Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Church in China. Remembering the first Maryknoll missioners.

Last week, NPR ran this story on the decision by the “ Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association Church” to ordain two bishops without at least the tacit approval of the Holy See. The bishops were excommunicated automatically under Church law. Pope Benedict was reported to have been very upset by the consecrations, especially since he had been speaking hopefully about visiting China in the near future, and about the possibility of re-establishing diplomatic relations at some point. As an aside, anyone who thinks that a lifting of the excommunications is in the cards any day now for the SSPX bishops who were excommunicated in 1988 for their illegal consecrations might be sobered by this news. It seems that Pope Benedict is just as serious about his sole responsibility for episcopal ordinations as his predecessor.

The relationship between the Vatican and Communist China has been complicated. In some ways, certain compromises and practical steps have been made to avoid open schism. One group that has come under criticism from traditionalist circles is the Maryknoll Fathers. Since 1991, they have been running a program to train Chinese seminarians, some of whom are in the persecuted Church operating underground, but also many who are in the “Patriotic” Church officially sanctioned by the Chinese government. The Maryknolls have a special connection to China.

The Maryknoll Fathers (Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America) were started specifically as a vehicle for Americans to do missionary work, with the goal of evangelizing China being foremost in their plans.

Shown in the photo, seated left to right, are Fr. James E. Walsh, Fr. Thomas F. Price, and Fr. Francis X. Ford. Standing in the rear is Fr. Bernard F. Meyer. These four missioners left for China in 1918.

Fr. Thomas F. Price was one of the founders of the order. Being somewhat older than the others, he had difficulty learning Chinese, and was not in the most robust of health. He died of complications associated with a ruptured appendix in Hong Kong in 1919.

Fr. James E. Walsh and Fr. Francis X. Ford both became notable figures for their work in China and became bishops. When the Communist takeover of China occurred in 1949, the most brutal persecutions did not take place immediately. In 1951, during Holy week, an order came down evicting all foreign missionaries from China. The bishops in place suffered a more grim fate.

Bishop Walsh was put under house arrest for seven years, and for refusing to leave China, he was imprisoned from 1958 through 1970, when he was finally released during a thaw in US-Chinese relations that occurred shortly before Nixon’s visit to China.

A quote from Bishop Walsh:

"The task of a missioner is to go to the place where he is not wanted to sell a pearl whose value, although of great price, is not recognized, to people who are determined not to accept it, even as a gift”.

Bishop Ford was treated horribly, paraded through the streets and beaten viciously. He is thought to have died in 1952.

Quotes regarding Bishop Ford:

”The hardest cross to bear in life is the thought that we are wasting our time, that we are useless, that the world is rushing along and we, apparently, have not yet found our feet.... God needs us where we are.... We are only too prone to look for sensible consolations in our mission work.... The remedy for this self-centered condition is contemplation and service of God. Contemplation takes us out of ourselves and focuses our attention on God; service of God instinctively issues from our contemplation (Francis X. Ford in "God Needs Us” - Stone in the King's Highway).

“In Communist China, Bishop Francis Xavier Ford, a Catholic missionary who had spent over 30 years serving the Chinese, was tortured and brainwashed for 11 months. Fellow prisoners later reported that the mistreatment was so severe that Ford was on the verge of forgetting his own identity and was only able to hang on to it by repeating to himself: “My name is Francis Xavier Ford.” In spite of everything, he did not crack. It appears that he died around February 1952. We are not sure because word of his death only leaked out about six months later. He must have persevered to the end, though, because the Communist Chinese would otherwise have made a public spectacle out of his recantation”. (Heroes Of Faith Hero: Does Religion Hinder Heroes? by Robert Royal)

In 2001, a story appeared in Commonweal, written by Sister Mary Carita Pendergast of the Sisters of Charity, called At Bayonet Point. It tells of the expulsions during Holy week of 1951.
When we disembarked, we were immediately surrounded by women soldiers who subjected us to a thorough and embarrassing search, and then led us to a double line of our own high school girls armed with sticks. We were ordered to run through this gauntlet and at the end to kneel and to apologize to the Chinese people for our offenses against them. Eight of us made it without hurt, for the girls would not raise their sticks. The last of our party was Sister Loretta Halligan, who refused to enter the double line. At that point, a soldier whispered to me, "Tell Sister Halligan to run the gauntlet, or she will be severely punished." I hastened to where she stood and whispered, "Run the gauntlet and at the end apologize for your errors with the Chinese." Her Irish blue eyes blazed with indignation and she exclaimed, "I crossed two oceans to serve these people. I never harmed anyone." I argued, "Come on, Loretta. Neither did the rest of us ever harm the people. But we have all run safely through the gauntlet, and apologized, for we certainly did make some mistakes." Sister Loretta was our superior, and in her misery and anxiety hadn't seen what was happening to the rest of us. She thought she was being singled out as our leader. Finally, she too went safely through the gauntlet.

The next morning, we were ordered to report to the Alien Registration Bureau, but our progress was halted for more than an hour by a demonstration against foreigners, during which Maryknoll Bishop Francis X. Ford, who later died in prison, and his secretary, Sister Joan, were paraded in a truck to the jeers of the bystanders. This we witnessed before entering the bureau, where further rough treatment awaited us.

I was proud to see Sister Loretta get her Irish up, in spite of it all. It's always important to remember those who give everything and are ready to lay down their lives for the Faith.


crystal said...

Hi Jeff. I didn't know about the Maryknoll priests in China - interesting post :-)

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

I really appreciate your stopping by. Thank you.

The Maryknolls take a lot of heat in some quarters about having embraced liberation theology. I don't know about that. I do know that I really appreciate some of what they've published out of Orbis Books over the years. Whether they're into liberation theology or not, I think they've stayed true to their charism.

For example, on the topic of martyrdom, let's not forget about the sisters in El Salvador either -

Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and volunteer layworker Jean Donovan

Here is a press release about a documentary produced by the Maryknolls called Lives for Sale which will be aired on PBS this fall. It's about the perils involved in illegal immigration and its link with human trafficking.


crystal said...

Yes, I forgot about the sister in El Salvador. I like liberation theology. One of my heroes is Ignacio Ellacuria SJ - he was one of the Jesuits killed in El Salvador.

Jeff said...

...yes, and Martin Baro too.

You know something, Crystal? I'm starting to wonder sometimes if there was a real opportunity missed in Latin America in the 80's. I'm especially wondering when I look at some of the Opus Dei minded types of bishops who've been installed in Latin America in the last 15 to 20 years who've been entirely unable to stem the flow of their people into Pentecostal sects. Are they too closely aligned with the well-heeled classes? Maybe those LT base communities would have been the way to go.

I have mixed feelings about Liberation Theology, because like with a lot of other things, I see a gradient. Oscar Romero, for example, should be canonized as a saint. I liked Dom Helder Camara, Gustavo Gutierrez, and even some of what Leonardo Boff wrote and did.

On the other hand, I wasn't as fond of Ernesto Cardenal, Tomas Borge, Miguel D'Escoto, and others who actually held positions in the Sandinista government. Like Daniel Berrgigan, I would have questioned Cardenal on the his acceptance of the use of violence, even on behalf of the oppressed. I also doubt that Marxist dialectic can really be baptized like some other forms of philosophy in the Church's history. I think we can hold to the principle of "the preferential option for the poor" without it.

How has the weather been in CA? It's been pouring here for days. Today was my son Jimmy's first communion though, so it was a great day all the same.



crystal said...


I would draw the line, about LT, at violence, and the idea of a vowed religious as a politician is, well, creepy :-). I bet it's hard, once living in that environment, to keep a perspective, so I can understand how some of the LT priests became radicalized to the point of accepting violence ... but violence doesn't seem christian, even in a good cause.

Here, in central CA, it's already summer and hot :-(