"The Forgotten Commandment"

The Forgotten Commandment

by Archbishop Anastasios Tirana, Durrës and All Albania



The subject of Orthodox external missions is not, of course, touched here for the first time. Quite often, during the last decades, it was made the subject of informal dis­cussions which, with very few exceptions, consisted of casual thoughts and youthful emotionalism, that quickly faded into prolonged inactivity.[1]

The existence of various external difficulties, imposed upon us by our environment, was often considered to be the reason for this situation. The truth of the matter, however, should rather be sought in something deeper, in the very fact that we do not fully believe in missionary work. A diffused skepticism freezes our missionary zeal, as soon as it springs to life within our souls.

"Well! but how can we deal with such a complex prob­lem as missionary work?" or "Should we have such am­bitious plans for abroad when there are so many needs at home?" These are the most common excuses, which have always led to stagnation and a lack of activity, rather than to the realization of the need for fervent prayer.

But it is only natural to question the validity of this way of thinking and ask: "Is this the right attitude? Can we not do anything in the way of external missions?"



1) Fortunately, we do not have to answer this ques­tion. It has already been answered for us Matthew 28:19 and Mark 15:16. If we consider the problem in the light of these verses, we cannot fail to see that the way of posing the problem in itself is wrong. It is not a question of “can we?” but of an imperative command “we must.” "Go ye therefore and teach all nations!" "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature." There is no "consider if you can" but only a definite, clear cut command of Our Lord.

Christ entrusted His cause – the spreading of His King­dom upon earth – for which He came down to us and sacrificed Himself, to His disciples. The Apostles took it to their heart as their only desire, aim and care; and upon leaving this world, they handed over the commandment, in their turn, to their own disciples. They too, lived up to it and again left it as a precious inheritance to the generations that followed them. Every generation con­sidered it its sacrosanct duty to carry the sacred torch of Faith one step forward. And now the torch is in our own hands, while millions of souls have not yet seen its bright flame. Do we have any right to pose and think as to whe­ther we should obey this definite command of Our Lord, so dramatically emphasized by the blood, shed for it, by the generations which handed it over to us?


2) "Thy Kingdom come" is whispered by millions of lips every day: and yet it is quite obvious that God could have established His Kingdom upon earth, in no time, had He only wished it so. But as we are taught in our Church’s doctrine of salvation, He asks for the participation of the human factor in this work. What are we doing about this cooperation, to which we are invited with the holy aim of the spreading of His Kingdom to all nations? "Thy Kingdom come." If only our prayer was a fervent, burn­ing supplication said in support of a noble fight, it would be a most wonderful contribution to the cause. But even this prayer for the extension of His Kingdom has degenerated into a mechanical, loose, mumble which is hardly intelligible to ourselves.


3) We are proud of our Orthodox Church because it has zealously kept the truth of Christ clean of all impurity and we boast of it. Quite rightly too, because it is indeed a great blessing. But, have we ever thought of the burden of responsibility that this blessing involves? It is painfully emphasized by some U.N. Statistics that came out in 1956. Out of the total world population of 2,636,600,000 only 804,306,860 are Christians, and out of these only a mere 128,887,917 are Orthodox. That is, we Ortho­dox are 1/6 of the total number of Christians, who in turn are only 1/3 of the total population of our earth.

We possess the truth, but this is a duty rather than an honor. If the servant who received one talent and buried it was condemned by the Lord, what awaits us who have buried all five of them? Look at the tireless activity of those who have a single one and a false one at that. There are some tiny Protestant communities (which can hardly be called churches) which have developed such wonderful activity in this field of propagation of Christianity to the heathen.[2] Statistics register a decrease in the number of Orthodox. Perhaps the real decrease is small­er than that shown in the statistics, but there it is. And if we try to discover the reason, it is as simple as this – with defensive tactics such as the ones we are habitually using, no great conquests are ever made.


4) If we let ourselves rest peacefully in this habitual inertia in the matter of foreign missions, we art not sim­ply keeping the pure light of Faith “under the bushel,” but we are betraying one of the basic elements of Ortho­dox tradition. For missionary work as always been a tradition with the Orthodox Church. In Byzantine times, the development of missionary activity is really as­tonishing. Fervent preachers of the Gospel set off for all sorts of destinations: Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Ar­menia. Phoenicia. Arabia, Noubia, Ethiopia, as far as the exotic lands of the Indians, the Mongols and the Chinese.[3]

Others go forth to the north, to Bulgaria, Serbia, Mol­davia, Bohemia, Greater Moravia, Russia, extending the radiant light of Byzantium and Christianity, “up to the farthermost edges of Western Europe”[4] up to England and Sweden.[5] The Great Fathers of the Church were the soul of this missionary drive. We cannot help mention the keen interest and activity developed by Saint John Chrysostom in the sending of missions to various peoples.[6] After the fall of Byzantium, Russia kept up this missionary tradition.[7]

After all this, we hope that it has become obvious, that missionary activity is not simply something “useful” or  just “nice,” but something imperative, a foremost duty, if we really want to be consequent to our Orthodox Faith.




No one, of course, questions the theoretical validity of what has been said. But usually there are two excuses, which tend to ease the shock we feel when we come face to face with the criminal negligence which we display nowadays towards missionary work. The argument which forms the basis of the first excuse runs along the following lines: “We have so many needs in our own Church, so many gaps to be filled. Shouldn’t we convert our own fellow countrymen into conscientious Christians before ever trying to convert others?” The second argument reinforces the first: “In any case, we are so weak and poor, unequal to a task which calls for financial resources and powerful organizations and men.”

     It is true, of course, that the Orthodox Churches not behind the Iron Curtain are generally poor and not supported by powerful governments in any missionary effort, as it is the case with Western Christians. But let us never forget that overemphasizing any point or any difficulty comes dangerously close to a lie. Remember, a half-truth is often more harmful than a shameless lie for the simple reason that it can be easily disguised.

     Coming from generalizations and abstractions, let us focus on the concrete argument. We may make the following points about the first objection, which appeals to the needs of our home Churches.


     1) This objection somehow reminds us of the excuse made by some middle-class families, when told of their duty to help the poor. “Our own families do no have enough to live as we ought to, let alone to help others. Let the rich give. And in any case, what’s the outcome? Can we help all the poor families?”

     Apparently no one has ever asked them to feed all the poor in the world, nor does the indifference of the rich exempt the less wealthy from their obligations towards the needy. We hope that our though has become clearer, although expressed in a metaphor.


     2) But let us go on to the substance of the first argument. We often see young men from the cities and the big towns leaving their homes on missions to remote and neglected areas, with the aim of bringing Christ’s love to them. Could one seriously urge them to convert their neighbors and fellow citizens first into conscientious Christians, and then set off for the village?

     “Well, there is a basic difference between setting off for Greek villages and the Congo,” one might observe. But the difference appears to be real only when seen from a narrowly national point of view. It disappears when seen from a narrowly national point of view. It disappears when seen under the bright light of Christianity. Christian love and the faithful’s duty to spread Christian truth do not stop at national frontiers. Isn’t there a place in our loving heart for those beyond them? Are not they our brothers for whom Christ has died too?

     Well, in the same way that some leave their family and birthplace and go to another district, in like manner others will be called to leave their country (which however great the needs are, still receive enough spiritual food) and travel to distant lands which are really starving for religious guidance.


3) "All the same, we must first work for our own home" is the typical, rigid, answer of those who object. We can accept that we “first” must work there, but that does not mean only. Nor should we take "first" strictly its chronological sense: i.e. as meaning, that we must first convert all Greek's into practicing Chris­tians, before ever thinking of others. For, if we accept such conditions, we will never begin missions. We must quite simply understand this "first" in the sense that a man takes it, when he thinks about his various duties.

For example, a priest's first duty is his personal sanctification. His parishioners’ sanctification comes second. But this does not mean that he will never think of his second duty, unless he has attained perfect sanctity. He will simultaneously try to achieve both, his personal sanctification, along with his parishioners’ sanctification. Similarly, these two efforts, i.e. the better internal organization and sanctification of our Church on one hand, and on the other hand, the propagation of our faith abroad, must progress in parallel. Usually, these two efforts support one another. The hero­ism of missionaries and their spirit of sacrifice and love, always tend to give          back to the old Churches a new vigor of life. They make it possible for them to re-live in the spirit of the Church of the martyrs, and in the pure but strong spirit of the catacombs,[8] within which our Christianity is reinvigorated and cleansed. Such a battle at the front always strengthens the enthusiasm and the fighting spirit of those behind the lines.


4) Moreover, we must bear in mind that the history of Christianity, up to now, lends support and authority to these views. First, the tactics followed by the Apostles were not those of a "clean sweep'' campaign. Their plan was not to conquer Palestine first, and then Syria, Asia Minor and so on. They lit up fires throughout the world, since it is easier to spread a fire that way. St. Paul organized Christian communities in all centers of the known world, depositing "good yeast' at various stra­tegic points. The vast dough became more easily suscep­tible to fermentation this way. In any case, he knew that there were so many willing souls, in all these places, who were entitled to hear the Gospel, and who later would zealously preach it themselves. Why should he put off its propagation?

If these tactics were wise then, they are more than wise now. People are constantly on the move and con­tinuously in contact with each other nowadays, and thus we need centers of Orthodox Faith everywhere. The more posts and supporting points we have, the better it is for the maintenance and propagation of our Orthodox Faith.

Never have battles been won by defense alone. Espe­cially in this era of ours, fortifications and defensive tac­tics have lost the importance they once had, both in military and ideological battles.

It is high time that we Orthodox get rid of our "defensive” tactics and become more dynamic and warlike.[9]

Many are the signs that show that in our era, in spite of persecutions and internal problems, Orthodoxy is again called to the forefront to play a great role indeed.[10] The more the time lapses, quickly vanishing into eternity, the clearer the voice of our Lord resounds in our ears, “Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it. For you has a little strength, and have kept my word, and have not denied my name.” (Rev 3:8)



We began this brief study with a question: "Can we contemporary Orthodox think of external mission?" And now, after going into a more detailed examination of the subject, under the light of the Holy Scriptures, of Tradi­tion and common sense, we see it reversed and trans­formed into a burning and accusing question: “Can we go on ignoring the clear commandment of the Lord (Mt 28:18, Mk 16:15) and the Tradition of our Church, hiding the talent under heaps of pretences and excuses?

In the second part of this article, we had an oppor­tunity to answer the first basic excuse for this inactivity, which appeals to the existing numerous needs of our Church. It is time to examine the second opposing argu­ment which is put forward, whenever we consider a systematic missionary effort to non-Christian countries. “We do not have the means. There is no unity among us Orthodox. We do not exercise any international influence. Such efforts ask for many things, while we hardly have any at all.”


1) We must first of all observe that it wouldn't be inappropriate to comment on this excuse by quoting Nietzche's phrase “Human! Too human!” The first argument, at least,  has a spiritual foundation – the interest in the immediate urgent needs of the Church. This second one, however, is simply based on our . . . lack of faith. By saying all this, we surely do not want to maintain that material means are not of any importance in a missionary effort. We believe however, that the means can be found (God helps, so that they may be found) when the other things are there. When there is faith and ac­tivity and no trace of self-interest, all is possible. So many really great works started from next to nothing, but grew in ma­turity with the zeal and faith of their originators.

Sources shall be found. The Orthodox people will help, if only they can see an organized effort, which they can trust and by which they may be inspired. God will cer­tainly grant such economic sources. Of course, we cannot wait for a guarantee before we even begin thinking. Such a demand would be an insult. Instead, we must see it as a prize for our faith.

Even in the Roman Catholic Church, the most im­portant contemporary financial supporting organizations were established by private initiative.[11] Small Protestant Churches maintain important missions, since they are con­scious of their primary, personal, task to propagate Chris­tianity. We, however, do not even think of it. A systematic enlightenment and campaign would surely awaken us from this lethargy. The awareness of this duty exists in many souls, admittedly in a latent condition, but who has ever tried to awaken it?


2) The same things apply to the problem of men. There are many people who feel in their souls, that they have a vocation. But how can they substantiate it and plant it somewhere, when there is not a single missionary effort which they might join? They remain solitary, flickering, little flames that burn out and vanish in the first gust of wind. And yet, they might have accomplished so much, had they only been joined and fed systematically.

“But the population of the free Orthodox countries is so small,” one might remark. “Where can we find the men?” We can easily prove that this is a feeble argument, however, by resorting to figures. There are very few Roman Catholic missionaries from Latin America, despite the great number of Roman Catholics there. Whereas in Holland, where there are only 250,000 of them, they have a tremendous movement. There is one missionary priest to every four at home. (Information Catholiques Internationales, Nov. 1958). In Ireland, the proportion is one to five; in Belgium, one to seven; in Switzerland, one to thirteen; in Greece, one to eight thousand!


3) Speaking of Holland, one might raise an objection. “Well, we can understand this in connection with such people, but we Orthodox have no colonies, no cultural radiation and influence of a more general character.”

Well, first of all we may be excused to answer through a question. “In the centuries of persecution, which state backed the Christians in their missionary activity?” They simply had the power of the Kingdom of God within themselves. That's all that there was and that there is to it. They knew that “Christian and missionary go to­gether.” That is what drove them to bring the message of the Gospel “to the end of the earth.”[12]

But apart from this, we must realize that state support might be an advantage up to now, but in our days, which witness a general awakening of the people and a strong reaction to foreign penetration and influence, it has become more of a disadvantage. The native people look upon missionaries that come from colonial countries as agents of their governments’ sly and dangerous actions (applying this even to the most good-willed and sincere men), and in consequence becoming prejudiced against them. In fact, they hate them.[13] Roman Catholics in particular, with their depend­ence from Rome, arouse suspicions in the simple, yet cunning minds of the natives. The effort of the Chinese to create an independent Church and to discontinue their link with Rome is characteristic.[14]

What therefore used to constitute a handicap for us, has now been transformed into a considerable advan­tage. For, surely, neither the people of Africa, nor those of the Far East, would ever think that a Greek or a Finnish missionary might be a menace to their freedom and in­dependent development. They can easily make sure that he has gone to them solely because of his faith in the truth of Christianity, moved by love alone, without any ulterior motive.


4) Finally, many are those who express their fears, de­rived from the lack of unbreakable unity among Ortho­dox. We do not deny that. The Orthodox Churches are separated to a certain extent. But this is an argument for, rather than against, the idea of organizing a Pan-Orthodox Missionary Society.[15] Such a common effort may unite us more, may help us to become more conscious of our Orthodoxy and to bring us into spiritual contact with one another. A com­mon struggle always unites spiritually. In any event, the things that separate us are not so many and so strong, as those that unite us. We mean our unity of Faith, our Orthodox spirit, the same Body and Blood of Christ that we all partake. The links that have been hammered in SYNDESMOS and the close cooperation on the subject of missions, which was promised by all delegates of the movements that belong to SYNDESMOS, guarantee that this thought has become something more than a noble vision. All that has been said above, was not meant to support the view that there are no difficulties. But there is a difference between “there are difficulties” and “it is impossible, or “It is not our primary duty.” The latter tend to paralyze and poison any effort, whereas the former, namely the recognition of difficulties, incites into strong action, awakes slumbering forces, moves to more fervent prayer, and drives us into a hopeful start.

Finally, it is high time that we make a start. From all points, in all possible ways – as a wonder, as a censure, as a command, - many calls reach us repeating the same thing, “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields, for they are already white to harvest.” (Jn 4:35).





[1] An important step toward that direction would have been taken, if the Orthodox Pre-Synod scheduled to convene at Mt. Athos in 1932 had really taken place. The Church of Greece had in mind to propose the establishment of a Pan-Orthodox Society for foreign missions, the foundation of a missionary school and the publication of a special magazine and books.

[2] One of the innumerable branches of the Protestant Churches, that of the “Square Gospel,” numbering a mere 80,000 members, maintains four foreign missions.

[3] In the 9th century, there was an Orthodox Archdiocese in China. See M. Bruce “Christianity in Chine” in Church Times, May 3, 1956.

[4] Moss: “The diffusion of Greek culture” in the Geographical Magazine, 1946, pp. 212-219.

[5] For the missionary work of the Byzantine Church, see the excellent paper of B. Erastos, “A Thousand Radiant Years” in the magazine Aktines, 1948, pp. 41-48 and 87-90; also “Byzantine Missions” in weekly Zoe, a series of 22 articles written in 1954.

[6] “There is evidence that he organized missions to Scythia, to the Goths and the Celts, to Persia and Armenia, Syria, Cilicia, and especially to Phoenice.” B. Tzorzatos, “St. John Chrysostom,” Athens 1952, pp. 79-80. It is exceedingly moving that even in exile and in isolation at the distant Coucoussos, and in spite of his frequent illness and sufferings, he never stopped worrying about the missions. He subjected himself to all kinds of privations, in order to be able to send the money and gifts which he received from Antioch and Constantinople to the missionaries in Phoenice. (see epistle LI).

[7] See I. Boschakoff: “The foreign missions of the Orthodox Russian Church.” Russian missionaries worked in Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Alaska, Kamtcha, Turkestan, China, Korea, Japan, Manchuria, and to a lesser extent North America. Also see Florovsky’s “Russian Missions” in magazine “The Christian East” Vol XIV (1933), no.1, p.32. J. Glazik M.S.C. “Die russisch-orthodoxe Heidenmission seit Peter dem Grossen.” Munster in Westfalen, 1954.

[8] Whole books and countless articles have been written and are still published on missionary self-sacrifice and love, which deeply move every human heart.

[9] According to some recent Roman Catholic statistics, their foreign missions comprise 26,840 priests, 9331 assistants of the clergy, 61,577 nuns, 8,286 catechists, and 92,111 lay teachers. They maintain 1170 high schools attended by 283,589 students and 46,560 other schools with 3,818,065 pupils; 3132 first aid posts, 1115 hostpitals with 64,886 beds, and 1720 orphanages, housing 93,835 children. (Newspaper “Katholike,” Christmas 1958, p.27). Also, for details on the work in Ruanda-Urundi and Congo, see magazine “Afrique vivante” August-Septemer, 1958.

   According to another source, the Evangelical Churches had in 1952, 42,886 missionaries, aided by 199,069 native assistants. (Evangelisches Kirchen Lexicon, Gottingen, 1958, Vol. 2, par. 1360).

[10] Besides the almost miraculous case of Uganda, another piece of strking and topical news has been recently given to publicity by the Patriarchate of Alexandria. 10,000 Mau-Mau have come over to Orthodoxy by their own initiative. (“Orthodox Observer”, Dec. 1958.)

[11] The “Propagation de la foi” and to a certain extent the “Sainte Enfance” are due to the initiatives and zeal of Mlle. Pauline Jaricot of Lyon. “Saint Pierre Postre” on the other hand, was established by two other ladies. These three organizations have collected and spend huge sums on missions, and today, they are supporting hosts of schools, hospitals, etc. (see Vacant-Mangenot: Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique. Vol. X, paras. 1953, 1955, 1956.)

[12] See A. Harnack: “Mission und Ausbreitung des Christetums in der erstendrei Jahrhunderten.”

[13] India, Indonesia, Burma, Sudan and the Union of South Africa, with great difficulty grant visas for the entry of missionaries. “In India, the progress of Christianity appears to be exceptionally slow, whereas elsewhere in Asia, where missions enjoy full freedom, the number of Catholics has doubled or even quindrupled,” from the Information Bulletin of the “Fides” agency, 27 Sept, 1958.

[14] On the 17th of July and 2nd of August, 1957, a conference was held in Pekin among 12 bishops, 70 priests and 159 laymen, with the aim at establishing a National Catholic Union. On 13th April, 1958, the first two consecrations of bishops without the prioror approval of the Vatican took place in the Cathedral of Hankow. (“Fides” bulletin, 27-9-58).

[15] The precise form of this Pan-Orthodox missionary effort, as we have in mind, will be described later.