Even today relatively few people from the western world visit China, especially far inland. Therefore, it is all the more amazing to recall that in the 13th century Venetian businessmen visited the present Beijing (Peking), and that not long afterward a Franciscan missionary, John of Montecorvino, was sent there as archbishop.
Odoric of Pordenone was one of a later delegation of Franciscans assigned to the China mission. He was a native of Udine in northeastern Italy, ordained a priest around 1290.
Father Odoric’s first remote post in his years of missionary work was the Mongols of Kipchak in the south of Russia, but he also probably worked for a while in the Balkans. In 1314 he was transferred to the Near East, where Franciscans had been active since the Crusades. For eight years he preached the gospel in Constantinople, Turkey and Iran.
Then in 1322 Odoric and an Irish Franciscan named Friar James set out for Cathay (as China was then called), to come to the aid of Friar John of Montecorvino, who had been consecrated archbishop of Peking in 1308. (It was the Venetians Maffeo and Nicolo Polo who had first reached Peking. On their return to Rome in 1269 they had passed on to the pope the request of the Great Khan, Kublai, to send Catholic missionaries to China. When the Brothers Polo made their second trip to Cathay, they took with them Marco, Nicolo Polo’s young son. On his return to Europe around 1307, Marco wrote the famous account of his travels.)
The Polos had gone to China by land. Odoric and James took the longer route, mostly by sea: through Persia, Arabia, Iran, to the Persian Gulf, where they shipped out for India. Then they went on to Sumatra and Java, and probably to Borneo and Indo-China. There they learned, however, that in order to land at Canton, China, they must go back to Ceylon. They backtracked, got passage on the right ship, and having reached Canton, moved up northward. This was in 1324. Odoric spent some time at Zaitun (now Chuanchow) assisting the Franciscan bishop there. Finally he went on to Cambaluc (Beijing). For three years he worked under the aging Archbishop John of Montecorvino. Shortly before John died in 1328 he directed Odoric to return to Europe and recruit new missionaries for China.
This time the friar from Pordenone and his companion took the land route, passing by Tibet, and going through Chinese Turkestan, Persia, Iraq, Syria and probably Palestine. When he reached Venice in 1330, Odoric set out to report to Pope John XXII. Unfortunately, illness forced him to call the trip off and return to Udine. But eventually 50 Franciscans were assigned to the Chinese enterprise. Blessed Odoric published an account of his travels, and this book, second perhaps only to Marco Polo’s travel book in popularity, probably helped in the recruitment of his successors on the Chinese mission. Regrettably, the Mongol Dynasty, which had been kindly to Catholic Christianity, was ousted by the Ming Dynasty in 1368, and the Catholic missionary church in China was completely destroyed.
Odoric was thus best known for his adventures in exotic Asia. By tradition he was a devout and zealous preacher who brought the light of the gospels to hundreds of Asians. His Franciscan community long venerated him as a saint, and in 1755 Pope Benedict XV approved the title “Blessed” for him, allowing the friars to observe his feast day annually in the liturgy. Blessed Odoric’s patronage is invoked by long-distance travelers and on behalf of the Church in China.
Blessed Odoric was not, therefore, the only missionary to work in medieval China, but he exemplifies the arduous lengths to which true missionaries will go to “make disciples of all the nations.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara