Coordinate and direct the missionary activity of the Church


From the point of view of the history of the Church, and especially that of the missions, the foundation of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, better known as “de Propaganda Fide” or simply “Propaganda” , was an event of major importance. As the central office of the Roman Curia since 1622, the Missionary Congregation has been entrusted with the responsibility of directing missionary activities throughout the world.

After the Council of Trent (1545-1563), a new Roman Congregation was needed to be an instrument in the hands of the Pope to advance the interior reform of the Church in European countries, some of which had fallen into Protestantism, and to recapture lost areas whenever possible. The new Congregation would also contribute to deepening close relations with the Orthodox Church. In addition to all this, he would be responsible for spreading the Catholic faith in America, Asia and Africa.

Besides, there were other factors that necessitated a missionary Congregation in the Roman Curia. The ecclesiastical and political situations of the early 17th century also contributed to the foundation of a central office. In particular, the administration of missions under the patronage system required urgent attention. Such a procedure was to be abolished and replaced by another system which could better promote missionary activities and enable missionaries to win the hearts and minds of the local people.

Reform was also urgently needed to bring about more united and concerted missionary action. The growing number of missionaries from various religious institutes and secular priests involved in the propagation of the faith demanded such a unified approach.

The short reign of Pope Gregory XV (1621-1623) was of great importance for Catholic renewal. The first pope trained by the Jesuits, Gregory XV strove not only to pursue the interior renewal of the Church, but also to regain the ground it had lost. Pope Gregory XV founded the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in 1622 with the aim of providing the Church with a supreme central authority covering the entire missionary field. The guiding idea of ​​the office was that, as the universal shepherd of souls, the pope had a primary responsibility in the propagation of the faith. The newly created department was to coordinate and direct the missionary activity of the Church hitherto overseen by the Catholic sovereigns of Spain and Portugal. The erection of the Propaganda was, on its own, an act that would ensure the pontificate of Gregory XV a lasting place in history. The foundation of this Congregation introduced a new era in the history of the mission into the modern period.

Gregory XV called the new Congregation into existence on January 6, 1622. The choice of the Solemnity of the Feast of Epiphany, the ancient commemorative day of the call of the pagans to the Kingdom of Christ and his teachings is indicative of what was believed to be the main task of the Congregation. At the same time, it also refers to the missionary mandate of Christ (Mt 28, 18-20) and to the pastoral responsibility of the Pope towards all peoples.

The apostolic constitution Inscrutable Divinae of June 22, 1622, in the first place, claimed for the Pope, in all its fullness, the duty and the right to spread the faith as the principal task of the papal role of pastor of souls1.

The emphasis on the pastoral element is striking. Repeated references are made to the pastoral duties of the pope, one of which is to lead those who stand outside into the bosom of Christ. Among those who stand outside are Christians separated by schism or heresy as well as infidels. Just as Christ did everything for the salvation of men, the pope must do everything he can to lead men to the Church.

Therefore, the whole missionary system had to be subordinated to the central Roman authority. All missionaries were to depend on it in the most direct way possible and be sent by it. Missionary methods were to be regulated and mission fields assigned by it.

The second part of the constitution refers to the solemn canonical erection of the new Congregation. The order of work of the Congregation is then given in broad outline. The Pope erected the Congregation composed of 13 cardinals and two prelates and a secretary to whom he entrusted and recommended the affairs of the propagation of the faith.

Pope Gregory XV took great care to place this new Congregation on solid foundations by endowing it with more favors and privileges. Under the new Dicastery, missionary work received a new impetus. The competence of the new Congregation was very broad, embracing all questions related to missionary activity.

The centralization of the Church’s missionary activity under a single Dicastery had many advantages, including ensuring better coordination of missionary work. Spiritual and material assistance could be accomplished more harmoniously, with due regard to the overall situation of the needs of the mission territories.

Gregory’s successor, Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644), strongly supported the progress of the missions by creating a polyglot printing press (1626). In addition, he founded the Urban College of Rome (1627) to train missionaries and send them to the Far East in particular.

Mons. François Ingoli (1578-1649), from Ravenna, was appointed first secretary of the new Congregation and was entrusted with the immense task of laying the foundations for its effective functioning. With great zeal, Ingoli worked for 27 years to guide the activities of this young Congregation through various initiatives.

The palace where the Congregation now has its offices does not have a single, unified structure. This is due to the many buildings, built at different times and by different architects. The original core is the palace, built in the 16th century by Cardinal Ferratini in Piazza di Spagna, which was then called Piazza Trinità de Monti. Mons. Jean-Baptiste Vives (1545-1632) from Valencia in Spain, bought the palace from the Cardinal’s heirs in 1613 and after various legal trials, took possession of it in 1625, donating it to the Congregation. He would later be entrusted with the foundation and direction of the Urban College in 1626 and, later in 1633, the headquarters of the Sacred Congregation would also be established in its present location2.

Between 1639 and 1646, the eastern wing of the palace was built by the architect Gaspare de Vecchi. At the same time, the important work of consolidation of Palazzo Ferratini had to be undertaken. Gian Lorenzo Bernini gave the building its current new facade in 1644.

Under the pontificate of Innocent X, Francesco Borromini, appointed architect of the Congregation in 1646, designed and built the new Urban College with its monumental facade on Via di Propaganda as well as the new Chapel which replaced the Bernini’s Oratory. For various reasons, the work extended over a period of twenty years and was completed in 1665 under the pontificate of Alexander VII.

* Office manager
Dicastery for Evangelization

1 See ‘Costituzione Apostolica di Erezione della Sacra Congregazione (June 22, 1622)’ in Sacrae Congregationis from Propaganda Fide Memoria Rerum, edited by Metzler, J., vol. III, 2, 662-664.

2 For more details, cf. Antonazzi, G.,The Sede della Sacra Congregazione e del Collegio Urbano” in Rerum Memory, flight. I, 1, 306-334.

by Mons. Camille Johnpillai*


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