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Go forth - Missionary issues

Who practices the work of mission?

The mission of the non missionaries

A one-way street is abolished

The Church prays for its
missionary project


From the theory of mission


Elias Voulgarakis

It is known that Christianity was spread throughout the Roman Empire in the first three centuries. It is also known that this propagation was so complete and deep in all the social strata of the era that the recognition of Christianity by Constantine the Great was the mature result and the divine reward of the long-standing missionary effort of the first Church. It is not so well known, however, that this big success of the Church is not basically the work of missionaries! This view, although strange or exaggerated, is historically established. 

The work of the Apostles

During the first years of the life of the Church, the burden of the mission was borne by the Apostles, the Lord's disciples. Apostle Paul was soon added and his presence gave a new and decisive boost to the propagation of the new faith. Christianity created a huge arc with one end in Jerusalem and the other in the West.

Upon the end of the first century, however, the texts of that era inform us that there were live Christian communities in many other towns of the empire that the Apostles had not passed by. The picture of missionaries, disciples of the first Apostles, is automatically created in our minds; these missionaries continued the work of the Apostles and disseminated Christianity in these towns. The curious thing is that in the Christian texts of that era, as well as of the one immediately after, there are no names of these Missionaries. There is no question that there were such missionaries who had developed remarkable action at a local level. The conclusion arises from certain witnesses where people with a teaching gift are mentioned; these people peregrinated various places preaching and catechising.

Something had changed though. And this change concerned the way of the mission. The basic reason for this shift was the persecutions and, especially, the persecutions in the form taken since the reign of the emperor Domitian (81- 96 A .D.). These persecutions, of course, were neither continuous nor general. However, even when there was no general persecution, the possibility of one breaking out at a local level caused by an unimportant reason was not rare at all. Many of the Christian martyrs were victims of such accidental sudden bursts of the heathen mob! There is no question that a public missionary preaching constituted an important reason for persecution not only of the missionary himself but of the local church as well. This reason restricted public events and changed the form of mission. Such events continued taking place only in remote areas and with the passage of time were more and more constrained. As a consequence, at the end of the second century, the well known Origen informs us that “there were only a few faithful people applying the work of the missionary.”  

The new form of mission

The mission did not cease when the missionaries were stopped but took on a new form. The primary role in this new period was undertaken by the organised church which continued catechism and baptism in a silent way. Missionary work, however, was not based anymore on attracting the masses but on the personal call of people. Many factors provided help in this effort. One of them was the Church itself that attracted people with its spiritual aura. Another one was the diffused spirit of love prevailing among the Christians. A third one was the Christians' faith that was not broken even when facing martyrdom. Another one was the various Schools, where educated Christians taught the new faith under the disguise of teaching philosophy and many other reasons as well.

The most basic of all the reasons, though, was the mission of the non missionaries. The mission carried out from one person to the other. From the slave to the master, the teacher to the student, the doctor to the patient, the wet-nurse to the baby and the mother, the wife to her husband (how many successes by Christian women!), the traveller to the companion, the trader to the customer, the craftsman to the colleague, the soldier to the other soldier, the sailor to the other oarsman; in other words from one person to the other.

It is not an exaggeration if we say that the victory of Christianity was the result of this kind of mission. A very characteristic example follows.  


Wine trade and mission

In the lower part of Palestine , near the borders with Egypt , there was a very ancient town called then as today Gaza . This town was very well known in antiquity for its idolatry and its vines that produced its famous wine. It was so famous that it was used as a medicine and for this reason it was exported to today's France, a country very far away for that time. Its main importer, though, was its neighbour, Egypt . The wine was put into craters and transported to Maiumas, the port of Gaza , in order to be loaded onto the boats.

Gaza was two hours away from Maiumas. Although Maiumas had been Christianised since the third century and had its own bishop, the neighbouring Gaza accepted Christianity only at the beginning of the fifth century.

What was the reason for this? The reason, according to an ancient text, lies to the fact that “Maiumas has many Egyptian wine traders”. The Egyptians had accepted Christianity early on. Therefore, these anonymous and unknown to us wine traders going to Maiumas to load the sweet wine of Gaza were treating the people of the port with their “new wine of faith” until all its inhabitants tasted it.

The prevalence of Christianity in ancient years is basically due to these unofficial Missionaries from the point of human participation. Stated in other words, it is due to the Church which was deeply conscious of its mission to continue the salvific work of Christ and which acted as one person in accordance with it. The first Christian era, therefore, incorporated in the best possible way the dictate of the theory of mission that “ the mission does not concern only the missionaries but all the faithful in their total as a Church as well as each person separately.”

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