– Marco Carvalho
The St Joseph’s Seminary will play host next Thursday to the fifth and second to last lecture of the conference cycle which is dedicated by the Faculty of Religious Studies of the University of Saint Joseph (USJ) to Maximum Illud, the apostolic letter published a century ago by Pope Benedict XV with which the then Pontiff aimed to give a new impetus to the missionary efforts of the Catholic Church.
One of the fundamental aspects of Maximum Illud was the push for “the creation and organization of an indigenous clergy” so that local missionaries could conduct evangelization efforts. The effort made both by the Vatican and by various religious congregations to accelerate the preparation and spiritual formation of indigenous priests sets the tone for Wednesday’s conference, led by father Franz Gassner, the coordinator of the Department of Catholic Theology at the University of St Joseph.
In his lecture, called “Maximum Illud and Religious congregations: the Struggle for the first indigenous seminaries,” the Austrian priest will address the resistance that the apostolic letter promulgated 100 years ago by Benedict XV aroused in some Catholic communities, notably in the United States of America.
“There were people within the church in the US, inclusive bishops and clerics, who did not understand, or did not want to understand and follow well grounded papal decisions. Some American clergy argued that the pope had not intended his encyclical Maximum Illud for the United States, with its “unique race conditions,” Franz Gassner illustrates. “Such a split or exclusive mind set is in fact the exact opposite of ‘catholic,’ which can be also translated as ‘comprehensive,’ ‘inclusive,’” the coordinator of USJ’s Department of Catholic Theology claims.
Gassner exemplifies this with the treatment given to the first African-American priests formed in the United States by the congregation to which he belongs, the Society of the Divine Word: “One of the first priests was sent to help out in a parish in Louisiana, but the parish did not accept him due to the fact that he was black. So the bishop promulgated an interdict on this parish, meaning, it was forbidden to say Mass there at all. Only this severe measure taken by the bishop was able to change the mindset and opened the way to accept an Afro-American priest to help out in the community,” the Austrian missionary recalls. “To overcome these struggles courage was needed and the full support from the Roman Pontiff and of the local bishop, which was luckily the case with Pope Benedict XV and Pope Pius XII, who wrote even a strong personal letter of support in April 1923 to the Superior General of the Society of the Divine Word, Fr William Gier SVD, on the occasion of the opening of the first Seminary for Afro-Americans in the US in Bay St. Louis, near New Orleans, Louisiana,” Father Gassner sustains.
Luckily, Macau is again in a position to assist the Church in Asia in this task. “Currently, there are 60 students from South-East Asia studying philosophy and theology at the Faculty of Religious Studies, preparing for their ministry in church and society in Asia and beyond,” he asserts.