by Elena Grazini
Vatican City (Agenzia Fides) - She dedicated her life to promoting and accompanying priestly vocations in mission countries. This is the story of Jeanne Bigard (see Fides, 14/4/2021), foundress of the Pontifical Society of St. Peter the Apostle, one of the four Pontifical Mission Societies, founded in 1889 after the founding of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith (POPF) in 1822 and the Pontifical Society of the Holy Childhood (POSI) in 1843. A story born from the profound missionary sensitivity of Jeanne Bigard, whose date of birth is tomorrow (8 December 1859) and of her mother, with whom she shared her lifelong commitment and dedication to supporting missionaries throughout the world.
The story began in the second half of the 19th century, a period in which numerous missionary institutes emerged and the “missio ad gentes” was revived. Jeanne Bigard and her mother read the writings of missionaries working in Africa, Asia and China and learned about the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith, which served missionary priests in proclaiming the Gospel. It was precisely the work of the Society for the Propagation of the faith that also inspired Marie-Zoé du Chesne, who, before the founding of POSPA, in Orléans in 1838 had founded the "Apostolic Society" which aimed to provide French Catholic missionaries abroad with chalices, pyxes and crucifixes, portable altars, sacred objects, tablecloths and other objects necessary for the exercise of their ministry.
Marie-Zoé du Chesne's intuition was to prove groundbreaking in the founding of POSPA, which continued to address these liturgical needs, but which also had the merit of emphasizing the importance of native vocations in the proclamation of the Gospel. Jeanne Bigard and her mother, inspired by the desire to make a concrete commitment, offered prayers and sacrifices for the missionaries and, at the same time, began to financially support the needs brought to their attention, creating a network of benefactors through close-knit and tireless educational work. It was a French missionary in Japan who introduced Bigard and her mother to the Vicar Apostolic of Nagasaki, Archbishop Jules-Alphonse Cousin, who had already founded a Seminary for the formation of Japanese priests but lacked the means to maintain it and to financially support every candidate for the priesthood. In 1899, Archbishop Cousin addressed Jeanne Bigard in a letter dated June 1, a letter that was to be the impetus for the founding of the Society of Saint Peter the Apostle. "I don't think Archbishop Cousin knew that the Society of St. Peter the Apostle would arise from this request," says Father Guy Bognon (PSS), General Secretary of the Society of St. Peter the Apostle. "From this seed," adds Father Bognon, "the Association of the Apostle Peter arose, later the Society of St. Peter the Apostle (for the formation of the local clergy), which exclusively addresses one of the most urgent needs for the spread of the Gospel: the formation of the clergy and the establishment and financial support for seminaries in mission countries”.
Already in 1893, less than four years after its founding, the Vicar Apostolic of Manchuria, Bishop Louis Guillon, praised the Society with the following words: "The Society of training local priests is the nerve of evangelization." In a letter dated March 25, 1896, he stated: "By increasing the native clergy, this Association of Saint Peter, so well suited to its times, will also increase tenfold the fruits of our apostolate... I thank God with all my heart that "he brought to life a Society that is so apostolic and suited to our needs." At about the same time, the Vicar Apostolic of Mysore in India, Bishop Louis Kleiner, declared in a letter dated March 27, 1895: "Certainly, no Society is more timely and cannot please God more, a Society which intends to provide the Missions with the means to equip the local clergy with training and growth".
In addition to the testimonies of the mission's beneficiaries, the Foundress had also received the favorable approval of several French bishops who were aware of her charitable activities. Bishop Augustus of Moulins, in a letter dated May 27, 1896, emphatically states that the usefulness, even the necessity, of the Society is undeniable. Faced with this indisputable necessity,
Pope Leo XIII asked that this Society be extended to all dioceses and parishes in all countries. After all, it says in a letter from Pope Benedict XV. signed 4 January 1921: We fervently hope that this Society will flourish in every diocese and also in every parish. With this hope, we heartily impart Our Apostolic Blessing to all the members and benefactors of this praiseworthy Society, so that it may be a pledge of grace and divine zeal". (Agenzia Fides, 7/12/2023)