The Italian missionaries who introduced Christianity to Tibet

While the legacy of the Capuchin friar Francesco Orazio Olivieri della Penna is barely known, his influence on Christianity in Tibet and Tibetology is undeniable.

A rendering of the Capuchin friar Francesco Orazio Olivieri della Penna (1680-1745). (Image courtesy of Elio Marini)

For the past 70 years, Tibet has been dominated by China, which is actively trying to erase the region’s cultural and religious roots. The Chinese invasion of Tibet dates back to 1950. In 1959, after a popular uprising that was harshly suppressed by the Chinese troops, the 14th Dalai Lama was forced to flee to Dharamshala, India, where he still leads the Tibetan government in exile.

Tenzin Gyatso, his secular name, has spent his entire life traveling the world to seek support for the protection of Tibetan cultural and religious identity. His last encounter with the pope was with Benedict XVI in October 2006. In 2014, he was in Rome again, for the “World Summit of the Nobel Peace Laureates” (he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989). But upon landing in Italy, he explained that to meet Pope Francis, “is not possible, because there could be inconveniences”, alluding to the delicate issue of China-Holy See relations, which in 2018, reached a controversial resolution on the appointment of bishops.

Very few people, on the other hand, know that the Dalai Lama was welcomed twice with full honors in a small Italian village, the birthplace of the Capuchin friar Francesco Orazio Olivieri della Penna (1680-1745). Build bridges and not walls, his namesake Pope Francis repeats very often, although the pontiff is careful to avoid meeting the Dalai Lama, so as to not disavow the Vatican line of “dialogue at any cost” with China.

The bridge that Brother Francesco made between Italy and Tibet three centuries ago was indeed a bold architectural work. That’s why the elder Dalai Lama has twice taken the time to visit Pennabilli, the hometown of the great missionary.

The village of Pennabilli (Image: Goldmund100/Wikipedia, under terms of CC BY-SA 3.0)

Born Luzio Olivieri, Francesco was born in the village castle in 1680. He was the last son of Count Orazio Olivieri. His noble family origins could have guaranteed him a life more comfortable than many others, had he not entered the Capuchin convent in Pietrarubbia, not far from Pennabilli at the age of twenty. In 1703, another Capuchin, Brother Giuseppe Maria da Tour, returned to Rome from the Indies. He shared some information obtained from merchants and travelers with the Congregation of “Propaganda Fide” about a small Christian community that had survived many centuries beyond the Himalayan peaks, in the mysterious land of Tibet. The cardinals of the Congregation then decided to entrust the Capuchin Province of the Marche, the Italian region where Pietrarubbia is located, with the task of founding a mission there.

“More than ever, I feel inflamed with the most ardent desire to employ myself in such a sublime ministry for the benefit of those souls,” Brother Francesco wrote in 1712 in Lorient, France, while waiting to embark towards Bengala. That was the Capuchin friars’ third attempted expedition to Tibet.

The traveling diary written by his companion, Brother Domenico da Fano, is full of intriguing details. In order not to feed the tax collectors who in every village, from India to Nepal, tried to extort money from the wayfarers, he disguised himself as a “shadu,” a Hindu ascetic, with only a cloth on his hips and his body sprinkled with ash. The ruse was successful. But in order to reach the Tibetan border, they were obliged to climb the impervious “roof of the world”—the Himalayan mountains. The description of crossing a typical Himalayan bridge, made only of ropes, gives a vivid sense of the poor friars’ panic:

When we saw the bridge moving in the form of a cradle for children, I was filled with so much terror, that I thought I had lost my mind. But thanks be to God, step by step we were safe and found ourselves on the other side, even if we were so pale that we looked like dead people who had come out of their graves.

Finally, they arrived on October 1, 1716 in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and introduced themselves to King Lhajang Khan, offering him the gifts of Pope Clement XI. The king was welcoming and benevolent toward them. Then Brother Francesco, together with Ippolito Desideri, a Jesuit missionary who arrived in Lhasa a few months earlier, was hosted in the Buddhist monastery of Sera, where he could learn the Tibetan language and culture under the guidance of a “lama.”

During that period, the Capuchin missionary patiently compiled a bulky Tibetan-Italian dictionary of over 35,000 entries, as well as translations from Tibetan books and many other essays; unfortunately, much of this has not survived. Among the 40 Capuchins friars who departed Italian towns and villages to evangelize Tibet over a period of four decades, only Brother Della Penna was able to earn, in the eyes of posterity, the reputation of “Tibetologist” of the mission.

The Tibetan people respected Brother Francesco as a holy man, recognizing him by his gait and white hair, calling him ‘the White-Headed Lama’, whether on the streets of Lhasa or in official documents. In the meantime, in 1719, he was officially appointed “prefect” of the mission. Starting in 1721, the fate of the Tibetan mission rested solely on his shoulders and those of Brother Gioacchino da Esanatoglia. Francesco was “the lama who takes care of the soul,” Gioacchino “of the body.” In fact, aiming to get in touch with people and talk to them about religion, they also practiced medicine. “After coming from far away with a mentality not aimed at food, gain, fame, women and sustenance, you have succeeded in being of great use to many creatures,” the Tibetans praised them.

Along with the praise, the authorities also gave them permission to buy a piece of land, even if the law forbade giving land to foreigners and to build a church, consecrated on the fifth centenary of the death of St. Francis of Assisi on October 4, 1726.

Despite their efforts, however, the missionary activity did not go beyond the conversion of a few foreigners and the baptism of almost 3,000 dying children. Therefore, in 1732, Brother Della Penna took the painful decision to return to Rome to seek support.

The evidence of the cordial friendship he had developed with the seventh Dalai Lama is the letter the Dalai Lama sent to his Christian friend in Kathmandu on his way back home:

Look after yourself and your journey. Remember that our heart is united to yours. … Although you go far away in your own land, do not forget us! All the speeches you gave us with great love of your religion remain impressed in our hearts”

The journey back to Italy, no less difficult than the journey to Tibet, lasted another four years. Upon his arrival in Rome in 1736, after an audience with Clement XII, Brother Francis won over the Spanish Cardinal L.A. Belluga y Moncada for the cause of evangelizing Tibet. The missionary also obtained funds for his project of creating the first Tibetan typography with movable types, where he planned to print Bibles and other Christian books. After his last visit to his native town, he embarked towards Asia again, carrying a set of Tibetan movable types in his luggage. The second set remained in Rome, in the famous polyglot publishing house of Propaganda Fide.

Upon his arrival in Lhasa, on January 6, 1741, in exchange for rich gifts from the pope and Cardinal Belluga for Pho-lha-nas, the regent of Tibet, on the behalf of the Chinese Emperor, he was granted freedom of worship and proselytism, for the Catholic mission.

Nevertheless, the baptism of 60 neophytes, including 20 Tibetans, during the Pentecost celebration on May 13, 1742, suddenly attracted the hostility of local Buddhist clergy toward the Capuchins. The monks also got the king to change his mind about the friars. If the monks had lost their influence over the people, they told the king, then the very stability of Tibetan society would be endangered.

Therefore, when the converts refused to provide to the Buddhist monasteries the services they were bound to by ancient customs, they were severely punished. The newly baptized also refused to participate in community prayer imposed by the local Lamas, so they were publicly flogged. On April 20, 1745, the prefect and his confreres left Lhasa, never to return. Brother Della Penna was in Nepal when he received the news of the destruction of the hospice in Lhasa where the mission had been based. He died there on July 20 of that year.

But he had to wait a long time before being recognized for his merits of having made Tibet known to the Christian Western world. A significant part of this knowledge found its way into the Alphabetum Thibetanum published in 1762 by Father Agostino Giorgi, director of the “Angelica” Library of Rome. The handwritten Tibetan-Italian dictionary, which was never printed, in 1820 ended up in the hands of Frederic Schroeter, a Protestant missionary in Bengala. Schroeter simply replaced Della Penna’s Italian with English to write the first Tibetan dictionary published in a European language, mainly for the benefit of the armies of British Empire, which were interested in extending their influence from India to Tibet.

All the traces of the church of the Tibetan Capuchin mission have unfortunately been lost—except for the bell provided by Father Marco da Tomba. Today, it is kept at the Jokhang Monastery, the most important Buddhist temple in the heart of Lhasa, which had suffered damage during the Chinese invasion of Tibet seventy years ago.

When its audio-recorded chimes resounded in the square of Pennabilli on June 15, 1994, the 14th Dalai Lama was also there, who had come to pay homage, unveiling a plaque in honor of the great missionary who had set out from that village almost three centuries earlier on his way to Tibet. Ten years later, Elio Marini, a self-taught Tibetologist, went to Lhasa and obtained a silicon rubber cast of the bell. On his return to Pennabilli, he made a bronze copy identical to the original. And at the inauguration of the Lhasa Bell Monument on July 30, 2005, the Dalai Lama came to Pennabilli again (photo below).

It’s just a pity that after all these events, Pennabilli still lacks a museum dedicated to its most illustrious son, because even the most precious artifact would be ready to be exhibited: the manuscript of the Italian Tibetan dictionary, which Elio Marini found and bought.

(Image: Elio Marini)

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About Paolo Fucili 8 Articles
Paolo Fucili is a journalist writing from Italy.

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