Missionaries throughout history have worked with communities to feed the hungry, heal the sick, promote peace and bring families to faith. They have worked to spread Jesus’ love and the Gospel to impoverished communities for many years. Historic missionaries have left their mark on the world. In this chapter, you’ll learn about some of the most influential missionaries the world has seen. If you’re ready to support missionaries and their work, you can make your donation today.
If you’ve never heard the phrase “missionary zeal,” you’ll soon see why it describes great enthusiasm. The following individuals were so committed to religious missions that they were willing to sacrifice their own comfort and safety to achieve their goals. Some famous missionaries lived alongside Jesus, and we know of them from their appearances in the Bible. Countless others have lived since biblical times, continuing Jesus’ Great Commission. Some of history’s greatest missionaries include:
Apostle Paul, also known as Saint Paul, was born as Saul of Tarsus. People familiar with the New Testament are well acquainted with Apostle Paul, who is influential throughout all of its books. Saint Paul was one of the earliest missionaries of Christ and spread the teachings of Jesus throughout the world. He established Christian communities in Asia and Europe during the first century.
The most memorable story about Saint Paul, however, is that of his conversion. Before he became a Christian, he was a Pharisee who participated in the persecution of Jesus’ first disciples. According to Acts, he was on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest disciples when the sight of Jesus struck him blind. After three days, he regained his sight and declared Jesus the Son of God. He then dedicated the rest of his life to Jesus and spreading the word of his love.
One of the original 12 apostles, Thomas was another prolific missionary. However, he is most famous for his nickname “doubting Thomas,” which he earned when he questioned Jesus’ resurrection. It wasn’t until he saw the wounds leftover from the crucifixion that he believed in Jesus’ return from the grave.
After seeing the marks, Apostle Thomas professed his faith and dedicated himself to sharing Jesus’ love far and wide. He traveled as far as South India to spread the Gospel. Many consider Thomas the patron saint of India, and Christians throughout India celebrate his evangelism with an annual Feast of Saint Thomas every year on July 3. His missionary work continues to influence the Christians who populate South India.
Saint Peter was also one of the original 12 apostles. Several biblical books are attributed to Peter, and he was the first Bishop of Rome. He spread the word of Christ through his eyewitness accounts before Emperor Nero ordered his crucifixion. The book of Matthew describes Peter walking on water with Jesus.
Saint Patrick performed missionary work in Ireland throughout the fifth century. As a young man, he worked in Ireland as a sheep-tending slave for six years before escaping. Patrick then became a bishop and returned to Ireland as a missionary. Legends surround his memory — some believe he drove the snakes from Ireland. Others believe he dueled with pagan druids. Today, we remember him with Saint Patrick’s Day.
Also called Saint Gregory the Great, Pope Gregory I lived in Rome during the sixth century. He contested with threats from Lombards and Byzantines. Throughout his career as Pope, he used diplomatic strategies to protect Rome from these outsiders. With peace-seeking methods, he managed to improve Rome’s relations with these foreign nations. He also initiated reforms within the church and broadened the authority of the papacy.
Saint Francis Xavier evangelized during the 16th century, helping to found the Society of Jesus. He was born in present-day Spain and led missions throughout Asia. He was the first Christian missionary in Japan, Borneo and the Maluku Islands and also spent time in India. Known as the Apostle of the Indies and the Apostle of Japan, he was one of the most prolific missionaries since Apostle Paul.
The Italian Matteo Ricci brought the Gospel to China in the 16th century. He worked and lived in China for 27 years. In addition to his evangelism, Ricci translated Western books on mathematics into Chinese and provided the Western world with its first maps of China. He adapted himself to Chinese culture, which helped him earn acceptance and achieve such influential work. He is famous as a Catholic missionary and a cultural ambassador in China.
The first woman on this list, Amy Carmichael was an Irish Catholic who served as a missionary in India for 55 years starting in 1895. She worked closely with girls and young women, keeping them from a life of forced prostitution. Her work was so impactful that Queen Mary recognized her achievements and helped her build a hospital. When she died in India, those she served put a birdbath over her resting place with the inscription “Ammai,” meaning mother.
Almost everyone knows the name “Mother Teresa,” the better-known title for Saint Teresa of Calcutta. She arrived in Calcutta, India, in 1929, where she started teaching in a Catholic school. In 1948, she branched out beyond her school and began providing care to people in the region who were sick, dying and impoverished.
She then established a new congregation and coordinated missionary work for her Sisters throughout India. She served many sick and dying individuals throughout her lifetime, spreading the word of God in the process. In 2002, five years after her death, Pope John Paul II approved the decrees of her miracles, canonizing her as a saint. Mother Teresa remains one of the most famous and esteemed missionaries of history.
Famous missionaries throughout history have all served to achieve the mission of the Catholic Church, which is to share the Gospel, help others however possible and be an example. According to Pope Francis, the church’s primary task is to “introduce everyone to the great mystery of God’s mercy.” To achieve this task, Catholic missionaries focus on prayer, evangelizing, sacrifice, serving others and having a love for Mary.
Catholic missionaries have been sharing Jesus’ love and teachings with the world since the time Jesus lived on Earth. The first missionaries were the original 12 apostles. In the centuries since then, countless others have continued their work. By studying famous missionaries, we find examples for spreading the word of God.
Missionaries continue to uphold the faith and share Christianity with the world today. If you’d like to learn more about present-day missionaries and how you can support their work, reach out to us at Catholic World Mission. We’ll share information about our ongoing programs throughout the world.