On January 14, Franciscans honor the memory of Blessed Odoric of Pordenone (c. 1286–1331), one of the most prominent missionaries of the later Middle Ages.
A native of the town of Pordenone in the Friuli region of Northern Italy, Odoric joined the Friars Minor about 1302. He devoted his early life to eremitical prayer and preaching but then went to evangelize in other lands, first in the Balkans and then among non-Christian peoples in Southern Russia. After returning home for a time, he left Venice c. 1317/18 as a missionary to Asia. He would be gone for over a dozen years on a remarkable journey.
Modern Chinese depiction (c. 1930s) of Odoric preaching
Traveling first to Constantinople, he spent some time at Franciscan houses in what is now Armenia and Iran. Sailing down the Persian Gulf, Odoric arrived in India in 1322. He then traveled east, passing though Sumatra and Vietnam to China, where he spent three years evangelizing in Beijing (1324–27). His companion for much of his journey was a Brother James of Ireland.
We do not know many details about their return journey, but Odoric and James arrived back in Italy in 1330. They intended to go to Avignon to give a report of their travels to the Pope when Odoric fell ill and returned to his native land. There he dictated an account of his voyages, with many fascinating details about the cultures of Asia, dying at Udine in January 1331. Odoric’s account of his travels became somewhat of a medieval “best-seller.” A cult to him grew up in Udine almost immediately, with reports of many healings at his tomb.
Tomb of Odoric in Udine, Italy
The Rule of the Friars Minor was the first religious rule to mention missionary activity among nonbelievers. As Francis told his brothers: “‘The Lord says: Behold I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore, be prudent as serpents and simple as doves.’ Let any brother, then, who desires by divine inspiration to go among the Saracens and other nonbelievers, go with the permission of his minister and servant. . . For the Lord says in the Gospel: ‘Whoever acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father.’” (Earlier Rule, 16)
Odoric’s travels were made possible by a vast network of territories, extending from Southern Russia through Central Asia to the Pacific, ruled by the Mongols with their tolerant religious policies (The “Pax Mongolica”). In China, under the Mongol (Yuan) dynasty, beginning with Kublai Khan, Franciscan missionaries had become established in several cities, including Beijing, in the 1290s. When the Yuan were replaced by the native Ming dynasty in 1368, however, these relationships between China and Western Christians ended.
The Church of San Francesco, in Udine, Italy, dates from the 1260s.
Check out an informative talk about Odoric and his travels by Dr. Annalia Marchisio.
Main image: A 14th-century depiction of Odoric and friar missionary companions departing on their journey east also shows a few Dominican friars among them.
Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor.