A little bit of history


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The White Fathers are an important part of who I am. I did philosophy in Ireland 1961-63, Novitiate in England in 1963-64 and came to Canada (Eastview, Ottawa) for Theology in 1964. Although his language betrays the prejudices of a European male of the 19th century look at Cardinal Lavigerie’s proposal.

John Quinn 



Taken from the White fathers’ international website, with kind permission:

” . . . a letter which Cardinal Lavigerie wrote to Leo Xlll in 1890, asking him to consider setting up a commission to study the idea of ordaining married African men to the priesthood. 120 years ago. ”

Historians agree that Cardinal Lavigerie was a man who took numerous initiatives which combine to show him as a man of courage and creativity. Among these initiatives was the proposed establishment of a married priesthood for Sub-Saharan Africans, in other words after the first arrival of his missionaries in Equatorial Africa.

On 1st July 1890, Lavigerie wrote a letter to Pope Leo XIII in which he explained the necessity of establishing such clergy. He also gave his reasons clearly influenced by the ‘anthropology’ of the time. Mindful of the seriousness of his proposal, he forewarned Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.

[Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni]

Two days ago I had the privilege of writing to the Holy Father, respectfully advising him of the short address which I made on Sunday last to 20 Algerian missionaries who were departing for Equatorial Africa. In the letter I took the opportunity to ask His Holiness a very delicate question on the subject of the training of native African clergy, a question which deals with the subject of married clergy and which is not something for public discussion, nor seeking a reply from His Holiness.”

We know from Fr. Burtin that Lavigerie’s proposal was not accepted. In May 1909 Cardinal Lavigerie’s former representative to the Holy See wrote to Mgr. Livinhac stating that the question posed at the time was “very serious” and that the Holy Office was obliged to reject it. (2)

Let’s look at this famous letter written by Cardinal Lavigerie to Pope Leo XIII (3):


Most Holy Father,

ijpg I have the honour of laying before Your Holiness, a copy of the short address which I have just made to twenty missionaries of Algiers who were about to depart. They are leaving, as Your Holiness knows, for interior Africa as requested of me by the superiors of these these missionaries, and in particular by Mgr. Livinhac Vicar Apostolic of Uganda and Lake Nyanza, now Vicar General of the missionaries of Algiers.

Your Holiness, I would like you to know what I said from the pulpit of our cathedral which was filled with the faithful and the missionaries who were about to depart. Please note what I said on a subject which concerns the departure of our new apostles. Among their number were two negroes from Eastern Sudan, whom I had rescued from slavery fifteen years ago in interior Africa, along with many other blacks. There were also the children who I had brought up to act as auxiliaries to our White Fathers in the African missions. With the same aim, twelve years ago I also founded in Malta, with the authorisation of the Ordinary and of the British government, an institute to develop these children in the study and practice of medicine, within the island’s university.

Many of these young trained doctors have already left for our missions in Tanganika, where they have been so successful that Mwanga, the king of Uganda, now re-established on his throne, has asked me to send some. Your Holiness will see this in the letter sent to me by the black prince, and which is referred to at the end of my address. (4)

This situation leads me to share with Your Holiness something which has caused me ongoing and deep disquiet in regard to the missions among the Negroes of Africa. This is the training of church personnel who will one day take over the missions which we are currently establishing. To hope that we may continue to be able to send enough European priests is to seek for Utopia. To hope that the deaths caused by the climate may diminish is even more like seeking for Utopia, having regard to number of victims we have already seen and continue to see in the areas allocated to us.

What is essential now is to be able to train priests from among the blacks. We have heard this wish expressed among the young at the University of Malta, but have had to reject them as it is quite impossible, and has been perhaps for many centuries, to train a black clergy. I am convinced through my own experience of the absolute truth of the words of Salvien, which Your Holiness knows “Tam inauditum est Afrum non esse impudicum quam Afrum non esse Afrum.”

We are likely to be faced with the serious question as to whether we should not permit marriage among native African clergy who so wish, whether as a result of where they live or as a result of ‘normal relationships’ among the Negro population, as we have already done from the outset among the priests of Egypt and Abyssinia.

This is where undoubtedly we have a huge problem, which we should not just view as a problem, but as something which we will have to address in time. I believe that it is appropriate for Your Holiness, after all you have seen fit to do for the blacks, to take the initiative of instigating a study by the Sacred Congregation for Propaganda.

I would be very happy to present to the Congregation, of which I have the honour to be a member, the arguments in favour or against whatever proposals may be presented. It is for Your Holiness to weigh up in your wisdom and to decide what is best to do, but in conscience I feel respectfully obliged to draw this to your attention.

I am honoured to be ever at your holy feet,

Holy Father,

Your Holiness,

Your humble servant and creature,

Charles Cardinal Lavigerie.

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