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May 20, 2009 + History of the Missionary Growth of the Church (Part 2)

by Fr. Daniel Griffith
from The Word, February 1979
Click here to read part 1
Click here to read part 3

The first nation, however, to embrace Christianity as its official religion was Armenia in 301, through the missionary efforts of St. Gregory the Illuminator. Within a few years, the Roman Empire itself officially embraced the Gospel through the publication of the Edict of Milan in 313 by St. Constantine. Almost overnight the ranks of those seeking admission to the Church, now that she enjoyed imperial favor, swelled to unbelievable proportions. The Church now had to direct her energies toward the instruction of these multitudes of new converts still fresh from paganism.

However, the Church still continued her outward expansion. In 330 Georgia embraced Christianity through the missionary zeal not of a bishop nor of some monarch, but of a humble woman who had been captured in a raid, St. Nino, equal-to-the-Apostles. Throughout her life she devoted herself to the establishment of the Church through her preaching, wise counsel, and fervent prayers, never once presuming to exercise priestly authority.

Another land to be added to the fold of the Church in the fourth century was Ethiopia which was converted through the work of its first bishop, St. Frumentius. Also, in the same period, many of the Gothic or Germanic tribes then invading the western part of the Empire embraced Christianity, though in a heretical form. In subsequent centuries, they were won to the true faith.

Unfortunately, this explosion of the Church in the fourth century was hindered in the fifth due to numerous doctrinal battles which led, especially after the fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon, 451), to the loss to Orthodoxy of the so-called Oriental churches, Nestorian, Armenian, Syrian and Indian Jacobite, Egyptian Copt, and Ethiopian. A few years before this council, the Persian Church adopted Nestorianism thus halting the eastward expansion of the Church. Nevertheless, this same Persian Church, an erring daughter of the great Church of Antioch, was responsible for missions reaching all the way to the courts of Kublai Khan in Peking in the thirteenth century.

The full acceptance of Orthodoxy by the Germanic tribes began in 493 with the baptism of Clovis, king of the Franks. However, the process of the full acceptance of Orthodoxy by these tribes would continue until 660. The end of the sixth century saw a mission to the Angles and Saxons in England. This mission, begun with the blessing and support of St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome, was conducted by St. Augustine of Canterbury. The Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles had, at least in part, already received the Gospel mainly via the Roman military presence. When the Isles were invaded by the Angles and Saxons, the Celts refused to give them the Gospel. In subsequent centuries, however, it was Celtic monks who were largely responsible for the dissemination of the Gospel throughout vast areas of Northern Europe.

As these forces advanced the spread of Christianity in the West, its spread in the East was more or less permanently checked due to the rise of Islam (Hegira, 622). Those Christians who had penetrated the Arabian peninsula were quickly submerged in a sea of Islam. In 635 Damascus fell to the Muslim armies to be followed in only a few years by the conquest of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, and part of Spain. In the conquered territories, Christians were allowed free practice of their faith in exchange for certain civil and economic disabilities and, more importantly, on condition that they make no attempt to propagate it. Though in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt the Church continued to flourish, unlike North Africa where it disappeared. The end result of this Muslim practice was to turn the Church into a sealed, in-bred community; in short, to cause the missionary spirit to stagnate.

However, the Holy Spirit, once poured out upon all flesh, could not be held in check. The Church now spread to the north, beginning with the conversion of the Bulgars in the ninth century. Thereafter, Christianity spread rapidly among the Slavic peoples. These missions were facilitated by the development of the Cyrillic alphabet by SS. Cyril and Methodius for their missions in Moravia and the translation of the Gospel and liturgical books into Old Church Slavonic. The greatest success in this northward expansion came with the conversion of St. Olga (957) and, shortly thereafter, that of her grandson, St. Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev (988). As was generally the case, the conversion of the ruler was followed by that of the people.

As regards the conversion of Northern Europe, Scandinavia, Hungary, and Poland, this occurred only in the tenth century on the eve of the Great Schism (1054) between East and West.

(to be concluded next week)

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Ss. Constantine and Helen, May 21

Troparion of Ss. Constantine and Helen

O Lord, thy disciple Emperor Constantine, who saw in the sky the Sign of Thy Cross, accepted the call that came straight from Thee, as it happened to Paul, and not from any man. He built his capital and entrusted it to Thy care. Preserve our country in everlasting peace, through the intercession of the Mother of God, for Thou art the Lover of mankind.

Kontakion of Ss. Constantine and Helen

Today Constantine and Helena his mother expose to our veneration the Cross, the awesome Cross of Christ, a sign of salvation to the Jews and a standard of victory: a great symbol of conquest and triumph.