exclusively and the second for men. If it is to continue four weeks, the first week is for married women, the second for unmarried women, the third for married men, and the fourth for unmarried men. As far as time will permit, the sermons usually deal with the following general subjects, which are varied to some extent according to circumstances: Salvation, Sin, Repentance, Hell, Death, Judgment, Heaven — with special instructions on matrimony, temperance, Christian education, etc. The instructions deal also with the essentials of the sacrament of penance, certain commandments of God and of the Church, Holy Communion, the Mass, devotion to the Blessed Virgin, prayer, duties of parents and children, etc. The style of these instructions is simple and didactic.


AERTNYS, Theologia Pastoralis (Paderborn, 1902). 31, 257-60; REMINGER, Pastoraltheologie (Freiburg im Br., 1893), 526-28; Theol. prakt. Quartalschrift (1891), 814; (1892), 55,317: BUSS, Die Volksmissionen ein Bedürfniss unserer Zeit (Schafhausen, 1851); HUFNER, Volksmissionen und Missionserneuerung (Dulmen i. W., 1910); KASSIEPE, Die Volksmission (Paderborn, 1909); HILARION, Le Missionaire, ou l'art des missions (Paris, 1879); BOYLE, St. Vincent de Paul and the Vincentians in Ireland, Scotland and England, A.D. 1628-1909 (London, 1909); Irish Eccl. Record (3rd S.), XVI, 577-92; XVII, 417-26; Am. Eccl. Review, XI (1894), 81-111, 161-219; BOUGAUD, History of St. Vincent de Paul, tr. BRADY (2 vols., New York, 1899). See also the biographies of Sts. Alphonsus Liguori, Philip Neri, John of the Cross, Dominic, Francis, Ignatius Loyola, etc.

About this page

APA citation. Schroeder, H.J. (1911). Catholic Parochial Missions. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Schroeder, Henry Joseph. "Catholic Parochial Missions." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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