With the words “Today a great work begins,” pronounced by Mosén Antonio Claret, gathered with five young priests in a small room of the Seminary of Vic, on July 16, 1849, the life of the Congregation of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary takes off.
Claret’s initiative was not improvised. For a long time he had been thinking about the convenience, first of all, of preparing priests for the preaching of the Gospel, and then, of getting together with those who were animated “by his own spirit,” to do with them, what he could not do alone. His experience as an itinerant missionary throughout Catalonia and the Canaries had carried him to the conviction that the people needed to be evangelized and that there were not enough priests prepared and zealous for this mission. However, as Claret himself recognized, it was not his own idea, but a divine inspiration that led him to set in motion an enterprise as risky as it was fragile: “how important could it be, since we were so young and so few?” Manuel Vilaró exclaimed, one of the priests gathered in the Seminary of Vic.
Had it not been God’s own, the circumstances in which this work had been born propitiated its failure. Twenty days after the foundation, the news reached Fr. Claret of his appointment as Archbishop of Cuba, which he had to accept, in spite of his resistance. The Congregation remained in the hands of God and under the guide of one of the co-founders, Fr. Stephen Sala, who died in 1858.
At this moment, another one of the co-founders, José Xifré, assumes the leadership. Archbishop Claret, called to Madrid in 1857 to become Confessor of Queen Isabel II, tried to be very close to the new Superior General and to all the missionaries: he participated in the General Chapters, wrote the Constitutions which were approved by the Holy See on February 11, 1870, a few months before his death, gave directives and financially contributed in their needs. For the Congregation and by order of the Superior General, he wrote his Autobiography in 1862.
The Congregation suffered a new and serious trial. With the 1968 revolution the Congregation was civilly suppressed, a good number of missionaries had to take refuge in France and the Archbishop Claret had to go into exile, where he died a holy death in 1870. This is the time of the first martyr, Fr. Francis Crusats. However, the Founder could still see with great satisfaction how houses were being founded in different regions of Spain and even reached Algiers and Chile.
Fr. José Xifré’s generalate lasted more than 41 years, since 1858 to 1899. When his mandate began, the Congregation had 1 house and 16 persons; when he died, the Institute had 61 houses and close to 1,300 missionaries.
Once the monarchy was reinstated in Spain in 1875, the Congregation could recover the houses of which it had been dispossessed by the revolution and an era of expansion began, not only in Spain but also in Africa and America.
The missions of Cuba (1880), Equatorial Guinea (1883) and Mexico (1884) deserve to be emphasized. The missionaries developed an impressive apostolic, cultural and social work, in many cases with enormous sacrifices, including the life of the missionaries. Let it suffice to say, as an example, that the 11 missionaries that formed the first expedition to Cuba, except two, died a few weeks after their arrival to the island.
The growth in number required the establishment of formation centres. And with the expansion, the juridical reorganization of the Congregation into Provinces became necessary to give place to better governance.
The process of consolidation and expansion was constant. The Congregation was becoming present in several countries of Europe, America and China. It developed its ministry of preaching the Gospel both in its traditional forms (popular missions and spiritual exercises) and in other new ones for the Congregation (teaching and parishes). Magazines were founded and publishing houses were opened, everything in line with the Claretian inspiration of the apostolate of the pen.
Trials and sufferings were not lacking either in these years: during the Mexican revolution (1927) Fr. Andrés Solá died a martyr; and in the Spanish war (1936) 271 missionaries -fathers, brothers and students-, obtained the palm of martyrdom, among whom were the 51 Blessed Martyrs of Barbastro. In 1949 all the Claretian Missionaries were expelled from China.
In 1949 the Congregation celebrated the first centenary of its life. It had then 2,638 professed members and 160 novices. The Congregation had become international: it was present in 25 countries and the Superior General, elected that same year, was Fr. Peter Schweiger, a German.
The canonization of the Founder, Anthony Mary Claret, on May 7, 1950, marked a congregational historic milestone. It was not only the recognition of a man’s holiness, but above all, a Church’s back-up to the work of the Congregation.
The celebration of the Vatican II Council had a great importance, because of its effect in the congregational renewal, in the deepening in the very Claretian identity within the Church and in a new missionary impulse. This renewal process continued being reaffirmed in the following years, simultaneously with the expansion of the Congregation in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. Not only positions have been opened in new countries, but also new fronts and pastoral activities: basically, biblical centres, renewed popular missions, specific service to the consecrated, specific commitments to justice, peace and the safeguard of creation, presence among the poor, marginalized and migrants, promotion of social communications media and interreligious dialogue.
In 1999 we reached the 150 years of the life of the Congregation of the Claretian Missionaries. A guarantee of its fidelity to the mission received and, at the same time, a motive of suffering and of glory have been the martyrdom of our Filipino brother, Fr. Rohel Gallardo, in May, 2000, the persecutions, kidnappings and all forms of violence suffered during these years in different parts of the world.
On June 30, 2015 the Congregation counts on 20 bishops, 2,997 members, 2,180 priests, 1 permanent deacons, 156 brothers, 518 professed students and 122 novices, scattered in 65 countries.