(From the Constitutions – Introduction and Part One nn.1-6)
The Congregation of the Christian Doctrine Fathers was founded by Father César de Bus, “a man of great piety, full of zeal for the Word of God”. Born on February 3, 1544 in Cavaillon, France, after an exemplary childhood and adolescence, between the ages of eighteen and thirty, while seeking his place in society, first as a soldier and then as a man of the court, César eventually lost his primitive fervor. However, God, with the help of two exemplary Christian laymen, Louis Guyot and Antoinette Réveillade, gradually led him to conversion, which took place about the Holy Year of 1575.
At the age of about 38, having completed his studies, César was ordained a priest. Guided by the Spirit and touched by the material and spiritual misery of his people, caused by war, famine and plague, he chose to serve the local Church by devoting himself to the ministry of preaching and the “exercise of Christian Doctrine”.
For a short time, Father César lived in relative solitude in the hermitage of Saint Jacques in Cavaillon, where he found light and strength in meditating on the Holy Scriptures and studying the Roman Catechism. In this way he made his own the psalmist’s prayer: “Your word is a lamp for my steps and a light for my path” (Ps 118:105). This experience confirmed him in the intuition that “there is no more effective means of bringing back to the paths of salvation so many lost sheep than the continual exercise of this holy doctrine, the pillar and foundation on which the Church rests”.
The Council of Trent and the lives and works of eminent figures of his time had a great influence on his path to holiness and his choice of catechism: St Philip Neri with his Oratory; St Ignatius of Loyola and the Society of Jesus, thanks also to his spiritual director, the Jesuit Father Pierre Péquet and, above all, St Charles Borromeo, of whom Father César, towards the end of his life, was to say: “I was so struck and inflamed by the desire to imitate him that I could not find peace until I had accomplished something in this sense”.
A small group of clergymen, ten priests and one deacon, formed around him, attracted by the holiness of his life, his apostolic enthusiasm and his way of giving catechesis. On 29th September 1592, at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, in Provence, they met to find the most effective way to teach Christian Doctrine, to draw up some rules of common life, and to ask the Bishop for a place to live together. Thus, the Congregation of the Christian Doctrine Fathers was born.
The first rules highlight the twofold purpose of our Institute: the exercise of Christian Doctrine addressed to all, especially the small and the poor, and that of charity, implemented through common life. The private vow of obedience is also foreseen in these rules; only after the death of the Founder, for greater fidelity of the members, were public vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and the promise of perpetual stability in the Congregation introduced.
The Congregation was approved by Clement VIII, with the Brief Exposcit debitum of 23 December 1597, which confirmed its character and mission: to instruct children and simple people by proclaiming the Word of God, celebrating the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation, and teaching the Creed, the Commandments and the precepts of the Church.
Later on, our Tradition would fix the spiritual and apostolic legacy left to us by the Founder in the coat of arms of the Congregation, formed by a cross adorned with the instruments of the Lord’s passion and the words “In doctrinis glorificate Dominum” (Vulgate Is 24, 15).
In the wake of the Council of Trent, up to Vatican II
The Doctrinaire Congregation, which arose in the wake of the renewal of the Council of Trent, finds confirmation of its vocation in the spirit of Vatican II. It is recognised by the Church as a clerical institute of apostolic life of pontifical right with the name of Fathers of Christian Doctrine or Doctrinaires (DC). Formed by priests and brothers, it demands from its sons a deep union with Christ “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:8), to be achieved through the faithful observance of the Constitutions.
The charism of the Founder and the first confreres is already well highlighted in one of the first rules: “Let them all be firmly rooted in Christian Doctrine and charity; […] the entire perfection of our Congregation has these two virtues as its foundation”. Therefore, this is the doctrinaire charism: fraternal life in community in view of “the exercise of Christian Doctrine”, that is, the proclamation of the Word of God through a catechesis that is accessible, comprehensible and close to the lives of the recipients.
The Congregation is marked by a great trust in God’s mercy; it maintains itself in a state of permanent individual and community conversion; it is nourished by contemplation of the mystery of the Cross in union with Mary; it recognises in the practice of asceticism an indispensable means of sanctification and mission; it knows how to find in the religious community and in the local Church the conditions for reaching its full maturity “according to the measure of the gift of Christ” (Eph 4:7).
The doctrinaire charism, enriched through the ages by the witness of confreres illustrious for their holiness and doctrine and, in some, for the grace of martyrdom, involves a particular way of sanctification and apostolate. It finds nourishment and strength in listening to the Word of God: in prayer, meditation and the study of Sacred Scripture, in knowledge of Tradition and the Magisterium, and in attention to the demands of truth and life contained in people’s hearts.
The topicality of the charism of the Congregation, highlighted by numerous documents of the Church on the primacy of evangelisation in the mission, on the one hand makes us grateful to the Lord, and on the other calls us to the joyful responsibility of an ever deeper knowledge of this gift with a view to its further development.
The exercise of Christian Doctrine over the centuries
As the Constitutions of 1667 affirm, “the aim of the Congregation has always been and must always be to attend constantly to its own salvation and to the salvation of others, above all by teaching Christian Doctrine according to the Roman catechism”. The Caput Summum of the Constitutions in n. 1 specifies how this exercise of Christian Doctrine is to be carried out: “The exercise of our office is divided into three levels, or types of doctrine: small, medium and large doctrine. This method has not only been handed down to us and prescribed by the Founder but also approved and greatly recommended by the Holy See. “
Throughout the centuries, according to the needs of times and places, the activities that highlight the charism of the Congregation have changed: from the occasional preaching, to missions, schools… Everything that is needed to make Jesus Christ and Christian Doctrine known to everyone is used by the Fathers. This conviction has become part of the doctrinal tradition, as the Caput Summum of the Constitutions shows: “In the course of the discourses no controversy should be proposed, no difficult questions raised, and no doctrinal novelties touched upon; on the contrary, carefully chosen comparisons and examples should be frequent; sayings and facts of pagan writers should not be quoted except rarely and with great prudence, as well as fables and other similar profane expressions; no quotations should be made in Greek or Hebrew, few in Latin, and nothing that is not immediately translated into the vernacular; and if it is a question of Sacred Scripture, the strictly literal sense should be adhered to. The style used should not be flowery, refined or overly sophisticated, but simple and familiar, above all pious and suitable for arousing devotion. At the end there should be a recapitulation by subject of what has been said, and in all things the method of teaching that the Founder has entrusted through his writings and his example and recommended in his words should be followed.” And in another part it says: “The Congregation took on the task of teaching not only in the churches or basilicas of the cities, but also in villages and rural chapels, in private homes, in the fields, on farms or in villages, on ships, in prisons, in hospitals, during journeys and walks, in visits to the sick and to friends; in short, wherever and however it was given the opportunity to evangelise”.
These are some of the areas in which the exercise of Christian Doctrine, over the centuries, has developed and been confirmed by competent authority.
At the service of catechesis through the Compendium of Christian Doctrine, at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries
Following the example of Father César, who was convinced that the Catechismus ad parochos, ordered by the Council of Trent, was written for priests and not directly for the faithful, to whom it had to be adapted, the Doctrinaires too based their catechetical activity on a careful study of the Catechism of the Council of Trent and the way of proposing it “made to measure”, without however losing its effectiveness. To this end, they took their cue from the things and facts of the day to make people think about how to shape and enrich their lives in the light of the Word of God and His love. Here are two examples of Doctrinaires who wrote Compendia of Christian Doctrine.
In 1704 Father Boriglioni was transferred to Rome, to the small House with the church of San Nicola degli Incoronati attached. This House had also served since 1659 as the House of the General Procuration of the Congregation and was the only house of the Doctrinaires in Rome. It was mainly during this period that Father Boriglioni wrote the Compendium of Christian Doctrine. Its structure is very simple. Christian Doctrine is set out in four parts: faith, hope, charity and religion. Everything is presented in the form of a question and answer. This work had 14 editions, with great success, in different parts of Italy. With this work, Father Boriglioni was part of the catechetical tradition of the Congregation of Christian Doctrine: simplicity in exposition, addressing the simple people, formulation in questions and answers.
Among the catechetical works that the Doctrinaire of Sospello, Father Ottavio Imberbi, printed, we remember the book “The Christian Doctrine according to the method and practice of the Doctrinaire Fathers of Avignon”. It was printed in Viterbo in 1710 and dedicated to Cardinal Santacroce, bishop of that city. It had many editions at different times and in different cities. In 1862 there was the 23rd edition and in 1897 in Rome there was a reprint with the title Compendium of Christian Doctrine. The first time this “Doctrine” was printed, it was honored with the wise reflections of St. Joseph Mary Tomasi, a Theatine Cardinal, and was in use in all the public schools directed by the Doctrinaires.
At the service of catechesis through popular missions
The General Chapter of the Congregation of 1711 recognized the experience and success gained by Father Badou in his way of conducting doctrinaire missions and instructed him to draw up a plan for the Missions that would serve the whole Congregation to make the missions more uniform and useful in the service of the Church and the people to whom they were addressed. In 1716 Father Badou published a very successful book “Spiritual Exercises with a Catechism and Canticles to Help People Profit from the Missions”. The book is a manual for the missionary; it contains everything that needs to be done, a collection of prayers, canticles, instructions for the faithful and above all a kind of “Mission Journal”. His book is a living mission; in the preface, Father Badou says: “I publish it as I teach it”. Each mission was made up of four or five Doctrinaires, one of whom was called the “head of the Mission”. The Instructions essentially concerned two objects: Penance and the Eucharist. In 1823 the “Biographie Toulousaine” presented Father Badou as the most illustrious and the holiest of the Missionaries of his time.
At the service of catechesis in schools
In 1706, in preparation for the entry of the Doctrinaires into Civitavecchia, a memorial on the Congregation was given to Cardinal Santacroce. It states that the aim of the Congregation is ‘to establish a college for the education of youth and the instruction of Christian Doctrine. The institute consists in the education of youth in the colleges, where they teach all the sciences; in the formation of ecclesiastics in the seminaries; in instructing and exciting the listener to piety in the missions and in teaching Christian Doctrine everywhere and to all, with a method so easy, familiar and fruitful that it is particular to their Congregation, and with that happy success that the Lord God gives it by showering abundant blessings on it”.
In 1854 Father Meloccaro, on the occasion of his re-election as Superior General, wrote a letter to all the confreres centered on the importance of the exercise of Christian Doctrine for every Doctrinaire and affirmed: “Our Constitutions strongly demand that if the sciences must flourish in our colleges and schools in correspondence with our commitments, the first and principal care for the Preceptors must be that of Religion and Morals. It is for this reason that they have wisely established that in each school lessons and explanations of the catechism should take place every day…”. And further on in the letter, referring to the fact that the Founder wants us to be a “living catechism,” he says that an important characteristic of every Doctrinaire should be simplicity in speech. In this way all listeners are reached, in imitation of the Founder, whose style was familiar and simple, “his well-connected, judicious and gracefully delivered discourses were listened to with pleasure and profit not only by the common people but also by the learned”. Father Meloccaro goes on to say that Doctrinaires, in addition to leading the people of God by teaching Christian Doctrine, must also exercise all the ministries inherent in the priestly state, such as preaching, hearing confessions, directing seminaries, parishes and missions.
School teaching does not impede [the teaching of the] Doctrine, indeed it is a privileged opportunity for it. The Italian boarding schools continued to follow the tradition imported by the French fathers: the time reserved for catechetical teaching is greater than in the boarding schools of other institutes; the discipline is more lenient; the teachers are open, balanced and humane.
At the service of catechesis in parishes and catechetical schools
In 1725 the Congregation was entrusted with the pastoral care of the parish of Santa Maria in Monticelli in Rome. It is interesting to note that the Doctrinaires of Santa Maria, as well as looking after the parish, ran a school and did catechism in St. Peter’s Basilica; in fact, every Sunday five Fathers were going to the Basilica to make their charism available to the people. This practice lasted until around 1900.
The travails of the early 1900s and the revival
In the first decade of 1900 the Congregation of the Christian Doctrine Fathers was going through such a difficult period that it led the Congregation of Religious to send an Apostolic Visitor. He summoned the whole Community and said that in the name of Cardinal Vives-j-Tuto, Prefect of the Religious, he was handing over the leadership of the Congregation of the Christian Doctrine Fathers to Monsignor Angelo Struffolini, former Secretary General of the Doctrinaires, Bishop of Ascoli Satriano, who, for this reason, was resigning the leadership of the diocese of Ascoli Satriano to return to the service of the Congregation full time. He immediately set to work, presenting the list of the General Council and the Superiors of all the Houses, which were approved by the Prefect of the Congregation for Religious. The first thought of the new Superior General was to increase the Formation House and the Novitiate Houses. He encouraged the organisation of the Fathers to do “the exercise of Christian Doctrine” in various Roman Churches. Pope Benedict XV, in a private audience, wanted to know from Monsignor Struffolini how his work in favor of the Congregation was developing and remained delighted with the initiative of the Catechisms and the new House of Formation. Father General also favored the centrality of Rome and the House of S. Maria in Monticelli by setting up a Catechetical Centre. In agreement with the Vicariate of Rome he opened Catechetical Schools that functioned at St John Lateran, at San Sisto Vecchio, at Quo Vadis and at the Church of the Crucifix at Ponte Quattro Capi. The ‘rebirth’ of the Congregation had, as its priority, formation and catechesis.