(OSV News) — The Pontifical Mission Societies “fearlessly, courageously propose the Gospel” amid both hardships and hope, U.S. national director Msgr. Kieran Harrington told OSV News.
“The truth is that I want to baptize everybody,” he said. “And I don’t make an apology for it. This is what Christ told us to do. So it’s not the soft sell of the Gospel. It’s that life in Christ is transformative to my experience. And if I believe that to be the case, then I want to share that.”
A profound relationship with Christ is at the heart of all four of the societies’ outreaches — something Msgr. Harrington hopes will be highlighted as the universal Catholic Church marks World Mission Sunday, Oct. 22 this year.
Pope Francis’ theme for the 2023 observance is “hearts on fire, feet on the move,” which recalls the encounter between two disciples and the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35).
The collection taken up that day is the primary financial support for the Pontifical Mission Societies, which have a presence in some 1,100 dioceses “mostly in Africa and Asia, (with) some in Latin America,” the Pacific Islands, and parts of Europe, said Msgr. Harrington, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York who was appointed to his role in 2021.
In 2022, that collection in the U.S. totaled about $30 million, he said, noting that “the United States is extraordinarily generous.”
The worldwide network, which operates at the service of the pope, consists of four organizations. The oldest three were designated “pontifical” by Pope Pius XI in 1922, with a fourth receiving the designation under Pius XII in 1956.
The Society for the Propagation of the Faith (SPF) supports evangelization efforts of the local church, the Missionary Childhood Association (MCA) educates children about their part in the church’s missionary outreach, the Society of St. Peter the Apostle trains the next generation of missionary clergy and consecrated religious, and the Pontifical Missionary Union focuses on forming clergy, religious and pastoral leaders more deeply in their role as evangelizers.
“I’m always in awe of what is taking place in the missions and how innovative they can be and how responsive to the promptings of the Spirit,” said Msgr. Harrington, who visits “at least three” mission countries per year.
Missionaries are more needed than ever, he said, and the call has taken on an even deeper meaning in the U.S., where the National Eucharistic Revival is underway.
“If you think about why we call it ‘the Mass,’ it’s because the very last words the priest would say in Latin are ‘Ite, missa est’ (‘Go, it has been sent’). It’s a sending,” said Msgr. Harrington. “Our Eucharistic celebration is not for our own personal piety, but it is really that Jesus is strengthening us so that we could … proclaim his Gospel to the ends of the earth … to go well beyond ourselves.”
Jesus is “the one who is pushing us beyond our own places, sending us out to totally rely only on him,” said Msgr. Harrington.
The societies serve the church in places where it is “too young, too poor or too persecuted to sustain itself,” he said.
“It is the work of these priests and nuns every day that is changing these societies,” he said. “It’s providing the health care, the educational institutions … completely pouring yourself out; that’s what they’re doing,” Msgr. Harrington said.
At the same time, the societies’ work is not simply another form of humanitarian aid, but a call to transformation and new life in Christ, he stressed.
He pointed to a recent visit to India during which he asked a woman what the community most needed from the church, suggesting perhaps a school.
“She said, ‘We don’t need a school, Father. We don’t need a community center. We don’t need feeding programs. We need a church,’” recalled Msgr. Harrington.
“Liturgy is life (in the missions),” he said. “And when you take a look at the liturgy in the missions, you can see that the church is so involved in every aspect of people’s life. They’re not looking for it to end. There’s no time limit to it. They’ve entered into this experience, which is really transformative because the church is all encompassing of everything in their life.”
Msgr. Harrington said he hopes Catholics in the U.S., particularly children and lay people, will embrace the call to mission.
“I’m confident that this is going to be a new springtime for us, where we’re able to really focus children in the United States on the need to be concerned about their brothers and sisters in the mission, and re-enliven this whole movement for children to help children in the mission territories,” he said.
In addition, “there are a number of lay people who feel this call and then go and serve in the missions,” he said. “The U.S. exports democracy and all sorts of other values and culture. How can we not be proponents of the Gospel abroad? We’re reminding everyone of their call, their obligation by virtue of baptism to be a missionary, to be sent out.”
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @GinaJesseChristian.