FIOR (Franciscan Institute Outreach - Malta)

6. History of the Franciscan Movement (4)

The First Franciscan Missions

6.45. Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries was in dire peril. The advance of Islam had gained the whole of North Africa, the Holy Land and the Iberian peninsula. A new danger was looming from the heart of Asia, namely, the Mongol empire. In order to remedy this danger, the Church was instrumental in preaching the need of Crusades against the infidels. The Holy Land had already been captured and lost. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem had lasted barely a century (1099-1187). A century later, in 1291, the last Christian stronghold in Palestine, Acre, would fall as well. It seemed that conquest by arms was not the solution for political and religious stability in Europe. A new method was proposed, a peaceful method of dialogue and co-existence with the "infidels". In 1219-1220 Francis of Assisi went to the Orient on a mission of peace. In his Rule he dedicated a chapter to the theme of friars who went to preach to the infidels.

The choir of the upper church of Assisi

6.46. The history of the Franciscan missions is one of the glorious achievements of the Order. Here we can only hint at its humble beginnings and its heroic pioneers. The Chapters of the Order were the occasions in which new missions were organised.

6.47. The Franciscan presence in the Holy Land started in 1217, when the province of Syria was established, with Brother Elias as Minister. It is certain that, by 1229, the friars had a small house near the fifth station of the Via Dolorosa. In 1272 the sultan Bibars allowed the Franciscans to settle in the Cenaculum on Mount Sion. Later on, in 1309, they also settled in the Holy Sepulchre and in Bethlehem. In 1335 King Robert d'Angiò of Naples, and his wife, Sancia di Maiorca, bought the Cenaculum and gave it to the Franciscans. Pope Clement VI, by the Bulls "Gratias agimus" and "Nuper charissimae" (1342), declared the Franciscans as the official custodians of the Holy Places in the name of the Catholic Church. This year marks the official beginning of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

6.48. This mission has always remained the most important in the history of the Order. Its long list of martyrs starts in 1391, with Nicholas Tavelic and companions. The Franciscans were expelled from the Cenaculum in 1552, but settled in various other Holy Places during the centuries.

6.49. In North Africa the Franciscans set foot in 1219, when Brother Giles went to Tunis. In 1219 a group of six friars left for Spain and Morocco. After Vitalis, their leader, had to remain behind because of sickness, Berardus and the others continued, first to Portugal, then to Morocco. On 16 January 1220 they were martyred in Marrakesh. Their mortal remains were carried to Coimbra, where Anthony from Lisbon, who was an Augustinian canon-regular, after admiring their heroic witness, decided to become a Franciscan. He was to become one of the most popular saints, Anthony of Padua. A few years later, another group of friars, led by Daniel from Calabria, was martyred at Ceuta.

6.50. In Algeria, in the port of Bugia, another Franciscan missionary was martyred in 1315. This time he was a tertiary, Ramon Lull, born on the island of Majorca in 1232. He was an expert in Arabic, travelled widely in the Near East, instituted colleges for missionaries. In 1292 he himself went to North Africa for the first time. He came back in 1307, when he was cruelly tortured. At the age of eighty-two he returned to Bugia in 1314-1315, to receive martyrdom.

The meeting of St. Francis with St. Dominic

6.51. The advance of the Mongol empire was a great danger to Christian Europe. In 1206 Gengis Khan conquered China, north-west India, Afghanistan, Georgia and south Russia. In 1222 the Mongols penetrated into Hungary, Poland and even to the shores of the Dalmatian coast. Innocent IV decided to enter into diplomatic relations with the Mongols, in the hope of creating bonds of peace with them. For this task he chose a Franciscan friar as his personal ambassador, namely Giovanni di Pian del Carpine. In 1245-1246 he began the long journey to Tartary and to the Great Khan. He passed through the famous "silk road" route to China. The Great Khan Kujuk sent him back to the Pope in 1247, with a personal letter. Giovanni wrote the diary of the voyage, "Historia Mongolorum", as did all the other Franciscan missionaries in the expeditions later on.

6.52. Another Franciscan missionary to the Far East was William of Rubruk, who left in 1253 overland, through Constantinople and the Crimea. He reached Karakoram, and noticed that there were a good number of Nestorian Christians in the Empire. On the way back, after having met the Gran Khan, William wrote his "Itinerarium" to present to King Louis IX of France, who had sent him. In the meantime the Franciscans had also settled in Georgia and Armenia.

6.53. In 1291 yet another Franciscan, Giovanni da Montecorvino, arrived as papal legate to the Great Khan. He had left Rieti in 1289. This time he followed the route from the Persian Gulf to India, and then by sea to China. In Khambalik (today Beijing), he came to know that the Great Khan Kubilai was dead, but he was welcomed by the new emperor. Montecorvino stayed in this city for 34 years, and is considered the founder of the Catholic Church in China. In 1309 he was consecrated archbishop of Khambalik. When the patriarch died in 1328, he left a flourishing Christian community.

6.54. Odorico of Pordenone went to the Mongol Empire in 1322, and passed from the Black Sea, Armenia and Persia, and then by sea from Hormuz. He arrived in Khambalik, where he remained for six years. On his way back through Tibet and the Pamir mountains, he wrote his "Itinerarium".

6.55. The last one in the list of famous Franciscan pioneers in China was Giovanni dei Marignolli, who was sent as an ambassador of Benedict XII to the ancient Cathay Empire in 1339.

© copyright FIOR-Malta
Text by Fr. Noel Muscat ofm


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