The rich history of the Pontifical Mission Societies

By Father James Jeanfreau, Guest Column

One of the church’s great missionary documents – the 1919 apostolic letter “Maximum Illud” by Pope Benedict XV – is now 100 years old.

This is a wonderful time to reflect on the history of the Pontifical Missionary Societies. I pray that this history will not leave you with the feeling that there is nothing more to do but, rather, motivates you to embrace the great commission anew and seek for new and old ways to bring it alive today.

In 1817, after her older brother entered the seminary for the Society of French Missionaries, Pauline Jaricot, at the age of 18, formed prayer circles among the workers in her family’s silk mills. She challenged these men and women to pray daily and offer sacrifices for world missions.

France had just survived its own brutal revolution, and the church was facing severe persecution. This powerful young woman had dedicated her life to catechetical formation in Lyon and now took on this even greater call.

There was also an active organization in Lyon formed in 1818 to raise monies for the church’s missions in Louisiana. They adopted Pauline’s fundraising methods. This new, revised organization was recognized by Pope Leo XIII in 1822, with Pauline as the official founder. 

Today, we know this group as the Pontifical Society of the Propagation of the Faith.

Throughout the world, the second-to-last Sunday of October is celebrated as World Mission Sunday. The day is dedicated to calling for a deeper understanding of world missions. The collection is mandated by the pope in churches across the world.

We were mission territory

As the church in Louisiana was supported by the sacrifices of the people of France for more than 100 years, this collection now raises more than $100 million worldwide every year to continue the church’s missionary endeavors.

In 1843, Bishop Charles Forbin de Janson, inspired by the great ministry of Pauline Jaricot, felt the spirit calling for the greater formation and participation of children in the great missionary commission. He began what was known as the Pontifical Society of Holy Childhood Association. Recently, in English, the title was changed to Missionary Childhood Association to reflect the common usage in other languages.

Many older Catholics may remember the catch-phrase:  “saving pagan babies.” This may sound strange to modern ears, but it was in many ways a great rallying cry for children to feel a great affection for so many children of the world who did not share in the rich gift of baptism. The term “pagan” did carry with it a negative connotation, which I am glad to be rid of.

The church has made great strides in appreciating the deep cultures of our brothers and sisters who have not yet come to embrace the Good News of Jesus Christ. Today, the rallying cry of Missionary Childhood in the U.S. is “Children helping children.”

The centrality of proclaiming Jesus as the savior of the world is not lost in making our message more inclusive; it actually proclaims ever more clearly that he is the savior of all. There is a strong emphasis on children learning about the cultures of children throughout the world as we seek to be one with each other.

Formation of priests is vital

In 1889, Bishop Jules-Alphonse Cousin of Nagasaki encouraged Stephanie and Jeanne Bigard of France to begin a collection for the support of native vocations in Japan. Pope Benedict XV clearly stated in 1919 that we could not accept halfhearted or inadequate formation programs for priests in missionary countries. He said they had to be given the best the church had to offer and held to high standards of formation.

This vision of high standards has in the past, and still today, can lead to a rejection of vocations from indigenous peoples, poor families or marginalized communities. The clear call to form local churches that can speak more directly to local people rejects this idea of high standards. The commitment to this level of formation for priests and religious in missionary countries can be achieved only through a truly universal sense of solidarity.

Are we willing to share our best?

Today, the Society of St. Peter the Apostle is established in 157 countries and supports 31,000 major seminaries and 10,000 novices. There are also two houses of study in Rome for priests to receive advanced studies in order to return to home seminaries and teach. There is also a house of studies for women religious to complete advanced studies in catechesis.

The fourth and final Pontifical Society is the Missionary Union of Priests and Religious. This society was founded in the late 19th century and given much greater attention by Benedict XV in “Maximum Illud.” The pope was calling all dioceses to form clergy associations to reflect on missiology and form ways to support world missions, especially by sending priests to serve in the missions.

He wrote: “You will be performing a service eminently worthy of your love of the faith if you take pains to foster any signs of a missionary vocation that appear among your priests and seminarians. Do not be deceived by the claims of a false prudence; do not let the human reasoning deter you with the plea that what you send to foreign missions you will subtracting from the resources of your diocese. To fill the place of each priest you send to the missions, God will give you many priests, and very able priests, for your work at home” (MI #34).

This papal society has changed through the years from its focus only on priests and religious to all Catholics. It is now known as simply Missionary Union. It strives to develop a clear and more compelling missiology – the study and understanding of mission – for the church today and tomorrow. There is still a strong, but often unfulfilled, call for missiology to be taught in all seminaries and houses of formation.

Following the spirit of “Maximum Illud,” Pope Pius XII in 1922 moved all these societies to Rome and gave them primacy of place as Pontifical Societies. That manifested “a global outlook, a true catholic identity of mission. Now, mission would be at the very heart of the Church’s administrative concerns” (Baptized and Sent, page 361).

Father James Jeanfreau can be reached at

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