Mission work in Iraq. Courtesy of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States

The Power of Encounter

And how this spark of the missionary impulse can help renew, revive, reawaken and restore

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This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the conversion of St. Ignatius. It is curious that we neither commemorate the anniversary of his birth nor his death, profession, ordination or baptism. But this past May 20 we began a year-plus celebration of his encounter with Jesus Christ. This meeting would change Ignatius and the lives of countless other men and women.

In May of last year (2020), Pope Francis released a sort of stern letter to those of us ministering in the Pontifical Mission Societies. The key takeaway from his address is that conversion does not happen as a result of human programs or ideas, but rather the fruits that come from an encounter with the Man that radically changes the trajectory of our lives.

One might see a dichotomy between those who favor the pneumatic and charismatic versus the institutional and ritualistic. So how — and perhaps why — are these four Pontifical Mission Societies, that have as their mission the building up of the institutions that enable the Church to grow and mature, a way to understand the course set by Pope Francis?

Pauline-Marie Jaricot

Pauline Jaricot
Pauline-Marie Jaricot. Courtesy of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States

The key to understanding this admonition might be found in the life of Pauline-Marie Jaricot. She was born in Lyon, France, on July 22, 1799, just as the sun set on the 18th century. Her brother, Phileas, was preparing to be a missionary priest in Asia. His messages to his sister presented the needs of the missions of their day, which included the young and growing Church in the United States. Phileas prevailed upon her to form an association of “prayer and charity” for the missions.

A priest never knows when something he might say in a sermon becomes an opportunity for an encounter. For this reason, the pope reminded those engaged in the work of his mission societies, “It has always been the case that the proclamation of Jesus’ salvation reaches people right where they are and just how they are in the midst of their lives in progress.” We might suppose that the young Pauline was struggling with vanity and a priest’s words touched her heart. She thus began the long road of detachment from pride to humility.

Soon after, she fell gravely ill. Nothing is as humbling as suffering. Perhaps this is the secret to where she encountered the Man. Soon after Pauline’s recovery from the near-fatal illness, she visited her spiritual director and devoted friend, St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars. She brought a tiny relic of St. Philomena with her, whose intercession she credited with her restoration to health. Subsequently, John Vianney popularized the devotion of Philomena all through France and directed the missionary zeal of Pauline.

Building something beautiful for God does not require elaborate planning. Instead, Pauline set out, first organizing the employees of a silk factory to pray and contribute a penny a week for the missions. Pope Francis says in his May 2020 message, “Asking the Lord to open hearts to the Gospel and asking everyone to tangibly support missionary work: these are simple and practical things that everyone can readily do in this present time.”

Pauline’s ministry was formalized in 1822 to become what we know as the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. We here in the United States were ourselves beneficiaries of the charity of Pauline and her “Circles of Ten” even into the early 20th century. In the coming year, 2022, we will mark the 200th anniversary of its founding, as well as its becoming “Pontifical” with headquarters moved from Lyon to Rome.

Efforts of the ‘Prop’

mission work
Sharing the Gospel in Kenya. Photography by Nancy
Wiechec/CNS

Each of the four Pontifical Mission Societies had at their founding, and to this day, a particular focus. The Society for the Propagation of the Faith — or the “Prop” as I knew it from the words and witness of priests who have led the effort in my home Diocese of Brooklyn — provides support for the evangelizing and pastoral efforts of mission dioceses, for catechists and catechesis, for the building of churches and chapels where the faithful may encounter Jesus in the sacraments and through his word, and for the efforts of religious sisters and brothers who also facilitate that meeting with the Lord.

The Missionary Childhood Association was the next of the pope’s mission societies to be established, also in France. In 1839, Bishop Charles de Forbin-Janson of Nancy visited the many French bishops who were serving as missionaries in the young U.S. Church. His journey — much of it on horseback — took him to New York as well as New Orleans and Baltimore.

Two years later he returned to France where he met an old friend — Pauline Jaricot — who had already founded the Society for the Propagation of the Faith which was helping to support the missionary efforts in the United States that he had just witnessed.

Bishop Forbin-Janson was determined to “arouse great interest for the useful work of the Propagation of the Faith” among French Catholics. During an encounter between these two friends in 1843, the bishop shared his own longtime dream — to help the children of the missions.

Like Pauline, he saw the richness of faith in the poor mission churches of his day and was convinced that, though weak and needing care, children rich in faith and love were capable of playing their own part in the Church’s mission — and of even stirring adults to the same generous missionary spirit.

Sometime during their discussion, the Missionary Childhood Association (MCA) was born. Today, MCA continues to follow his vision — “children helping children” — one born of an encounter in faith between friends. Help is sent for missionary formation and the catechesis of children, as well as their education in mission schools (kindergarten through eighth grade), and outreach for health care and advocacy, and in times of crisis.

Society of St. Peter Apostle

The Society of St. Peter Apostle was established in 1889, again in France, by a mother and daughter, Stephanie and Jeanne Bigard, who answered a plea for help from the bishop of Nagasaki, Japan, for assistance for his seminary. In its first year, the Society of St. Peter Apostle sent help for some 2,700 seminarians in the missions. Today, some 30,000 major seminarians, mostly in Africa and Asia, receive an annual subsidy of $700 per student; support is sent as well for religious novices.

Pontifical Missionary Union

The Pontifical Missionary Union, founded in Italy in 1916, by Blessed Paolo Manna, a PIME missionary, aims to animate and form the faithful with a missionary spirit — a spirit that drives on the efforts in prayerful solidarity and financial support through the other three Pontifical Mission Societies.

At the high point, 30 years ago, we in the United States were sending as much as $60 million each year to the missions through these societies, which would convert to almost $300 million today. Last year, we in the United States sent $35 million.

There are many reasons for such a dramatic decline, but I suspect that one reason is atrophy. As Pope Francis wrote in that same message in May of last year, “When the ongoing work and efficacy of the Holy Spirit is not appreciated in the Church’s mission, it means that even the most carefully chosen missionary language becomes like ‘words of human wisdom’ aimed at glorifying oneself or concealing one’s own interior deserts.”

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World Mission Sunday

World Mission Sunday is Sunday, Oct. 24. The Mission Sunday collection is always taken on the next to last Sunday of October. That day is celebrated in all the local Churches as the feast of catholicity and universal solidarity so Christians the world over will recognize their common responsibility with regard to the evangelization of the world.

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Spirit of Gratitude

Mission work in Mongolia
Mission work in Mongolia. Courtesy of the Pontifical
Mission Societies in the United States

What can be said of the Pontifical Mission Societies can sometimes be said of parochial or diocesan life. The pope reminds us that if we cultivate a spirit of gratitude for what the Almighty has done for us, that will attract others to Christ. Our confidence in all we do is rooted in testifying to what he has done for us, flowing from our encounters.

Central to who we are as priests is the celebration of holy Mass each day. This Eucharistic celebration is at its roots our prayer of thanksgiving. We call it Mass because we have been sent into the world and testify to what the Lord has done for us. Thus sharing “gratitude for the wonders worked by the Lord among his chosen ones, the poor and the little ones to whom he reveals those things hidden from the wise (cf. Mt 11:25-26) can make it easier for you, too, to avoid the pitfalls of self-absorption and leave yourselves behind as you follow Jesus,” Pope Francis says.

Encountering Jesus

In our Church, the media often seem to shine a light on our many divisions. Perhaps, we might put those divisions aside and instead focus on witnessing our encounter with the Man — the universal experience that sparks the missionary impulse. Who is he? What has he done for me? Where did he encounter me? Why did he choose me? How has he changed me forever? The answers to those questions drive our missionary witness.

I am sure that St. Ignatius of Loyola could honestly answer those questions we often put to others in the confessional or in spiritual direction. So could Pauline-Marie Jaricot. If we are concerned about the divisions or the sterility in the Church, whether in our diocese, in our parish or ministry, in our answer to the missionary mandate set before us, perhaps we must discern if we can honestly answer the question: Have we encountered the Man, Jesus? And can we extend that encounter to others to renew, revive, reawaken and restore our efforts as we are sent in his name? 

MSGR. KIERAN HARRINGTON was appointed national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States in May 2021. Prior to that he had been rector of the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph and vicar for communications for the Diocese of Brooklyn.

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Additional Resources

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops provides additional World Mission Sunday collection resources at its National Collections section of its website.

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