Janez Krstnik Mesar: Portrait of the Tonkin missionary from the 18th century
The activities of J. K. Mesar in China and Vietnam represent a significant episode in the history of the Slovenes' contacts with foreign cultures. As a Jesuit missionary in the first half of the 18th century, Mesar was involved in the disputes over the adaptation methods and the Portuguese patronage in China. He ended his life as the victim of the struggle between European pro-zealotry and Asian traditionalism. His biography which was reconstructed mainly on the basis of archive sources vacillates between his personal life story and the legend of him as a saint.
In the 18th century in Tonkin and Cochin China, now Vietnamese territory, missionaries of various orders and nationalities were active: Portuguese Jesuits, the missionaries of the French association Missions Etrangeres, Spanish Franciscan missionaries from the order province in Manila and Italian missionaries of various orders appointed by the Roman Propaganda fide. Janez Krstnik Mesar, a missionary of Slovene origin, belonged to the last order mentioned.
Janez Krstnik Mesar was born on August 12 in 1673 in Gorizia, today a town on the border between Slovenia and Italy. His father was a Slovene immigrant while his mother was native to the town. Gorizia politically belonged to the Italian hinterland and for this reason, Mesar is frequently referred to as an Italian in histiographic literature and therefore he often appears under the Italian variation of his name - Giovanni Battista Messari.
After he joined the Jesuit order in 1701 in Vienna, Mesar submitted several requests to the order's mayors in Rome for a missionary post in Asia. He eventually departed for Macao via Genoa and Cadiz in 1705 in the company of Roman Hinderer, a Jesuit missionary from Alsace. He was first assigned the post in the Southern Chinese provinces and in 1712 he moved to Cochin China (the southern part of modern day Vietnam). There he had to face the resistance of the ruling aristocracy to the introduction of Christianity and Europeanization in general. Soon after that he was arrested, then imprisoned and sentenced to death. His salvation was negotiated through the intervention of Antonio Arnedo, a Jesuit from Hue (then the capital). After that he was expelled to Macao. The principal of the order whose seat was in Macao appointed him to a new missionary region in Tonkin in modern day North Vietnam where, after the persecution of Christians in 1712-1713, there arose the need to reorganise the church.
Mesar set out on the journey for Tonkin on foot in April 1715 following the route along the south Chinese coast. On the way he stopped in the Chinese border town of Lianzho (modern day Hepu) where he recorded the manners and customs of indigenous people in a letter published in the anthology, Der neue Welt-Bott. His writing reveals a rather conservative and Euro-Centric understanding, and a negative attitude towards Chinese religions. In the Tonkin region where Mesar was appointed to, he was responsible for some 8000 Catholics. The work of missionaries was obstructed by the central authorities whose interventions occasionally erupted into real pogroms (e.g. in 1718 and 1721). In 1722 after a long period of hiding, Mesar submitted to his persecutors. He was taken to the capital (present day Hanoi), together with the Italian Jesuit missionary, Francesco Bucharelli. Both were sentenced to death but Mesar fell ill while in prison and died on 15 June 1723. Bucharelli was beheaded in October of the same year along with nine other catechists and servants.
It is evident from archive sources that the death of the two missionaries elicited strong response in Europe and aroused interest in the religious and political situation in Tonkin and Cochin China. Mesar's fate was described in a booklet by Michael Bonbardi, Undeni Graecenses Academici suo Sanguine purpurati, Graecii 1727. The legend about the revenge of Heaven on all who were guilty for the death of the missionaries persisted even among the natives of Tonkin for several decades after the incident.
The activities of J.K. Mesar in China and Vietnam represent a significant episode in the history of the Slovenes' contacts with foreign cultures. As a Jesuit missionary in the first half of the 18th century, Mesar was involved in the disputes over the adaptation methods and the Portuguese patronage in China. He ended his life as the victim of the struggle between European pro-Zealotry and Asian traditionalism. His biography which was reconstructed mainly on the basis of archive sources vacillates between his personal life story and the legend of him as a saint.