Aware of the crisis of the Faith and the disastrous effects of the French Revolution on the faith of the people, Father Jean Baptiste Rauzan, at the invitation of Cardinal Fesch of Lyons, brought together a small group of priests to form a mission band.
After the great upheaval and persecution which the Church suffered in France during the Revolution, the clergy and laity sought from heaven extraordinary ways to foster the salvation of souls, for most of the people had left the True Faith.
One of the many options suggested to revitalize the Faith and re-evangelize those who had fallen away was the preaching of parish missions. A group of missionaries, which would be at the service of the Bishops, was needed to fulfill this very task. God, in His goodness and mercy, raised up Fr. Jean Baptiste Rauzan, a priest of the diocese of Bordeaux, to be his chosen apostle to the people of France.
In 1808 the Archbishop of Lyons, Joseph Cardinal Fesch, asked Father Rauzan to gather a group of zealous priests to take up the awesome task of re-evangelizing a devastated France. Father Rauzan’s thirst for souls and for all that is holy led him to accept and form what was then called the Missionaries of France. He began with five priests who traveled from town to town preaching missions. Upon entering a town, some would even go door-to-door personally inviting people back to the Church. Though the response may have been reluctant, the townspeople were so moved by the impassioned preaching of the missionaries that their faith was restored. As a result, the Missionaries of France acted as God’s instruments in reversing many of the Revolution’s disastrous effects. In 1814 a Generalate for the community was established in Paris where the fathers were placed in charge of several parishes. Hence, parochial work was added to their task of preaching missions and has continued to the present day.
A FOUNDATION: Pope Gregory XVI approves the new Congregation.
“Assure Father Rauzan that I will not forget him, because I hold him in veneration.” – Pope Gregory XVI
In 1830, however, Fr. Rauzan and his growing group of missionaries were forced to temporarily disband when the movement of the July Revolution outlawed religious communities. Fr. Rauzan, desiring to solidify his work, moved to Rome to write the Constitutions for the new community and to seek papal approbation. In 1834, Pope Gregory XVI approved Fr. Rauzan’s work and gave them the name ‘Fathers of Mercy’, placing them under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception. Pope Gregory, in approving the Society’s Constitutions, said; “We most earnestly desire that there be formed among the clergy, men joined in a society and aflame with love for the Divine Glory and zeal for the salvation of souls. We desire to show such ecclesiastical men a singular mark of our favor, especially in these times so difficult for Christianity and society, against whom certain monstrous systems, sprung from the depths, and every day with greater license spew forth their poison with the greatest harm to souls. It is, therefore, with no little satisfaction that We have received our well-beloved sons, the Priests of the Society of Mercy under the title of Blessed Mary, Immaculate in her Conception, performing the function of missionaries to learn that they have no other end than to … consecrate all their energies to the salvation of souls.” This approbation by the Vicar of Christ made the work of Father Rauzan, our founder, a work of the Church.
THE FIELD OF LABOR BROADENS
In 1839, Fr. Rauzan sent some of his missionaries to the United States of America with hopes that they could continue the work of saving souls. These zealous priests were very successful in bringing back many fallen away souls who had left the Church due to a lack of priests. They also built churches in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. Fr. Ferdinand Bach, the first superior in America, became the Rector of the Cathedral of St. Louis in New Orleans where he lost his life caring for the victims of yellow fever. Honored by the clergy and people alike, he was actually buried under the high altar, a place traditionally reserved for bishops. The New York Freeman’s Journal and Catholic Register called Fr. Bach “a martyr of charity.” Fr. Peter Aubril, another Father of Mercy, labored ardently in Florida and became the Vicar General of the diocese of St. Augustine. One Catholic historian, citing Very Rev. Henry Clavreul, Vicar General of St. Augustine, called Fr. Aubril the “apostle of Florida” due to his zealous efforts in a place with so many Catholics and so few priests. Three of the Fathers of Mercy, including Fr. Aubril, were offered Bishoprics in the United States, but all three turned down the office. After the death of Fr. Rauzan in 1847, the Society stayed in France, rebuilding churches and maintaining parishes, until 1905 when the anti-clerical Third Republic of France legislated the separation of Church and State, confiscated Church property, and drove out religious communities. Consequently, the Society left France and moved the Generalate to Belgium while many of the missionaries moved to the United States where the Society was already well established. By the 1940’s the Society of Priests of Mercy existed only in the United States, with the exception of a house of studies in Rome, and at this time the Vatican considered the Society an American community. In 1961, the community was elevated from the status of a society to that of a congregation; thus, the community was renamed the Congregation of the Priests of Mercy (CPM).