Between Islam and Catholicism: Bosnian Franciscan Missionaries in Turkish Hungary, 1584-1716

By Toth, Istvan Gyorgy | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Between Islam and Catholicism: Bosnian Franciscan Missionaries in Turkish Hungary, 1584-1716


Toth, Istvan Gyorgy, The Catholic Historical Review


The work of the Bosnian Franciscan missionaries represents a peculiar episode in the history of Catholic renewal in Central Europe. By studying these developments, we may become acquainted with the manner in which the various denominations and nationalities coexisted in the Carpathian basin. In the following, I shall examine the work of the Bosnian missionaries on the basis of documents preserved in the Rome archives of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of Faith (de Propaganda Fide), a body of cardinals founded by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 to direct Catholic missions throughout the world. Until recently most of the documents used in this study were unknown; they are soon to be published.1

After the battle of Mohacs (1526) and the fall of Buda (1541), the middle third of the medieval kingdom of Hungary was occupied by the Turks. Large numbers of southern Slavs moved into the Turkish-occupied areas of Hungary. While many of these people were Catholics, overall the Catholic Church in Hungary was significantly weakened by the effects of the Reformation. The Catholic bishops were appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor acting as the king of Hungary. The Emperor was the main enemy of the Turkish Sultan, and thus the Hungarian bishops were refused access to the Turkish territories. After the Reformation and the Turkish conquest the fate of the Catholic Church became increasingly uncertain in Turkish Hungary. For this reason, the arrival of Bosnian Franciscan friars from the Balkans had a great effect upon the lives of Hungarian, Croatian, Romanian, and Bosnian Catholics living in the European provinces of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Compared with other Catholic priests working in the Turkish sovereign area, the Bosnian Franciscans established a far more "intimate" relationship with the Ottoman authorities. This special relationship, where it led the Bosnians to persecute their rivals within the Catholic Church using Turkish military force, rightly outraged the Ragusan, Italian, and Hungarian priests who were the potential victims. Still, it did provide the Franciscans with far greater room for manoeuvre in their missionary work.2

Franciscan friars appeared in Bosnia at the end of the thirteenth century. They were given the task of challenging the Bogomil heretic church. The Pope declared the whole of Bosnian Kingdom to be a missionary territory and appointed the Franciscans as local inquisitors. Friars arrived in Bosnia from many different countries: English, German, Italian, and Aragonese Franciscans converted the Bosnian heretics, and here too the famous inquisitor, Saint Jacob of Marche, worked. During the golden age of the order in Bosnia in the middle of the fifteenth century, Franciscan friars were living in about sixty monasteries throughout the country. Owing to the popularity of the Bogomil heresy, the number of Catholic secular priests in the country was very small. Thus, contrary to the traditional ecclesiastical model, according to their papal privileges the Franciscans in Bosnia also worked as parish priests. From the sixteenth century on, they continued to occupy the parishes also in Turkish Hungary.3

The Bosnian Franciscans and the Turkish Occupation

The end of the golden age of the Bosnian kingdom and the Franciscan order in Bosnia came with the occupation of the country by the Ottomans, which was completed by 1463. The Turkish occupation divided the Franciscan order in Bosnia into two parts. One part fell under Turkish rule (its territory grew constantly with the advance of the Turks), while the other part remained part of the Christian world.

Following the incorporation of Bosnia into the Sultan's empire, local Franciscans stayed on rather than fleeing. The Turkish administration tolerated and even assisted the Bosnian Franciscans because it needed them in order to keep the peace and to control the tax-paying Catholic populations and prevent their emigration. …

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