On the feast of the Epiphany 400 years ago, Pope Gregory XV founded a Vatican congregation dedicated to spreading the Gospel: Propaganda Fide.
Today, the founding of the Vatican’s missionary arm, now known as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, is commemorated by a special chapel inside its office by the Spanish Steps: the Chapel of the Magi.
The chapel was first built in the 17th century by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the sculptor who created the baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica and the colonnades embracing St. Peter’s Square. But the chapel was later enlarged and reconstructed by the architect Francesco Borromini.
This is the chapel where the future saint John Henry Newman was ordained a Catholic priest in 1847.
The Chapel of the Magi can be viewed during a tour of the congregation’s Missionary Museum, located by the Spanish Steps, along with the Borgia Collection of antiquities from missions around the world.
The chapel still contains its original paintings of the Conversion of St. Paul by Carlo Pellegrini (1635), the Adoration of the Magi by Giacinto Gimignani (1634), and The Mission of the Apostles by Lazzaro Baldi.
After founding Propaganda Fide on Jan. 6, 1622, Pope Gregory XV went on to canonize Saints Francis Xavier, Ignatius of Loyola, Isidore the Laborer, Philip Neri, and Teresa of Avila three months later.
With these missionary saint intercessors, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith set about its mission of disseminating the faith throughout the world.
Five years after its founding, Pope Urban VIII established the Urbanum, a pontifical college dedicated to the formation of candidates for the priesthood from mission countries.
The congregation sent instructions to all missionaries to China in 1659 encouraging the promotion of local clergy.
Propaganda Fide set up its own printing press, Polyglotta, for the production of religious books in the languages of mission territories in 1926.
Today, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples is one of the largest curial departments, with a size and scope exceeding almost any other.
Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle serves as its prefect, and there are 1,117 ecclesiastical circumscriptions dependent on the congregation throughout the world.
The long-awaited new Vatican constitution, expected to be called Predicate evangelium, is said to contain a reform that would combine Propaganda Fide with the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization to create an even larger “Dicastery for Evangelization.”
With this potential change, perhaps the next chapter in the Propaganda Fide’s long history will be written in the new year.
“The establishment of the Sacred Congregation De Propaganda Fide in 1622 was motivated by the desire to promote the missionary mandate in new territories,” Pope Francis said.
“A providential insight! The Congregation proved to be crucial for setting the Church’s evangelizing mission truly free from interference by worldly powers, in order to establish those local Churches which today display such great vigor.”
“It is our hope that, as in its past four centuries, the Congregation, with the light and strength of the Spirit, will continue and intensify its work of coordinating, organizing, and promoting the Church’s missionary activities.”