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Into All Nations: Modern Orthodox Mission

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Christ’s commandment to “go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15) is something taken very seriously by the Orthodox Church, from the Apostolic age to the present day. For nigh on 2,000 years, the Church has been spreading the message of the Gospel to the four corners of the earth, fulfilling our Lord’s Great Commission.

From the time of great luminaries such as the Holy Apostles, whose ‘sound has gone forth into all the earth’, an unbroken chain of holy men and women have taken our Lord’s command to heart and risked their lives to spread the life-giving message of salvation in Christ. The Acts of the Apostles details the missionary journeys of the Apostles, focusing mainly on those of Saint Paul and his efforts to spread the faith throughout the known world. The Lives of the Saints contain a multitude of stories about those who have taken the Gospel to new nations, such as Saint Nina of Georgia, Saint Gregory of Armenia, and Saints Kyrill and Methodios, enlighteners of the Slavs. Less well-known in Orthodox circles are the masses of Celtic and English saints who spread over Western Europe and re-ignited the faith in those lands after the destructive barbarian invasions.

After the tragic fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Church of the Roman Empire was no longer in a position to send new missionaries to the nations, as they had with Saints Cyrill and Methodios. The responsibility for defending and preserving Orthodoxy eventually fell to the Russian Church, which was the only local church that had its freedom, the Tatars having been forced out of Russia in 1480 and the Eastern patriarchs having all fallen under Turkish dominion. From this time, the Church began a project of internal mission, growing in tandem with the nascent Russian state. Missionaries were sent to wherever the borders of the state expanded, such as Siberia and - most successfully - Alaska.

The first missionaries to arrive in Russian America were a small group of hardy monks from Valaam monastery, among whom was the much-loved intercessor for the American lands, Saint Herman of Alaska. Despite unfavourable and sometimes deadly conditions, the Alaskan mission was a success and the Orthodox faith was received with great joy by many native Alaskans. This was due in part to the great love shown for them, and all people, by Saint Herman. This beacon of sanctity shown forth with the virtues of the Gospel and drew people to the Source of all sanctity, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Alaska mission produced America’s first martyr, Saint Juvenaly, who was killed while preaching the Gospel among the Yupiks.

After the death of Saint Herman, the work of the mission was eventually taken up by Saint Innocent of Alaska, who translated a great number of texts into the native languages, as well as writing original works for the edification of the Alaskan faithful. The most famous of these is Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven, in which the author succinctly explains the main teachings of the Christian faith. The Alaskan mission continues and thrives to this day as the Alaskan diocese of the Orthodox Church in America, and the monastic life begun by Saint Herman on Spruce Island, was revived in the 20th century by Archimandrite Gerasim of blessed memory, who undertook a great podvig in the solitude of Kodiak.

This is part one of a two part series. Part two discusses missionary efforts of the Russian and Greek churches in Asia and Africa, as well as the everyday missionary effort required of all Orthodox Christians.


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