The Christian Legend of Prester John
Of long forgotten contemporary Catholic memory is the Legend of Prester John, an alleged Christian Monarch of the Orient. The word prester is said to be a corruption of the word presbyter, meaning alternately presider or priest depending on the times and the interpreter. Be that as it may, the story of Prester John is a blending of remote history, myth and legend culminating in a Christian character of immense and epic proportions; an inspirational hero who inspired not only Crusaders but many Oriental missions of actual revered saints.
Prester John has the distinct honor of being the embodiment of not only a priest but also a powerful earthly king. Legend has it that he is a descendent of the Three Magi, whose offspring intermarried with the ultimate progeny of a great Christian Monarch of the East. The tales go on to say that he was a convert and disciple of St. Thomas, the Apostle of India and is therefore regarded as the King of India, not only in legend but in some dubious historical documents. To make matters even murkier, the Middle Ages European only had a vague notion of geographical India and no concept of the historical area of India as we now know it to be. Some contemporaries of the time thought India consisted of either a part or a whole of a vast geographical crescent extending from the Ukraine through Georgia, down through modern India and even across the Arabian Sea to Ethiopia, the legendary home of the Wise Man, Balthazar. Balthazar according to further legend is the “Black-skinned Magi” who offered the Myrrh to Our Newborn Lord Jesus Christ. At the time, Ethiopia was called Saba, (often associated with the Biblical Land of Sheba).
Amazingly, the figure of Prester John seems to have existed in all ages from the time of the Apostle Thomas until and beyond the Crusades of the Levant, that is, the Middle East Crusades for the Holy Land. Most, both now and today, don’t believe he, as a great Christian monarch, was preserved from aging, but merely his legend pops up in each succeeding generation. Needless to say, most today see him only as a legend and an inspirational Christian character. That said, many Christians over the centuries were moved in their actions by this great Christian monarch.
St. Francis Xavier was so certain that there existed in the Orient a true Christian Monarch that he embarked on his Providential Missions to the East with a notion of meeting and allying himself with him so that the entire world, through this Monarchs temporal power, might know and believe the Catholic Faith. St Francis’ initial mission field was India, where he hoped to meet the Catholic King of India. His conversions here were only moderately successful because his subjection to Lady Poverty, as well as, his ministering and “touching” the untouchables met with great resistance from the Brahman nobles.
He then ventured to Japan, via Malacca, where met a noble Samurai who regaled him with the feats of a Great Emperor of his homeland, Nippon or Japan as it is now known. Surely he thought, this could be the Great Monarch of the East; or at least a stepping stone in Christianizing the Orient. On arrival in Japan, he soon realized that his pauper and dowdy presentation off-put the Lords and Emperor of Japan. He therefore, invoked not only his Papal Representation but also his Commission from the King of Portugal, John I, to give the idea he was a peer. Adopting a religious habit more closely resembling the raiment of Japanese lords and rulers, (albeit black) he was more easily accepted and was able to expand within Japan, and influence many to true conversion, most especially of the commoners. However, he soon realized that the Emperor of Japan was largely a figurehead for a continuously battling nobility who vied for ultimate temporal power with little regard or devotion to the true Faith. He therefore reasoned that since the Japanese culture was largely and offshoot of the Chinese that the Great Monarch of the Orient must be somewhere in the vast reaches of China.
In China he was met with a widespread xenophobia of all Western culture and religion by the Chinese. The great lords of this country were largely interested in limited trade with the West and disregarded, ignored and largely mistrusted the strange religion of the foreigners. He did have many conversions among the people themselves and he might have made great inroads for the Catholic Faith only God saw fit bring him home. At any rate, while his missions to the Orient are fairly successful with still many Catholic Faithful today ascribing their conversion all the way back to him, he never did discover the Great Christian Monarch of the Orient.
Others, through the history of the West have also been given inspiration by the Legend of Prester John; the later Crusaders being an example. After the Second and Third Crusades many European kings, monarchs, and Emperor were very reluctant to undertake another retaking of the Holy Land for Christ largely due to the overwhelming expense. Seemingly spontaneously the Legend of Prester John once again revived giving new motivation for the possibility of The Great Christian Monarch of the Orient aligning with the Roman Catholic Faith. This would not only mean the vanquishing of the Saracens but also the possibility of uniting the world in the One, True Faith. However, that said, the “rest is history” so to speak and we all know the results of the final Crusades and their effect on Western History.
With the smallness of the contemporary world and the advances in modes of travel and communications the Legend of Prester John and our hopes for a temporally Catholic world have ostensibly vanished. Possibly such hopes may have transferred to the private revelations of the prophesied Great Catholic Monarch to come near the end times. Or perhaps they are merely vague references to the enduring Legend of Prester John. Maybe, just maybe, we can combine both of these hopes with the possibility of Vladimir Putin being the long awaited Great Christian Monarch of the Orient, that is, the contemporary revival of the Prester John legend… ☺. This, of course, is offered by my wry sense of humor and as an inside joke for some of the readership who know me personally.
So in conclusion, for the Catholic we await our salvation not by the exploits of some legendary or prophesied future Monarch but in the promise of Our Lord Jesus Christ, through his Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Therefore, please continue to offer your daily Rosaries for Consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Here is where our hope and recourse truly lie.
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Richard of Danbury, D.S.G.