After civil, military, and perhaps medical service, Montecorvino, an Italian, entered the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor and in 1280 was sent as a missionary to Armenia and Persia. In 1289 he was the leader of an embassy from Haiton II of Armenia to Pope Nicolas IV, who sent John as his legate to the Great Khan, Kublai, in Khanbaliq.
Traveling by way of Armenia and Persia and spending some months in India, he reached Beijing in 1294, just after Kublai Khan’s death. Befriended by the new Khan, Timur, John built the first Catholic Church in China in 1299. In 1303 Arnold of Cologne, a Franciscan colleague, arrived to assist him. By 1305 they had won a thousand converts and built a second church. John’s most notable convert was the Nestorian prince George of Tenduc (Inner Mongolia). The conversion of this prince and thousands of his people aroused bitter opposition from the larger Christian community of Nestorians in China.
Pope Clement V appointed John archbishop of Beijing and primate of all the East in 1307, sending seven Franciscan suffragan bishops to support him, only three of whom survived to reach China around 1310. Another bishop, the Franciscan Pietro da Firenze, arrived in 1312. Under John’s direction, the new bishops expanded Franciscan missions south into Fujien Province, three months’ journey from Beijing, building a cathedral at Zaitun (modern Quanzhou). John baptized some 6,000 Mongols in Beijing, according to two of his letters that have survived (dating from 1305 and 1306).
John learned the Mongolian language and translated the New Testament and the Psalms in that language. None of these missions survived the fall of the Mongol dynasty in 1368.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
- J. Charbonnier, Histoire des Chretiens de Chine (1992), pp. 61-67; J. de Ghellinck, Les Franciscains en Chine aux XIIIe-XIVe siecles, ambassadeurs et missionaries, vol. 1, Xaveriana no. 42 (1927); International Study Workshop on John of Montecorvino, OFM, 1294-1994 (1994); T. Lapolla, Giovanni da Montecorvino, Raccolta documentaria, scoperte archeologiche, testimonianze (1993); A. C. Moule, Christians in China before the Year 1550 (1930), chap. 7; F. E. Reichert, Begegnungen mit China: Die Entdeckung Ostasiens in Mittelalter (1992), pp. 76-79; Anastasius van den Wyngaert, Sinica Franciscana, vol. 1 (1929), pp. 333-355 (3 letters).