Towards the close of the Ming era, however, Jesuits began to filter into the country and on the accession of the Manchu dynasty they found themselves, like their Franciscan forerunners, given honourable places at court.
A Mission to Cathay
Among the first Italians to go trading through Tartary to Cathay were the brothers Polo, of Venice, who left home in 1256. The letters they brought back a few years later from the Great Khan or Mongol emperor of North China to the Pope of Rome induced Nicholas IV, who by-the-by, was the first Friar Minor to become Pope, to despatch a Minorite mission to Peking.
Brother John of Montecorvino, the head of the mission, carried with him letters to the Emperor of Cathay which he delivered in 1292 four years after he had left Italy. On arrival at court he invited the emperor to adopt the Catholic faith, but found him "grown too old in idolatry" to pa Y heed to his admonitions.
Taken aback by the enmity of the Nestorian Christians he found established in the capital, who represented him as a spy and an impostor, he had some difficulty in persuading the court officials that he was a genuine emissary from the Pope. But at last he did so and then had to contend with the Nestorians themselves, who were strongly averse to any new chapel or church being built or indeed to the preaching of any doctrine save their own.
Six Thousand Baptisms So well, however, did Brother John of Montecorvino conduct his mission that in 1305 he was able to report to the head of his order in Italy that he had built a church and campanile with bells and had baptised six thousand persons.
His companions having died he had been obliged to carry on for eleven years without confession and then had been joined by a German, Brother Arnold of Cologne. He had learnt the Tartar language, not the Chinese, and preached in it.
By degrees he had bought forty boys whom he had taught to chant and write, and these young people were now busied in copying psalters. "We sing," he wrote, "by ear because we have no service-book with the notes" . . . . "I strike the bells at all the hours and with the congregation of babes and sucklings I celebrate Divine Service." He would be glad of assistants and recom Brother John added that he was entirely ignorant of affairs in the West, having had no communication from his order for twelve years.
He begged the minister general to supply him with an antiphoner, a legenda of the saints, a graduale and a written psalter, as he himself had but a portable breviary containing the short lessons, and a small m issal.
When this letter reached Italy Pope Clement V arranged that seven Franciscans should be consecrated bishops and act as suffragans to John of Montecorvino whom they were empowered to consecrate as their archbishop.
Of these seven friars only three reached their destination; the others died en route.
One of these survivors, Andrew of Perugia, reported from Peking that John of Montecorvino had been duly consecrated, that both his travelling companions had succumbed, and that he had enjoyed the protection of the emperor for five years.
Shipwrecked and Martyred Stories of these adventurers percolated through the Franciscan houses of Italy and inspired several young men to volunteer for work in China, among them Oderic, a Bohemian, who had entered the order at Udine.
He had felt constrained to set forth to
convert the infidel. He travelled with Friar James, an Irishman, and one servant towards the East in 1316.
He learnt on reaching Malabar of the recent death of four members of his order who, through shipwreck on an island off the coast of Hindostan, had been martyred by Mohammedans.
Brother Oderic sought the grave of these martyrs, opened it, and taking therefrom some of the bones, wrapped them in " fair napkins " and carried them off with the intention of depositing them in the mission church at Hang-chou-fu to which they had been accredited. This he did.
The Emperor's Court
From this Chinese city Brother Oderic made his way to Peking and joined the mission of Archbishop John of Montecorvino.
At Peking he was struck, as were all visitors, by the size and magnificence of the Emperor's court and palace.
The Green Mount, a thrown up by excavating a lake in the palace grounds, he particularly admired. For this Mount, Kublai Khan, whenever he heard of a fine tree, sent his elephants to fetch it, roots, earth and all, with the result that it was