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Equal to the Apostles PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 20 August 2008 06:52
Catholicism around the world - and the critical role of lay Catholics in sustaining the Church - is the theme of the day around here at ID.

I can't compete with Fr. Mike's fabulous tour of the sights and tastes of Korea, but the the fact that lay people brought the faith to Korea in the first place and have been the catalyst of evangelization there is no anomaly.

In fact, Eastern Orthodoxy has a special term for Christians who have played a critical role in the spread of the faith: isapostolos or "equal to the apostles". Many of those officially recognized as "equal to the apostles" in this sense are lay Christians, including a number of lay women such as Sts Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman at the well; Thekla, Helena of Constantinople, Olga of Kiev, and St. Nino of Georgia.

(Giotto's magnificent Magdalene)

One of Gashwin Gomes' last posts was on this story of the remarkable growth of Catholicism in certain part of India. (Gomes has had to close down his blog because he has entered the archdiocesan seminary in Atlanta. We're losing a great blogger but gaining a great priest, so I guess that is a fair exchange.)

From Aid to the Church in Need:

"A CORNER of India lays claim to be the place where the Catholic Church has grown the most over the past 30 years – with more than 10,000 adult baptisms every year.

Since the 1970s, Catholics in Arunachal Pradesh state have grown from a few scattered communities to almost 200,000 in number.

And all this in a region of north east India where Catholic missionaries were forbidden for generations.

In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic charity for suffering Christians, Bishop John Thomas Kattrukudiyil of Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh, said: “The fastest growth of the Church over the past few decades has been in this region.

“When the people hear that the bishop is coming to see them, people walk three or four days just to be there.


He explained how the Church in Arunachal Pradesh was unique, in that it spread thanks largely to lay faithful because of the ban on missionaries from outside the region.

He said it was only thanks to contact with a dynamic parish on the border with neighbouring Assam that Catholicism was able to enter the region.

The parish in Hamutty attracted visitors from Arunachal Pradesh who returned home as catechists and soon the Church spread to the point where in the early 1990s converts became government ministers and insisted that priests finally be allowed to work in the region.

The rapid growth of the Church in Arunachal Pradesh led Pope Benedict XVI to set up the two dioceses in the region, Itanagar and neighbouring Miao – both of which only formally created less than three years ago.

News of the Church’s growth in Arunachal Pradesh comes barely a year after ACN News reported on Catholicism’s boom in Assam where Bishop Thomas Pulloppillil of Bongaigaon has had up to 20,000 conversions since 2000.


The bishop said the Church now faces the rise of the Jehovah Witnesses and other evangelical Church groups, requiring a greater emphasis on catechesis to keep people committed to Catholicism.

According to the bishop, conversions to Catholicism were significantly down from the 1980s and 1990s when they were at their peak but people retained their enthusiasm for the Church.

As reported by Christianity Today a year ago:

"Catholicism in North East India – which began barely 100 years ago – is now booming with more than 50 men ordained to the priesthood every year.

Barely a century after the first Catholic missionaries arrived in the region centring on Assam, there are now 1.5 million Catholics.

Christians in general are now considered the majority in three of the eight political states that make up North East India.

The Church’s expediential growth was spelled out by Bishop Thomas Pulloppillil, whose new diocese of Bongaigaon has swelled by nearly 20,000 people since his episcopal ordination in 2000.

In an interview this week with Aid to the Church in Need, the charity for suffering Christians, the bishop said that in the neighbouring state of Arunachal Pradesh on the border with China, thousands of people had defied draconian anti-conversion laws and become Christians.

In this part of India there are 180,000 Catholics out of a total population of nearly 800,000 – a vast difference from 25 years ago when there were no Catholics at all throughout Arunachal Pradesh.

I hate to contradict the good Bishop but the situation in Arunachal Pradesh is not unique, even by Catholic standards, and is positively run of the mill practice among evangelical/Independent Christians throughout Asia.

Christianity entered Nepal in the 1960's in exactly the same way and the staggering lay-driven growth of Christanity in China has become proverbial.

Since Georgia has been tragically highlighted in the news this past week, it brought to mind one of my favorite stories of lay apostleship: St. Nino.

There are some considerable differences in the traditions about St. Nino. The Orthodox believe that she was well-born and educated and begin her missionary work in response to a vision of our Lady.

"Nino received a vision where the Virgin Mary gave her a grapevine cross and said:

"Go to Iberia and tell there the Good Tidings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and you will find favour before the Lord; and I will be for you a shield against all visible and invisible enemies. By the strength of this cross, you will erect in that land the saving banner of faith in My beloved Son and Lord."

The Roman Catholic traditions hold that she was brought to Georgia against her will, as a slave.

"Nino reached the borders of ancient Georgian Kingdom of Iberia in about 320 A.D. There, she placed a Christian cross in the small town of Akhalkalaki and started preaching the Christian faith in Urbnis and finally reaching Mtskheta (the capital of Iberia). Iberian Kingdom has been influenced by the neighbouring Persian Empire which played an important role as the regional power in the Caucasus. The Iberian King Mirian III and his nation worshiped the syncretic gods of Armazi and Zaden. Soon after the arrival of Nino in Mstkheta, the Queen of Iberia Nana (daughter of King Asphagor) requested the audience with the Cappadician.

Queen Nana, who suffered from a severe illness, had some knowledge of Christianity but had not yet converted to it. Nino, restoring the Queen's health, won to herself disciples from the Queen's attendants, including a Jewish priest and his daughter, Abiathar and Sidonia. Queen Nana also officially converted to Christianity and was baptized by Nino herself. King Mirian, aware of his wife’s religious conversion, was tolerant of her new faith. He secluded himself, however, from Nino and the growing Christian community in his kingdom. His isolation to Christianity did not last long because, according to the legend, while on a hunting trip, he was suddenly struck blind as total darkness emerged in the woods. In a desperate state, King Mirian uttered a prayer to the God of St Nino:

"If indeed that Christ whom the Captive had preached to his Wife was God, then let Him now deliver him from this darkness, that he too might forsake all other gods to worship Him." [2]

As soon as he finished his prayer, the light appeared and the King hastily returned to his palace in Mtskheta. As a result of this miracle, the King of Iberia renounced idolatry under the teaching of St Nino and was baptized as the first Christian King of Iberia. Soon, the whole of his household and the inhabitants of Mtskheta adopted Christianity. In A.D. 327 King Mirian made Christianity the state religion of his kingdom, making Iberia the second Christian state after Armenia.

After adopting Christianity, Mirian sent an ambassador to Byzantium, asking Emperor Constantine I to have a bishop and priests sent to Iberia. Constantine, having learned of Iberia’s conversion to Christianity, granted Mirian the church lands in Jerusalem [3] and sent the delegation of Bishops to the court of the Georgian King. Roman historian Tyrannius Rufinus in Historia Ecclesiastica writes about Mirians request to Constantine:

After the church had been built with due magnificence, the people were zealously yearning for God's faith. So an embassy is sent on behalf of the entire nation to the Emperor Constantine, in accordance with the captive woman's advice. The foregoing events are related to him, and a petition submitted, requesting that priests be sent to complete the work which God had begun. Sending them on their way amidst rejoicing and ceremony, the Emperor was far more glad at this news than if he had annexed to the Roman Empire peoples and realms unknown. [4]
In 334 A.D, Mirian commissioned the building of the first Christian church in Iberia which was finally completed in 379 A.D. on the spot where now stands the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mstkheta.

Nino, having witnessed the conversion of Iberia to Christianity, withdrew to the mountain pass in Bodbe, Kakheti. St Nino died soon after; immediately after her death, King Mirian commenced with the building of monastery in Bodbe, where her tomb can still be seen in the churchyard."

Understandably, "Nino and its variants remains the most popular name for women and girls in the Republic of Georgia. There are currently 88,441 women over age 16 by that name residing in the country, according to the Georgia Ministry of Justice."

St. Nino, pray for the suffering people of Georgia!

I am morally certain that there are now living innumerable lay Christians whose names are unknown to us but who have been the instruments through which the love of Christ has entered a family, a community, a city, a profession, a business, a region or a nation in a transforming way. In their own way, they deserve the title of "equal to the apostles" .

I'm also sure that I've met some of these apostles on the road but from now on, I'm going to stay alert to the possibility that I might be in the presence of one of these blessed heralds of the gospel.

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