Roman Catholic missions from 1200 to1600 AD

Christian missions history by periods

Monastic missionary strategy

The popular stereotype of Christian religious orders brings to mind hermits, cloisters, and a vague memory of such aberrations as Simon Stylites. Such orders originated in northern Egypt in the fourth century, and in the first few hundred years, solitude and total separation from "the world" characterized them. As scholars would remind us, the words monasticism and monk are rooted in the Greek word monos, which can be translated as "alone."

However, that emphasis on "aloneness" began fading by the thirteenth century as monastic and other religious orders turned outward. The movement that had sought to rediscover Christianity by withdrawing from the world and trying to attain holiness by total separation morphed into an evangelistic movement. During the four centuries of European exploration and colonization (1200 to 1600 AD), the religious orders were the Church's center of missionary training and propagation. One of the most positive things about the religious orders asserts one author, "was the missionary organization through which Christendom worked up to Wycliffe, Huss, and Luther."1 A look at the list of important Western Church (or Roman Catholic) missionaries in this period would be sufficient to demonstrate the importance of monastic and other religious orders in the task of world evangelism. Almost without exception, the names on any such list would have been members of such orders. Few "secular" clergy were involved in cross-cultural evangelism. Stephen Neill calls the founding of the Jesuit order in this period "the most important event in the missionary history of the Roman Catholic church."2

Today, there are more than four dozen Roman Catholic missionary orders. Among the most well-known are (in alphabetical order) the Augustinians (Order of St. Augustine), the Benedictines (Order of St. Benedict), the Carthusians (Carthusian Order), the Dominicans (Order of Preachers), the Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor), the Jesuits (Society of Jesus), the Missionaries of Charity, and the Salesians (The Society of St. Francis de Sales).

The missionary outreach by monastic and other religious orders had been given a big push at the beginning of the thirteenth century when the Franciscans were formed. Francis of Assisi infused his followers with missionary spirit. [ ,more on Francis ]

As soon as his monastic group of followers reached the New Testament number of seventy, Francis paired them off and sent them out two by two. His commission to each pair was: "Go, proclaim peace to men; preach repentance. You shall increase to a great multitude and shall go on increasing to the end of the world."3

Francis himself went on one of the Crusades -- not to fight, but to preach. He did get a chance to witness for Christ to the Sultan in Egypt.

Historian Williston Walker wrote that, from Francis of Assisi on, missionary outreach "was primarily the endeavor of the monastic orders. . . . To the work of these orders, the Christianity of Southern, Central, and large parts of North America is due. . . . They covered the Philippines."4 Roman Catholic religious orders also carried the Gospel message to major countries of Asia, such as Japan, China, and India. They were to be found as well in Africa. Of the major continents of the world. Only Australia was untouched by missionaries who were members of monastic or religious orders.

A brief window of opportunity for Gospel outreach opened in the Mongolian empire. Christianity had been introduced to the Mongols as early as the 8th century by Nestorian Christian missionaries from Persia. However, it was in the 13th-century reign of Genghis Khan that Christianity experienced significant growth in Mongolia.

Genghis Khan was married to a Christian woman. One of the Khan's daughters-in-law, Sorkaktani, was a Nestorian Christian who became the mother of three great emperors, including Kublai Khan. A dozen Dominican and Franciscan missionaries were working in Mongolia at that time.

When the opportunity came to join a diplomatic mission to the court of Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan (who ruled China from present-day Beijing), Nicolo Polo, an Italian merchant seized it. The Khan was courteous and friendly toward the visitors and was very curious about the western world from which they came. He was particularly interested in Christianity and asked the Polos to go back to Europe as his personal ambassadors.

Along with messages of peace, the Khan asked them to request the pope to send one hundred scholars to teach his people about Christianity and Western science. After a three-year return trip back to Europe, the men arrived in Rome only to find that Pope Clement IV had died. While the church's cardinals had been convened to select a successor, they were deeply divided and took three years to make a decision on who the new pope would be. To encourage them to come to a decision, the townspeople eventually threatened to cut off their food supply and actually tore the roof off of the building in which the cardinals were meeting!

When Pope Gregory X was finally elected, he sent two priests to Mongolia (rather than the one hundred requested). The party set out on the five thousand-mile journey, which took another three and a half years. That meant that almost 10 years had passed since the Khan had asked for missionaries to come.

The history of Christianity among the Mongols is a history of "what ifs." We don't know what would have happened if some things had gone differently. However, there does seem to have been a window of opportunity for Christianity in the Mongol empire. Sadly, Christians failed to properly exploit that window.

Today, the Roman Catholic orders are proud of their missionary past. During a visit I made to the little town of Assisi in central Italy, a Franciscan monk there reminded me that it was his religious order that had evangelized much of the Southwest of my country, the United States.

That these religious orders could be so effectively used in missionary outreach was due in part to their organizational makeup. They were quite free-wheeling, being answerable only and directly to the Pope. Each order designed its own internal organization and, with only occasional "interference" from papal authority, implemented its own missionary methodology. To be sure, such independence at times produced a spirit of competition between the various orders. Even so, one must acknowledge that such competition was not always negative.

So, to sum up, what was the Western Church (or Roman Catholic) missionary strategy from 1200 to 1600 A.D? It was built almost exclusively on using personnel from the monastic and other religious orders. Latourette sums it up by simply saying that in this period, Roman Catholic missionaries were "monks, and such orders as the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits had world missions as a major objective."5

Discussion questions

  1. How did the role of monastic and other religious orders change from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century in Europe? What impact did that change have on world evangelism?
  2. What was the significance of the founding of the Jesuit order during this period? What might cause some to consider it the most important event in the history of Roman Catholic global missions?
  3. In what ways did Francis of Assisi influence global missionary outreach by the religious orders? What might be some of the fruits or positive outcomes of this influence?
  4. What significance does the Mongolian Empire have in the history of Christianity? What windows of opportunity seemed to open for the evangelization of the Mongolian empire during the years from 1200 to 1600 AD?
  5. What factors might have contributed to the fruitfulness of monastic and other religious orders in cross-cultural missionary outreach from 1200 to 1600 AD? What things about the organizational makeup of these groups might be applicable to modern missionary efforts?

1 George Smith, Short History of Christian Missions (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1880), p. 146.
2 Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Mission (New York: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 23.
3 Mendell Taylor, Exploring Evangelism (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1964), p. 118
4 Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959), p. 379.
5 Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, rev. ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), p. 927.

    -- Howard Culbertson,

The modern missionary era

Click hereBy the 1600's missionary outreach was beginning to touch all continents. [ read more ]

Evangelizing the Barbarians (400-800 AD)

Evangelizing the Vikings (800-1200 AD)

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