Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Augustine Zhao Rong, a diocesan priest of China, and his companions. The Church recognized the sacrifice of these 120 men and women and children who died for their faith between 1648 and 1930. Beatified at different times over the course of many years, these martyrs, ranging from 9 to 72 years of age, were collectively canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000.
What I found interesting in my research about these saints was learning a bit more about the Catholic faith in China. With my modern-day lens of atheistic Communism and a land of forced abortions, I never really imagined a rich Church history in this part of the world, but boy was I mistaken! Scholars refer to the current spread of Christianity in China as the fifth evangelization. Read on!
The First Evangelization: Catholicism first came to China in the seventh century via, an Assyrian monk, Alopen, who travelled along Marco Polo’s Silk Road. Since that time the Church has flourished and diminished depending upon the support given by the emperor. The Nestorian Stone, a ten-foot tall tablet, (pictured above) commemorates this time period with inscriptions of doctrine, ceremonies, and history of the development of the Church.
The Second Evangelization: In the thirteenth century, the first missionary, Italian Franciscan, Fr. John of Montecorvino, arrived in China. Later elevated to archbishop, Fr. John converted high level officials and baptized over 6,000 converts. The Franciscans remained in China for the next 100 years, and historians estimate 30,000 Catholics lived in the country at that time.
The Third Evangelization: In the early 1500s, the Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians ventured to China but didn’t get past the port city of Guangzhou. They were only allowed to stay there a short while and then asked to leave. Later in the century, two Jesuit priests gained a foothold by disguising themselves as Buddhist monks and then later as Confucian scholars. They gained respect as they shared western scientific instrumentation.
Over the course of the next century other religious orders began to arrive, and they evangelized different regions of the country, and by 1700, the Church boasted 200,000 members. In various areas, Chinese rites began seeping into worship, including rituals honoring ancestors and the use of Chinese names for God. This controversy demanded the Vatican’s say on the practice. In 1715 and 1742, papal decrees banned the use of Chinese Rites, which did not please the emperor. He forbid preaching the gospel and deported missionaries who would not use the Chinese Rites.
The Fourth Evangelization: The Treaty of Tianjin, signed in 1858, guaranteed religious freedom for all Christians. The signing of this treaty allowed religious orders to return to China and the Vatican began to organize the country into ecclesial territories. Christianity flourished until 1966-1976 when the leaders of the Cultural Revolution expelled, imprisoned, or tortured religious people during that period.
The Fifth Evangelization began in the 1980s when China began to allow religious practice once again. This evangelization is markedly different from those of previous periods in that Chinese Catholics, not foreign missionaries, are those who spread the faith.
Today, let us pray for the intercession of St. Augustine Zhao Rong and his companions to help spread the Catholic faith in China and to grant us that same zeal for the gospel in our own lands.
St. Augustine Zhao Rong, pray for us! Anne