As the Catholic Church around the world prepares to celebrate and support Pope Francis’ World Mission Sunday (October 24), Word on Fire Communications Director Will Sipling interviewed Monsignor Kieran Harrington, National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies, who provided some interesting facts and compelling comments about evangelization and the Great Commission. 

Will Sipling: What are the Pontifical Mission Societies? How are they different from other missions or evangelistic organizations?

Monsignor Kieran Harrington: We are the pope’s own mission societies, helping him, along with the bishops, to raise awareness of the Church’s missionary work around the globe and gather support for the 1,100 mission dioceses, mostly in Asia and Africa, but also in Oceania, as well as in remote regions of Latin America and parts of Europe.

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 provides support for the evangelizing and pastoral efforts of mission dioceses, for catechists and catechesis, for the building of churches and chapels, and for the efforts of religious sisters and brothers who also facilitate that meeting with the Lord.
  • The Missionary Childhood Association (MCA) is where children learn about and pray for children in the missions. They offer financial help for missionary formation, the catechesis of children, education in mission schools, outreach for health care, and advocacy in times of crisis.
  • The Society of St. Peter the Apostle supports some 30,000 major seminarians, mostly in Africa and Asia. They receive an annual subsidy of $700 per student, with support also sent for religious novices.
  • The Pontifical Missionary Union aims to animate and form the faithful with a missionary spirit—a spirit that drives efforts in prayerful solidarity and financial support through the other three Pontifical Mission Societies. Unlike the other three, the Pontifical Missionary Union does not collect donations.

What does it mean that these societies are “pontifical”? 

The four societies each received the official title of “pontifical” in 1922, and their central administration was transferred to Rome to assist the pope in his outreach to the missions. Contributions made on World Mission Sunday and throughout the year by Catholics in the United States and the world are gathered into the General Solidarity Funds and then distributed in the pope’s name to his missions.

Without these societies, what kinds of evangelistic work would be falling through the cracks?

Support offered by Catholics throughout the United States to the Pontifical Mission Societies makes possible the spread of our faith in Jesus Christ to the world. These gifts ensure the support of priests, religious, and catechists in the pope’s missions worldwide in their pastoral and evangelizing efforts. 

There are 70 million Catholics in the United States, and we helped contribute close to $24 million to the missions this year. In Uganda, where I just visited, there are 13 million Catholics, and despite extreme poverty, they offered $80,000 to the missions. It really is the widow’s mite. The amount we offer is not insignificant, but rather the depth of our sacrificial gift in love.

Tell us about yourself—how did you become involved with the Pontifical Mission Societies?

As a child growing up in Queens, New York, the Irish Holy Ghost Fathers were regular guests in our family home. They spoke to us about the missions—particularly in Nigeria, a country recovering from the terrible ravages of a civil war. In retrospect, it was probably a result of those visits that stirred my vocational awareness, leading me to practice celebrating Mass as a child of only eight years of age.

Later, I would come to know Monsignor James Asip. He was the Diocese of Brooklyn’s Director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the “Prop,” as it was known. As a young high school seminarian, I was impressed by the dedication and zeal of this elderly but vigorous priest who would ride his bike all over our neighborhood, bringing the Eucharist to the sick. I came to know of his ministry with the St. Vincent de Paul Society and his tenure at St. Peter Claver with the African American community in our diocese. It all just seemed to make sense to me as a teenage boy that the man selected to direct the Propagation of the Faith efforts in our diocese was himself a missionary at heart.

What’s your favorite part about working with the Pontifical Mission Societies? 

I would have to return to the encounter with our Lord. 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 of his death, profession, ordination, or Baptism. But this past May, 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 a May 2020 message to the National Directors of the Pontifical Mission Societies, Pope Francis noted that conversion does not happen as a result of human programs or ideas, but it is rather the fruits that come from an encounter with Jesus that radically changes the trajectory of our lives. It is indeed, then, a great blessing to be a parthowever smallin facilitating that encounter through promoting awareness and support for the missions today.

What’s one inspiring success story that demonstrates the Pontifical Mission Societies’ outreach?

The young church in the United States was the beneficiary of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. In fact, two-thirds of its first collection in 1822 went to support the vast diocese of Louisiana. For many years now, Catholics in the United States have repaid that generosity many times over, providing some twenty-five percent of all the funds distributed to the missions by the Pontifical Mission Societies.

Are there some places in the world that aren’t open or friendly to missions? Are there any places that are dangerous?

Indeed, we hear of many stories of persecution and even martyrdom for the faith. But missionaries and the Mission Church remain with the people, and our prayers must accompany them.

How can people help the Pope’s missions throughout the world?

Catholics can give generously to the World Mission Sunday collection in their parishes on October 24. (You can also support those efforts online at this link. There is also a way to donate year round at this link.) They can also subscribe to MISSION Magazine, which was first published by Venerable Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen in 1951, when he was National Director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.

What is World Mission Month, and what is World Mission Sunday?

World Mission Sunday was established by Pope Pius XI in 1926 as the day of prayer for missions. Each year, the pope designates the month of October as World Mission Month, with that next-to-last Sunday in October as World Mission Sunday; this year, that’s October 24. On that Sunday, Catholics here at home in the United States and around the world are united in celebration of our common vocation to mission. Catholics can learn more and get parish resources at OneFamilyInMission.org.

We’re all called to be evangelists—what takeaway would you like to share with readers, to inspire them to continue their own work as proclaimers of the Good News?

In Matthew 28:16-20, the Lord gives his Great Commission to his Apostles. This remains urgent and addressed to each one of us. If we are concerned about the divisions or the sterility in the Church, whether in our diocese, parish, ministry, or in our answer to the missionary mandate set before us, perhaps we must discern if we can honestly answer this question: Have we encountered Jesus Christ? And even more importantly, how can we extend that encounter to others to renew, revive, reawaken, and restore our efforts, as we are sent in his name? What has he done for me? Why did he choose me? How has he changed me forever? The answers to those questions drive our missionary witness—our witness in response to the Lord’s Great Commission. 

Also, as Pope Francis told National Directors of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the message in May 2020: “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.”

Monsignor Harrington was appointed National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States in May 2021. Prior to that, he served as rector of the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph and Vicar for Communications for the Diocese of Brooklyn, overseeing the diocesan public information and affairs office and its government affairs and public policy office. He also supervised NET, the diocese’s cable station, and The Tablet, the diocesan newspaper.