Writing with a Mission. The correspondence of Vincentian missionaries with Paris and Rome, 1645-1689

In September 2014 I completed my master thesis entitled “Writing with a Mission. The correspondence of Vincentian missionaries with Paris and Rome, 1645-1689”. While collaborating on an online collection of documents regarding the Congregation of the Mission that can be found in the Vatican Archives (especially the Propaganda Fide branch), I became interested in understanding better how the correspondence that I was looking at functioned in practice. Moreover, I was curious to understand how the recipients of the letters, i.e. Vincent de Paul himself and the cardinals of Propaganda Fide in Rome, tried to assess their trustworthiness. The aim of my thesis project therefore was to understand how the practical aspects of correspondence, as well as the dynamic of trust and mistrust influenced the communication between the Vincentian missionaries in Scotland and North Africa with their superiors in Paris and Rome in the seventeenth century.

I discovered that correspondence was the principal way to exchange material and spiritual assistance in return for obedience, information and prayers. Since the missionaries themselves were the main source of information on the mission, to understand whether the requested help was really needed, the superiors and prelates needed to assess the trustworthiness of the writers. The exchange was immediately hampered when trusted lacked. Where this was not the case, major obstacles for effective communication could be the complexity of sending letters over large distances. Both the time it took for a letter to arrive and the danger that it would be lost or intercepted negatively influenced the efficacy of communication. An important way to limit these problems was to rely on a complex network of intermediaries, such as the nuncios, procurators and vicars, who could function as trustworthy substitutes nearer to the recipient of a letter.

When a message would arrive, the effectiveness of correspondence depended on the writing strategies used. The prelates in Rome, the superiors and the Vincentian missionaries all wrote with a mission: they wrote to convince ‘the other side’. Rhetoric in the Vincentian correspondence was always both an expression of the opinion and needs of the missionary, and a (conscious or unconscious) response to what was expected ‘from above’. Writing strategies included keeping silent about certain things that might compromise one’s trustworthiness, and telling those stories that the writer believed might enhance it. Using recognizable commonplaces, quantification of success and a well thought-out sequence of a letter would also contribute to the effectiveness of writing. Although this strategic writing is an important aspect of the correspondence, we should not reduce the missionaries’ aim to merely obtaining things: the Vincentians also wished to simply recount what they retained essential in their experience.

By examining three specific case-studies, I discovered that trustworthiness was an essential, but not self-evident part of communication. It had to be assessed and built up over time. Also the participants in the correspondence did not see it as a finished artifact, but were constantly trying to decide whom to trust. As to the day-to-day practice of letter writing, my research shows that the missionaries consciously chose what to write to whom and what to keep silent about: certain details would enhance the effectiveness of their letters, while other information would only incite mistrust.

In our age of instant communication one easily underestimates the efforts that a seventeenth century missionary had to take to communicate with his superiors from a distance. My findings elucidate how the limitations of correspondence greatly influenced the day-to-day life of the Vincentian missionaries.