Willem Van Rossum CSsR: a Redemptorist in the History of the Missions


The fourth centenary of Propaganda Fide is being celebrated these days in Rome. From the point of view of the history of the Church, and in particular, of the missions, the establishment of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, better known as ‘Propaganda Fide’ or simply as ‘Propaganda’ was a historical event of great importance. The central office of the Roman Curia since 1622, the Congregation was entrusted with the responsibility of directing missionary activities throughout the world.
The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer recalls with great joy one of the sons of Saint Alphonsus at the direction of this mission department: Cardinal Willem Marinus van Rossum CSsR (1854-1932) who was Prefect of Propaganda Fide from 12 March 1918 to 30 August 1932.

At the International Conference of Studies, desired and organized by the Dicastery for Evangelization (current name of Propaganda), by the Pontifical Urbaniana University, and by the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, to celebrate this important date, the intervention on the contribution of Cardinal redemptorist. Indeed, at the moment to remember the key figures in these 400 years, there was in program the conference by Vefie Poels, from the University of Tilburg, on the theme: “Pioneering Prefect: Willem van Rossum’s Role in the Drafting of Maximum Illud (1919)”
you can read Van Rossum’s remarkable life story by Dr. Vefie Poels at Scala News )
Sadly Vefie Poels died of cancer on 2 October 2022, but her contribution was presented by Dr Brian Heffernan, PhD from Maynooth University in Ireland and historian at KU Leuven’s Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies.

To understand the importance of Van Rossum’s contribution it is enough to recall the situation of the church in the world before Maximum illud (November 1919). The purpose of the missionary action was the promotion of a local Church, led by its indigenous episcopate. Missionary work understood as the sending of people from distant lands was to be only the initial and provisional phase, as indeed had happened in the apostolic age. Then, the responsibility for missionary activity would pass to the local communities, which were guaranteed, as far as possible, autonomy on the ecclesiastical, economic, and cultural levels.
Unfortunately, from the second half of the 19th century, the various forms of missionary presence were more an expression of colonial political domination than a religious reality. In practice, the Roman missionary methodology allowed the nationalism of the missionaries to act and a particular behavior of the religious congregations which blocked the formation of a local indigenous Church.
It was then that an open-minded cardinal, the prefect of Propaganda Fide Willem Van Rossum CSsR, reworked the traditional methodology through the analysis presented by missionaries around the world. After all, it was enough to apply the methodology described in the Acts of the Apostles.

From Van Rossum’s biography, we discover that he always considered it essential to listen to the stories told by the missionaries. When, for example, he had to pronounce himself on the missions in China, his clearest analysis of the missionary condition in China came from the Lazarist missionaries Antonio Cotta and Vincent Lebbe. Their memorials sent to Rome told a real lived story.
“Every story is real and appears persuasive in itself when it is based on experience when it re-proposes the “first-hand” experience of the person who is narrating it, was present when the events happened and was an “eyewitness”. Thus all of us, “we tell our best stories when they start from our experience”, said Cardinal Tagle at the inaugural session of the international conference Euntes in mundum universo, organized for the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide.

Van Rossum, in 1911, became the first Dutch cardinal after the Reformation and in 1918 head of the dicastery of missions, with the official title of Prefect of the Congregation de Propaganda Fide. This was one of the highest posts in the Vatican, making Van Rossum known as “the red pope.”

Van Rossum turned out to be a great organizer and strategist. He concentrated the many missionary initiatives in Rome and broke the nationalist grip on spreading the Catholic faith. He combined a conservative view of church doctrine with foresight of church development in mission. In an early stage, he built an indigenous hierarchy on top of it. His priority was the formation of the indigenous clergy of the missions. As a result, Van Rossum ensured continuity in the church in the postwar wave of decolonization. Meanwhile, he analyzed the organizational abuses in the Vatican Curia, still relevant today.


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