The Holy See
back up

Apostolic Letter 
for the Centenary of 
the Pontifical SOCIETY of St. Peter the Apostle

Reverend Brothers, Dear Sons and Daughters, My Greetings and Apostolic Blessings!

1. At the present time, when Churches founded recently are seeing a greater number of young men respond to the call of the Lord and prepare themselves to receive the responsibility of the priesthood, it is fitting that the whole People of God should celebrate with joy and gratitude the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the Society of Saint Peter the Apostle for the promotion of native clergy and the development of seminaries in the local churches of mission territories. Benefiting, indeed, from the collaboration of countless brothers and sisters drawn together by this Society, the seeds of a great number of vocations, sown in the young Churches, have been able to germinate and bear fruits of grace and salvation. Minor and major seminaries have been built and equipped, and formation houses for the religious life created to meet the desire of those men and women who wish to dedicate their lives radically to the proclamation of the Gospel.

What splendid pages of Church history have been written in the different continents by the members of the Society of Saint Peter the Apostle! Thank to this Society, how many priests and religious have had the joy of fulfilling their vocation! In the course of my pastoral visits to the local Churches, it is a source of joy for me to meet priests, seminarians and religious who have come from these communities.

2. The Second Vatican Council, in the document which lays down the essential guidelines for all those who take part in missionary activity, has well expressed the sentiments of the church with regard to this encouraging reality: "With great joy the Church gives thanks for the priceless gift of the priestly calling which God has granted to so many youthful members of those peoples recently converted to Christ. For the Church is more firmly rooted in any given sector of the human family when the various communities of the faithful draw from their own members the ministers of salvation who serve their brethren in the orders of bishop, priest, and deacon" (Decree Ad Gentes, 16).

So that the People of God may bear witness before all mankind to salvation in Jesus Christ, who died and rose for the many, it is necessary that the members of his Body, in every region inhabited by man, be united to their Head through the ministry of the bishop and priests. These, "promoted to the service of Christ, the Teacher, the Priest, and the King, share in his ministry of unceasingly building up the Church on earth into the People of God, the body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit" (Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis, 1).

The centenary we are celebrating draws our attention again to the irreplaceable rôle of priests. Thanks to their ministry, the entire community derives his cohesion from participation in the redeeming Sacrifice of the Eucharist, the merciful gifts of pardon and reconciliation are granted in the Sacrament of Penance, and the assembly of the faithful is led by those who, united to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, administer the divine mysteries.

Within the diversity of cultures and the fundamental unity of the whole Church, it is now possible for the priestly ministry to be exercised in the way that best suits the characteristic spirit of each people. There is still a long way to go before all dioceses have a sufficient number of native priests at their disposal, and the presence of foreign missionaries is still indispensable. But I know that the latter are actively promoting the formation of a presbyterium of local origin, whose development is the best reward for their apostolic endeavour.

Another encouraging sign I should like to underscore here is the great willingness with which many young Churches not only take charge of their own pastoral life, thanks to priests called from among their own sons, but also take part in turn in the mission of evangelization abroad and do not hesitate to send to places far away some of their native priests and religious belonging to the first generations.

What must be stressed here is the part played by the Society of Saint Peter the Apostle in this development. Since the previous century, indeed, it has striven efficaciously to allow all Churches to benefit from the ministry of those of their sons who were called by the Lord. By giving spiritual and material support to the pioneering members of the local clergy, it has played a primary rôle, thanks to the generous participation of countless faithful.

3. How can one fail to evoke in this context the profile of the two foundresses of the Society, Jeanne Bigard and her mother, Stéphanie - women endowed with an immense heart and to whom the Holy Spirit gave a clear view of the need for a native clergy to establish the Church! They heard the call of God to dedicate their means, energies and entire life to the promotion of the Gospel by way of the formation of priests as well as of consecrated men and women. And they were capable of forging with enthusiasm and tenacity an apt instrument for the realization of this noble end.

In a particular way, Jeanne Bigard, who had offered herself up as a holocaust to the will of God, experienced as the years went by the mystery of the Cross of which she had a presentiment: "I shall suffer much", she wrote in 1903, "but if that is the price to be paid for the mustard seed to germinate and grow, I would be blameworthy not to take it upon myself". Her generous sacrifice has certainly been fruitful. The Society of Saint Peter the Apostle owes much to her, for she has fulfilled her rôle and truly favoured the growth of the number of vocations in the young Churches.

I am pleased to underline here the attachment of the Bigards to the Apostolic See. The very title they chose for the nascent Society shows their fidelity to the Church of Christ. Ever since Leo XIII, my predecessors have been generous in their encouragement and have granted their blessing to the foundresses and all the associate members, for in this initiative they appreciate the valuable assistance which is given to their pastoral task of evangelization.

4. Pope Pius XI, who was called "the Pope of the Mission", wished to strengthen the spiritual roots of the foundation by giving it a special patroness. He proclaimed the perpetual protectress of the Society of Saint Peter the Apostle to be St. Therese of the child Jesus and of the Holy Face, and did so on 23 July 1925, the very year of her canonization and two years before he named her principal patroness of the missions in the whole world, on an equal footing with St. Francis Xavier.

This was a profound penetrating intuition. By her testimony and her intercession, Therese can inspire and sustain this Society which is of great importance for the development of recently founded Churches.

The young Carmelite of Lisieux, meditating on the meaning of her vocation, writes: "Despite my littleness, I should like to enlighten souls ..., I have the vocation to be an apostle ... I should like to be a missionary ... to the end of time" (Manuscrits autobiographiques, B, folio 3). The saint for whom "love embraces all vocations" (ibid., folio 3) ceaselessly asks for the grace of loving Gos so as to have others love him. To a spiritual brother and future missionary she confides with simplicity her prayer and her deepest desire: "I pray for all the souls that will be entrusted to you ... I shall desire in heaven the same as on earth: to love Jesus and have others love him" (Correspondance générale, letter to Abbé Bellière n.220, p.925).

Therese was unable to go abroad and realize her missionary dream, yet in the solitude of her Carmelite convent she "loves on behalf of her brothers who are doing battle" (Manuscrits autobiographiques, B, folio 4); she begs the Lord: "That all those who are not enlightened by the bright torch of faith may finally see it burn" (ibid., C, folio 6). For that reason, she would wish her sacrifice to be total; she "accepts to eat ... the bread of suffering" (ibid.).

On the day the Church celebrates the feast of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, during this centenary year of the Society of Saint Peter the Apostle, I should like to encourage all those who are associated with it to meditate the missionary spirituality of their saintly patroness and to make it known to many brothers ans sisters whose generosity is needed to carry on the task.

They will thus be responding to the essential orientation given by the Second Vatican Council in the preface to the Decree on the Church's missionary Activity: "This holy Council ... wishes to sketch the principles of missionary activity and to marshal the forces of all the faithful, so that God's people, undertaking the narrow way of the Crosss, may spread everywhere the kingdom of Chirst, the Lord and Overseer of the ages (cfr. Sir 36:17), and may prepare the way for his coming" (n.1).

5. A hundred years after its foundation, the Society of Saint Peter the Apostle is far from having completed its mission. If the young Churches are happy to see an increase in the number of priestly and religious vocations arising within them, the cry heard by the Apostle Paul: "Come across to Macedonia and help us" (Acts 16:9) continues to call out to the ministers of the Gospel in all parts of the world, for the number of the baptized is not growing at the same rate as the population of the globe.

Christ's invitation concerns us all and challenges us forcibly. Vatican II has notably stressed the communitarian character of the mission for which Christ asked us to pray to the Lord of the harvest: "The local community should not only promote the care of its own faithful, but filled with missionary zeal, it should also prepare the way to Christ for all men" (Presbyteriorum Ordinis, 6).

Taking into the account the wide array of tasks that are to be performed by priests and religious in the present-day world, and considering the many difficulties encountered in the apostolate, the vocations which spring from God must be specially fostered, strengthened and formed. This is principally the task of the minor and major seminaries. These institutions require the generous collaboration  of all the faithful, so as to give candidates to the priesthood the well-balanced formation they need.. The growth of native clergy could be brought to a halt through lack of available resources. As many bishops in mission lands testify, even today more than one diocese would see its hope dashed of ever having a native clergy, were it not for the help provided by the Society of Saint Peter the Apostle. Let us not seal up our hearts: let us joyfully give it in turn what we have received of his goodness!

6. I trust that suitable initiatives will be developed to revive the attention and interest of the People of God as regards the gift of faith which is handed on from generation to generation in the Church through the grace of God and the testimony of the faithful.

In this field it is fitting to mention  - so as to pay them due homage - the numerous women of all states in life, whether celibate, mothers of a family, widows or grandmothers, who play a rôle of prime importance not only in the transmission of the faith , but also in the continuity of the Society today, for they are its principal collaborators; it is often thanks to them that the missionary sense of the Church is perpetuated in Christian families.

The young people in all regions of the world will, for their part, contribute their sense of solidarity and communion. May they, the ones who cross barriers with such ease and know how to show fraternity, discover, and help their elders to rediscover, what the vitality of the Church owes to the priesthood in every single people.

The centenary of the Society of Saint Peter the Apostle should be a summons to the entire Church to acknowledge the greatness of the priestly and religious vocation, and to acknowledge likewise the urgent need of ministers of God willing to surrender their lives generously to proclaiming the Gospel with faith and promptness of the Virgin Mary - she who is "the star of the evangelization" because she is the "Handmaid of the Lord". From the very beginning, the Society of Saint Peter the Apostle asked its members to invoke the Virgin daily under the title of "Mary, Queen of Apostles". In this new Advent of the Church, which is approaching its third millennium, let us pray to the Virgin Mary in the same words, just as Saint Therese of the Child Jesus did, so that she may raise up in the Church very many apostles and disciples of her Son, Jesus.

May the blessing of God be the reward of all those who are associated with the Society of Saint Peter the Apostle and of those whose vocations are favoured by it!

Vatican City, 1 October 1989, on the feast of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, in the eleventh year of my pontificate.