Paolo Manna, son of Vincenzo and Lorenza Ruggiero, was born in 1872 in Avellino into a family that would have 6 children; 2 were to be priests, one a doctor and one a university lecturer. His mother died when he was only two, he was educated by relatives on his father’s side and had a troubled adolescence. He completed his studies to become a priest in Rome and having read ‘The Catholic Missions’, now ‘World and mission’, he joined the PIME and was ordained in 1895. He departed for Eastern Burma but suffered in the humid climate. Along with other members of his family, he became ill with tuberculosis and in 1905 returned to Italy declaring himself a “failed missionary”. In 1891, he went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes where he asked the Virgin Mary not for his health but to love Jesus and give his life to extending the Kingdom of God. In 1909, Manna was made the director of “The Catholic Missions” and immediately demonstrated his extraordinary missionary zeal: while the characteristics which had made it famous were not abandoned, “The Catholic Missions” became a source of proposals and provocations. In almost every issue, Manna took the opportunity to promote missionary books, popular pamphlets, calendars, appeals for missionary vocations and exhortations to pray for missionaries. He created and began the “missionary zelatrices” in dioceses and parishes to promote the Societies for the Propagation of the Faith and the Holy Childhood in Italy, as at that time they were still in France. In 1909, Fr Manna published “Operarii autem pauci” and sent a copy to Saint Pius X. It was answered with a handwritten letter, an exceptional occurrence which greatly boosted the missionary spirit of the author. However, the book was banned in many diocesan seminaries as it encouraged the young to love Jesus Christ, inviting them to give their lives for the Kingdom of God in mission. In 1916, Paolo Manna founded the Missionary Union of the Clergy, approved by Pope Benedict XV. In 1919, he founded the periodical “Missionary Italy” for missionary vocations and established the “Missionary circles” in diocesan seminaries, from whence came many vocations for the missions. In 1942, he wrote “The Separated Brethren and Us” which shook the Italian Church and, even though it was written during the time of war, caused much discussion among bishops and priests. In 1950, two years before his death, Fr Manna wrote “Our Churches and the propagation of the Gospel – for the solution of the missionary problem”. It became the origin of the Encyclical of Pius XII “Fidei Donum” (1957) which opened missions to the diocesan clergy. Manna stated that all the bishops, priests and the baptized faithful are responsible for the mission among the non-Christians; the announcement of Christ cannot be entrusted only to religious orders and missionary institutes: “Let’s mobilize, organize all the Church for the missions; let’s make the apostolate for the spreading of the Gospel the duty of all who believe in Christ”. The book proposed that “missionary seminaries in all the ecclesiastic provinces” should rise to send diocesan priests and lay in mission. The Missionary Union of the Clergy was founded in 1916 with the crucial help of Guido Maria Conforti, Archbishop of Parma and Founder of the Xaverian Missionaries; its objective was to inflame priests with the love of Christ and then “Light a big flame of apostolic zeal in all the Christian people for the conversion of the world”. Later in 1934, in a long, intense article on “The Missionary Thought”, Fr Manna complained that the missionary Union was misinterpreting the initial spirit, reducing the association simply to an instrument aimed at impressing and moving people in order to make money: “The work of God does not move by these means”. In a few years the Missionary Union of the Clergy had spread all over the world: in 1919 there were 4,035 members in Italy (including the future Pius XI and Saint John XXIII), in 1920 there were 10,255 and in 1923 16,000 priests (later the Union was to be extended to men and women religious). Manna was convinced that everything in the Church depended on the clergy: “The solution to the missionary problem – he wrote – is in the clergy: if the priests are missionaries, the Christian population will be the same, if the priests do not live the passion of taking Christ to all men then the Christian world will not be able to do miracles …. The missionary spirit is firstly a great passion for Jesus Christ and his Church”.
In 1924 Manna was elected Superior General of the PIME, a position he kept until 1934: in 1927 he departed for a long journey to the missions and in almost two years he visited a dozen countries in Asia, Oceania and North America; he was surprised how the missions were at that time almost totally isolated from the life of the people: they were happy to take care of the poor and emarginated but had no influence on the educated classes or national politics. He wrote a provocative memorandum for Propaganda Fide, “Observations on the modern method of evangelization” and requested revolutionary changes in the “method of evangelization”: refusing Occidentalism, freeing oneself of the interested protection of western powers, educating the local priests according to programs which differed to those used in the West, favoring a greater participation of the indigenous in the priesthood of the missions, supporting the mission of the catechists particularly where priests were lacking, eliminating all monetary interests and trust in the power of material means. Manna was not a protester or a rebel, in fact, he states that his proposals have no absolute value and that starting from the same presuppositions, opposite conclusions to his can be reached: however, he was not afraid of raising problems so that they could be faced. His zeal for the conversion of the “unfaithful world” and the salvation of souls did not allow him to stay silent: “Salus animarum suprema lex!”. From 1943 until his death in 1952, Fr Manna was the Regional Superior in the south of Italy, in the very region where, in Ducenta (Caserta), he had founded the ‘Southern Seminary for Missions abroad’. He died in Naples after an operation on 15 September 1952. Today, Blessed Paolo Manna is more than ever relevant. In his “Apostolic Virtues” he states: “A missionary is nothing if he does not embody Jesus Christ … Only the missionary who faithfully copies Jesus Christ in himself … can reproduce the image in the souls of the others” (Letter 6). The Encyclical Redemptoris Missio of Saint John Paul II (1990) reproduced what Fr Manna had written nearly to the letter: “The universal call to holiness is closely linked to the universal call to mission: every member of the faithful is called to holiness and mission”. (Redemptoris Missio, no. 90). Again in R.M. no. 84 (where Fr Manna is cited in note 169): “The motto must be this: All the Churches united for the conversion of the whole world”.