The Blood of the Martyrs in China
We should not call China a "pagan land." She too has given witness to the Catholic faith. She too has laid the foundation upon which the Church is built.
The Church was built on the blood of the martyrs. Nowhere is this more evident than in Rome, the Eternal City, with its Coliseum consecrated by the blood of the early Christians. Rome is a living testament to the holy sacrifices of men and women who have died for Christ and for the truths of his Church. The image of our first pope, Peter—being crucified upside-down—appears on the front door of the basilica named after him.
Not far from St. Peter’s is Sant’Ignazio di Loyola, where honor is given to those who gave their lives far from Rome. Andrea Pozzo’s ceiling fresco depicts the spiritual children of St. Ignatius who brought the faith to other lands. China was one of those lands, and her soil, like Rome’s, is crowned with the blood of Christian martyrs, many of whom faced their violent deaths singing the Te Deum (“We praise thee, O God: we acknowledge thee to be the Lord”). We should not call China a “pagan land,” for she too has given witness to the Catholic faith; she too has laid the foundation upon which the Church is built.
The history of Christianity in China is long, beginning in the seventh century with the Nestorian missionary Alopen, a Syrian follower of the heretical bishop Nestorius. Alopen was quite successful in disseminating the Christian faith—although in an imperfect form—to many of China’s elite. Nestorianism, though, was suppressed in 845 by the Tang emperor, Wuzong, who believed that the foreign religions of Christianity and Buddhism would corrupt the purity of China’s Confucian culture.
Unlike the Catholic missionaries who arrived in China centuries later, the Nestorians were not executed for their faith in Christ, but their monasteries were closed, and the Syrian clergy were expelled from China. During the Tang dynasty (618-906), China held several thousand Nestorian monasteries. Other than the limited successes of the Franciscan missionaries of the thirteenth century, it was not until the sixteenth century that Catholic missionaries successfully planted the seeds of Christianity in the vineyard of East Asia.
An estimated 20,000 Christians were killed during China’s Boxer Uprising in 1900. On October 1, 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 120 of them, eighty-seven Chinese and thirty-three foreign missionaries. They included six bishops, twenty-three priests, one brother, seven sisters, seven seminarians, and seventy-six lay persons.
Perhaps the best way to communicate the spirit of China’s missionary saints is simply to tell one of the many stories.
St. Gregorius Grassi, OFM, was born in Castellazzo, Italy, and was raised by Catholic parents who imparted to him a fervent devotion to our Lady. He was ordained a Franciscan priest in 1858 and set out to China in late 1860. He was assigned to Shanxi province and later moved to Taiyuan, where many faithful Catholics were persecuted and killed by the authorities. After being ordained a bishop in 1876, Grassi traveled the roads of China by donkey and on foot to reach the faithful under his pastoral care. He rebuilt the Portiuncula Shrine for Mary, worked diligently to look after orphaned children, and had a rest home built for missionaries. Grassi spent himself hearing confessions and teaching the Faith.
St. Franciscus Fogolla, OFM, was also an Italian Franciscan. He took the habit in 1858 and was ordained a priest in 1863. Fogolla joined Grassi in China in 1866 and began his missionary work. As a newly consecrated bishop, Fogolla set out to visit the parishes under his care to administer the sacraments and preach the faith to Catholics and non-Catholics. Believing that the best way to increase the number of faithful in his flock was to rid the churches of abuses and educate them in the doctrines of the Catholic faith, Fogolla worked to provide his flock with a strong catechetical understanding. Fogolla studied the Chinese classics assiduously to establish credibility among the local Chinese gentry, gaining him considerable respect among the local magistrates.
The seven sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary were determined to die for their love of Christ even after Grassi, their bishop, encouraged them to leave China as the rising storm of persecution grew in Shanxi. Among the seven sisters who lived in Taiyuan was St. Marie Hermine (1867-1900), the mother superior. A studious girl born in Beaume, France, Hermine desired to be nun and serve as a missionary, but her parents would not agree. By 1894, she persuaded them to allow her to enter. After being assigned to Taiyuan, she labored to disseminate the love of Christ and the Church. She wrote that “adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is half of my life. The other half consists in making Jesus known and in gaining souls for him.” After Grassi exhorted her and her sisters to leave China, Hermine told him, “For the love of God, do not stop us from dying with you. . . . We came here out of love, and now we are willing to go as far as shedding our blood for the love of Jesus Christ.”
By June 1900, the Chinese Boxers (also called the “Association of Righteous Harmony”) were gathering into large paramilitary units. They were motivated by their disdain for foreign intrusion into China and their belief in Daoist deities such as the Jade Emperor, who they thought would render them invincible against foreign bullets. While their complaints against the behavior of foreigners in China during that era were not entirely unwarranted, the Boxers directed the bulk of their aggression toward Christian missionaries and converts. They formed societies such as the Big Sword Society, which was intent on ridding the Middle Kingdom of foreign culture and religion.
In early June, the seven sisters, two priests, two bishops, a small group of seminarians, and several lay converts were taken into custody by the governor of Shanxi to be tried in the local court. They were detained for four days in an old Chinese estate and summoned to appear before a tribunal. On the way there, they were bound, and the bishops were repeatedly struck on the head. Witnesses of their march to martyrdom recalled that the sisters calmly sang the Te Deum. Once the trial began, the governor approached Fogolla, struck his chest, and yelled “Sha! Sha!”—”Kill! Kill!” The Boxers, numbering around 3,000, rushed forward and hacked randomly at the twenty-nine Catholics, cutting off arms and legs before finally decapitating them. One of the nuns, St. Marie de Sainte Nathalie (1864-1900), is said to have exclaimed, “I am happy to suffer, because suffering detaches me from the world. By it, God wants me to prove that I love him above all things.”
Near the end of the nineteenth century, popular songs were promulgated throughout northern China, exhorting Chinese Christians to liberate themselves from the foreign religion by drawing a cross on the ground with “the demon that hangs on it” and defecating on it. Anti-Christian tracts were distributed with images depicting Jesuit priests removing the fetuses of pregnant Chinese women to make the medicines they administered at their churches, Catholic priests removing the eyeballs of Chinese converts in dubious rituals, and woodblock images of Boxers setting fire to Christian churches to retaliate against such Christian atrocities. Chinese converts were considered traitors to their culture and their families.
It was an extreme act of devotion to Christ to remain a Catholic during that time. One account in particular illustrates well the supreme sacrifice made by the Chinese faithful.
As it became clear that the Boxers and imperial forces intended to eliminate all Christians in China, many faithful from small villages and homes moved into a town named Zhujiahe in Hebei province to seek refuge, as it was a large center of Catholicism. Knowing that the Boxers would eventually arrive at the village, two Jesuit priests began to prepare the faithful for martyrdom, tirelessly fortifying their faith in Christ and hearing their confessions. As expected, the Boxers began to make scattered attacks on the village on July 15, 1900. Responding to an imperial command to exterminate the Christians in Zhujiahe, General Chen Zelin mobilized 10,000 troops and Boxers to go to the village.
After three days of siege at Zhujiahe, on July 20, 1900, the soldiers broke through the defenses and entered the village gates. Inside the church, the two priests put on their liturgical vestments and led about 3,000 faithful in prayer. After cutting down the Christians attempting to defend the church on the outside, the Boxers and imperial troops entered the crowded building. As the soldiers entered the church and began killing its occupants, the priests knelt down in front of the congregation and began reciting the Confiteor, a prayer that all recognized and recited together: ” Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, Beatae Mariae, semper Virgini . . . orare pro me ad Dominum Deum Nostrum (I confess to almighty God, to Blessed Mary, ever Virgin . . . pray to the Lord our God for me).” Only a few escaped the massacre.
Several accounts of the Chinese saints who died for their faith are quite chilling. St. Chi Zhuze (1882-1900) entered the Church when he was seventeen after witnessing the piety of the other Catholics in his village. When the Boxer Uprising grew alarmingly serious, his parents objected to his continued assistance at Mass. During the Chinese New Year, Chi refused to worship the clan idols and as a result was exiled by his family. He had to find shelter among the Catholics of his parish.
Once the Boxers began more violent persecution of the Catholics in his area, Chi’s parents ordered him to return home so they could watch over him. But on his way home, he was accosted by Boxers, who commanded him to worship the idols in a temple. The saint announced that he was a Catholic and refused to kneel before the idols. Only eighteen at the time, he cried out to those who were cutting off his arm and were about to flay him alive: “Every piece of my flesh, every drop of my blood, will tell you that I am Christian.” Villagers who witnessed his gruesome execution ran to notify his parents, who made no appeals to save him. Soon after his death, his family, too, became Catholics.
A brief disclaimer is in order: the richness and benevolence of traditional Chinese culture is remarkable, and it should be remembered that this short period of Christian persecution is exceptional. Many of the hostilities that the Chinese felt toward foreigners is understandable. Britain, for example, first addicted tens of thousands of Chinese to opium for profit and then militarily defeated them when the Chinese government protested. The British government added further insult by requiring the Chinese government to repay Britain’s war expenses. But although China had cause for some anti-foreign sentiment, the imperial aggression against Christians was unnecessary, and the anti-Christian propaganda produced by the Boxers resulted in the vicious slaughter of holy men, women, and children who had done nothing more than dedicate themselves to Christ.
Holy Mother Church is indeed built upon the blood of the martyrs, and we do well to remember and honor those whose blood has built her foundation, of which China is a part. During his homily on the holy Catholic martyrs of China, John Paul II said, “Today, with this solemn proclamation of holiness, the Church intends merely to recognize that those martyrs are an example of courage and consistency to us all, and that they honor the noble Chinese people.”