Catholics in the west should hold China very close to our hearts in prayers. What a mess for Catholics struggling through the centuries in China – and it continues. St. Augustine Zhao Rong, who is honored July 8th, gives us pause to reflect on the state of the Catholic Church in China.
St. Augustine Zhao Rong’s story
Zhao Rong was a humble soldier, forced to accompany another saint and martyr to his execution in 1815: St. (Bishop) Gabriel Taurin Dufresse . Bishop Dufresse, a missionary from France, made his way to China in 1776, when America was fighting a revolution. The Bishop was among a large group of martyred Church leaders, who had been hiding in “underground” Catholic homes to escape persecution by Chinese authorities concerned with “outside influences.” Bishop Dufresse turned himself in, upon the encouragement of another bishop; he feared for the lives of the families hiding these priests and bishops. When Bishop Dufresse turned himself in, soldier Zhao Rong accompanied him to his execution.
The information on this humble saint, reminds us of the “good thief,” crucified alongside of Jesus. Like the good thief, St. Zhao Rong made a late conversion, after witnesses the suffering of one who was holy. He became a priest himself, took St. Augustine as his patron saint, and eventually suffered the same martyrdom as St. Dufresse.
The History of the Church in China
These saints followed a long line of missionaries who’ve traveled to China to bring the faith “to all corners of the earth” since the 7th century. An Assyrian monk, named Alopen, first brought the faith to China, along the Silk Road. An engraved stone, complete with Gospel passages and other faithful teachings, stands on display at the Provincial Museum of Shaanxi, in Xi’an.
The history of evangelization in China has been classified into five main revivals. Typical of the pattern of conversions in all of history, the classes most marginalized accepted the faith first. During the Tang Dynasty, a Catholic priest (named bishop after his successes) converted some high-ranking officials. Jesuits have held a long presence in China, some 100 years, but the Augustinians, Franciscans and Dominican orders have also been in China for years.
Sts Dufresse and Zhao Rong were persecuted amidst the fourth evangelization of China. Perhaps they helped pave the way for the Treaty of Nanjin (1850), which allowed Christians to stay in various regions of China. During this time, the Catholic Church established dioceses, appointed bishops, and worked hard to grow the faith in China. Chinese governments always remained concerned about “outside influences,” so the Church has always struggled in China with regard to secular authorities.
Cultural Revolution, Communism, and a Two-Tier Church in China
In 1960s, with the Cultural Revolution in full swing amidst successful Communist revolution, the Catholic Church was persecuted mercilessly. In fact, the Chinese government tried to wipe out the Catholic Church in China, but they did not succeed. Eventually, the government established control of the Church by appointing bishops. Many Catholic priests, bishops and laity have persisted “underground,” in order to preserve Apostolic Succession and faithfulness. Yet, the Vatican has also recognized as legitimate most of the government-sponsored bishops, no doubt to prevent ongoing schism.
The issue of secular powers appointing bishops is an old problem in the Church, one that caused a weakening of Catholicism in Europe in the high middle ages. Some say these fractures between secular and church leaders enabled the Protestant Reformation. Protestants outnumber Catholics in China today.
In the 1980s, China loosened some control, and allowed more religious freedom, while continuing to direct the appointment of bishops. This initiated the fifth wave of evangelization. Just this past spring (March 2010), Pope Benedict XVI initiated a 3-day conference to discuss events in China. While strongly targeting the issue of secular involvement in ecclesial appointments, he used cautious language to encourage ongoing dialogue. This followed Pope John Paul II’s efforts to build relations with the Chinese government, by admitting to errors among some past Church leaders in the past. John Paul recognized 130 more martyrs during his Papacy. Both popes ecognized the delicacy of relations with China and the need to not appear too intrusive. Yet, securing ecclesial independence remains primary, to secure the long-term stability of the Church in China.
Yet, last month (June 7, 2010) a priest and nun in China, who both worked at a nursing home, were found stabbed to death . These innocents worked in China’s “underground” Catholic Church. Add two more martyrs to the ongoing list of Chinese giving the ultimate for the faith.
Pray for the Church in China, and remember the Chinese martyrs – past and present.