Missionary Outreach

A story of loss and gain, those centuries featured some outstanding missionaries, who followed in the footsteps of such earlier evangelists as St Gregory Thaumaturgus (£213—£.270), St Gregory the Illuminator (c.240—332), and St Martin of Tours. Converted to Christian faith when he spent several years in Palestine with Origen, Gregory Thaumaturgus (wonder-worker) returned to Pontus and his native city of Neocaesarea. He soon became its bishop and made Christians of its population. Among those whom he instructed in the Christian faith was the grandmother of St Basil the Great and St Gregory of Nyssa (c.330—c.395). He was remembered not only for working many miracles but also for being the first recipient of a vision involving the Blessed Virgin Mary. Gregory the Illuminator, the 'Apostle of Armenia', returned from exile to Armenia and eventually converted the king to Christianity, who around 301 made Christianity the official religion of the country. For some generations the family of Gregory supplied the bishop or 'Catholicos' for Armenia. This tradition began when he consecrated his son to succeed him; this son was among the bishops who attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. Martin of Tours, as well as encouraging the spread of monasticism in Gaul, did something new by preaching in the countryside and introducing there an early form of parish structure. Although Jesus had largely avoided the towns and preached in villages or out in the countryside, Christianity quickly became an urban religion. It often took centuries before the rural population or the 'pagans' (those who lived in country villages) were evangelized. It was not until around 1400 that the majority of Europe's population was Christian.

In summarizing the missionary outreach of Catholic Christianity during the first thousand years, we will concentrate on Western, Eastern, and Northern Europe. But first a word about Africa and Asia. In the Book of Acts, Luke tells the story of an official in the service of the queen of the Ethiopians being baptized on his way home from Jerusalem (Acts 8: 26—39). In the fourth century St Frumentius (£300—£.380), then a young Christian accompanying a merchant on his way back from India, was captured by some Ethiopians but came to assist the king of Abyssinia in matters of government. He took the opportunity to carry on mission work and around 350 was consecrated bishop by St Athanasius of Alexandria. Christianity soon became the state religion. The Ethiopian Church did not, however, accept the christological teaching of Chalcedon. Apart from brief periods in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, it has not since been in communion with the bishop of Rome.

Even before the Council of Ephesus in 431, communion with the Western Church and the bishop of Rome had already been problematic for those who became known as Assyrian Christians or the Church of the East (that is to say, East of the Roman Empire). Political divisions, geographical separation, and misunderstandings helped to harden the break for many centuries. In the meantime, however, from the early sixth century the Church of the East had sent missionaries as far as China and India. Inscriptions on the Sigan-Fu Stone, erected in north-west China in 781, bear witness to the success of those missions. (Replicas of this stone are to be found in the Vatican Museum, the Gregorian University (Rome), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York).) In his travels to China, Marco Polo (d. 1324) found Assyrian Christian communities in almost all the cities he visited. Assyrian Christians made contact with the Malabar or St Thomas Christians of south-west India, apparently evangelized in the first century by St Thomas the Apostle before he died a martyr's death. From the eighth to the sixteenth century the patriarch of the Church of the East in Baghdad used to send the Malabar Christians their metropolitan or bishop who exercised authority not only in his own diocese but over the whole area or province.

Let us turn now to missionary work in the British Isles and other parts of Europe. The first Christians in Ireland were prisoners of war brought there from Roman Britain. Apparently born in Roman Britain, St Patrick (£.389—£.461) spent time as a slave in Ireland before escaping. He returned as a bishop, made Armagh his episcopal see, and set himself to evangelize the whole island. The daughter of one couple he baptized, St Brigid (d. ¿•.523), founded at Kildare the first nunnery in Ireland and exercised much influence in the growth of Catholic Christianity. After Patrick she was to become the second patron saint of Ireland.

Originally the Church's organization followed the divisions of the tribal kingdoms of Connaught, Leinster, Meath, Munster, and Ulster; Dublin (founded only in the tenth century) did not yet exist. In the sixth century large monasteries started to grow and for many centuries ecclesiastical authority was exercised by the abbots of these monasteries. Church government developed around monastic districts rather than diocesan territories. Such abbots as St Columba (c.521—97) and St Columbanus (c.543—615) left Ireland and proved highly successful missionaries abroad: the former in Scotland, and the latter in Gaul, Switzerland, and Northern Italy. These Celtic monk-missionaries, along with their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, established new monasteries (such as Columba's foundation on the Island of Iona, off the Scottish coast) and spread the practice of 'private' penance or 'auricular' (in the ear) confession of sins. Eventually, especially after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, such private confession of sins became standard and definitively replaced the original system of public penance (of which more in Ch. 7).

Some of these missionaries, such as the Irish bishop St Kilian (d. c.689) who converted the ruler and much of the population around Wurzburg, and the British bishop St Boniface (680—754), died as martyrs in Germany. Boniface, in particular, enjoyed a wide and enduring success in spreading Christianity and organizing the Church in Germany; he more than deserved to be called 'the Apostle of Germany'. One of his disciples founded the abbey of Fulda to assist missionary work among the Saxons. Boniface's tomb turned it into a notable centre of pilgrimage. It is not far from Geismar, where Boniface had made his courageous mark on history by cutting down an oak sacred to the god Thor. The area, still called 'Eichsfeld (the Field of the Oak)', remained very Catholic and, after the Second World War (1939—45), was a centre of opposition to the Communist regime during the years of the German Democratic Republic which collapsed in 1989 with the reunification of Germany.

Boniface's mission in Germany received strong papal support, especially from 722. More than a century earlier, St Gregory the Great (pope 590—604) did much to refound Catholic Christianity in Britain. After he supposedly saw some young Anglo-Saxon slaves in Rome and commented, 'not Angles but angels', he sent St Augustine (d. 604 or 605) to England where he landed in Kent during the summer of 587. There were difficulties between this somewhat timid monk and representatives of the ancient Celtic Church. But the success of Augustine's mission was sealed when he was consecrated the first archbishop of Canterbury. An English Christianity emerged that happily mingled Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Roman elements.24

Papal support backed other missionaries who fanned out across Europe, such as the English monk St Willibrord (658-739), 'the Apostle of Frisia' (part of the modern Netherlands). Consecrated by St Sergius (pope 687-701), he became the first bishop of Utrecht, collaborated in missionary work with Boniface, and preached as far north as Denmark. A century later another monk-missionary, St Anskar (801-65), went as far north as Sweden, where he built the first Christian church. To further his work Gregory IV (pope 827-44) appointed him bishop of Hamburg and then archbishop of Bremen. Civil wars destroyed the work of Anskar in Sweden, where it was only in the eleventh century that English missionaries were able to undertake the systematic conversion of the country.

Anskar's younger contemporaries, St Cyril (826-69) and St Methodius (£.815-85), brothers from Greece who came to be known as 'the Apostles to the Slavs', were sent by Emperor Michael III from Constantinople to evangelize Moravia (part of what was to become Czechoslovakia). Cyril invented the Glagolithic or Cyrillic alphabet, thus founding Slavonic literature, introduced Slavonic for church worship, and circulated a Slavonic version of the scriptures. After Cyril died on a visit to Rome, Methodius was consecrated a bishop and returned to Moravia with the full backing of the pope. Despite that, the German bishops imprisoned him and it took two years before John VIII (pope 872-82) could secure his release. It was probably from Moravia that Christianity spread to Poland in the second half of the tenth century. Missionary contacts with Constantinople brought Christianity to Russia. In 988 Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptized and made Christianity the official religion of his realm. But by that time political upheavals had dramatically changed the face of Christianity.

24 See B. Ward, High King of Heaven: Aspects of Early English Spirituality (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1999).

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