Skip to main content

Mission History, I: Catholic

MISSION HISTORY, I: CATHOLIC

Encountering the People of the Roman Empire & Its Neighbors. The second and third century Christian communities were for the most part around the Mediterranean basin. Some claimed an apostolic foundation; others simply appeared. From these communities came apostolic preachers who wandered from town to town, staying two or three days. For the most part their names are unknown; but there were many. According to celsus, an opponent of Christianity, the gospel was spread also by women and slaves through ordinary conversation.

Celsus stated that the Gospel would only be accepted by women, slaves, and unlearned people. However, evidence shows that Christian converts came from all classesRoman gentility, learned philosophers, civil servants, and slaves. By the end of the second century few Jewish people were becoming Christians.

People were attracted by the salvation promised and the divine philosophy being taught. For this reason teachers such as Justin, Clement, and Origen are often listed as missionaries. There are also cases where healings and other works of power had an impact, as with Gregory Thaumaturgus in Pontus. Within the empire the evangelization was done in the cities; the people in the countryside (the pagani ) would not be christianized until the fourth century.

Christian communities also developed outside the Roman Empire. The community in Edessa developed very early in post-apostolic times with some indications that Christianity was made a state religion, although most historians say this is doubtful. However, there is evidence that when gregory the illuminator brought the Gospel to Armenia with the support of King Trdat (tiridates iii, 298330) a strong link was forged between the state, Armenian culture, and Christianity.

With constantine's conversion and the toleration granted Christianity, the situation changed. The last group to withstand Christianity within the cities was the aristocratic class. The nobles would not abandon their traditional gods, but they married Christian women and allowed their sons to be Christians. Once Christianity became the ordinary religion of the urban citizens, group pressure played a role in Christianity's spread.

The development of monasticism in the fourth century played an important part in the evangelization of the "pagani." The monks' purpose in moving into rural areas was to pursue an ascetic ideal, but they also evangelized. Martin of Tours, after becoming bishop, undertook an active campaign with his monks to bring the Gospel to the countryside.

Outside the Roman Empire, Christianity attracted many adherents. In some cases, it was brought by shipwrecked Romans, e.g., Aedesius and Frumentius, who brought Christianity to Ethiopia. In other cases, it was a miracle by a slave girl that would convert the king and his kingdom, as happened in Georgia with St. Nina, or it was the influence and charismatic preaching of a particular person, as with Patrick in Ireland.

Encountering the New Peoples of Europe. From the end of the fourth century the Church encountered new peoples who had come into the empire. Some were already Christian, such as the Visigoths; but they were Arian Christians. Others had not encountered Christianity until their arrival within the Roman Empire, such as the Huns, Vandals, and Franks. These tribes for the most part settled in the countryside and left the cities to the Roman citizens. The Bishops of these towns set about to convert them.

The bishops developed a pattern of focusing on the conversion of the chiefs (in some instances called kings). They always looked for "another Constantine." For this reason the names of individual bishops are tied with the peoples converted: martin of braga with the Suevi, isi dore and leander of seville with the Visigoths, Avitus of Vienne with the Burgundians, gregory the great with the Longobards. The conversion of clovis as given to us in the History of the Franks by gregory of tours is illustrative.

Over 150 years, the Germanic tribes were evangelized and baptized; but much remained to make them truly Christian and to bring organization to their local Churches. The first task was carried out by the Irish monks. Their primary motive for leaving home was not to bring the faith to unbelievers but to perform an act of asceticism: to leave home and wander for the sake of Christ (peregrinatio pro Christo ). Their attitude toward their neighbors differed according to the people they encountered. columba and his followers awed the Picts in Scotland with their spiritual power and mysterious rituals; cuthbert and his monks on the east coast of England gently instructed the shepherds in the hills; Columbanus and his monks brutally attacked the pagan shrines of the Franks, who were Christians only in name, and scolded them until they trembled.

While the Irish monks deepened the faith of the Germanic tribes, the Benedictine monks brought organization. Just as the mission of augustine to evangelize the Angles had originated in Rome with Gregory the Great, so the Benedictine Wynfrith (boniface) first went to Rome before going to the Saxons on the continent. Rome directed him first to the Church in the Frankish Kingdom, which needed organization and reform. This he proceeded to do, but always under the direction of Rome. Although martyred in 752 by the Saxons, his principal missionary task had been to bring order and organization to the Frankish Church.

Mission in the High Middle Ages. Between the 800s and the 1300s there were three principal ways in which new peoples were evangelized: the sword, diplomacy, and a gentle presence (the approach of the mendicants).

charlemagne wanted to extend his kingdom and include the Saxon people. However it was believed that a Christian king could rule only over a Christian people, and so baptism under pain of death was forced on them.

The sword was also used in the encounter of non-Christian peoples in Crusades from the tenth to the fourteenth century. In its initial phase in Spain, its purpose was to defeat the non-Christians (Muslims and Jews) in order to establish a Christian kingdom. Once defeated, they had the choice of being baptized or leaving the country. The Crusades to the Middle East in the eleventh and twelfth centuries were intended to recover the Holy Places from the Muslims in order to protect pilgrims and to establish Latin Christian states. Once the Christian state was established people again had the choice of being baptized or leaving. The final Crusades in the twelfth to the fourteenth century against the peoples to the north and east of the Holy Roman Empire were intended to subjugate peoples and enforce baptism. The evangelization of these peoples was left to the Cistercians and Premonstratensians in the twelfth century and the Franciscans and Dominicans in the thirteenth century.

Mission to new peoples during this time was also attempted on rare occasions by diplomacy. Anskar (801865), after Louis the Pious's failure to impose baptism on the Danes with the sword, 30 years later, through diplomatic channels, was able to establish Christian communities among them. In Moravia the Church in Byzantium also used the diplomatic approach. The German priests and bishops who had come from the West were not successful in evangelizing the people. However, Constantine (826869), Cyril, and Methodius (c. 815885), who were sent as diplomats from the East, proved to have great success. Constantine had developed an alphabet for the Moravian language, and they arrived with the Scriptures and the liturgical books in the Moravian language. After Cyril's death and Constantine's expulsion by the Germans their evangelization by diplomacy was ended.

The third approach was that of the mendicantsa gentle presence. francis of assisi (1181/21224) met with Sultan al-Kamil in 1219 and obtained personal freedom to preach Christianity. But the Friars he sent to Morocco in 1220 and to Tunis in 1225 were all killed. It was written into the Franciscan rule that the Friars can choose to live among Muslims as servants without preaching or can preach knowing that they risk martyrdom. The Dominicans, realizing the importance of language, established schools for this in the Holy Land already in 1237.

The mendicants also evangelized the Mongols, adapting to their nomadic way of life. The Popes also used them on diplomatic missions to the Khans, but with no lasting results. When the Polo brothers returned from China with a letter from the Great Khan Kublai (12601294) asking for missionaries, the Popes responded. john of montecorvino, OFM, reached Beijing, and because of his success was made archbishop in 1307. At the time of his death in 1328 there were 30,000 Christians in China.

Encountering New Peoples Outside Europe. Columbus, under the patronage of Spain, found people on the other side of the world who were not Christian. Since in the 1440s the Pope had given all the lands and islands they would discover to the Portuguese, the Spaniards also sought papal approval to claim the lands they found. In 1493/4, by the Treaty of Tordesillas, alexander vi drew a line of demarcation, and all lands and islands to the east of it were to belong to Portugal and to the West to Spain. This paved the way for the establishment of the patrona to real or patronage system of missionary activity, whereby the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns were also responsible for the evangelization of these peoples, the providing of missionaries, and the governance of the Church.

The political conquest of the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, and Peru was rapid; it was completed by 1535. The acceptance of Christianity by the conquered people took longer. The Spanish ships that arrived brought not only conquistadors and settlers, but also Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Augustinian Recollects, and later Jesuits.

There were some outstanding individual preachers who evangelized these new peoples; however, most was done by communities of friars. Their attitude towards the religions of the native peoples was that everything had to be destroyed. The people were to be made a "tabula rasa," a clean slate on which Christianity could be inscribed. They built their "conventos," gathered the people around them, taught them farming, and set up schools in which they taught Latin, the industrial arts, music, etc. The natives were quickly converted to Christianity, especially after the appearance of Our Lady of guadalupe in 1531.

The Jesuits who began work among the Guarani people received permission to set up reductions in 1608. Eventually, there were more than 30 of them, with more than 100,000 natives. The Jesuits brought them together to protect them from the Spaniards and Portuguese. The remains of their Churches and their music attest to a deep faith.

From Mexico the Spanish evangelized the Philippines. It was the same religious communities who had come to Mexico. They divided the territory between themselves. Since there were few settlers who came along, the friars were free to evangelize and were quickly successful. They also became the civil servants for Spain.

While some evangelization was done along the African coast under the Portuguese Patronage, the principal work was done in the Far East. Christianity had been present in India at least since the fourth century, possibly since Thomas the Apostle. The arrival of the Portuguese in goa brought Western Christians in contact and at times in conflict with these St. Thomas Christians. Francis xavier (15061552) arrived in India in 1542 and worked for several years among the people on the Fisheries Coast.

In 1549, having heard about the Japanese, Francis went to open a mission there. He found that to get a hearing he would have to respect their culture and their religion. After he left for China his missionary principles were carried on by Alessandro valignano, SJ, and led to what is known as the "Christian Century" in Japan.

In the Jesuit mission in southeast India, Roberto de nobili (15771656) decided to identify himself with the Brahmins and to live by the strict rules of a sannyasi ascetic. He met with opposition from the Hindus, his own confreres, and Church leaders. He had some success, but in the end there was no one to take his place.

Matteo ricci, SJ (15521610), entered China in 1582. He learned the language and culture exceptionally well. He made adaptations in the use of language and the manner of celebrating the sacraments, and continued to allow his converts to venerate Confucius and their ancestors. These rites would become the source of bitter controversy.

While the Kings of Spain and Portugal were responsible for the missions under their patronage, it was the business community that supported the French missions to North America. Seculars, Recollects, and Jesuits all came, as did lay men and, for the first time, Religious women.

Re-Structuring the Activity. The decline of missionaries available, especially for the Patronato Real system, and the centralizing process that was going on in Rome, resulted in the establishment of the Congregation for the propagation of the faith on Jan. 6, 1622. Its object was to help souls that were "off the true path of salvation" because of schism, heresy, or unbelief. The first Secretary, Francesco Ingoli (16221649), worked to appoint secular priests as Vicars Apostolic, to recruit diocesan clergy for its mission, and to develop an indigenous clergy.

A Decline in the Activity. The eighteenth century saw a decline in missionary activity. Two major causes of this were the Rites controversy and the suppression of the Jesuits.

The chinese rites controversy and the indian rites controversy arose from the practices which Matteo Ricci and Roberto de Nobili respectively allowed their new Christians. The denunciation of these to Rome in 1645 began a century-long conflict. Condemnations were made, withdrawn, and then made again. In 1742 Benedict XIV condemned the Rites.

The suppression of the Jesuits came about not because of corruption or laxity but because they had many enemies, especially among the Jansenists and the enlightened philosophers and rulers of the day. In 1758 they were suppressed in Portugal and all its possessions; in 1762 in France and all its possessions; in 1767 in Spain and all its possessions; and in 1773 in the Catholic world by the decree of Clement XIV.

The Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Missionary Revival. During the time of the French Napoleonic Wars Europe was too disorganized to send missionaries, and the entire movement almost came to a halt. But after 1815 a missionary outreach from Europe and then later North America began that would remain vital up to and immediately after World War II. The story of the individuals and groups who went out and the people they encountered is fascinating, but here only a few characteristics of this revival can be described.

The revival was Rome-directed and Rome-supported. The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith played the role intended for it at its founding. It defined boundaries of the Vicariates, assigned territories to Religious orders, appointed Vicars Apostolic, and collected information. Also the Popes played a direct role in giving support to missionaries (e.g. Gregory XVI, Pius IX) and later gave direction to the work through mission encyclicals (e.g. Pius XI, Pius XII).

Catholic missionary endeavors were no longer supported by the generosity of the royalty or rich merchants but by the Catholic faithful. The Society for the propaga tion of the faith was founded by Pauline Jaricot in France in 1822. In Austria the Leopolidinenstiftung, in Bavaria the ludwig missionsverein, and in Aachen the Xaveriusverein were all established in the 1840s. There were many other support agencies as well.

Their activity was challenged by Protestant Missionary Societies, especially from England, Germany, and the United States of America. At times the presence of Catholic and Protestant Missionary Societies in the same area provoked conflict (e.g. Uganda), at times competition (e.g. New Guinea), and at times cooperation (e.g. Gambia). The revival was fed by many new missionary societies founded in all the European and North American countries. These were not only clerical religious but also Brothers' and Sisters' congregations. Mission work now included education, health care, and social services.

Finally, the revival for the most part formed friendly relations with the imperial powers. Often there was close collaboration with political protectorates (e.g. Indochina) as well as religious protectorates (e.g. China). Missionaries expected their governments to negotiate for freedom of religion (e.g. Siam and Japan) so they could evangelize. In the colonies they tended to collaborate with the colonial powers in carrying out their aims (e.g. ending slave trade) although they would object at times to oppression (e.g. the hut-tax in East Africa).

Because of these factors the nineteenth and early twentieth century Catholic missionaries took on certain characteristics. They tended to be highly nationalistic and concerned about the imperial interests of their home government. They came for the most part from the conservative, devotional stream of Catholicism and would propagate these devotions and be ultramontane in sentiment and actions. They also would be reluctant to adapt to other cultures.

The Post-Colonial World. World War II and its aftermath left the world in a different situation as far as missions were concerned. Many of the former colonies claimed independence right after the war, and by the 1960s most of them had attained it. Often these nationalistic movements were tied to ancient religious and/or cultural revivals. Vatican II (19621965) also brought about a sea-change both in attitude and practice in what had been mission countries.

These changes in politics and in church life demanded changes in the missionary life of the Church as well. Indigenous leadership emerged; it took control of mission in its own lands. The removal of "ius commissionis" meant that territories no longer belonged to specific religious congregations but to local bishops. Bishops' Conferences began to give guidance to and coordinate the activity of Churches in their part of the world. While evangelization was still emphasized, there was a strong emphasis on development, liberation, dialogue with other religions, and inculturation as well. All of this has opened a new phase in the Church's mission history.

Bibliography: g. h. anderson, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Christian Mission (New York 1998). s. delacroix, ed., Histoire universelle des missions catholiques 4 v. (Paris 1956). s. neill, A History of Christian Missions (Hammondsworth 1986). n. thomas, ed., Classic Texts in Mission and World Christianity (Maryknoll, NY 1995). t. e. yates, Christian Mission in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge 1994).

[l. nemer]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Mission History, I: Catholic." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Mission History, I: Catholic." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mission-history-i-catholic

"Mission History, I: Catholic." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved September 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mission-history-i-catholic

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.