John of Montecovino: Franciscans in China

Ideograms for Rabban Bar SaumaServant of God – John of Montecorvino
Franciscan and first Bishop of Beijing

Writing earlier about St. Francis Xavier, I was reminded about a Franciscan missioner, John of Montecorvino, whose feast was November 29. Mention John of Montecorvino and most people – even most Franciscans – will say “who?” John was the first Catholic missionary to China, centuries before the efforts of other Catholic religious orders. It is a compelling story.  If you would like to read an interesting and accessible account of the travel within the context of an art historian comparing 13th century Italian and Chinese art, read Lauren Arnold’s: Princely Gifts & Papal Treasures: The Franciscan Mission to China & Its Influence on the Art of the West, 1250-1350 – fascinating book.

Beginning with the pontificate of Innocent IV (1243–1254), the popes and Mongol khans began to communicate and exchange gifts in a diplomatic effort to see if there was a basis upon which to effectively bind and subdue their common enemy, the Muslim Empire.  The two most famous envoys were the Franciscans John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck. Their journeys, remarkable and daring, were not specifically missionary but were more as political emissaries. Carpini traveled in the years 1245–1247 while Rubruck’s mission was 1253–1255. Although Rubruck was sent by Louis XI of France to enlist the aid of the khan against Islam, Rubruck also attempted to convert the Mongols (also known as Tartars) by converting the Great Khan.  William’s Itinera is a masterful travel account  that also includes observations about the Saracens and Nestorian Christians found in the Mongol territories. On Pentecost 1255 William met with the Great Khan who received William but nothing more came of the meeting.

In 1291, 250 years before Francis Xavier was sent to the Far East, Nicholas IV sent the Franciscan John of Montecorvino on mission to the Great Khan in response to a diplomatic inquiry from Great Khan Khubilai carried by the Nestorian monk Rabban Sauma.  Traveling through India Montecorvino reached Beijing (the new capital of the Mongol empire) in 1294; by then a new emperor had ascended—Termur or Emperor Chengzong.

Nothing was heard from Montecorvino until two letters, dated 1305, arrived in Rome. He reported that the East Syrian (Nestorian) Christians were well established and actively worked to prevent Montecorvino from building a chapel, preaching, or proselytizing. Montecorvino was able to convert Kuolijisi (whom he called “King George”), an important leader and ruler of a northern Mongol region. Eventually churches were built in 1298 and 1305. He writes that by 1305 he had baptized 6,000 people and could have done more except that he was there by himself.  What little we know from his letters, Montecorvino had adopted recognizable patterns of stable religious life and practiced patterns of diocesan pastoral ministry. Then again, he was alone for the first ten years of his mission.

In 1303 he was joined by a German, Brother Arnold. In 1307 Clement V sent seven friars having the rank of bishop, who were to consecrate Montecorvino as archbishop of Cambalue and primate of the Far East. Of the seven, only three (Andreas of Perugia, Gerard, and Peregrinus) reached China in 1312. They consecrated Montecorvino and established another episcopal see on the southeast seacoast, Zaitun in Fu-kien, which was occupied in turn by Gerard (d. 1318), Peregrinus (d. 1322), and Andreas (d.1332). The new see was supported with financing and endowments by a large Christian merchant community associated with the seaports.

Montecorvino died (ca. 1328). In 1333, upon hearing the news of his death, the pope dispatched the Franciscan Nicholas, along with twenty-six ordained and six lay brothers. There is no record of their ever reaching China. In 1338 a letter was received in Avignon from the Emperor Shundi and the Latin Christians pleading for a replacement for Montecorvino. The Franciscan John of Marignolli and his entourage arrived in 1342. In 1370 with the establishment of the Chinese Ming Dynasty, replacing the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty,  It was more than 200 years until new Catholic missionaries arrived – the Jesuits.

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