Recalling ‘Pagan Babies’ and the Sense of Mission They Inspired

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They were called “pagan babies,” certainly not the most sensitive appellation and one that would never be used today. When Father Andrew Small, O.M.I., asked who remembered them at the inaugural World Mission Dinner May 2 at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan, a few hands went up, mostly belonging to people with gray hair.

But Father Small, national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States, wasn’t apologizing for the old “adoption” program in which children in Catholic schools would save their pennies. When they reached $5, they then “ransomed” a child overseas, got a certificate and the right to name the child. Some conspiracy mongers doubted the existence of the “pagan babies,” even suggesting that the sisters were raiding the schoolchildren’s piggybanks to fill their own coffers or the Church’s. But the “pagan babies” were actual children being looked after by missionary sisters, brothers and priests in their countries. The money collected in the United States went to help feed, clothe and educate them.

“We can smile at it now at perhaps how silly it was,” Father Small said. “But, in fact, the entire program was rooted in a sense of solidarity and charity in the broadest understanding of the word. No one was, in fact, adopted or bought. Despite its apparent condescending tone at times, it instilled a radical sense of urgency in children that we are responsible for one another.”

Then Father Small asked for a second show of hands. How many people who raised their hands the first time were still in contact with their “pagan babies”? Not many hands went up.

Those who would like to know what became of their “pagan babies” will soon get a chance to find out when Pontifical Mission Societies formally launches its Great Works Campaign in the coming months. The campaign will celebrate the legacy of love and support the program offered, and recall the babies American children once connected with through the Holy Childhood Association. An interactive Web site will feature video interviews with some of the former “pagan babies,” now nuns, priests and catechists carrying on the Lord’s work in their homelands.

“Some became doctors and lawyers and schoolteachers and others became lay catechists, sisters and priests, operating clinics and schools, colleges and seminaries,” Father Small explained, “and let me tell you something they need your help today as much as they needed it 30 and 40 years ago. ”

The missionary spirit was evident as Pontifical Mission Societies honored three people at the gala. Each in his or her own way has been a missionary of the Gospel of Christ. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired Archbishop of Washington; best-selling author Mary Higgins Clark; and television commentator Larry Kudlow were each named 2012 Pontifical Ambassadors for Mission. Each was presented with a medallion featuring a representation of the Papal Keys.

In accepting his medallion, Cardinal McCarrick summed up the missionary spirit. “There is in the heart of every priest, and I hope in the heart of every Christian, the longing to be a missionary, to be a proclaimer of the Good News to the ends of the earth,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to travel to various parts of the world and to admire (our missionaries’) extraordinary love of the world and of the people with whom they live.”

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States who greeted guests on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI, called the Pontifical Mission Societies “instruments for cooperation in the universal mission of the Church across the world.”

“Through their action the proclamation of the Gospel also becomes an intervention on behalf one’s neighbor, justice for the poorest, possibility of education in the most remote villages, medical aid in isolated places, emancipation from poverty and rehabilitation for the marginalized, overcoming ethnic divisions and respect for life in all its stages,” Archbishop Vigano said.

Other notable guests included Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston; Bishop Bejoy D’Cruze of Sylhet, Bangladesh; actor Andy Garcia, who stars in the film “For Greater Glory,” which opens June 1; and Noel Campbell, who rode Amtrak for three days from the Coeur D’Alene Indian Reservation in northwest Idaho to New York to attend the event.

Campbell, now retired from the film industry where he worked as a technician, told CNY that he’d been enrolled in the Holy Childhood Association since seventh grade and that he remembered adopting babies to get them baptized into the faith. “It seemed like an honorable thing,” he explained.

Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who once said, “My greatest love has always been the missions of the Church,” was very much a spiritual presence at the dinner, where his name was invoked several times.

“Remember what he said? ‘The Church doesn’t have a mission. The mission has a Church,’” Cardinal Dolan reminded his guests in his opening remarks. “There’s the priority. And the fact that you great people, so distinguished, so esteemed, would be here this evening to rally around this sacred responsibility of missions, what a source of inspiration and joy.”

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