On Tuesday evening a special delegation from Italy delivered a relic to the Church of Our Lady of the Snows in central Prague. The holy object in question is a fragment of the remains of a Czech Franciscan missionary, who was among the first recorded Europeans to visit the Far East.
I, brother Odoric, a Czech from Turlania,…crossed the sea and visited the land of the unbelievers intending to harvest some of their souls. I will not mention all that I have seen…For I would have not believed it myself, if I had not heard it and seen it with my own ears and eyes.
Thus begins the ‘The Journey into the Empire of the Great Khan’, a book of recollections written in the 14th century by Czech priest, Odoric of Pordenone, who set out for China in 1318, after being commissioned by the Pope to establish contact with the its Mongol rulers.
Crossing Persia and Tibet, his journey would eventually take him beyond the Middle Empire, as far as the Philippines, where he was the first priest to conduct Christmas mass.
Yet despite the extraordinary life of this Czech Marco Polo, Odoric is virtually unknown in the country and wider Europe as a whole. Franciscan priest, Petr Beneš, who organised the transportation of the relic, explains Odoric’s lack of popularity.
“Odoric was historically unlucky. His account was discovered by a French author and plagiarised in the 1350s, becoming a collection of travellers’ tales, which we know today as the ‘The Travels of Sir John Mandeville’, so Odoric’s own story was forgotten. His book was eventually published in Czechoslovakia in 1962, but that was more than half a century ago.”
The reason why Odoric is from Pordenone and not a more Czech sounding settlement, is because he was born in 13th century Northern Italy, to a Czech soldier serving in the army of Premysl Ottokar II., as it was campaigning in Friuli.
It is also in Pordenone where Odoric’s body lies today, in a church specially built to resemble a Mongol tent.
Now a part of the medieval traveller will reside in his home country as well. The Church of Our Lady of the Snows, located in the centre of Prague, secured a relic in the form of a part of the missionary’s tissue from their Italian counterparts.
“We have an author who is ready to write a new book on Odoric, but we’ve been advised to wait until he is made into a saint. We were actually hoping that the Italian delegation, which contains members of the canonisation commission, was going to tell us that he will be canonised this year, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
For now, friar Beneš is eager to upgrade the reliquary in which Odoric’s remains are placed. He believes that the holy man should be seen as a patron of Czech travellers and explorers.