History of the Congregation
FRANCISCAN MISSIONARY BROTHERS
Inspiring Past, Promising Future . . . Journey Of CMSF
Knowing the history of an organization is essential to know and appreciate it for its service. It makes them rooted in the aspirations, vision, struggles and hopes of the founder and its early members and that will ensure faithful adherence to the organizational goal and mission. Knowing the past will help us to know the minds of the founder and the veteran missionaries and appreciate their personality which will revitalize the commitment of the members. Keeping this in mind I make a small attempt to read the history of CMSF especially the life and personality of Bro.Paulus which will enable us to rediscover and recapture his vocation and vision and the charism he bequeathed to our congregation.
The Congregation of the Missionary Brothers of St.Francis of Assisi (CMSF) is an international Society of Religious Brothers founded in 1901 in India by Very Rev.Bro.Paulus Moritz of Germany. Imbued with the spirit of St.Francis, Bro.Paulus Moritz treaded in the footsteps of Jesus, disenchanted by the vanity of richness. Love and compassion of Jesus towards the poor moved him to leave his native country Germany to be among the poor and untouchables of Indian villages. His advice to everyone was simple “take care of the poor and God will take care of you.” His vision to be a brother to the suffering brethren and his spirit of service find its fulfilment in the Congregation of the Missionary Brothers of St.Francis of Assisi (CMSF).
Bro.Paulus was an extra-ordinary and humble person in the Mission History of the Church about whom very little is known. CMSF was canonically erected on 21st February 1901 and was approved by the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide on 8th January 1921. It is a Religious Missionary Institute of Pontifical Rite under the Sacred Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The vision of Bro.Paulus to be a compassionate Brother for our teaming millions of people and missionary enthusiasm motivated him to establish this new Congregation. It was not a chance but a matter of choice Bro.Paulus and his early companions made.
The inspiration to found a new congregation could be traced back to the idea of Fr.Anthonius Maria Bodewig, a German Jesuit who later incardinated himself in his home diocese of Cologne. He initiated a missionary movement for the conversion of India with a view of eventually founding a Missionary Society for the evangelization of Indian subcontinent. Such a Missionary Society would have three branches, one for priests, one for Brothers and another one for Sisters. His vision was unfolded with the establishment of a new society christened as the Missionary Society of the Immaculate Conception for the Conversion of India in the year 1892. In this venture he was assisted by three young men who were always found in the company of Bodewig collaborating with him in the organisation of the above society and these three of them were said to be his early companions. One among them was Heymann Hermann Moritz who later founded CMSF. He was a Jewish convert to Catholicism and was originally from the East Prussian Capital, Konigsberg and a printer by profession. The other one was Hubert Ludovicus Hohn who later changed his name to Bro.Nicholas Hohn and he was to be the co-founder of CMSF. So our congregation was born because of the particular ecclesial perception of Bodewig, the congregation’s initial mentor.
In a short span many young men and women joined the society of Bodewig and separate community of brothers and sisters were formed. Heymann Hermann Moritz was appointed as superior (called as house prefect) who took the religious name Paulus. Both groups earned their living doing manual labours and wore religious habits. Although the idea of Bodewig was well intentioned, the new society has to run into rough weather as either he had not obtained ecclesiastical permission from the concerned diocesan authorities or his movement was looked with suspicion by the diocesan authorities. In 1895 Bodewig was suspended barring him from the exercise of his priestly ministries and that caused irreparable damage to his vision of a new society for the conversion of India.
However, Bodewig and his followers shifted the seat of his society to Belgium and in 1895 he sent a group of 22 missionaries (8 Brothers and 14 sisters) to India to be divided into two groups one for Lahore (now in Pakistan) and the other for Dacca (now in Bangladesh) and they arrived in Lahore on 12th January 1896. In the meantime Dacca Bishop being aware of the rift between Bodewig and the archbishop of Cologne instructed Bodewig not to send his members to his diocese. However, before being intimated of this decision, the team embarked their journey to India. Bishop Pelkman of Lahore was expecting only 10 members to his diocese. Therefore, he retained only eleven of them for his diocese and he compelled the rest to proceed to Dacca and thus five Brothers and six sisters were permitted to stay on in Lahore.
In the meantime being alerted by the archbishop of Cologne about the expedition of the members of Bodewig society, Propaganda directed the dioceses of Lahore and Dacca to disassociate from Bodewig and to disband his Missionary Society. Dacca bishop with the permission of Propaganda allowed the unfortunate team to join the existing congregations and thus except three brothers (who were sent back to Europe) all the others joined the existing congregation. Bishop of Lahore settled the issue of stranded group in his diocese, with the approval of Propaganda formed two groups of Franciscan Tertiary Congregations (one for sisters and other for brothers) and Bro.Nicholas Hohn was the prefect of Brothers group. In the meantime Bro.Paulus Moritz realizing that by sticking to Bodewig, who was already in ecclesiastical censures, he would not have realised his life’s dream of dedicating himself to the Indian mission switched his allegiance to the new group in Lahore and Bishop Pelkmans appointed him as the Episcopal Procurator for the Mission of Lahore in Europe and this might have taken place in 1987 itself. It was through the congregation’s association with the Capuchins of Lahore that it received its basic Franciscan character.
Year 1900 witnessed a severe famine in the central India and the diocese of Nagpur was one of the worst affected dioceses and personnel from other dioceses including Lahore came to assist the people affected by famine. A few Brothers from the Tertiary group of Lahore also came to assist the diocese of Nagpur. In the year 1900 Bro.Paulus came to India and landed up in Nagpur from where he moved to Lahore. On 2nd February 1901 i.e. on the Feast of Presentation of Our Lord, Bro.Paulus Moritz, along with four other companions was vested with the habit of the Third Order Regular of St.Francis d’Assisi, by Bishop Godfried Pelkmans of Lahore. On the same day itself Bishop constituted the German Tertiaries into a canonically erected Congregation of Franciscan Third Order Regular Tertiaries with the Rule of Pope Leo X and approved it as a Congregation of Diocesan Right under his protection. Bro.Rochus Goettler was appointed Superior General and Bro.Paulus Moritz was appointed Procurator General of the new congregation. Then Bro.Paulus Moritz moved to Nagpur to request Bishop Jean Marie Crochet of Nagpur to initiate the group in his diocese headed by Bro.Nicholas Hohn into the newly founded congregation. On 22nd February 1901, Bro.Nicholas Hohn and four others were vested with the habit of the Third Order Regular Franciscans through the hands of Bishop Crochet and on the same day the Bishop issued the decree of erection of the Nagpur unit of the Tertiary Franciscan Congregation of the Diocese of Lahore and this mission centre was headed by Bro.Paulus Moritz
In the meantime there was a sign of rupture between the Lahore and Nagpur group of Brothers. There was also estrangement of relationship between the Bishop of Lahore and Bro.Paulus. There was a clear ideological rift between the two groups on the type of apostolate the fledging congregation should choose. Lahore Bishop was not at all in favour of the German Tertiaries taking up any sort of direct evangelization work among the natives and had wanted that they as mere Brothers limit their apostolate to types of works traditionally referred to Lay Brothers within the walls of a monastic set up. The Lahore group had acquiesced themselves to this design. Whereas the Nagpur group, among whom the two leading exponents of the movement, namely Brothers Paulus Moritz and Nicholas Hohn, the depositories of the ideals of Bodewig for the evangelization of India, wanted to stick to the ideals aimed at by their mentor Bodewig. They as Brothers wanted to become pioneer missionaries, ground breakers in the Indian missions. Even though Bodewig had been reduced to a non-entity by ecclesiastical censure, the ideals that he had sowed found resonance and relevance in the Nagpur group more than in the Lahore group.
It was in this context the Nagpur group ventured a break with their Lahore counterparts. They dared this breach on ideological ground based on the vision of Bodewig which drew them to his band of followers. They wanted to be true to the original aim of their movement. The breach happened in February 1902. And thus the Nagpur group of Brothers decided not to have any ties with the Brothers at Lahore. The Nagpur group decided to form themselves into a separate congregation and Bro.Paulus Moritz was selected as their new Superior General. From Nagpur, the Brothers moved to Nimar district of the Central Province with Khandwa as the centre of the activities and the journey continues to this day.
The Congregation was founded specifically to evangelize India, to present Jesus Christ to the masses of India. The charism of the Franciscan Missionary Brothers is that of being PIONEERING MISSIONAIRES. This notion or concept is derived from the nature of the work of the Congregation had been doing from the beginning of its inception. The founder saw the role of the Brothers as Pioneers in the Mission Field: “that is to say, retaining the lay charism, the Brothers are to be the vanguards, the forerunners, the ground breakers, the heralds of the Gospel, a role akin to that of St.John the Baptist in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. Once the ground has been prepared, once the seeds of faith have been planted and their germination begins, the Brothers would move on to other areas unreached by the Gospel, leaving the nursing of the still young church and reaping the harvest to the diocese.
It was a bold vision from the part of Bro.Paulus to establish a congregation exclusively for evangelization while keeping the nature of the congregation lay in nature. Probably Franciscan Missionary Brothers must be the only international lay-missionary institute of men devoted to direct evangelization. Although the ultimate purpose of any congregation/order is for evangelization, they do it by using various other apostolates as mediums but the Franciscan Missionary Brothers are mandated with the responsibility of directly involving in evangelization. In this sense, the Franciscan Missionary Brothers are truly pioneers and forerunners. This gave them an edge over other missionaries and wherever the Brothers worked they received very good response from the people as well as ecclesial authorities.
It was Bro.Paulus and his early companions’ determination, true to Franciscan charism, has adopted to remain brothers. Thereby they have cut themselves off radically from entering in to the church hierarchy. The prophetic sign of their charism is to be a brother to everyone, even to the man/woman on the street. The ordinary Christian is able to identify him/herself easily with the Brothers. These traits of identity were jealously guarded as the hall-marks of the congregation, despite the overwhelming pressure that came to be exerted from within and without on the young and frail congregation.
Within a short span the congregation grew and many valiant young men partnered with Bro.Paulus to carry his vision forward. However, the young Congregation had to face insurmountable problems. The First World War (1914) and the Second World War (1939) severely affected the very survival of the young congregation as the German Brothers have been interned by the Britishers in India. But by the grace of God and the hard work of our veteran native Brothers gave a fresh lease of life to the young congregation and thus saving from demise.
The Congregation has sent down her roots very deep in the Indian soil and has assumed a truly Indian nature. Keeping up the basic characteristic of the community the Congregation in a span of 113 years has handed over 160 well developed Mission Stations to respective diocese many of them have grown into vibrant parishes and four of them into ecclesiastical dioceses. Over the years the Brothers have constructed more than 1500 churches in various parts of India. More than a million people became Christians due to the efforts of the Brothers. The Indian subcontinent is dotted with a number of CMSF presences, from deep down in Cape Comorin (the southernmost tip of the Indian Subcontinent) to high up to the Himalayas. The Brothers have over 80 centres in India alone spread out to four Provinces and a Region and a Province each in Sri Lanka and South America (Paraguay & Bolivia).
From India Brothers moved to other mission countries such as Sri Lanka, Paraguay, Bolivia and Ghana. Thus today the Brothers work in 10 countries besides mentioned above Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Canada and USA. As Jesus walked the dusty roads of Galilee of his day . . . so, too, the Franciscan Missionary Brothers continue to walk the dusty roads of India, the war torn roads of Sri Lanka, the jungle paths of Paraguay and Bolivia, and the slums of Ghana, carrying and embodying that message of Jesus. Franciscan Missionary Brothers carry with them a message of God’s love and compassion, of hope and healing; of peace and justice.
The Brothers work mainly in the grass-root evangelization front of the Indian church and nine other countries which apostolate is supported by a net work of people oriented developmental activities such as, Orphanages, Boys’ Homes, Schools, Colleges, Technical Schools, Dispensaries, Hospitals, Vocational Training Centres, Rehabilitation Centres, etc. The Brothers also involve in sponsoring higher educational institutions for the poor and run an engineering college and a MBA College. The Brothers take care of more than 2,000 orphan/destitute/poor children, impart quality vocational training in relevant income earning skills to over 2,000 under privileged early school leavers (school dropouts) and child workers every year, offer excellent quality education to more than 1,00,000 students. The Brothers have a vision to be at the service of the humanity by being an agent of change that will foster a just and humane society - more specifically to empower the socially and economically weaker and oppressed sections of the society. The Brothers live and work in communities of three or more and try to be living witnesses of Franciscan joy Brotherhood.
Today we are nearly 500 men from six different nations working on four continents. Regardless of where we serve or what we do, we journey with the people especially poor and marginalized, adopting a life style in harmony with that of the local community and local needs. The Brothers staff schools, clinics, take care of orphans, people with leprosy (Hansen’s disease), disabled and preach the Gospel in word and deed. Today we further this mission with our involvement to save the planet from environmental destruction; to prevent human trafficking; to give hope to people living with HIV/AIDS; to promote inter-religious dialogue; to heal the wounds of violence and war; and to join hands to create a just economic order. Even today our mission continues to focus on the poor, using the Gospel as our mandate. We continually seek to help those most in need, without regard to race, creed and nationality.
- Bro.Victor G. Stanislaus, CMSF.