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Addict, Martyr, and Saint

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Father Hugh Barbour offers an appreciation of the life of St. Mark Ji Tianxiang, who lived more than 30 years as an opium addict. Though he never overcame his addiction, he died a martyr’s death. His story illuminates the mystery of holiness in the life of an addicted person.


Cy Kellett:
Hello, and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host, joined by our chaplain, Father Hugh Barbour. He is a Norbertine priest, former Prior of St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County, where they’re building a beautiful new church and you should check it out online. Hello, Father.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Hello there.

CK:
I heard you preach about the man we’re going to talk about today one time and then found it extremely moving, and also a little bit, in a very good way, jarring to some of the modern assumptions about addiction. Today, we’re going to talk about the Chinese Saint, St. Mark Ji Tianxiang. I think that’s probably how you say it, or something like that.

FHB:
Close enough, close enough.

CK:
That was close enough.

FHB:
I said you can call him just St. Mark Ji.

CK:
Okay, I’m going to call them St. Mark Ji-

FHB:
J-I.

CK:
From here out. He’s notable. Well, I mean, he’s notable, because he’s a Saint, he’s a Holy man. But there’s something else about him too, that is he suffered from an opium addiction from which he did not ever overcome.

FHB:
Until his martyrdom.

CK:
Well, yes, right. Until his martyrdom.

FHB:
When he overcame it.

CK:
I guess he overcame all things in that moment.

FHB:
Absolutely.

CK:
So, this maybe disturbs our usual notion of a Saint.

FHB:
It might. Let’s say, should he have ended his life, not in martyrdom, but just dying because he had an overdose of opium. It’s very unlikely that he’d be canonized, this is true.

CK:
Yes.

FHB:
But that still gives us the security that we’re not able to form a judgment of someone based upon the evidence of our experience sometimes. Because the disposition which led him to be willing and eager to be martyred, was there all along, even though he was also an addict for more than 30 years.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
Now that’s not to justify addiction obviously, but he was also the victim of a different time in the church, in the sense that he was a Catholic Christian in China in the 19th century, and the church celebrates the Catholic martyrs of China on July 9th. Which of course is right after this will be airing, I believe. There are about 180 or some martyrs at different times of the evangelization of China. He belongs to a period of what was called the Boxer Rebellion. There was a secret kind of cult, a Daoist cult that worked hard by various occult means to overcome the Europeans who were taking over China.

Not surprisingly that they resented it, because China had enormous opium crop, of course, and they had a terrible problem with opium addiction. So when the Chinese authorities decided to get rid of opium, they did a Boston Tea Party, but they did it in a Chinese port. They went to the British ships that were shipping the opium back to Europe, they simply took all the opium and dumped it.

Well, this caused a British military reaction, the so-called opium wars, and of course the Chinese lost and they were forced to continue to grow and to supply opium for the British trade. This is a very dissatisfying aspect of what would be normally thought of as a Christian country colonizing a pagan one.

CK:
Yes, right.

FHB:
So in that context then, there were a lot of nationalist organizations that despised the Christians and the Europeans, precisely for such reasons. Not just because they were pagans and hated Christianity, but because they despised the Europeans’ callous exploitation of their people for the purposes of the manufacturer of this very dangerous drug.

So in 1900, this group called The Boxers, there’s a longer mystical name that they have as well, but it’s called the Boxer Rebellion, they took it upon themselves to slaughter numerous Europeans. European Christians, missionaries and converts throughout all of China, and St. Mark fell in that category. Now, St. Mark had been from a Catholic family of long date, had lived a very devout life. He was a highly respected physician who treated the poor for free, but he had a terrible stomach ailment, which he began to treat with opium because of the pain.

He quickly grew addicted to the opium and then was unable to stop taking it. He went to confession regularly and confessed this to his French missionary confessor, and finally the confessor told him, “Don’t come back to confession, and  obviously, to communion, until you are resolved to give up this vice.”

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
So St. Mark didn’t go to communion for 30 years, because he couldn’t overcome this vice of opium eating.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
Now they did not know what we know now, they don’t know about brain chemistry and about a lot of things, but they had certain basic principles of moral theology, which I’ll mention in a minute, if you ask me about them, which kind of explain some of the issues at work here. But he persevered as a Catholic Christian, raised his family in the faith, went to Sunday mass, supported the church, continued to treat the poor for free and lived an otherwise virtuous life in the midst of this very, very demanding habit that he had.

So when he was called out with his family to be martyred, along with his sons and his grandchildren and so on, they were taken to be martyred by beheading, and he insisted that he be the last one to be martyred, because he didn’t want anyone in his family to die alone.

CK:
Oh man. So-

FHB:
And as they were being beheaded, he sang the Litany of Our Lady.

CK:
Oh, praise God for St. Mark. Okay, first of all, maybe you could tell me, a man comes into confession today with the same problem that St. Mark had, would the advice be different? I mean, I could ask you as a confessor, but also, I guess in some ways you never know what you’re going to get with a confessor these days. It’s one of the exciting sports of being a lay Catholic, is what is this priest going to say to me today? So, I guess you never know. But what would be the recommended course for a confessor today meeting a person like St. Mark?

FHB:
Well, of course, someone comes and confesses a problem today, it could be oxycodone and those things, because those are opiates. They’re artificial opiates, but that’s the same thing. I mean, over 100 people a day die in this country of addiction to opiates, so it’s a very common problem. So that’s why St. Mark is a very current Saint and example.

Well, of course, what they have to do is, anyone who confesses a sin has to show some purpose of amendment, that is some desire or willingness to take the means to overcome the sin. But that would be more in the way of seeking the professional help necessary in order to begin to mitigate and tap down this addiction. We have that now. Back in the 19th century when his confessor viewed it simply as a matter of willpower, they didn’t know about brain chemistry, and they were very much, especially the French, under the influence, of not just Catholic orthodoxy, but this kind of Cartesian separation of soul and body. The will can really do it all on its own without the continuous connection to the body and its memories, past experiences, chemistry and everything else.

So as we know now, such substances, they change body chemistry, brain chemistry, and therefore begin to inhibit the freedom of the person who is using them. So that you can’t simply say you wretched weak, lousy drug addict or bum or drunk or whatever, because weakness is not the principle issue once the person has gotten addicted. It may have been the issue early in the game when there was a point where they could have turned away from it, but then out of human respect or just the pure pleasure of it, they didn’t hold back enough to avoid this pitfall.

Although with opiates, it’s pretty certain that you’re going to get addicted, unless you just use it in the very minimal way prescribed by a doctor. But the problem is some doctors will give prescriptions over and over again. So understanding that there’s a physical aspect, then there’s also limitation of the person’s freedom, therefore on their imputability. Therefore you don’t jump to the conclusion that they’re subjectively guilty of mortal sin. What they’re doing is a mortal sin objectively, but subjectively given the weakness of their will or lack of liberty through the physical addiction, it’s hard to make that judgment.

So you would never tell them, “Don’t come to confession until you’re ready to stop.” You tell them, “No, please keep coming to confession, but come as often as possible.” As often as possible, so that if they fall badly, they go to confession and maybe they can get a communion in before the next incident.

CK:
Right, right.

FHB:
Because the likelihood that they’re going to fall again is not because they don’t want to change, it’s because they are not physically free to resist. Only God can see perfectly how much that is the case, in any given case, it’s all a mixed bag. They’re partly imputable for it, and sometimes more, sometimes less. But we understand better now the fact that freedom is greatly reduced by this physical addiction.

CK:
So, St. Mark dies, St. Mark Ji, that’s what I’m calling him now.

FHB:
Right.

CK:
If you look up St. Mark J-I, you’ll come across him on the internet if you want to learn about him. But there’s also, we have a sense, I think, at the current moment that we basically know about how to deal with people who are addicts. There’s this tough love thing, and there’s this letting them hit rock bottom thing. Which frankly is not always convincing to me that that comports the actual gospel of Jesus Christ, that sometimes I think we’re abandoning people to their addictions. Does the story of St. Mark … well, first of all, you can straighten me out if you think that I’m wrong. But I wonder what St. Mark, his story says about accompanying people who are in the throes of addiction.

FHB:
Well, I think that it tells us that we can certainly do better now than his confessor did.

CK:
Okay.

FHB:
Although in God’s providence, that confessor’s severity was also the occasion of his very significant witness and perseverance, that he didn’t give up in spite of that. I mean, that shows what a Holy man he was, because most of us if the confessor said, “Don’t bother to come back to confession anymore.” Imagine if you heard that, “Don’t bother coming back until you’re really sure you’re not going to do this anymore.” How would you feel?

Because if you go regularly to the same confessor, he’s probably heard the same sins any number of times, and how would you react? The devil in you would say, “Well, okay, whoopee, here I go. No hope for me, I guess I’ll grow out of this.” But no, he persevered in the faith and he obeyed the confessor. He didn’t go and try to find another one even, he just simply obeyed.

CK:
Yeah, right.

FHB:
But continued to raise his family in the faith and all of that. So the formation he had was very, very strong. Although, the advice he received was not what we would do now, although it did make him the Saint that he is. But the thing with a habit, a habit is, in the sense of a moral habit, is a quality that affects our powers. A habit is either a habit making our action, habitually we say, good or habitually bad. So eventually, good habits are virtues and habitually bad habits are vices.

Now when you do a good act out of habitual virtue, that increases the goodness of your act, because to do something good and also do it easily with facility and joy, which is what virtue does for you, makes the act all the better. So too in principle, to perform evil actions with facility and joy out of a habit would make them worse. So we’re in a delicate situation where we can actually say that because the poor person has a habit, that therefore they’re not being as bad as they would if it weren’t a habit.

Habits are not an excuse, habits are an indication of something. Either something very good or something very bad. But rather the issue with addictions is not so much the habit part, but the limitation of the freedom of the person. There are plenty of habits we have that we can break without recourse to medical or psychotherapeutic help or anything like that, but just with real effort and avoidance of the occasions of sin and whatnot.

But in and of itself, habits make the actions we perform under their influence all the better or all the worse, depending on whether or not they’re virtues or vices. But the destruction on liberty comes with the change in the body’s chemistry, based upon the expectation of the body. It’s as though you’ve added an extra hormone, an extra needed element for your activity that your body notices you don’t have, and then panics, and so you reach out for more of it. It’s that kind of thing. So, that has to be dealt with delicately.

But what did Mark Ji do? He prayed, he gave witness to the faith, he obeyed ecclesiastical authority. He never shows the least sign of bitterness, and when the time comes, he’s eager to give his life for Christ. I mean, that’s the perfect center, if you know what I mean?

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
What better center would you want than that?

CK:
In a … Yeah.

FHB:
I think that there are among the heroic people that save other people whose lives are in danger and our military and other places who may not actually check out on a weekend furlough as models of sanctity, but who are willing to give themselves for the welfare of others. There are similar cases that one could refer to. So, I guess you were about to say.

CK:
Just that holiness is a very strange condition, in that we’re not good at recognizing it, I suppose.

FHB:
Right, exactly not.

CK:
It’s very common that we might look at a person who’s suffering an addiction and impute a lack of holiness to them that’s connected to that addiction. But it may well be that the town drunk, if you’re allowed to talk that way anymore, is the first one through the pearly gates.

FHB:
Only if he’s like you or me. Okay, you can do that.

CK:
He’s probably a lot like me.

FHB:
I won’t say what the likeness consists of.

CK:
But I guess the thing that I take from St. Mark Ji that’s striking is the closeness to Jesus, is the thing with him. Even his confessor, for example, or the other people in the church where he went to mass, but didn’t go to communion, they might never see the signs of holiness that are in fact there.

FHB:
They expected him to give up on a persecution. They were all expecting him to deny the faith, because they just figure, “Well, he’s a lousy, weak addict, so he’s not going hold firm.” But he held firm to the end and was the last to be executed. So there you go.

CK:
Do you ever get the impression, this is an aside related to our current conversation, that if we make it into the Kingdom of God, so to speak, we’re going to be surprised at some of the people who have a much higher place than we have?

FHB:
Oh, I think you’re exactly right. Although, the mentality of the current age seems to be very sure who’s naughty and who’s nice, so you mustn’t go on popular opinion that’s for sure.

CK:
Yeah, right. But I feel like Flannery O’Connor’s the only person who got this right.

FHB:
Yeah.

CK:
She knows that it’s not the person you think who’s going to be at the top of the heap after judgment.

FHB:
Right, absolutely. That’s very true.

CK:
Mark Ji points us in that direction. Anything else you want to share with us about him? Because we’re a little bit limited on time today.

FHB:
Sure. Well, of course his devotion to Our Lady, which is very evident. That’s what he’s saying too until his death. So she’s always the one recommend sinners to go to who have habits that need to be broken, or just need to cry out for God’s mercy. Because remember, mercy’s a reality and mercy makes up for a lot of effort and accomplishment and a lot of other things as well. So let’s put all our trust in that as well, and then do good in so far as we’re able, no matter what our weaknesses are.

CK:
Any who have addiction in their family, which is almost all of us, we have addiction everywhere. Now we have a Saint, who I’m sure it takes a special interest in that and is someone we can turn to as well.

FHB:
The church’s martyrology for his Feast Day and for July 9th, it tells his little brief life story and says that after 30 years of not being able to receive the sacraments, he finally, through martyrdom, became a participant in the heavenly banquet.

CK:
Praise God. I’m going to try to say his full name here before we go, even though I cannot pronounce this name. St. Mark Ji Tianxiang, pray for us.

FHB:
Pray for us.

CK:
Thank you very much, Father. I really appreciate you taking the time to share him with us. You’re listening to the Catholic Answers Focus- thank you so much for listening. Give us the five stars or whatever they have there, five whatevers, wherever you get your podcasts. If you are able and would be of a mind to support this podcast financially, just head over to givecatholic.com and you can make your gift there. Thank you very much, we’ll see you next time. God willing right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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