Turbulence and Re-definition in the Society 1960-1980 (PE nr. 1085)

The Society in the early 1960’s

In the years following the Second World War, the Society experienced a period of expansion and spiritual renewal. There was a great increase in numbers. In a period of ten years (1947 – 1957) the Society went from 2,380 to 3,167 and in 1965 it was over 3600. Many new communities were founded and new activities initiated. The Society officially became bi-lingual in 1947 and in 1952 the Generalate moved from Maison Carrée to Rome. In 1957, for the first time in our history, a non-Frenchman, Fr. Leo Volker, was chosen as Superior General.

Fr. Leo Volker

In 1962, Fr Volker described some of the difficulties that the General Council were facing at the time:

“This year some 88 priests will be ordained and 18 Brothers will pronounce their final oath. But at the same time we have to look after 50 apostolic vicariates and prefectures, 13 major seminaries, the Generalate and 9 provinces and pro-provinces. You understand our anguish …” (Circular Letter no. 20. Fr. Leo Volker. 03.10.1962).

These were the challenges of abundance. There were large numbers of missionaries working in Africa: e.g. present day Tanzania had two provinces with a total of 350 confreres; Burkina also had two provinces and a total of 270 confreres; Uganda had 205, Zambia and Malawi 350, Congo 300. With the exception of Nigeria and Mozambique the Society operated only in those territories which had been entrusted to it by the Propaganda Fide at the time of the Founder.

At this time the White Fathers were “white”: they all wore the gandoura and, with a few rare exceptions, they all came from European or North American backgrounds. Life in the Society was governed by very clear rules (as defined by “the directory”). In all the communities throughout the Society the confreres ate their meals, said the same prayers and had recreation at the same time (finishing each day by singing the Sancta Maria).

At the beginning of the 1960’s, most people thought that the Society would continue to follow in the line of the previous decade. However, the 1960’s were to prove to be a watershed for the Society. “The wind of change” was blowing in almost every aspect of life. Most African countries achieved independence. The life of the Church underwent radical change (Vatican Council). It was a decade of political and social upheaval in Europe (cf the events of 1968). It was a time of change both in structures and people’s thinking. And the Society was radically affected by all these changes.

African Independence

African Independence
Most African countries achieved their independence during the late 1950’s and 1960’s. The Society had foreseen some of the changes that would take place in Africa, but was taken aback by the speed with which these changes took place and the dimensions of those changes. The confreres generally received independence optimistically. Many of them contributed positively to the preparation for independence by their work in education and in the formation of the elite, the creation of press, and concerns for social issues.

Commemorative plaque at the Generalate

But independence was a major change for the missionaries. In some countries the transition to independence was peaceful and caused no major problems. However in other places the transition was painful. In the Congo, independence was traumatic; confreres were murdered in 1961, 1964 and 1965. The missionaries were expelled from Guinea in 1967. Some confreres lost their lives in Algeria. In both Tunisia and Algeria, a radically new situation emerged: most of the Christians left the country and went to Europe (Christian Kabyles and European settlers) and the confreres had to learn to live in a totally Muslim milieu. Because of independence, people in certain countries became more demanding and assertive. There was an awakening of nationalistic feelings in some places. In the Church, this movement of independence expressed itself in a concern for Africanisation and Authenticity. Many African countries went through a period of rejection of all that was connected with the old colonial power. There was increased sensitivity to what could be perceived as European and colonial influence. Some missionaries had difficulties with the interference of political cadres and officials. For some missionaries Africa was no longer the place that they knew and they returned to Europe. But most of them accepted the new situation without major difficulty.

Father Georges Defour and the youth of the Xaverian Movement in Bukavu

Some traditional areas which had been, up to then, managed by the Church, were gradually taken over by the newly independent states: schools, hospitals. Some confreres felt this as a loss. Others considered it to be an advantage.

Pastoral methods were changing during this period. Many Catholic Action groups were created and developed in this period. There was a greater stress on development projects, because of a greater awareness of fighting against evil in all its forms.

The Establishment of Local Hierarchies

Just as African countries were becoming independent so too, in a similar way, was the African Church.

Jus Commissionis

(Cf. Histoire de la Société des Missionnaires d’Afrique. Rome 1990. p. 53)

Up to the 1950’s the relationship between a missionary institute and the territory in which it ministered was regulated by the “Jus Commissionis”. This was a contract between Propaganda Fide and the missionary institute whereby the latter was given a special responsibility for the church in that territory. In the universal Church, the Jus Commissionis was abrogated in 1969. But in those African Churches where the Missionaries of Africa worked, local hierarchies (i.e. fully fledged dioceses) were established in the 1950’s, thus effectively abrogating the Jus Commissionis.

The impact of these changes was only felt in the 1960’s when the hierarchies, which had been established in the 1950’s, began to be Africanised. (In 1962, at the beginning of the Vatican Council there were 330 bishops from African dioceses but only 80 were African.)

While Africanisation should have been a cause for pride among the missionaries (it was a sign that they had succeeded in their task) and, for the immense majority, it was; but a few felt it as a loss. Africanisation of the Churches did mean a certain loss of power and control. Things were no longer being done in the ways to which the missionaries were used. (One missionary reported that some felt like a mother whose daughter has just been married!) Missionary institutes no longer had their missions. A few missionaries felt that the Africanisation of the Church was a sign that their role in the African Church was over and that they should go, in order to force/allow the African Christians to assume their responsibilities.

Country Abrogation of the 
Jus Commissionis
First African
African Bishops
are in the majority
Haute Volta
(Burkina Faso)
1955 1960 1968
Mali 1955 1962 1976
Gold Coast
1950 1960 1973
Nigéria 1950 1973
Ouganda 1953 1939 1969
1953 1951 1962
1959 1956 1961
Rhodésie du Nord
1959 1965 1965
Zaire – R.D. Congo 1959 1960 1963
Rwanda 1959 1952 1962
Burundi 1959 1959 1962

The first African bishops were received with joy; but difficulties were experienced later on because of the new pastoral directives (or the lack of them). In some cases the African bishops had other priorities than their white predecessors. This created friction between some regionals and the new bishops – for example in the areas of appointments and financial management. Some confreres were afraid that they would be handed over to African bishops without being sufficiently protected and helped by the Society. Therefore contracts were foreseen to clarify the new situation. (However in the reality of the lived situation, contracts have limited value!). The Superior General and his assistants, through their visits and meetings, worked to try to allay these fears. Most confreres reacted generously to the new situation.

In spite of the abrogation of the Jus Commissionis, the Society felt that it had a moral obligation to its old dioceses and missionaries remained in them. However it did open up new possibilities, which the Society was to assume after the 1974 Chapter. The Society was now able to send missionaries to new areas (e.g. Nairobi (Kenya), South Africa, Chad, Niger and the Copperbelt in Zambia).

The Missionaries of Africa contribution to the establishment of the local church

The Society had been active in building up the local church in many ways. One of the pastoral priorities of the Society, almost from the very beginning, was the establishment and running of seminaries with the aim of forming the local clergy. In the 1960’s many of the local clergy had been trained in White Father run seminaries. And after their ordination many of them had lived and worked in White Father communities. However with the Africanisation of the dioceses, one of the first things to be handed over was the running of the diocesan seminaries. Some confreres stayed on as lecturers.

The construction of Kipalapala Major Seminary

The Society was active in on-going formation of African priests, sisters and brothers. One example is the Ggaba institute (Kampala, Uganda) which later moved to Eldoret (Kenya). Some confreres were involved in the setting up and establishment of the Small Christian Communities and in the creation of Religious Education syllabuses. Many African diocesan priests took part in the sessions and retreats organised in Jerusalem. As well as training the local clergy, confreres were also active in the foundation and running of Catechist Training Centres.

Relationship between the Society and the local Churches

One of the major issues for the Society was to redefine the relationship between missionaries and the local church. Up to the 1950’s the missionaries were in charge of the mission; they had founded the local church and they organised it. But with the establishment of local hierarchies and with the diocesan clergy becoming more numerous and taking over positions of responsibility, the relationship between missionaries and local churches underwent a radical change.

Fr. Bob Gay

This was one of the major focal points of the “aggiornamento chapters”. In the Superior General’s report before the 1986 Chapter, Fr. Bob Gay described the evolution which took place between 1967 and 1980. He wrote: “The progress can be conceived as the slow building up of a very simple sentence: The Society of the Missionaries of Africa is at the service of the Local Churches of Africa.” He wrote:

“The 1967 Chapter insisted on the fact that we are at the service of the Local Church. This was a necessary restatement. We are at the end of the missionary era of “Jus Commissionis” and in the first years of a constituted hierarchy in Africa. Our whole perspective of the apostolate had to be adjusted to this view of the Mission” (The Superior General’s Report. Fr. Bob Gay. Petit Echo 1986. p. 528).

Fr. Théo Van Asten

The 1967 chapter stated that the Society is “at the service of the local church”. Fr. Theo Van Asten, guided by Bishop Blomjous, stressed the need to work closely with and within the new emerging local Churches.

The 1974 Chapter sought to clarify the service that the Society offered to the local church. It is not an unconditional service. The Society is at the service of the local Church as a missionary society but with its own missionary charism, its spirituality and its way of life. If the Society were to offer unconditional service of the local Church, it could get bogged down in those areas where it had traditionally been working and lose its missionary charism. The Society should be ready to move on and to take up new tasks. The Chapter of 1974, in its insistence on primary evangelisation, spoke of “trail-blazing” and “pioneering tasks”. It defined the Society’s priority tasks as primary evangelisation, dialogue with Islam, evangelisation in new situations such as urban apostolates, work with migrants, Basic Christian Communities.

Mgr. Blomjous

The 1980 Chapter focused its attention on the identity of the Society. What is the identity of the Society which is at the service of the local churches of Africa? The Chapter re-affirmed that we are at the service of the apostolate among the people of the African world – principally in Africa itself. Our common apostolic project is to witness, live and preach the Gospel among the peoples of Africa (1980 Chapter documents #26). We strive to achieve this, not primarily as individuals but as international and inter-racial communities offered to the Local Churches. It also insisted on our missionary charism with its particular interest in the world of Islam and finally on what goes to make up our identity as Missionaries of Africa5. It stressed our priority tasks: primary evangelisation at the frontiers of the Church, self-reliance of local Churches, dialogue with Muslims, working for justice and development, missionary animation and the service of confreres. The Society works in the local churches, but at the same time respects its own missionary identity.

In the period under consideration the relationship between the Society and the local Churches changed radically. One can distinguish different stages.

  • In the initial period of evangelisation the missionaries played a dominant role. Up to the 1950’s and 1960’s almost all the important functions in the local church were in the hands of the Society.
  • As the local hierarchy was established and the local clergy became more numerous and more experienced many functions and parishes were handed over to them. Yet the Society continued to play a significant role. The missionaries were still numerous and many parishes were still in their hands.
  • In recent years, as the local clergy became more numerous and the missionaries became fewer, our presence has become more and more marginal.

“Phasing out” or “phasing in”?

At the Bangkok meeting of the World Council of Churches in 1973 it was said that the 3rd World Churches could never come of age as long as there was a massive presence of 1st World Churches. The financial aid given by 1st World Churches and the expatriate missionaries caused dependency. It was proposed that for the 3rd World Churches to come of age, the 1st World Churches should temporarily withdraw its financial aid and phase out. The suggestion to “phase out” provoked much discussion in different parts of the Catholic Church. This “phasing out” was called the “Moratorium”.

In Catholic circles the “Moratorium” did not have much influence. African bishops were not in favour of it. On the contrary they were actively looking for more missionaries, because in most dioceses there was still a shortage of priests and religious. The fact that in some African countries there was in influx of missionaries from other congregations weakened the argument that it was time to pack up and go home.

While the “Moratorium” did not dominate the thinking of the Society, it did have a certain influence. It created a feeling of discouragement among some. Questions such as, “Why are we here?” and “What are we doing?” were often asked. Some confreres may have found in this theory the justification for pulling out for other, often personal, reasons. It had negative repercussions on vocation animation. Among the Missionaries of Africa this movement was strongest in Tanzania.

On an official level the African Bishops responded to the moratorium debate by issuing a statement during the 1974 Synod of Bishops in Rome. They rejected the idea of a moratorium as a break in fraternal relations between older and younger churches. They insisted that there is still a need for missionaries, but that the cooperation between them will have to take on new forms, which will take into account the aspirations of the young churches for more autonomy and responsibility. They encouraged their own churches to be more self-supporting and they urged Western churches to channel their aid through locally-run projects. (John Baur, 2000 years of Christianity in Africa, p. 314.)

In Europe and North America the notion of mission was coming under attack in the press and elsewhere. It was said that the missions had exported European domination and European civilisation, that they extended the influence of the colonial powers and that they exported a European model of church. They went on to say that the mission should be stopped and that the missionaries should withdraw from the mission territories. This atmosphere had a discouraging effect on some missionaries. (“La société des Missionnaires d’Afrique des années cinquante à aujourd’hui”. J-C Ceillier. p. 1)

As the Church in Africa was becoming Africanised there was, in certain places, a tension between native and expatriate clergy, there was a feeling that it was time to hand over responsibility for the church to the local clergy – especially of seminaries. This was a time of transition; and for some it was a difficult one. There were new tensions: missionaries – local bishops; missionaries – increasingly numerous diocesan clergy. For some missionaries this was a difficult time, because the local Church was no longer organised as it had been before. Some missionaries had bad experiences and became discouraged. They saw it as a sign that the time had come to leave the African Church to the Africans and to let the local clergy assume their responsibilities.

In some places, the local clergy experienced the presence of the missionaries as a hindrance. Some African bishops saw missionaries as a necessary evil (John Baur, 2000 years of Christianity in Africa. p. 313) – because they hindered inculturation. Frequently when the local clergy becomes sufficiently numerous and forms a distinct group, there tends to be a tension between them and the missionaries who have been there for a long time. In Zaire, this tension was strong, so much that some spoke of a cold war. When the local clergy is in the majority and is in control, this tension disappears. (W. Bühlmann, “The coming of the Third Church”, p. 273)

However it was clear that a certain type of mission had had its day: the Church dominated by the European missionaries and European finances; a Church identified with the old colonial powers. In the 1960’s a new reality was emerging: an African Church where the missionary was at the service of the African bishops and the African Church. The European missionary was no longer in charge as he had been before. He was now invited to enter into a new relationship with the local Church and to move from the position of master to that of servant. For the missionaries who managed to make this change, the mission continued with the same urgency as before.

The problems caused by a heavy missionary presence in the local church were resolved in different ways:

Many missionaries made the transition and moved with the times.There were many departures from Africa – for various reasons. When I arrived in Uganda in 1974 I heard of all the confreres who had had to leave the country in the previous few years; they had gone either because of the difficulty of renewing their work permits in Idi Amin’s Uganda or their inability to re-adjust to the new situation.

At the same time there was a serious drop-off in the numbers of young missionaries arriving in Africa. At this time, vocations in Europe had dropped in a very radical way.

With the new insistence on “trail-blazing” and “pioneer tasks” (1974 Chapter) the Society started to send missionaries into new areas and countries: Chad, Niger, South Africa, and Sudan.

For the most part, the White Fathers negotiated this transition without major problems. The major superiors stressed the need to work alongside the new African clergy and within the newly emerging local Churches. Fr. Jean-Marie Vasseur, Superior General from 1974 to 1980, worked to re-inject enthusiasm and drive into the Society. He showed that, instead of quietly phasing out, the need for the Society was greater than ever. He pointed out that the Society was receiving more requests for missionaries from the African bishops than it could handle and cater for, including many requests from bishops in whose territories we were not working.

Fr. Jean-Marie Vasseur

The Council of Vatican II

Another area in which the “wind of change” was blowing was within the Church itself. The years around the Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) were exciting, a time of questioning and re-thinking of many aspects of the faith and the life of the Church. The aim of the council was aggiornamento, bringing the Church up to date and adapting it to the realities of the modern world.

Vatican II proved to be a watershed in thinking about mission. Up to then, the aim of mission had been to “save souls”, “convert pagans” and “establish the church”. There was an aspect of “civilising mission” and this was linked to a certain extent to colonisation. The thrust of mission was from the West to the third World, a one-way movement that was centralised in Rome. Three conciliar documents (Ad Gentes, Nostra Aetate and Gaudium et Spes) proposed a new approach to mission. Mission is now seen as a sharing in the mission of the Trinity and is based not only on the Redemption but also on the Incarnation. The Council pointed out the value of other religions and the respect for them.

There was a major change in ecclesiology. From “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (no salvation outside the Church), the Church moved to ecumenism and dialogue with other world religions. This change of theology had considerable practical implications for missionary work. Going from a purely hierarchical model, the Church now stressed the people of God in which all Christians are invited to take their part. The local Church now gained much greater importance.

As a result of the Council many changes were brought in and they came fast. A wind of democracy and freedom was blowing in the Church. This led to the questioning of many aspects of Church life. While the conciliar documents were disseminated quite rapidly, it took a long time for them to be read and fully digested. The result in the short term was, for some, disorientation and confusion. Some Catholics no longer knew what to think and believe any more. Many of the things that they had believed up to then and their ways of praying and envisaging their ministry seemed to be challenged and rejected. (This was a time when many priests left the ministry; others became discouraged.) However, for many others, the Vatican Council was a like a breath of fresh air which they welcomed wholeheartedly.

In certain aspects of the life and discipline of the Church the lid was taken off. Many things, which had been repressed, now surfaced. After a long period of strict obedience to established ways of doing and thinking, the pendulum began to swing in the other direction. Much of the confusion of this time was due to the fact that some changes in the Church took place without adequate preparation; they took place very fast and some were too radical. The Council opened doors – some Catholics went further than what was written in the documents.

The “Aggiornamento” Chapters (1967, 1974, 1980)

The Chapter of 1967

The Society, just like every other congregation, needed to rethink all its goals and structures in the light of the second Vatican Council. The Council had achieved an aggiornamento of the Church; it was now necessary for the Society to implement an aggiornamento of the Society – this was done during three chapters: 1967, 1974 and 1980.

During these so-called “aggiornamento chapters” all of the structures and goals of the Society were rethought in the light of the Vatican Council. There was so much to do in 1967 that the Chapter was held in two separate sessions. The chapter produced a very rich set of documents in which almost all the aspects of the Society and its mission were rethought. Unlike other chapters, this one felt it necessary to give a theological presentation of each of the points treated. All the structures of the Society were questioned and many of them were rejected (without necessarily being immediately replaced). Some of the main points of the 1967 Chapter are:

  • The missionary and the Society in general are at the service of the local churches in Africa.
  • Missionary activity includes both the evangelisation of those who do not yet know Jesus Christ as well as ensuring that the young churches come to maturity (1967 Chapter. #136).
  • The notion of Adaptation (a forerunner of inculturation). The young African Churches must be allowed to express their faith in a way that is adapted to their culture.
  • There was to be a greater respect for non-Christian religions – particularly for Islam.
  • Community life was re-examined in the light of ideas such as co-responsibility, dialogue. Each community was to have its own rhythm. Obedience and relationships with superiors were renewed.
  • There was a new respect and appreciation for the Brothers’ vocation, openness to African vocations and an awareness of the need for a more open system of formation.

In the life of the Society, the pendulum now swung to the other side. What had been neglected heretofore was now being developed and consequently certain elements were lost (at least for the time being). Some of the main notions and principles of the interior life up to then began to be neglected: humility, self-denial, renunciation, sacrifice. On the other hand there was an insistence on the rights and the development of the individual person and of his capacities.

While many very good things were said and written at the Chapter, there was, at least in the short term, a problem with the implementation of its decisions. The decisions were not all well understood at the beginning. There was a tendency for confreres to follow those decisions which were in favour of greater personal freedom, while the decisions which dealt with greater communitarian responsibility tended to be left to one side. All of this brought a lot of freedom for some, but confusion to others. In some situations the rule, the timetable, the old structures of authority all disappeared. Those who relied on them were now lost.

Period of turbulence (1967 – 1974)

The Chapters of 1974 and 1980 continued and completed the work of the 1967 Chapter. The years 1967 – 1974 were, for some, a time of uncertainty and contestation both in the Society and also in the whole Church and in society at large. Many confreres left the Society and the priesthood. (From 1967 to 1981 368 priests left the Society: 252 were laicised, 61 were incardinated in other dioceses and 55 left irregularly.) It was a time of transition: before the 1960’s the missionaries ran the local churches in Africa, now they were at the service of local Churches which were more and more in the hands of local bishops and clergy. Deeply felt convictions and ways of doing things were being challenged – some by the Council, others by changes in mentality both in Africa (because of independence) and in western society. Many of the structures in the Society which had been in place up to 1967 were rejected but had not yet been replaced by new ones. The numbers of confreres leaving and the fall-off in the numbers of those entering had a dispiriting effect.

For others these were very exciting and exhilarating times. The aftermath of the Council and the onset of African Independence filled many with enthusiasm. The move away from the rigidity of the old “directory” gave a new freedom. For those who had a strong “back-bone” all of this was a source of new energy. However for those who had been brought up in the hard “shell” of the rule, this was very disconcerting.

1974 Chapter

The 1974 Chapter continued the work of the previous Chapter of 1967: it maintained, adapted and modified where necessary the achievements of the previous chapter. The chapter was inspired by three principles:

  • The mission is not over – we go on.
  • The mission should focus more and more on the non-Christian world.
  • In order for us to be faithful to our missionary vocation, we need on-going formation and a deepening of our spiritual life.

It clarified the service that the Society could offer to the Local Churches. It presented our White Father way of living: community, apostolic attitudes: hope, fidelity, self-offering, love and respect for the people we live and work with.

After the 1974 Chapter the Society, under Fr. Jean Marie Vasseur, continued to rediscover its own identity and dynamism after the crisis of the 1960’s.:

  • There was a reaffirmation of Ignatian spirituality. The house in Jerusalem was opened up for Ignatian retreats and Bible sessions. Sessions on Ignatian spirituality were organised in Dublin and Thy-le-Chateau for formation personnel.
  • There was a re-affirmation of our missionary charism. There was a move away from unconditional service of the local Church to service of the Church as a missionary Society with its own charism.
  • There was a re-affirmation of community. The 1974 Chapter spoke of re-grouping, gathering confreres together for the sake of community. The 1980 Chapter stated that the Society is ready to put communities of Missionaries of Africa at the disposal of bishops, and not individual men. There was a renewed insistence on the rule of three and mixed communities were discouraged. The need for quality community life was stressed.

In the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s the Society opened formation houses in Africa to accept African vocations. The booklet “Notre Identité”, written by a group of confreres, was published as was a series of circular letters written by members of the General Council on various aspects of the Missionary of Africa charism and spirit.

The Society opened up new foundations in countries where it had not been present before: e.g. in South Africa, Chad and Eastern Uganda.

1980 Chapter

The 1980 Chapter was the last of the aggiornamento chapters. It was “our identity” Chapter. The previous Chapters had stated that the Society was at the service of the African church and had defined the modalities of that service. The 1980 chapter felt the need to underline and clarify the identity of the Society that has put itself at the service to the local Churches. It clarified who we are. It stressed that we are sent as members of communities and it stressed the quality of community life.


When we look at the membership of the Society since 1960 we see two movements:

  • Having reached a high-point in 1967 (3618) the number of confreres (principally European and North American in origin) began to decline and this decline has continued to this day.
  • At the same time the number of African confreres (and those from what used to be the “Intercontinental Delegation”) has been on the rise ever since the opening of the first African First Cycle in 1979. There are now almost 300 African confreres in the Society and this number is rising.

The downturn in numbers

Up to 1967/8 the number of confreres in the Society was constantly increasing. The Society reached 3,618 in 1967 (an increase of 526 in 10 years). But at that point the numbers began to fall off. Since the early 1980’s, the numbers in the Society have been dropping at an average of 50 per year, whereas it had grown by over 50 per year in the ten years up to 1967.

(1st January)
1947 1957 1967 1977 1986 1998 2006 2014
Total number of confreres 2380 3169 3618 3172 2671 2096 1684 1366

In the 1950’s a total of 980 confreres were ordained and 116 Brothers made their final oath. In the 1960’s there were approximately 75 ordinations and 15 final oaths per year. In 1972 this number had fallen to 21 ordinations and 2 final oaths. The lowest point was reached in the mid 1980’s when an average of three was ordained per year and no brothers took their final oaths.

In the early 1960’s vocations (in Europe and N. America) were still numerous; the Society was still building seminaries in Europe. But by the end of the decade, the Society was selling them because there were not enough vocations. In 1966 there were 4 scholasticates (over 200 students). In 1974 there were two: Strasbourg (2 houses) and Totteridge. (There were a total of 50 students). The serious decline in vocations began in 1965/6. The period in which the smallest number joined the Society was the decade of the seventies. This downturn was part of a radical change in Western society at large. Society was becoming secularised very rapidly and there was a general fall-away from religious practice.

The downturn in numbers was due to a drop off in vocations but it also due to the number of confreres leaving the Society. The worst period for departures was from 1967 to 1973 when 241 confreres left of whom 170 were laicised.

African Vocations

In the years 1934 – 1980 a total of 17 Africans from south of the Sahara became priests in the Society or joined as priests (“Histoire de la Société des Missionnaires d’Afrique”. p. 24. White Father vocations in Africa. Piet Horsten. Petit Echo 1980. pp. 454 – 46). In 1934 the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith issued a decree stating that no African should be allowed to join a Religious Institute during their seminary years or during the first three years of their priesthood without special permission from the Holy See. (The reason was the need to build up the local churches in Africa.) At one moment (1954) the Congregation relaxed the rule, but re-imposed it again the following year. Most of the Africans who did manage to join the Society were formed in their home countries and it was only after their ordination that they did their noviciate and were accepted into the Society. For the most part they worked in their home countries. This official embargo continued up to 1970.

The principle of accepting African candidates was accepted in the 1967 Chapter (“XXth Chapter”. #368). The Second Vatican Council had insisted on the need for every Church to be missionary (“Ad Gentes”. #8, 20, 38). However this decision was not implemented immediately. There was to be no hasty recruitment. Many bishops who were consulted after the 1967 Chapter were not in favour of our recruiting because they themselves only had a few vocations in their major seminaries. The need for the African Churches to become self-supporting was primary.

The question of African vocations was re-discussed during the 1974 Chapter. Some African confreres present at the Chapter challenged the Society: “do you want African members or do we want merely to pay lip service to the idea?” The decision to welcome Africans into the Society was reaffirmed (1974 Chapter #168). The aim of accepting Africans was to help the Church in Africa to become more missionary and increase the internationality and catholicity of the Society.

The policy of accepting African candidates was implemented some years later in those areas where the bishops were in agreement. Before the opening of formation houses in Africa there were a few African candidates who entered in the early 1970’s.

First cycle at Bambumines (Zaïre)

The first formation house was opened on 15th October 1978 in Zaire at Bambumines. It was an initiative of the regions of Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire. A first cycle was opened in Tanzania in 1980 (Kahangala), in Uganda (Katigondo and then Kisubi) in 1981. Ghana’s First Phase Centre (a community within the inter-diocesan Seminary in Tamale) started officially in 1977, even if there was a first candidate already in 1976. Malawi opened a First Cycle in 1982 and Zambia in 1983. The first years of the African First cycles were a time of experimentation – the confreres had to create a whole new system. In some places our students attended a local major seminary (e.g. Tamale); in other places the Society had to provide the whole teaching staff: e.g. Kahangala, Bambumines.

Première promotion de Bambumines

In the 1980’s with the opening of the “New Projects” (which later became the Intercontinental Delegation), the Society began to receive, and train vocations not only from Africa, but also from “non-traditional” sources: Poland, India, Philippines, Mexico and Brazil (There are now over 50 confreres from these countries).


The period 1960 – 1980 was a time of turbulence during which the Society had to adapt itself to a new world. During these years the Society, which is rooted in the charism of the Founder, re-defined itself and the Society, as we know it today, took shape.

Dave Sullivan, M.Afr.

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