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Rabban Bar Sauma Visited Rome at Easter

Nicholas allowed Bar Sauma to celebrate the Eucharist in Rome.

ABOUT THE TIME that Marco Polo made his famous trip to China, two Nestorian monks from the Beijing area made their way west. Rabban Mark and Rabban Bar Sauma hoped to visit Jerusalem, but they never reached their destination. Military movements and unrest forced them to stop first in Persia and later at Baghdad. 

The Mongol empire controlled much of the East at this time. When Rabban Mark was elected in place of the deceased patriarch of Baghdad, taking the name Mar Yaballaha III, he and Bar Sauma traveled to a Mongol regional capital to obtain confirmation of the election from the ruler, Arghun Khan. Arghun desired to make an alliance with the “Franks” (as he called the Europeans) against their common enemy, the Muslims. He delegated Bar Sauma, now an elderly man, to carry on the negotiations. 

Bar Sauma traveled by way of Armenia, stopping briefly at Constantinople where he admired the beautiful cathedral known as Hagia Sophia. From there he sailed to Rome, but Pope Honorius IV had recently died and no successor had yet been named. Bar Sauma turned northward to visit Genoa, Paris, Bordeaux, and other cities. He met with Edward I of England and Philip the Fair of France. Philip designated noblemen and monks to accompany Bar Sauma back to his own country, and they eventually traveled with him to Persia. 

In Rome, newly elected Pope Nicholas IV received Bar Sauma in friendly fashion. He permitted him to celebrate Eucharist and those who watched said, “The language is different but the use [performance of the liturgy] is the same.” 

On Palm Sunday, tens of thousands of Romans watched as Nicholas gave Bar Sauma the Eucharist. The ground shook when they roared “amen.” The Rabban rejoiced and wept, thanking God for his mercies. 

Christian History $98 gives much more background on the history of Christianity in China.

This day, 28 March 1288, was Easter—Nicholas’s first chance to celebrate it as pope, and he did so in triumphant fashion, witnessed by Bar Sauma. “And on the day of the Sunday of the Resurrection Mar Papa [the pope] went to the holy church of my Lady Mary. And he and the Cardinals, and the Metropolitans, and the Bishops, and the members of the congregation saluted each other, and they kissed each other on the mouth, and he celebrated the Mysteries, and they received Eucharistic Mystery, and then he returned to his cell. And he made a great feast, and infinite gladness.” 

When Bar Sauma set out for Persia, the pope provided him with gold for his journey and a number of relics. Among these was a fragment of cloth said to be from Mary’s scarf and small pieces from the bodies of saints. Back in Persia, Bar Sauma erected a church to house the relics and that is where he was buried a few years later. His account of his travels is of deep interest to western scholars, not least because it gives an outsider’s view of thirteenth-century Europe.

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