· Vatican City ·

For the 400th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Sacred Congregation ‘de Propaganda Fide’

To coordinate and spearhead the missionary activity of the Church

 To coordinate and spearhead  the missionary activity of the Church  ING-024
17 June 2022

From the point of view of the history of the Church, and especially from that of the missions, the founding of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, better known as ‘de Propaganda Fide’ or as simply ‘Propaganda’, was an event of major importance. As a central office in the Roman Curia since 1622, the missionary Congregation has been entrusted with the responsibility of directing missionary activities throughout the world.

Following the Council of Trent (1545-1563), a new Roman Congregation was needed to be an instrument in the hands of the Pope for furthering the interior reform of the Church in European countries, some of which had fallen into Protestantism, and for regaining the lost areas wherever possible. The new Congregation would, moreover, contribute to furthering close relations with the Orthodox Church. In addition to all these, it would be responsible for the spread of the Catholic faith in America, Asia and Africa.

Besides, there were other factors which necessitated a missionary Congregation in the Roman Curia. The ecclesiastical and political situations at the beginning of the 17th century also contributed to the founding of a central office. In particular, the administration of the missions under the terms of the Patronage System demanded urgent attention. Such a procedure had to be removed and to be replaced by another system which could better ensure the promotion of missionary activities and enable the missionaries in winning over the hearts and minds of the local populace.

Reform was also urgently needed to bring about a more united and concerted missionary action. The increasing number of missionaries coming from various religious institutes and the secular priests involved in the propagation of the faith required such a unified approach.

Pope Gregory XV’s short reign (1621-1623) was of great significance for the Catholic revival. The first Jesuit-trained pope, Gregory XV strove not only to continue the inner renewal of the Church but to regain the ground it had lost. Pope Gregory XV founded the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in 1622 with the aim of providing the Church with a supreme central authority covering the whole mission field. The office’s guiding idea was that, as universal shepherd of souls, the Pope had an overriding responsibility for propagating the faith. The newly established department was to coordinate and spearhead the missionary activity of the Church hitherto supervised by Catholic Sovereigns of Spain and Portugal. The erection of Propaganda was, by itself, an act that would assure the pontificate of Gregory XV a lasting place in history. The foundation of this Congregation introduced a new epoch of mission history in the modern period.

Gregory XV called the new Congregation into existence on January 6, 1622. The choice of the Solemnity of the Feast of Epiphany, the ancient memorial day of the call of the heathen to the Kingdom of Christ and his teachings is indicative of what was believed to be the principal task of the Congregation. At the same time it also refers to Christ’s missionary mandate (Mt 28:18-20) and the pastoral responsibility of the Pope toward all peoples.

The apostolic constitution Inscrutabili Divinae of June 22, 1622, in the first place, claimed for the Pope, in the fullest degree, the duty and right to spread the faith as the chief task of the papal role of shepherd of souls1.

The accent on the pastoral element is striking. Repeated reference is made to the Pope’s pastoral duties, one of which is that of leading those who stand outside to enter the fold of Christ. Numbered among those who stand outside are Christians separated by schism or heresy as well as infidels. Just as Christ had done everything for the salvation of men so must the Pope do all he can to lead men to the Church.

Hence the entire mission system was to be subordinated to the Roman central authority. All missionaries were to depend on it in the most direct manner possible and be sent out by it. Missionary methods were to be regulated, and mission fields to be assigned by it.

The second part of the constitution refers to the solemn canonical erection of the new Congregation. The order of business of the Congregation is then given in broad outline. The Pope erected the Congregation composed of 13 cardinals and two prelates and a secretary to whom he committed and recommended the affairs of the propagation of the faith.

Pope Gregory XV exercised great care in placing this new Congregation upon a solid foundation by endowing more favours and privileges. Under the new Dicastery mission work received a new impetus. The new Congregation’s competence was very broad, embracing all matters related to missionary activity.

The centralisation of the Church’s missionary activity under a single Dicastery had many advantages, especially in ensuring a better coordination for the mission work. The spiritual and material assistance could be accomplished in a more harmonious manner, taking into due account the global situation of the needs of the mission territories.

Gregory’s successor, Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644), gave strong support to the progress of the missions by setting up a Polyglot Printing Press (1626). In addition, he founded the Urban College in Rome (1627) for training missionaries and sending them especially to the Far East.

Mons. Francis Ingoli (1578-1649), from Ravenna, was appointed as the first Secretary of the new Congregation and was entrusted with the huge task of laying the foundation for its effective functioning. With great zeal, Ingoli worked for 27 years in guiding the activities of this young Congregation through various initiatives.

The palace where the Congregation now has its offices, does not have a single, unified structure. This is because of the several edifices, built at various times and by different architects. The original nucleus consists of the palace, built in the 16th century by Cardinal Ferratini in the Piazza di Spagna, which was then called the Trinità de Monti Square. Mons. John Baptist Vives (1545-1632) from Valencia in Spain, bought the palace from the heirs of the Cardinal in 1613 and after various law-suits in court, took possession of it in 1625, making a gift of it, to the Congregation. He would later be entrusted with the founding and direction of the Urban College in 1626 and, later in 1633, the headquarters of the Sacred Congregation too were established in its present site2.

Between 1639 and 1646, the eastern wing of the palace was built by architect Gaspare de Vecchi. At the same time, the important work of consolidating the Ferratini Palace had to be undertaken. Gian Lorenzo Bernini gave the building its present new façade in 1644.

In the pontificate of Innocent X, Francesco Borromini who was appointed the architect of the Congregation in 1646, designed and constructed the new Urban College with its monumental façade on the Via di Propaganda and also the new Chapel which replaced the Berninian Oratory. For various reasons, the work was prolonged over a period of some 20 years and was completed in 1665 in the pontificate of Alexander VII.

*Office Head
Dicastery for Evangelisation

1  Cf. ‘Costituzione Apostolica di Erezione della Sacra Congregazione (22 June 1622)’ in Sacrae Congregationis de Propaganda Fide Memoria Rerum, edited by Metzler, J., vol. III, 2, 662-664.

2  For further detail, cf. Antonazzi, G., “La Sede della Sacra Congregazione e del Collegio Urbano” in Memoria Rerum, vol. I, 1, 306-334.

by Mons. Camillus Johnpillai*