A missionary is one who is sent by the Church to preach the Gospel of Christ to a non-Christian people group. The word "missionary" is the Latin equivalent of the Greek word, "apostle," both meaning “send,” since Christ sent out his disciples to preach the Gospel (Matthew 10:5), first to the Jews, then to all the nations.
In Orthodox theology, the missionary vocation of the Orthodox Church originates from the Trinitarian relations of the Godhead, in that the Father sent the Son into the world for the salvation of mankind (cf. Psalm 57:3, John 4:34, John 6:44, John 6:57, John 12:49, John 17:18, Galatians 4:4-5, Hebrews 3:1). The Holy Spirit was likewise sent into the world to sanctify it (cf. Psalm 104:30, Luke 24:49, John 14:26, John 15:26, John 16:7, Galatians 4:6). In the words of Father Patrick Henry Reardon, "We know [God] because he has revealed himself by sending forth his Son and Holy Spirit." 1
Christ passed His mission on to the Apostles when He commanded them to share the Good News of salvation with all peoples: “This Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached throughout the whole world as a witness to all nations; and then the end of the world shall come” (Matthew 24:14). The Lord’s final commandment before ascending to the Father is known as the Great Commission and is recorded in all four Gospel accounts:
- “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
- “And He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.’ ” (Mark 16:15-16)
- "Then He said to them, 'Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things.' " (Luke 24:46–48)
- "So Jesus said to them again, 'Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.' And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.' " (John 20:21-23)
Saint Luke also recounts the Great Commission in the Acts of the Apostles, and like St John the Theologian, connects it to the sending forth of the Holy Spirit: “ ‘But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ ” (Acts 1:8)
The missionary calling of the Orthodox Church finds its fulfillment in the beautiful eschatological vision of Saint John the Theologian: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ ” (Revelation 7:9-10) The Orthodox Church has consistently upheld this vision of the worship of God in every language. Historically, Orthodox missiology has been characterized by its incarnational approach of learning the culture of the audience, translating the Scriptures and liturgical texts into the language of the people, training native clergy, imparting the full Orthodox theological heritage of doctrines and patristic wisdom; and ultimately establishing a regional, self-ruled hierarchy.
The missionary hierarch, Anastasios (Yannoulatos) of Tirana and All Albania, has done much to articulate the missiology of the Orthodox Church. The following are selections from Archbishop Anastasios’ missiological reflections, teachings, and writings:
- “With all my talk about mission, I was regarded at first as very romantic, but gradually people began to understand that a Church is not apostolic if it is not involved in mission activity. Apostolic means to be like the apostles, every one of whom was a missionary.”
- “The Church is not the Church when it is not actively engaged in mission.”
- “Mission will always remain the central ecclesiastical matter; an expression of the life and vitality of the Church. Unthinkable as it is to have a Church without liturgical life, it would be even more unthinkable to have a Church without missionary life.”
- “The question of the motive of mission can be studied from several angles: love of God and men, obedience to the Great Command of the Lord (Matthew 28:19), desire for the salvation of souls, longing for God’s glory. All these surely, are serious motives. . . . However, we think that the real motive of mission, for both the individual and the Church, is something deeper. It is not simply obedience, duty or altruism. It is an inner necessity. “Necessity is laid upon me,” said St. Paul, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). All other motives are aspects of this need, derivative motives. Mission is an inner necessity for the faithful and for the Church. If they refuse it, they do not merely omit a duty, they deny themselves.”
- “As a young person I had been moved by stories of Father Damian, a Catholic priest who served lepers in Hawaii... I asked myself whatever happened to our missionary tradition in the Orthodox Church? Where were the Orthodox missionaries? What are we doing to share our faith with others? What are we doing to reach all those people who have never heard the Gospel? I realized that indifference to missions is a denial of Orthodoxy and a denial of Christ. How had it happened that a Church called to baptize the nations was so indifferent to the nations? Saint Paul brought the Gospel to Greeks. Who were we bringing it to?”
The missionary Archbishop Makarios (Tillyrides) of Kenya has expressed similar themes of Orthodox missiology, as well as the practical implications of evangelism for Orthodox Christians:
- "The mission of the Church is to free the world from the dominion of Satan and the slavery of death and of sin and all other bondages. This liberation is the real Gospel for mankind. Therefore the ministry of evangelization is a ministry of liberation. The Messiah was anointed 'to preach deliverance to the captives … to set at liberty them that are bruised' (Luke 4:18). . . Evangelism invades Satan's dominion."
- "Our sinfulness is [an] obstacle [to evangelism]. It prevents the fire of the Holy Spirit from burning within us and filling us with sacred zeal, faith and enthusiasm so that we can transmit the light of Christ to others, as happened in the case of the Apostles."
- "There is no true evangelism, if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the Kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed."
- "The primary qualification [for evangelism] is a personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior; and that in accordance with the teachings of our Holy Orthodox Church."
- "The fishing of men requires patience in every situation and circumstance. As laborers of the Lord's harvest, we should work patiently and persistently. Conversions may not be instant. Perhaps we shall only sow the seed, another will water and someone else will reap. But this does not matter. God will reward all His workers according to their efforts."
- "Evangelism requires discretion and politeness. Without sulkiness and a style of reprimanding, with meekness and, even more, with respect, full of the joy which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, we should tell others about the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. St Paul commends 'Let your words be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone' (Col. 4:6)."
- "For any Christian worker, prayer has to be his continuous resource, his solace and his weapon. Through prayer he will receive divine strength and illumination and words will be given to him so that he will fearlessly make known the mystery of the Gospel (Eph. 6:19). It is by no means accidental that St. Paul asks for the prayers of believers so frequently. Nowadays, we need people who like Epaphras will be always wrestling in prayer for those engaged in evangelistic work (Col. 4:12). Through prayer also we can ask God to open the hearts of those to whom we are witnessing, as He did in the case of Lydia."
- " [T]he Church is sent into the world to call people and nations to repentance, to announce forgiveness of sin and a new beginning in relationship with God and with neighbors through the Lord Jesus Christ."
- "To be united with the Lord Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit is the greatest blessing of the Heavenly Kingdom and the sole abiding ground of our missionary activity in the world. The same Lord who challenged Joshua about the un-possessed land, is the One who still today commands His laborers to cross all frontiers and to enter into the most unknown territories in His Name, and assures them 'Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age' (Matthew 28:20)."
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has spoken about the evangelistic implications of the Divine Liturgy: "The celebrant says just a little before the blessing [at the end]: 'Let us go forth in peace.' ... Peace means: Go out into the world and impart to those around you the Eucharistic life and hope which you have yourselves been filled with. You have received the Holy Gifts. Gifts are meant to be shared with others. Christ has given Himself to you; now you are called to give yourselves to your neighbors... Peace here means: Translate the Eucharistic mystery into practical social action, into kenotic service. Render to all who are broken and lonely, to all who are suffering and in need... Peace makes us into apostles and missionaries, healers of the sick and servants of the poor. Peace means that thanksgiving has to become evangelism; doxology has now to become diakonia."
History of Orthodox Christian Missions
The Orthodox Church has a rich and vibrant missionary tradition. Beginning with the Apostles, the Church sent out missionaries to spread the Christian faith to all peoples. The Church at Antioch sent the Apostle Paul and Apostle Barnabas on their first missionary journey to Asia Minor and Greece. The Apostle Paul completed three such journeys, each time extending further out and founding new churches. In addition to the missionary work of the Apostles (and later of bishops, priests, and monks), evangelization took place in a variety of other ways (through trade relations, personal friendships, philanthropic institutions and acts of charity, the inspirational witness of the Church as a role model community, etc.). In other words, laypeople played a highly significant role at the local level of evangelization.Christian communities arose in major urban centers first, before spreading to rural areas through monasticism from 270 onward (first in Egypt and Syria, then elsewhere). The faith spread rapidly, helped by a number of external factors. First, Roman infrastructure greatly aided the speed of travel. Second, the conquests of Alexander the Great and his Hellenization campaign had made the Greek tongue a universal language throughout the Roman Empire, extending even into the Far East. Third, due to the Jewish Diaspora, there were synagogues strewn far and wide throughout the Mediterranean basin and penetrating into Asia and Africa. Gospel to be preached, rendering many contexts compatible for the new faith to be embraced.
The Christian faith took root in all corners of the Roman Empire, including Spain, France (Saints Irenaeus of Lyons and Martin of Tours), Britain (Saints Augustine of Canterbury and Aidan of Lindisfarne), and North Africa. The Apostle Mark had founded the Church in Egypt in the 1st century. In the 4th century, Saint Frumentius of Axum preached the Gospel to the Ethiopian royalty at Axum, and was later consecrated the first Bishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.
Large parts of Asia were also evangelized very early on, including Georgia (Saint Nino of Cappadocia), Armenia (Saints Gregory the Enlightener, Mesrob Mashtots, and Isaac the Armenian), Syria and the Middle East, Persia, and even India (Apostle Thomas evangelized the Hindus; and later Saint Pantanaeus of Alexandria).
In Europe, the situation became dire for converts as early as the 2nd century. The Romans began major campaigns of persecution against Christians in France in the 2nd century and in Spain in the 3rd century. Britain’s first martyr, Saint Alban, died in 303. However, with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire in 380, Christian evangelists were given free reign to spread the faith. The Byzantines were very active in evangelizing the pagan peoples in their vicinity. As Bishop of Constantinople, Saint John Chrysostom sent missionaries to the Slavs, the Goths, the Phoenicians, the Scythians, and the Persians.
The close of this period of church history is marked by the apostolic labors of Saint Patrick of Ireland (390 - 461), who led the entire nation of Ireland to faith in Christ and established the extraordinary missionary tradition of the Irish Church.
As the power of the Roman Empire declined, the faith of the Church deepened, in large part due to monastic influences. Beginning in the 5th century, monasteries in Ireland became training centers for missionaries, who evangelized Britain more extensively. From Ireland and Britain, missionary monks were sent to mainland Europe. In this way, France was more thoroughly evangelized, and the Christian faith reached pagan tribes in modern-day Holland and Germany (Saints Willibrord and Boniface). In the ninth century, bishops played a key role in pioneering the evangelization of Scandinavia as well as Central and Eastern Europe.
The ninth century was the century of the most famous missionary saints of the Orthodox Church: Saints Cyril and Methodius. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Saint Photius the Great, sent the Thessalonian brothers to evangelize the Slavs of Moravia, thus following in the footsteps of Saint John Chrysostom, who as Archbishop of Constantinople had sent missionaries to preach Christ to many pagan peoples, including the Slavs, the Goths, the Phoenicians, the Scythians, and the Persians.
Saints Cyril and Methodius devised an alphabet for the Slavic people and translated the Scriptures, the Divine Liturgy, and other liturgical texts into Slavonic. In the end, their work in Moravia did not survive them, as the Pope of Rome ruled against the use of Slavonic in the Church. The brothers’ disciples were expelled. In 907, Moravia was invaded and conquered by the pagan Magyars. The Slavonic language died out among the Moravians, and within two centuries the Slavonic mission in Moravia was all but gone. However, by divine providence, the disciples of Saints Cyril and Methodius (including Saint Clement of Ohrid) had fled to Bulgaria, whose king had adopted the Christian faith. There the Slavonic translation work of Saints Cyril and Methodius bore much fruit. Within almost a century of Methodius’ death in 885, the nations of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Kievan Rus’ (Russia) converted to the Christian faith.
With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Byzantine Church faced economic pressure, discrimination, and outright persecution from their Islamic overlords. Missions fell by the wayside in this new state of affairs, as Greek Christians strove to preserve the faith and pass it on to the next generation. This struggle lasted until 1821, when Greece gained its independence. But due to continuing pastoral needs as well as issues of nationalism, missionary work remained a low priority for the Greek Church until the 20th century.
With the decline of Byzantium came the ascendancy of the Russian Church. From its inception, the Russian Church had embodied the apostolic zeal of the Early Church. The vast stretches of the Russian lands called for continuous missionary endeavors, especially in the harsh Arctic terrains in the North and the trackless East. Even during the Mongol occupation, Russian Orthodox missionaries strove to convert pagan tribes (Saint Stephen of Perm), including the Mongols themselves (Bishop Mitrophan of Sarai). The Russian approach to missions reflected the Orthodox Church's incarnational missiology and methodology epitomized by the Apostles to the Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodius. First, Russian missionaries used the vernacular language as much as possible in evangelism, instruction, and worship, transmitting the Scriptures and the full dogmatic heritage of the Orthodox Church in a language the people could understand. Second, they worked hard to make the faith indigenous so as to ordain native clergy as soon as possible. Third, they labored towards establishing a functional regional Church that could sustain and rule itself (rather than being subjugated to a distant authority figure such as the Pope of Rome).
The seventeenth century saw Russian missionaries go to China. The Chinese Orthodox Church would produce a number of martyrs during the Boxer Rebellion (St Mitrophan Yang of Beijing) in 1900. On the whole, however, the Russian Church’s missionary fervor languished during Russia’s period of westernization in the 17th and 18th centuries.
A remarkable revival in missions took place in the 19th century, corresponding to widespread spiritual renewal in the Church (due in large part to the translation of the Philokalia into Slavonic by St Paisius Velichkovsky). At the Kazan Academy, established in 1842, numerous translation projects were undertaken and native clergy received training (Ilminsky). In 1793, a small group of monks from Valaam monastery was sent to evangelize Alaska, a Russian territory since 1867. The most famous members of this small group were Saint Herman of Alaska and Saint Juvenal of Alaska. Saint Juvenal was martyred by a heathen Alaskan tribe whom he sought to convert. Most of the company died or returned to Russia, and in the end only Saint Herman remained, choosing to stay in Alaska out of love for the native inhabitants, the Aleuts. He lived as a hermit on Spruce Island and cared for the poor Aleuts, guiding them to Christ and raising many orphans. Saint Herman’s missionary career spanned 40 years.
The most famous missionary of 19th century Russia was Saint Innocent of Alaska. A simple parish priest, he moved to Alaska with his family in 1824 and began ministering to the Aleuts. From the outset of his missionary career in Alaska, the saint studied the languages and cultures of the Alaskan native peoples with the scholarly acumen of an anthropologist. In 1832, he was transferred to Sitka, where he ministered to the Tlingit people. He undertook many long missionary journeys by ship or kayak, preaching, catechizing, and providing the sacraments to the faithful. Having mastered a number of Alaskan dialects, the saint provided invaluable translations of Holy Scripture as well as liturgical service texts. After the death of his wife, he took monastic vows in 1840, receiving the name Innocent in honor of Saint Innocent of Irkutsk. He was appointed Bishop of Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands in Russia and the Aleutian Islands in Russian America. In 1850, he was elevated to Archbishop. His diocese expanded to include Yakut, located in the Russian Far East. There he traveled immense distances by dog sled to minister to the Yakut peoples. In 1867, Saint Innocent was appointed Metropolitan of Moscow. In his new position, the saint founded the Russian Orthodox Missionary Society in 1870. He died in 1879.
Saint Innocent of Alaska mentored two other great missionary saints: Saint Jacob Netsvetov of Alaska and Saint Nicholas of Japan. Saint Jacob was born in Alaska to a Russian father and an Aleut mother. Thus, he grew up knowing both the Russian and the Aleut languages and cultures. After completing his studies at a seminary in Russia, he was ordained to the priesthood by the same Archbishop who had ordained St Innocent a priest. St Jacob longed to return to his native Alaska to preach Christ to his own people. He and his wife traveled to Alaska in 1828. His first parish encompassed five islands. In this role, he founded a school and trained the future leaders of the Aleut Church. He corresponded with St Innocent regarding translation issues, and himself undertook the translation of the Scriptures into the language of his parishioners. After the death of his wife, he requested permission to join a monastery. Instead, by God’s providence, he met Saint Innocent, Bishop of Kamchatka at the time, who counseled him during this difficult time. In the end, Saint Innocent appointed him head of the new Kvikhpak Mission. Saint Jacob traveled hundreds of miles along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers to proclaim Christ to the Yupik Eskimos and the Athabascan peoples. Over the course of 20 years, he learned various Alaskan languages, invented a new alphabet, baptized hundreds, built churches, and developed Christian communities. Yet towards the end of his life, the saint was slandered and had to undergo ecclesiastical investigation at Sitka. While at Sitka, Saint Jacob served at the Tlingit chapel. Though he was cleared of charges, he died before he could return to the mission field, in 1864.
Saint Innocent of Alaska also directly inspired and personally guided another extraordinary missionary: Saint Nicholas of Japan. While at St Petersburg Theological Seminary, Saint Nicholas volunteered for the request of the Russian Consulate in Japan for a priest. He providentially met St Innocent on his way to Japan in 1860 (and again in Japan in 1861). Saint Innocent graciously mentored Saint Nicholas, counseling him to learn the language, religious ethos, and culture of Japan with studious dedication. When Saint Nicholas arrived at Hakodate in 1861, Japanese society was hostile towards evangelization, so he spent the next eight years learning the language, customs, and history of the Japanese people. This time was foundational for his work of translating the Scriptures and the liturgical services of the Church into classical Japanese. His small congregation grew slowly. In 1869, Saint Nicholas reported on his work to the Holy Synod of Russia, who decided "to set up a special Russian Ecclesiastical Mission to preach God's Word among pagans," with Father Nicholas as head. The saint returned to Japan and moved to Tokyo, the new center of his missionary endeavors. There he established a number of schools, including a theological school, which became a seminary in 1878. Raising up native clergy was a high priority for Saint Nicholas, and his method was always to catechize converts in such a way that they could effectively share the Gospel with their countrymen as lay catechists. In 1880, he was consecrated bishop of Tokyo. Shortly after his consecration, he ordained the first Chinese Orthodox priest, Saint Mitrophan Yang, who would be martyred in the Boxer Rebellion. Saint Nicholas completed the construction of the Holy Resurrection Church in 1891. By 1911, there were 266 Orthodox parishes; the Orthodox faithful numbered 30,000. The Archbishop, revered by many in Japan and abroad, died in 1912.
With the Communist Revolution of 1917, the Russian Church was forced into a similar situation as the captivity of the Byzantine Church from 1453 to 1821. Discrimination, persecution, and intimidation were the new order of the day for Russian Orthodox Christians. As a result, the mission work of the Russian Church all but ceased, and the energy of the clergy was focused on the preservation of the faith.
Recent Orthodox Missionary Work
In more recent times, a major development in Orthodox missions has taken place in the Church of Alexandria (its full title being the Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa). Kenya and Uganda currently make up the majority of Alexandria’s spiritual flock. There are now large numbers of Orthodox Christians throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
The growth of the Orthodox Church in Africa was a spontaneous phenomenon arising from Africans themselves. Some longed for an authentically African church with no ties to colonial power. Others sought a more apostolic form of Christianity and through their study of Church history discovered Orthodoxy. This was the case with the Ugandan Anglican, Reuben Sseseva Mukasa (later known as Father Christopher Reuben Spartas; he was consecrated Bishop Christopher in 1973). He had initially joined the non-canonical African Orthodox Church in the United States, but broke off all contact with them when he discovered their non-canonical status. After joining the canonical Orthodox Church, he became instrumental in the spread of Orthodoxy in East Africa. In another case, a group formerly belonging to the Salvation Army joined the African Orthodox Church but reconsidered their decision after reading The Orthodox Church by Kallistos Ware. Starting in the 1950s, different groups in East and West Africa providentially discovered the Orthodox Church around the same time. They requested to join the Patriarchate of Alexandria. During the second half of the 20th century, Orthodoxy spread quickly throughout tropical Africa, including Cameroon, Nigeria, and Ghana. Orthodoxy has spread largely at the local level, through “gossiping the Gospel.”
Father Chrysostomos Papasarantopoulos pioneered the Orthodox missionary movement in Africa. As Father Alexander Veronis has pointed out, this faithful servant of God embodied the historic principles of Orthodox mission work, preaching the Gospel in the vernacular and attending to the people’s social concerns.
During his studies in Athens, Father Chrysostomos was inspired by his contact with Ugandans who had embraced the Orthodox faith (including Theodore (Nankyama) of Kampala, who would “become one of the first Orthodox bishops in East Africa”). At age 57, Father Chrysostomos felt a strong sense that God was calling him to become a missionary to Africa. He arrived in Uganda in 1960 and without any aid or infrastructure, began preaching the Gospel to the African peoples. He spent 12 years spreading Orthodoxy throughout Uganda, Congo, Kenya, and Tanzania. Within a year of arriving in Uganda, he was sufficiently fluent to preach in the Swahili language. Soon he began translating parts of the Bible and services into the language of the people. In 1963, Father Chrysostomos started the missionary society "The Friends of Uganda," now known as the Orthodox Missionary Fraternity. With fiery zeal and true holiness, he evangelized the African peoples, always “with God’s help,” as he frequently said.
Through his correspondence from the mission field, Father Chrysostomos inspired many friends in Greece and in the United States to adopt an evangelistic mindset and to consider the missionary vocation, including present-day Archbishop Makarios (Tillyrides) of Kenya. His missionary work, newsletters, and correspondence can be said to have inspired the missionary movement in Greece around the same time, as well as the founding of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center in the United States.
Once, Father Chrysostomos received a letter from someone hoping to become a missionary. The aspirant expressed concerns about the health conditions, the climate, the duties of missionary life, and many other things. Father Chrysostomos simply replied: “My brother, since you heard an inner voice, crush your doubts, close your ears to what others tell you. Make the sign of the cross and begin your journey. As for the rest, leave all in the hands of our heavenly Father…”
He encouraged both men and women to come to Africa to help labor in the Lord’s vineyard. And those who could not join him as missionaries (ιεραπόστολοι), he exhorted to support the work of the Church as senders of missionaries. Towards the end of his life, he wrote the following words: “I beseech you since I have been brought to the midst of the sea, pray and implore that our ‘fishing for people’ may not tarry to fill nets.’ ”
One month before he died, he wrote from Congo: “I love the Africans and am fully convinced that the Lord has brought me here. I hope to use the few remaining days of my old age preaching and teaching here. The place I am now located in is a large city (Kananga) of 50,000 people near the central part of the Congo (Zaire). The people are eager to learn about Orthodox Christianity. But I am old and alone and my capacities are now limited. I don’t know how I’ll manage, but the Lord Jesus will show me, as he always has in the past. Remember me in your prayers.”
In 1973, his friend Archimandrite Chariton (Pneumatikakis) took over his role in Kananga, Congo. Father Chariton’s enduring missionary legacy can be summed up in his last words, “Ring the bells of Orthodoxy in every corner of Africa.”
Another great Greek Orthodox missionary was Father Cosmas (Aslanidis) of Grigoriou. At a young age, he began a correspondence with Fr Chrysostomos. He traveled to Congo (then called Zaire), where the fire of missionary fervor blazed forth in his heart. Under the guidance of Amphilochios (Tsoukos) (in Congo at the time; now in New Zealand), he built an astonishing 10 churches in 14 months. He was advised to receive his monastic tonsure on Mount Athos before returning to the mission field. At his tonsuring, he was named Cosmas in honor of the great Saint Cosmas of Aetolia (+1779), also an Athonite missionary. Renewed in his love for God and in spiritual strength, Father Cosmas returned to Zaire.
First Father Cosmas went to Kananga, to assist Father Chariton and Sister Olga. Then, receiving the blessing of Metropolitan Timothy of Central Africa, he journeyed to Kolwezi. There he began to build many churches. Over the course of his missionary labors, he baptized 15,000 Africans, catechized, preached, provided the sacraments of the Church, abd organized a large agricultural complex that would provide food and jobs for many, including lepers and prisoners. Having learned Swahili and Afrikaans, he faithfully passed on to the Africans the Orthodox Tradition as he had learned it in Greece and on Mount Athos – most especially the Jesus Prayer – for the salvation and transformation of the people and their deliverance from demonic magic.
Three months before his sudden death in a car accident in January of 1989, Father Cosmas told his elder, Father George: “Missionary work is not done for a few months; whoever wants to be a missionary must leave their bones on African soil.” And so it happened with Father Cosmas, whose grave has become a popular pilgrimage site.
From the beginning, Orthodox mission work in Africa emphasized the importance of translating church services into the local languages. Archbishop Makarios III (Mouskos) of Cyprus was very active in East Africa, where he personally baptized thousands of people. In the late 1970s, Makarios helped establish a seminary in Nairobi, Kenya. He asked Andreas Tillyrides (now Metropolitan Makarios) to organize the seminary. The newly built seminary opened its doors to students from East Africa in 1982 and later, in 1995, received students from West Africa, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar. During his time as dean at the Orthodox Patriarchal Seminary of Archbishop Makarios III in Nairobi, Andreas Tillyrides began a program which guided students to translate services of the Orthodox Church into more than 15 African dialects. Andreas was tonsured a monk in 1992, receiving the name Makarios. Shortly after this, he was ordained to the priesthood and then consecrated bishop by Metropolitan Petros and Bishop Theodoros of Uganda. As Archbishop of Kenya, he currently oversees more than 430 churches, and is fluent in multiple African dialects. He was instrumental in the consecration of Bishop Athanasios (Akunda) of Kisumu and West Kenya in 2015 and Bishop Neophytos (Kongai) of Nyeri and Mt. Kenya in 2016.
The current Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa, Theodoros II (Choreftakis) of Alexandria, is renowned for his missionary zeal. In 1997, he served as the Metropolitan of Cameroon, which he greatly expanded through the building of churches, hospitals, and schools. In 2002, Metropolitan Theodoros was called upon to serve the holy Metropolis of Zimbabwe. There, he founded four missionary centers, nursery schools, technical schools, and two additional mission centers in Malawi. He was also active in forming Orthodox communities in Botswana and Angola. Following the sudden death of Petros VII, the Patriarch of Alexandria at the time, Theodoros was unanimously elected to the Throne on October 9, 2004.
Mention should also be made here of the great and ever memorable Orthodox missionaries to Africa, Father Athanasios Anthidis (who served in Congo, as well as India), Metropolitan Ignatios (Madenlides) of Pentapolis, Metropolitan Timothy (Kontomeros), Bishop Nektarios (Kellis) of Madagascar, as well as the current Metropolitan Nikiforos (Mikragiannanitis) of Kinshasa, Metropolitan Theodosius of Kananga, and Bishop Ignatios (Sennis) of Madagascar (who also served as a missionary to Korea).
The Orthodox Missionary Fraternity of Greece reports missionary work in many other African nations at this time, including: Rwanda, South Africa, Malawi, Nigeria, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Benin, Burundi, Guinea, Sudan, Mauritius, Zambia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.
During Communist times, Albania had become the first officially atheist nation in history. The Church was severely persecuted; the Albanian hierarchy was destroyed. But with the end of Communism, the Albanian Church was miraculously resurrected under the leadership of Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos) of Tirana and All Albania.
After being ordained a deacon in 1960, Anastasios formed “Porefthentes” (meaning “sent”), a journal dedicated to Orthodox missions that was published in both Greek and English. It provided educational materials related to the history, theology, methods, and spirit of Orthodox missionary work. Although the journal came to an end after ten years, its short existence led to the establishment of an inter-Orthodox mission center. The goal of this organization was to raise awareness among the Orthodox faithful about the missionary role of the Church. Once Anastasios was ordained to the priesthood in 1964, he traveled to Uganda, where he celebrated his first Divine Liturgy. Despite his long-term intentions, Father Anastasios was forced to return to Greece due to his health, after contracting malaria. At the advice of his doctors, Father Anastasios agreed not to return to Africa. Determined to remain active in missions, he pursued academic studies in missiology.
“In 1968, the efforts of Fr. Anastasios and his Porefthentes staff bore fruit in the Bureau of External Missions within the Apostoliki Diakonia of the Church of Greece, the official missionary arm of the Church of Greece.” In 1972, Father Anastasios was consecrated titular Bishop of Androussa and confirmed as general director of Apostoliki Diakonia. In the same year, he was given a professorship at the University of Athens, where he established a center for missionary studies.
In 1980, Patriarch Nicholas of Alexandria asked Bishop Anastasios to help breathe new life into the Archdiocese of East Africa. Bishop Anastasios readily agreed to this task, becoming the acting archbishop for East Africa. He “worked to create a strong Orthodox community through training and establishing indigenous leaders. In 1982, he re-opened the Orthodox seminary in Nairobi that Abp. Makarios of Cyprus had founded ten years before but remained incomplete because of political instability in Cyprus. Over the next ten years Abp. Anastasios ordained sixty two indigenous priests and deacons and forty-two readers and catechists from the graduates of the seminary. These clergy provided the foundation for the renewal of the church in East Africa. By the time he departed Africa in 1991, he left a legacy through his efforts to assimilate with the indigenous Christians and empower them to embrace Orthodoxy as their own.”
In 1991, after the fall of Communism, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew appointed Anastasios to oversee the all-but-destroyed Church of Albania. Enthroned as Archbishop of Tirana in 1992, Anastasios became the spiritual leader of all Orthodox communities of Albania, regardless of ethnic origin (thus, under his aegis, there are today various Romanian, Serbian, Greek, Macedonian, and Albanian parishes). Archbishop Anastasios initiated what has been called the resurrection of the Albanian Orthodox Church, establishing a seminary, ordaining numerous native clergy, renovating dilapidated churches, and constructing new churches throughout the nation. Under his inspired leadership, the Orthodox Christian Mission Center has joined him in renewing the Christian faith of the Albanian Orthodox and preaching the Gospel to the Albanian Muslims.
Orthodox Christian Mission Center
By the gracious providence of God, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (Brookline, Massachusetts) began accepting students applying from Africa in the late 1950s. A number of students formed a Missions Committee to support these students and to raise awareness about the missionary work of the Orthodox Church in Africa. This student movement was led by (Father) Alexander Veronis, who later became the founding President of Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC).
What began as a small committee in 1962 became the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Mission Center in 1984. The Mission Center was first based in New York, then transferred to the St Photios shrine in St Augustine, Florida, where Greek Orthodox Christian immigrants had first stepped foot in North America in 1768.
Starting in 1987, the Mission Center sent short-term mission teams to East and West Africa, later expanding to 25 other countries. At the suggestion of Charles Ajalat, Archbishop Iakovos advanced the idea to make the Mission Center an agency of SCOBA (Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas). This concept was unanimously approved and embraced by all, and in light of its taking on a pan-Orthodox nature, the GOA Mission Center was renamed the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC). “By 2014, 2500 short term and 115 long term missionaries have served in thirty different countries under the OCMC,” consisting of “clergy, physicians, nurses, teachers, catechists, social workers, church builders, translators, and volunteers of all ages.” The approach OCMC takes in cross-cultural missionary work is to seek the blessing of the Orthodox hierarchs in the sending nations and to work closely with and support the initiatives of the Orthodox hierarchs in the receiving nations.
Other Recent Orthodox Mission Work
Since the fall of Communism, the Russian Orthodox Church has also been very active in sending missionaries around the world. Orthodox churches under the direction of the Russian Patriarchate or of the Ecumenical Patriarchate have been founded in the following countries in Asia: South Korea (where there is a native clergy), the Philippines, China, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Indonesia (Father Daniel (Byantoro)), Pakistan (Father Joseph Farooq), India, Thailand, Singapore. The Orthodox Church is also actively growing in Central and South America, especially in Cuba, Mexico, Haiti, and Guatemala. The case of Guatemala is particularly noteworthy: 200,000 Guatemalan indigenous natives mass converted to the Orthodox faith under the spiritual guidance of the charismatic social justice figure, Father Andres Giron. There is currently an Orthodox orphanage in Guatemala City (Hogar Rafael Ayau) run by the Monastery of the Holy Trinity (Guatemala), as well as a medical clinic in Aguacate. The Greek Orthodox Bishop of Australia, Amphilochios (Tsoukos), who previously served in the Congo, has established churches in Oceania, including New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa.
Orthodox Missionary Saints
Missionaries and Evangelists in the Bible
The Apostles (the Twelve):
3. Apostle James (son of Zebedee)
4. Apostle John
6. Apostle James (son of Alphaeus)
7. Apostle Philip (of the Twelve)
8. Apostle Bartholomew (Nathaniel)
9. Apostle Matthew (Levi)
10. Apostle Simon
11. Apostle Jude (Thaddeus, Lebaeus)
12. Apostle Matthias
The Seventy Apostles
St Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles
Other Orthodox Missionary Saints
- Thekla, Equal of the Apostles (Asia Minor)
- Justin Martyr (Palestine/Roman Empire)
- Nino of Cappadocia (Georgia)
- Mesrob Mashtots (Armenia)
- Paraskevi of Rome
- Gregory the Enlightener (Armenia)
- Frumentius of Axum (Ethiopia)
- Columba of Iona (Scotland)
- Columban of Luxeuil (France, Switzerland, Italy)
- Augustine of Canterbury (England)
- Willibrord of Utrecht (the Netherlands)
- Boniface of Crediton (the Netherlands; Germany)
- Aidan of Lindisfarne (England)
- Cyril and Methodius (Moravia)
- Ansgar the Apostle of the North (Scandinavia)
- Clement of Ohrid (Bulgaria)
- Stephen of Perm (Northern Russia)
- Tryphon of Pechenga (Northern Russia)
- Nikon Metanoeite (Greece)
- Innocent of Irkutsk (Eastern Russia)
- John Maximovitch of Tobolsk (Eastern Russia; distant relation of John Maximovitch of Shanghai)
- Cosmas of Aetolia (Greece, Albania)
- Macarius (Glukharyov) of Altai (Siberia)
- Macarius II (Nevsky) of Moscow (Siberia)
- Gurias (Karpov) of Simferopol (China)
- Juvenal of Alaska (see also the OCA life of St Juvenal)
- Innocent of Alaska, Equal of the Apostles
- Jacob Netsvetov of Alaska
- Nicholas of Japan, Equal of the Apostles
Noteworthy uncanonized missionaries of the Orthodox Church
- Hieromartyr Daniel Sysoev (evangelist in Moscow; martyred by Muslim fanatic in 2009)
- Archbishop Dmitri (Royster) of Dallas, Apostle to the South (convert to the Orthodox Church; labored in Texas, Mexico, and the American South; reposed in 2011; in 2016, his body was discovered to be incorrupt)
- Father Chrysostomos Papasarantopoulos (missionary to Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Congo)
- Father Cosmas (Aslanidis) of Grigoriou (missionary to Congo; reposed in 1989)
- Nikolai Ilminsky (translator and missionary to Muslims on Russian frontiers; reposed in 1891)
- Metropolitan Innocent (Figurovsky) of Beijing (missionary bishop to China; reposed in 1931)
- Archbishop Joasaph of Buenos Aires (missionary bishop to Canada; reposed in 1955)
- Metropolitan Archbishop Athenagoras Aneste (Latin America; still living)
- Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos) of Albania (Uganda; Kenya; Albania; still living)
- Metropolitan Amphilochios (Tsoukos) of New Zealand (Congo; New Zealand; still living)
Orthodox Prayers for Missions
- O Christ our God, the source of wisdom and Bridegroom of the Church,
- You called the Apostles to follow You and to become fishers of men,
- giving them authority to cast out unclean spirits and to heal every disease and infirmity.
- You commissioned them to make disciples of all nations and to feed Your sheep.
- On the day of Pentecost, You sent the Holy Spirit to fortify them, enabling them to fill people’s lives with Your saving love.
- Continue to act today, loving Savior, for the good of Your Holy Church.
- Send Your Holy Spirit upon dedicated men and women;
- inspire them to respond to Your Great Commission and to serve You as missionaries,
- for the building up of Your Body, the Church. Through the prayers of all the holy missionary saints,
- strengthen all who are preparing to serve and those who serve Your Holy Church in humility and love.
- For You are a loving and merciful God, and unto You we give glory, together with Your eternal Father,
- and Your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Prayers of Saint Silouan the Athonite:
- “O merciful Lord, by Thy Holy Spirit teach us to love our enemies, and to pray for them with tears.
- O Lord, send down Thy Holy Spirit on earth that all nations may know Thee, and learn Thy love.
- O Lord, as Thou Thyself didst pray for Thine enemies, so teach us, too, by Thy Holy Spirit,
- to love our enemies. O Lord, all peoples are the work of Thy hands – turn them from enmity and malice to repentance,
- that all may know Thy love. . . O Lord, pour down Thy grace on the earth. Let all the nations of the earth come to know Thy love;
- to know that Thou lovest us with a mother’s love, and more than a mother’s love for even a mother may be forgetful of her children,
- but Thou forgettest never, because Thy love for Thy creation is boundless, and love cannot forget. O merciful Lord, by the riches of Thy mercy, save all peoples” (St Silouan the Athonite, page 276).
- “O Lord, how greatly dost Thou love man! O merciful Lord, bestow Thy grace on all the peoples of the earth,
- that they may know Thee; for without Thy Holy Spirit man cannot know Thee and conceive of Thy love.
- O Lord send down on us Thy Holy Spirit, for knowledge of Thee … cometh solely through Thy Holy Spirit,
- Whom in the beginning Thou didst give unto Adam, and after him to the holy prophets, and then to Christian people.
- O Lord, let all Thy peoples discern Thy love, and the sweetness of the Holy Spirit, that men may forget the sorrows of this world,
- and forsake all that is evil, and cling unto Thee in love, and live in peace, doing Thy will to Thy glory… I pray Thee, O merciful Lord,
- for all the peoples of the earth, that they may come to know Thee by the Holy Spirit. As Thou didst suffer my sinful self to know Thee in Thy Holy Spirit, so let all the peoples of the earth know Thee, and praise Thee day and night. I know, O Lord, that Thou dost love Thy people, but men do not :comprehend Thy love, and the nations are flung about the surface of the earth… People have forgotten Thee, their Creator, and seek after their own freedom, not perceiving that Thou art merciful, and lovest the repenting sinner, and givest him the grace of Thy Holy Spirit. Lord, Lord, grant the strength of Thy grace, that all nations may know Thee in the Holy Spirit, and praise :Thee in joy, just as Thou didst give to my unclean and odious self the joy of desiring Thee, so that my soul is drawn day and night to crave Thy love” (St Silouan the Athonite, pages 273-275).
- “O Merciful Lord, give Thy grace to all the peoples of the earth, that they may come to know Thee,
- for without Thy Holy Spirit man cannot know Thee, and conceive of Thy love… O Lord, send Thy mercy on the children of the earth,
- whom Thou dost love, and give them to know Thee by the Holy Spirit. With tears I implore Thee, hear my prayer for Thy children,
- and grant that all may know Thy glory through the Holy Spirit” (St Silouan the Athonite, page 364).
- “O Lord, grant me tears to shed for myself, and for the whole universe,
- that the nations may know Thee and live eternally with Thee.
- O Lord, vouchsafe us the gift of Thy humble Holy Spirit,
- that we may apprehend Thy glory” (St Silouan the Athonite, page 385).
- OCMC website
- Orthodox Missionary Fraternity website
- Ancient Faith Radio podcast on translating the Divine Liturgy into Every Language ~ Dr. Michael Colburn (transcript included)
- Homily by Orthodox missionary Nathan Hoppe on "The Incarnation of God in Culture" (transcript included)
- Homily by Orthodox missionary Nathan Hoppe on "The Incarnation of God in Community" (transcript included)
- Homily by Orthodox missionary Nathan Hoppe on "Incarnating the Word of God in Our Hearts and Transmitting it to Our Children" (transcript included)
- "We are going to live in Paradise: Orthodoxy in the Congo" in Road to Emmaus
- "Letters from an Apostle: The Inner Life of Father Cosmas of Zaire" in Road to Emmaus
- Interview with Fr Luke Veronis on "The Making of a Missionary" in Road to Emmaus
- Article on Indonesian missionary priest, Arch. Daniel Byantoro in Road to Emmaus
1 Reardon, Patrick. Romans: An Orthodox Commentary. New York: St Vladimir's Seminary Press 2018. 106-107.
"Discovering the Orthodox Missionary Ethos" by Archbishop Anastasios of Albania
"The What Where, When, and Why of Orthodox Missions" by Father Martin Ritsi (see also this (link)
Stamoolis, James J. Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology Today.
Oleksa, Michael. Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission.
Alaskan Missionary Spirituality, edited by Michael Oleksa.
History of Missions
Latourette, Kenneth S. A History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500.
Robinson, Charles H. How the Gospel Spread through Europe.
Smirnov, Eugenii K. A Short Account of the Historical Development and Present Position of Russian Orthodox Missions.
Bolshakoff, Serge. The Foreign Missions of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Pioneers in Orthodox Missionary Work
Garrett, Paul D. Saint Innocent: Apostle to America.
Korsun, Sergei and Lydia Black. Herman: A Wilderness Saint, translated by Father Daniel Marshall.
St. Nikolai Kasatkin and the Orthodox Mission in Japan, edited by Michael van Remortel and Dr. Peter Chang.
Aslanidis, Demetrios. Apostle to Zaire: The Life & Legacy of Blessed Father Cosmas of Grigoriou.
Hayes, Stephen Methodius. "Orthodox Mission in Tropical Africa".
Veronis, Alexander. "The History of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center".
Veronis, Alexander. "Orthodox Concepts of Evangelism and Mission" in The Study of Evangelism: Exploring A Missional Practice of the Church, edited by P.W. Chilcote and L.C. Warner.
"Hope for the Kikuyu" - anecdotal history of Orthodoxy in Kenya