John of Montecorvino, or Giovanni Da/di Montecorvino in Italian, also spelled Monte Corvino (1246, Montecorvino, Southern Italy - 1328, Peking), was a Franciscan missionary, traveler and statesman, founder of the earliest Roman Catholic missions in India and China, and archbishop of Peking from 1308 until his death around 1328. In 1289, Montecorvino was sent out as Roman legate to the Great Khan, the Ilkhan of Persia, and other leading personages of the Mongol world, as well as to the Emperor of Ethiopia. He traveled with two companions to Tabriz (in Iranian Azerbeijan), then the chief city of Mongol Persia, and in 1291 to the Madras region of India, where he spent 13 months preaching and made 10 converts.
In 1294, he finally reached Khanbaliq (Beijing), just after the death of Kublai Khan. Temür, the second emperor of Yuan China, allowed him to build two churches in Khanbaliq and proselytize there, in spite of opposition from the Nestorian Christians. He purchased 150 young boys from poor families and instructed them in Latin and Greek, wrote psalms and hymns for them and then trained them to serve Mass and sing in the choir. Montecorvino translated the New Testament and the Psalms into Chinese and Uyghur. After working alone for eleven years, he was joined by the German Franciscan Arnold of Cologne in 1304, and three Franciscan bishops who were sent to consecrate him in 1308. By his own account, he baptized more than 6,000 converts in China. His letters containing the earliest noteworthy account of the Coromandel coast by any Western European (1291) and an eloquent description of his work in China (1305), are valuable historical records of the period.
As a member of a Roman Catholic religious order which at that time was chiefly concerned with the conversion of unbelievers, he was commissioned in 1272 by the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos to Pope Gregory X, to negotiate for the reunion of the "Greek" (Orthodox) and Latin churches.
Commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV to preach Christianity in the Nearer and Middle East, especially to the Asiatic hordes then threatening the West, he devoted himself incessantly from 1275 to 1289 to the Eastern missions, first going to Persia. In 1286, Arghun, the Ilkhan who ruled this kingdom, sent a request to the pope through the Nestorian bishop, Bar Sauma, to send Catholic missionaries to the Court of the Great khan (Mongol emperor) of China, Kúblaí Khan (1260-1294), who was well disposed towards Christianity. About that time John of Montecorvino came to Rome with similar promising news, and Pope Nicholas entrusted him with the important mission to Farther China, where Marco Polo, the celebrated Venetian lay traveler, still lingered.
In 1289, John revisited the Papal Court and was sent out as Roman legate to the Great Khan, the Ilkhan of Persia, and other leading personages of the Mongol world, as well as to the Emperor of Ethiopia. He started on his journey in 1289, provided with letters to the Khan Argun, to the great Emperor Kublai Khan, to Kaidu, Prince of the Tatars, to the King of Armenia and to the Patriarch of the Jacobites. His companions were the Dominican Nicholas of Pistoia and the merchant Peter of Lucalongo. He reached Tabriz (in Iranian Azerbeijan), then the chief city of Mongol Persia, if not of all Western Asia.
In 1291, they traveled by sea from Persia to India, to the Madras region or "Country of St. Thomas," where Montecorvino preached for 13 months and baptized about one hundred persons; his companion Nicholas died there. From there, in December 1291 (or 1292), Montecorvino wrote a letter home, containing the earliest noteworthy account of the Coromandel coast by any Western European.
Traveling by sea from Nestorian Meliapur in Bengal, he reached China in 1294, appearing in the capital "Cambaliech" (now Beijing), only to find that Kúblaí Khan had just died, and Temür (Emperor Chengzong of Yuan China, 1294-1307) had succeeded to the Mongol throne. Though the latter did apparently not embrace Christianity, he threw no obstacles in the way of the zealous missionary, who soon won the confidence of the ruler in spite of the opposition of the Nestorians already settled there.
In 1299, Montecorvino built a church at Khanbaliq and in 1305, a second church opposite the imperial palace, together with workshops and dwellings for two hundred persons. He gradually bought from heathen parents about one hundred and fifty boys, from seven to 11–years–of–age, instructed them in Latin and Greek, wrote psalms and hymns for them and then trained them to serve Mass and sing in the choir. At the same time he familiarized himself with the native language, preached in it, and translated into Chinese the New Testament and the Psalms. Among the 6,000 converts of John of Montecorvino was a Nestorian king named George, allegedly of the race of Prester John, a vassal of the great khan, mentioned by Marco Polo.
Montecorvino wrote letters of January 8, 1305, and February 13, 1306, describing the progress of the Roman mission in the Far East, in spite of Nestorian opposition; alluding to the Roman Catholic community he had founded in India, and to an appeal he had received to preach in "Ethiopia" and dealing with overland and oversea routes to "Cathay," from the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf respectively.
It is twelve years since I have had any news of the papal court, or of our order, or of the state of affairs generally in the West. Two years ago indeed there came hither a certain Lombard...surgeon, who spread abroad in these parts the most incredible blasphemies about the court of Rome and our order and the state of things in the West, and on this account I exceedingly desire to obtain true intelligence. I pray the brethren whom this letter may reach to do their possible to bring its contents to the knowledge of our lord the pope and the cardinals, and the agents of the order at the court of Rome...
I have myself grown old and gray, more with toil and trouble than with years; for I am not more than fifty-eight. I have got a competent knowledge of the language and character which is most generally used by the Tatars. And I have already translated into that language and character the New Testament and the Psalter, and have caused them to be written out in the fairest penmanship they have; and so by writing, reading, and preaching, I bear open and public testimony to the Law of Christ. And I had been in treaty with the late King George, if he had lived, to translate the whole Latin ritual, that it might be sung throughout the whole extent of his territory; and while he was alive I used to celebrate mass in his church, according to the Latin ritual, reading in the before-mentioned language and character the words of both the preface and the canon.
And the son of the king before-mentioned is called after my name, John; and I hope in God that he will walk in his father's steps.”
After he had worked alone for 11 years, the German Franciscan Arnold of Cologne was sent to him (1304 or 1303) as his first colleague. In 1307 Pope Clement V, highly pleased with the missionary's success, sent seven Franciscan bishops who were commissioned to consecrate John of Montecorvino archbishop of Peking and summus archiepiscopus ("chief archbishop") of all those countries; they were themselves to be his suffragan bishops. Only three of these envoys arrived safely: Gerardus, Peregrinus and Andrew of Perugia (1308). They consecrated John in 1308 and succeeded each other in the episcopal see of Zaiton, established by Montecorvino. In 1312, three more Franciscans were sent out from Rome to act as suffragans, of whom one at least reached East Asia.
For the next 20 years the Chinese-Mongol mission continued to flourish under his leadership. A Franciscan tradition that in about 1310 Monte Corvino converted the new Great Khan, also called Khaishan Kuluk (third of the Yuen dynasty; 1307-1311) is disputed. His mission unquestionably won remarkable successes in North and East China. Besides three mission stations in Peking, he established one near the present Amoy harbor, opposite Formosa island (Taiwan).
His discussions with Prince George, the leader of the Öngüt Turks, led the prince and many of his people to change their allegiance from the Syro-Oriental (Nestorian) Church to the Roman Catholic Church. John of Montecorvino translated the New Testament into Uyghur and provided copies of the Psalms, the Breviary and liturgical hymns for the Öngüt. He was instrumental in teaching boys the Latin chant, probably for a choir in the liturgy and with the hope that some of them might become priests.
When John of Montecorvino died about 1328 C.E., heathens vied with Christians in honoring him as a saint (uncanonized). He was apparently the only effective European bishop in medieval Peking. Even after his death, the Mission in China endured for the next 40 years.
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