Sister Janet Fearns hails an enduring symbol of Catholic generosity More than 200,000 homes in England and Wales have a Red Box and every so often contribute to the work of the Association for the Propagation of the Faith and the Mill Hill Missionaries.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Red Box and the way in which Catholics of England and Wales have supported countless missionaries, missions and people in countries where the Church is young and in need of support.
Before the APF and the Mill Hill Missionaries agreed to work together in 1936 the Red Box was a white tea caddy with a slit cut into the top and pictures pasted on to its sides of St Joseph’s Missionary College in Mill Hill on one side, and a scene from missions on the other. By the time of the first war, the boxes were made of wood and were painted green. Some boxes with a red background still survive but show much wear and tear. Emblazoned on the top with a scroll proclaiming “St Joseph’s Society for the Foreign Missions”; they also declare themselves to be “blessed by the Sovereign Pontiff”.
In 1936, when the APF and the Mill Hill Missionaries began their historic cooperation, the Red Box was born. Those of us who are of a certain age will recall, if not all the details, at least the little flap on the base, covered by a white sticky label, replaced each time the box was emptied. The box also bore the reminder from Pope Pius XI: “Helping the missions surpasses all other works of charity for none are so poor as those who lack the knowledge and the grace of God” (Rerum Ecclesiae, February 28 1926).
In later years plastic replaced wood and the words “To be a Christian is to be a missionary” replaced those of Pius XI. The sides of the Red Box declared that “the APF supports the work of spreading the Gospel throughout the world” and that Mill Hill Missionaries are “Britain’s own Missionary Society of Priests, Brothers and Associates”. The familiar circle encompassing the black and white APF-Mill Hill insignia was replaced by a picture of the world with the Cross both at its centre and in its foreground.
Yet just as life is not static, neither was the Red Box. The next version bore a more colourful label, but retained both “To be a Christian is to be a missionary” and the reminder to pray for the Missions. The year 2009 saw the rebranding of the Pontifical Mission Societies in England and Wales and the name change to Missio. Today’s Red Box is very different from its predecessors, but its function and message are the same: to be a Christian is to be a missionary.
What does the Red Box do? Well thanks to it, in 2010 the Catholics of England and Wales contributed nearly £3 million to 39 dioceses across Africa and Asia. Thanks to this, Missio can spend money on the following areas.
Catechists and Prayer Leaders are trained, bringing people together when the priest can only visit a village a couple of times each year.
Thus, even in the most remote places, villagers are prepared for the Sacraments, babies are baptised and funerals are conducted. Often the catechist’s wife teaches women to read and write.
Newlyweds begin their life together within a supportive faith community that helps mothers find medicines for sick children, fathers learn job skills and children to live beyond infancy. All this happens because the Red Box builds churches, schools and hospitals.
Families have dignity and hope because development and health education become a reality, avoiding and reducing disease.
Sisters continue to equip and run schools, clinics and hospitals in towns and in rural areas, offering dignity and hope to the poor, love to orphans, food and education to hungry children, medicine to the sick and skills-training to young people.
The Red Box support for the local Church wherever it is young or poor means that dioceses have priests and new priests can be assigned to a parish community, making the Sacraments available even in remote areas.
The guarantee of support through the Red Box enables the continued existence of dioceses and parishes and the opening up of new dioceses and parishes, spreading faith, hope and life in a world that urgently needs to know and experience the love of God.
Seventy-five years of generosity and faith are worth celebrating.