Passionist Fund-Raising: The Sign and the Missions
By Fr. Rob Carbonneau
The Sign, a Catholic monthly magazine published by the Passionists from 1921 to 1982, conducted extensive fund-raising for the Passionist missions in China from 1921 to 1955. On any given Sunday, Passionist priests were sent out on “Sign calls.” These were pre-scheduled visits to Catholic parishes anywhere in the United States to speak at all the masses for the purpose of getting new subscribers. In particular, American Catholics of the pre-World War II era came to identify The Sign-China mission connection.
Because each issue carried articles about Passionist missionary life in West Hunan, the readers had the choice to become armchair missionaries: to learn, care, pray, and give money to missions without leaving the comfort of their home. Interestingly, financial support from the armchair missionaries continued through the hard times of the 1930s and the Great Depression.
For example, in 1932 each issue of The Sign strategically placed ads in the front and back of the magazine to solicit funds for China by donating to the Mite Box. This referred to the Scripture story (Mark 12: 41-44) when the poor widow gave generously from the little wealth she had. Upon request, The Sign would mail anyone a Mite Box or Dime Bank so they could collect money for the missions. Mite Box donations were underscored on the last two inside pages of each issue of the magazine. The left page consisted of two half-page solicitations: “Who Will Die Tonight?” and “Painless Giving.” The former requested the reader to include Passionist Missions Incorporated in their personal will. The latter, directly below it, was a request that readers put a Mite Box or Dime Box in their home for “loose change.” Such money was “painless giving” in that “you probably [would] not miss [it].” If missed, then make it a sacrifice. “Self-sacrifice money,” stated the appeal, “has a double value; it has a certain buying power and it surely carries a blessing.”
Opposite the two half-page appeals was a third way for the armchair missionaries to contribute. A full-page ad read on top: “For Christ’s Cause: 3 Suggestions.” One avenue to participate was to make a contribution to underwrite “Mission Needs.” This was a request for money to support the effort of priests and sisters whose needs were “few and simple.” Their heroic sacrifice was promoted: “Were they seeking their own ease and comfort they would not abandon the luxuries of America for the hardships of China.” After listing at least five specific major ministry efforts, the reader was reminded that the missionaries in China “do not look for large donations, but are counting on the consistent giving of small amounts.” A second suggestion was “Student Burses.” This was a direct appeal to support men studying for the Passionist priesthood whose educational cost averaged $300 per year. “A burse is $5,000, the interest on which will support and educate a poor student in perpetuity.” The third suggestion was “Your Last Will.” Directions were supplied showing how to include a donation to the Passionist Missions, Inc. in one’s will because, the appeal went on to say “It has been well said that it is a poor Will which does not name Our Lord Jesus Christ among its beneficiaries.” Consequently, “No Catholic should ever forget what he has he owes to God Almighty.” To reaffirm this point was a sample statement that the donor might insert into their will.
Planned Giving was a fourth fund-raising method. The Sign subscribers were invited to join the Passionist Chinese Mission Society. This full-page advertisement was placed on the flip side of the magazine cover page-i.e. the second page of the magazine. By sending $50 to the Union City, New Jersey offices, paid on the installment plan if necessary, an individual “Living or Dead” was allowed to be enrolled in a Perpetual Membership in the Passionist Chinese Mission Society. In effect, this was a life subscription to the magazine. In conjunction with this were three spiritual benefits. First, while living, the benefactor was remembered at “One Holy Mass every day of the year; a High Mass on every Passionist Monastery throughout the world” and on fifteen feast days of the Church. Second, after death, the person was remembered at “One Holy Mass every day of the year; a High Mass on every Passionist Monastery throughout the world” and in the special series of prayers recited by Passionists to remember the dead. Finally, all living and dead benefactors were recalled in “Special Prayers recited every day by all Passionist Communities. In particular, they share in all the Masses, Prayers and Good Works of the Passionist Missionaries in China.”
Gemma’s League of Prayer, named to honor and promote the then saintly cause of Italian-born Gemma Galgani (1878-1903), was another participatory appeal. The Passionists promoted her as a mystic and follower of Jesus Crucified. The Sign used this Passionist connection as a direct link to the series “With the Passionists in China.” Readers could become part of “an association of those who carry on a systematic campaign of intercessory and united prayer” with a special aim “to pray for the conversion of the millions of pagan souls” in the Hunan mission. In addition, the members sought “spiritual comfort and strength from the Passionist priests and Sisters in Hunan.” Membership was “not restricted to any class.” Adults, children and priests could join by simply participating in a “spiritual treasury” of 23 Catholic devotions. No dues were required. Still, it was acknowledged that “many members of the League [were] generous in their regular money contributions to the missions.” Money sent could also defray the cost of devotional leaflets since, in the end, the League was also part of the “cause” to beatify Gemma on her way to sainthood in the Catholic Church. She was canonized in 1940.
In Roman Catholic tradition, mass stipends were all important. Custom was for the Catholic faithful to give several dollars to the Passionists for a Passionist priest to say a Catholic mass for the intention of the donor. Then, and still today, each mass said by the priest came to represent tangible and necessary financial support for the missions.
Passionist Fund-Raising for Overseas Missions: 1950s to 2006
The end of the China mission in 1955 freed up Passionists to open new overseas missions in Jamaica, West Indies (1955) and the Philippines (1958). This coincided with a new theology towards “foreign” missions which also resulted in less fund-raising in Sign Magazine. When Sign ceased publication in 1982, Passionist leadership had come to recognize a vacuum in overseas mission awareness, education and fund-raising. As a result, Passionist Overseas Missions Office (POM-www.passionists.org/overseas-missions.htm) was established in 1980 through direct planning by then Provincial Consultor Father Roger Elliott, C.P.
Since 1981, Brother Leo DiFiore, C.P. has directed POM. Together with a dedicated lay staff and hundreds of Passionist priests, brothers, and lay preachers, POM has crisscrossed the United States and the world to educate and raise funds for the Passionist missions in parish churches with the permission of the local diocesan Propagation of the Faith. Whereas China was in many ways a mythic adventure which called on armchair missionaries to offer prayer and donations, after World War II (1941-1945) and Vatican II (1962-1965) a Passionist mission appeal in a local parish meant that the person in the pew could have actually visited a Passionist mission or even may have lived there! Because support of the overseas is such a vast undertaking, POM operates side by side with Passionist Missionaries, Inc. (based in Union City, New Jersey-www.thepassionists.org).
Participation with the Passionist missions remains a true invitation to make the Gospel come alive. This is done through the sacraments of the Church and new ventures such as Passionist Volunteers International. The Passionist missions in 2007 are committed to China, Jamaica, and the Philippines, as well as Honduras and Haiti. Individual Passionists also serve in Africa or wherever they are needed.
Pre-World War II American Catholics were unfailing in their support for the China missions. Armchair missionaries of the past now find themselves with new ways to participate. Today we might be called techno missionaries because computers, cell phones, and personal travel allow us to be part of the overseas mission experience in ways that people in the past could only dream about. In retrospect, the past reminds us that the historic value of the missions is still alive today. Missions abroad still rely on benefactors to pray, give money and provide education about the established Passionist missionary efforts in Jamaica, West Indies, Honduras and Haiti, as well as the newly established Passionist Volunteers International.