Missions, Parish

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MISSIONS, PARISH. Parish missions, also called "internal missions," as opposed to foreign missions, were a temporary form of apostolate among Christians. The term refers to selective stays, lasting from a few days to three months, made by missionaries in a parish or a group of parishes with the aim of converting people or deepening their faith. This type of mission has its origins in Christian antiquity and has a long history of revivals.

For example, parish missions were revived in Europe during the evangelization campaigns of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and in the preachers' movement of the sixteenth century. It was during the 15701650 period, at the height of the confrontation between Protestants and Catholics, that these missions achieved their ultimate form of spiritual conquest. They were planned as military campaigns, with systematic logistics and thoughtful methodology, aimed at winning back Protestants and lukewarm Catholics to the Roman Catholic church. Though they declined at the end of the eighteenth century, these missions ad fidele or 'missions to the faithful' were still conducted in the 1960s in countries with a Catholic heritage, such as Italy, France, and Spain.

In the sixteenth century Catholic reformers realized that Roman Christianity had drastically declined in Europe. Not only had many people converted to Protestantism, but many others had embraced superstitions and, in some cases, returned to paganism. Ignorance of the Christian faith was seen as the source of these evils. Internal missions were organized in order to fill these gaps. New missionary orders, such as the Capuchins and the Jesuits, launched missions all over early modern Europe and maintained them for two centuries. Individual churchmen, who worried about the poor state of local clergy and faithful, invited these orders to do missions in their country. At the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries in Spain, Cardinal Jimenez de Cisneros (14361517) had sought to restore a "pure" Catholicism that was free from heresy and, above all, from Jewish and Muslim influences. Many means were used to achieve this goal, including internal missions that reformers such as Juan de Avila (14991569) and Luis de Granada (15041588) promoted actively in the regions of Andalusia and Extremadure. After the Council of Trent (15451563), Saint Philip Neri (15151595) and Saint Charles Borromeo (15381584) introduced the Tridentine reforms to fight Protestantism and to reform Catholicism. They established an influential model of missions ad fidele that much inspired the missionary enterprises led in France by reformers such as Cesar de Bus (15441607), Saint François de Sales (15671622), and Saint Vincent de Paul (15761660).

Typically, parish missions were designed according to the structure of spiritual combat: missionaries were the soldiers battling against the forces of evil, assailing the fortresses of the Devil, and winning souls for Jesus Christ. Their missions consisted of a series of religious "exercises" that were crafted to fire the imagination and create the right climate for conversion. Discourses were carefully developed to achieve this aim. Preachers would focus on the sad condition of the sinner, on the Last Judgment, and on the pains of hell. After bringing the audience to an emotional climax through their discourse, they would abruptly change tone and invoke reassuring images of redemption and paradise. The decor and production of the whole mission were also neatly rendered with the following elements: solemn entry of the missionaries in the parish, pathetic sermons, catechisms using holy pictures, collective prayers and chants, religious plays, general confession, communion, processions, and the erection of a cross at the end of the mission. All these exercises were conducted with great pomp and spectacle to attract people and stir them sufficiently to induce conversion.

Early modern parish missions were part of a much wider missionary movement used in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century colonialism. Countries attempted to conquer souls both at home and abroad through simultaneous internal and external missionary efforts. The same missionaries would work in both types of missions. They used the same methods of conversion and anticipated the same reactions from what they saw as the similar groups of people: lukewarm Catholics, superstitious peasants, heretics, pagans from Middle East and East Indies, Turks, and "savages" in America. Despite the apparent cultural diversity of the prospective converts, missionaries saw them as equal in their ignorance of the need for and the way to their salvation.

See also Missions and Missionaries ; Preaching and Sermons ; Reformation, Catholic ; Trent, Council of .


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de Vaumas, G. L'éveil missionnaire de la France de Henri IV à la fondation du séminaire des missions étrangères. Lyon, 1942.

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Deslandres, D. Croire et faire croire. Les missions françaises du 17e siècle. Paris, 2003.

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Société d'histoire écclésiastique de la France and Société d'histoire du protestantisme français. Les réveils missionnaires en France du Moyen-Age à nos jours, XIIe-XXe siècles, in Actes du colloque de Lyon. Paris, 1984.

Sorrel, S., and F. Meyer, eds. Les missions intérieures en France et en Italie, du XVIe au XXe siècle. Chambéry, 2001.

Dominique Deslandres

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Missions, Parish