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Chinese Catholics who changed China and the world

Chinese Catholics who changed China and the world

After Mao Zedong (1893-1976) declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, missionaries and Chinese clergy flooded out of mainland China to escape the coming anti-Christian persecutions. There were some clergy, however, who remained with their beleaguered flock, such as the American Jesuit, Father Charles McCarthy, SJ, (1911-1991) and the Chinese Jesuit, Father Zhu Shude, SJ (1913-1983). In 1949, Father Zhu was in Hong Kong receiving his fellow Jesuits fleeing the mainland, and he decided that the Christians in Shanghai needed him to remain with them through the storm. Despite the entreaties from his fellow priests to stay in the safety of Hong Kong, Zhu boarded a plane for Shanghai. In a poignant letter left for his brother, he wrote:

Every day many people are escaping from China to Hong Kong. Yet I cannot find anyone, apart from myself, who is preparing to leave Hong Kong for China. Everyone laughs at me for being a fool. In the eyes of the world I am indeed the biggest fool ever born! When a merchant cannot make a profit in one place, he will move somewhere else. Yet I am a priest, and the life of a priest is to serve his flock. As long as there are Christians left in Shanghai, I must return there. Because I am a priest. I represent Christ and his Church. Wherever I am, the Church is. I am willing to stay in Shanghai, to let the communist party know that the Catholic faith is still alive.

Zhu was arrested in 1953, and finally died in a labor camp in 1983 after thirty years of hardship and torment. He remains a heroic example among Chinese Catholics today of what it means to love Christ, the Church, and China enough to bear fear and imprisonment in order to stay there when needed.

In October 2017, Christianity Today posted a fine tribute to Chinese Protestants entitled “10 Chinese Christians the Western Church Should Know” with the subtitle “Meet the men and women who have rooted the gospel message within the Chinese soul.” I would like to offer here a few examples of Chinese Catholics who were also an unwavering witness to the resilience and perseverance of Christians who have filled China’s pews for nearly five centuries. It is a good time to remember some of these Chinese Catholics whose names are seldom discussed in print, but who have transformed the landscape of Chinese Christianity and Chinese society.

China’s most admired modern bishop is Fan Xueyan, an “underground” prelate who defied the state and, according to the Chinese faithful, helped preserve Christianity during an era when many thought the Church had vanished. Pope Pius XII appointed Fan the bishop of Baoding (Hebei Province) in 1951, while the Maoist anti-Catholic campaigns were at a fevered pitch. When the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association was established by the communist party in 1957, Bishop Fan asserted his loyalty to the pope and refused to join, after which he was arrested and sent to a labor camp. He remained there until 1979, when he was released to return to Baoding. Some Catholics expected him to be more conciliatory with the Beijing government, but instead he remained persistently opposed to communist rule and was arrested again in 1984 and condemned for another ten years of imprisonment. In November of 1987, he was again released on parole, and in 1988 he wrote a pastoral letter denouncing Catholics in China who attended Mass at churches sanctioned by the Patriotic Association. He also consecrated additional bishops, and according to Father Jean Charbonnier, MEP, because “he was charged with unofficially consecrating bishops for the underground Church, he was committed to strict surveillance in Baoding and died of ill treatment on April 13, 1992.”

The circumstances of his death are appalling, and China’s Catholic community is still troubled by how he was treated by the state authorities. On April 16, 1992, local police delivered his body in a plastic bag to his relatives’ home, claiming that he had died of pneumonia, though his family reported that his body showed signs of abuse. Officials ordered that he be given a small private funeral, but in defiance more that 40,000 people attended the Requiem Mass and China’s bishops and priests offered novenas for Bishop Fan, who they insist was a martyr for the faith. Online photographs of the funeral are easy to find, and Chinese Catholics are fond of recounting that on June 3, 1976, Pope Paul VI (1897-1978) sent a letter and blessing to Fan Xueyan on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his consecration: “Your Excellency is a loyal son,” the letter exclaimed, “and a worthy example to the flock of a most lovely part of the Universal Church, a good leader and pastor.” When still a priest, Fan Xueyan is reported to have said, “Obedience is the vocation of priests, but also God’s gift to me – I believe He has given me a great burden, because the Lord has given me the most beautiful religion.” Chinese Catholics, both in the sanctioned and unsanctioned communities, proclaim Bishop Fan as an example of the obedience that all Catholics are called to, and he remains an example of faithfulness to the beliefs and teachings of the Catholic faith, both among Chinese faithful within mainland China and those who live abroad.

Keeping the Catholic faith alive in China

When Father Zhu Shude decided to travel to Shanghai rather than remain in the safety of Hong Kong, he returned “to let the communist party know that the Catholic faith is still alive.” In large part, the Chinese Catholics I have discussed here have contributed to keeping the faith alive in China, a faith that has been often challenged by authorities who insist that Christianity is untrue. St. Paul has said that, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” When I met with the now-deceased “underground” bishop of Guiyang, Hu Daguo (1921-2011), nearly a decade ago, he told me that he was grateful to God for allowing him to suffer under communist persecution for his unrelenting faith. It was precisely that suffering, he insisted, that taught him to rely on God’s support, who had comforted him beyond measure. Anguish has become one of the marks of being a Catholic in China, but so has consolation. The first-century work, the Didache, reminds Christians that, “The workings that befall you receive as good, knowing that apart from God nothing comes to pass.” We always have a choice when confronted by danger or suffering. We can either receive the gift that God bestows upon us and grow in wisdom and faith, or maintain that we know better than God what is good for our souls . . . and the souls of others. Chinese Catholics have much to teach the Universal Church; they are living examples of St. Paul’s exhortation to the Galatians: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”


Catholic world report