Roman Catholic Missions — October 15, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Christopher Columbus

Cristhopher Columbus

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio. There are no known authentic portraits of Columbus.

The first attempt to carry the Gospel to Japan was made by Columbus. Nearly 2 centuries before the discoverer of America set out upon his memorable voyage, a Venetian merchant, who was confined in a prison of Genoa, the city that after wards became the birthplace of Columbus. The prisoner, who had spent many years traveling though distant lands, was wont to relieve the tedium of confinement by telling his companions about the many strange things he had seen and heard. Among those that listened to his stories was a prisoner from Pisa, a man who had already written a few books and who saw that these tales furnished excellent material for another. It was at his request that Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant, dictated the narrative that gave the Europeans much more knowledge of the Far east. One day he spoke as follows of a country which he himself had not visited, but of which he had often heard during his sojourns at the court of Kublai Khan.

Zipangu (Japan) is an island towards the East in the high seas, 1500 miles distant from the continent. The people are white, civilized and well favored. They are idolaters and are dependent on nobody. The quantity of gold that they have is endless.”

“I will tell you a wonderful thing about the palace of the Lord of that island. The Palace is entirely roofed with fine gold, just as our churches are roofed with lead. Moreover, all the pavements of the palace and the floors of its chambers are entirely of gold, in plates like slabs of stone, a good 2 fingers thick; and the windows are also of gold. They have pearls also in abundance, which are of rose color.”

“Now you must know that the idols of Cathay and Manzi and of this island are all of the same class. Some idols have the head of an ox, some of a pig, some of a dog, some of a sheep, and some of divers kinds. And some of them have 4 heads, while some of them have 3, some have 4 hands, some 10, some a 1000. And they put more faith in those idols that have a 1000 than in any other.”

Santa-Maria (Small)

Replica of Santa Maria

It has been doubted whether Columbus had read Marco Polo’s book before he started upon his voyage of discovery. One reason for supposing he had done so is that in the Biblioteca Colombina at Seville is a copy of the first Latin printed edition (1485) with notes in what is thought to be his handwriting. At all events it was though Polo that information concerning Japan had reached Europe; and thus, either directly or in-directly, he had an important part in exiting the zeal of Columbus for his great undertaking. The Gold with which it was said to abound did not furnish the sole incentive for seeking the island: Columbus hoped to extend the blessings of Christianity to this and other lands that he might discover. When he came to write an account of his expedition, he said in the prologue addressed to his patrons:

Kublai Khan (Small)

Portrait of Kublai Khan during the era of the Great Yuan. He Reigned from May 5, 1260 till Feb. 18, 1294

“The Grand Khan of the Mongols and his predecessors had many times sent to Rome asking that doctors of our Holy faith be sent to instruct them. The Holy Father had never provided these teachers; and thus many people perished while believing in their idols and imbibing the doctrines of perdition. Therefore Your Highness, determined to send me to the said parts of India that I might see the said princes with their people  and lands, might discover the nature and disposition of all, and might devise means to be taken for their conversion too our Holy faith.”

Thus we see that, whatever other considerations may have had weight with Columbus, the missionary motive was professedly, and we may believe actually, the most prominent in his mind and that of his patrons.

(Montemor-o-Velho, c. 1509 — Almada, Pragal, 8 July 1583)

Fernão Mendes Pinto (Montemor-o-Velho, c. 1509 — Almada, Pragal, 8 July 1583)

It was 50 years later when Europeans really reached japan. Though it is not certainly known who were the first to do this, the honor is usually ascribed to some Portuguese mariners, who in 1542 were driven thither from the Chinese coast by a storm. Mendez Pinto, in an account of his travels, claimed the discovery for himself; but there are many reasons for doubting the truth of his statements.

To Francis Xavier was given the privilege of leading the first company of missionaries to Japan. This remarkable man holds in the ecclesiastical history as the “Apostle to Japan” an important place.

Wikipedia links for the persons mentioned here:

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