Martyrs Serve the Cause of Truth in China

Author: Rev. Matthias Lu


Rev. Matthias Lu

Easter is the feast of the 8th Beatitude. In St. Matthew's Gospel, the 8th Beatitude is taken from the lips of our Savior: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for their's is the kingdom of heaven." The Easter Alleluia is so joyful because it sings the glory of Christ's own martyrdom on the Cross, fulfilling God's loving will. The Hebrew word "Alleluia" proclaims, literally, "O God, thy will be done." Thus it celebrates the fullness of the 8th Beatitude: the victory of Christ over death.

The death of martyrs, victims of persecution, is their gate to entry into the Kingdom of God. Martyrdom for them is a victory, triumphant and instantaneous. And martyrdom has been a continuing fact of life for the Catholic Church in China during the past 47 years.

As a historical process, the persecution of the Catholic Church by the Communist government has come in three stages: the Three Self-Reform movement, the growth of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and the current general mobilization of Synthetic Control. These three stages show a steadily increasing desire, on the part of the Communist leadership, to attack the office of the papacy.

The Three Self-Reform movement lasted from 1949 to 1957— or, more accurately, one might say that it began in rural China during the Communists' guerrilla war in 1945. The movement proposed three principles: self-government, self-reliance, and self-evangelization. The goal of the Three Self-Reform movement was to "emancipate" the Catholic Church from foreign control, in the belief that the Church would then disappear.

The key episode in this movement was the violent expulsion of the papal nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Riberi, in November 1951. At roughly the same time, hundreds of missionaries, priests, nuns, and seminarians were expelled or condemned to labor camps; churches were confiscated; lay Catholic leaders were exiled to prisons or remote provinces. Many Catholics lost their lives.

Although the Three Self-Reform movement aimed to mobilize Catholics to rise up against their leaders, the movement failed. The majority of Chinese Catholics refused to join the movement, and remained loyal to their bishops even when they were exiled or imprisoned. Here, for the first time, Chinese Catholics found consolation in the spirit of the Beatitudes.

The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association was a major theme of the Communist leadership fom 1957 to 1992. Officially founded in July 1957, the Patriotic Association stressed that in order to be "patriotic," a Chinese Catholic must be "anti-imperialist and anti-papal." Here the Communist determination to break Catholics away from the papacy was quite obvious; the statutes of the Patriotic Association explicitly demanded that all members reject the jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff resolutely and completely, or be subject to legal punishment.

Now the persecution of Catholics became more sophisticated. While allowing freedom to those who rejected the Pope (and thus rejected real Catholicism) the government curbed communications, travel, publication, and assemblies by those who remained loyal to the universal Church. Loyal Catholics were placed under surveillance; many more were imprisoned, exiled, confined to their homes, and otherwise punished. The Catholic Church became a Church of suffering and silence.

During the Red Guard movement that arose in 1966, the force of the Cultural Revolution went far beyond what had heretofore been the clear government policy. Even the minimal Catholic presence within the Patriotic Association was ruthlessly oppressed. The Red Guards thrashed bishops, priests, and religious, often beating them to death; churches and liturgical vessels were systematically destroyed. By the time the Red Guard movement, or Cultural Revolution, finally ended after the death of Chairman Mao, many new martyrs had been created-mostly under circumstances unknown to the public. These are the Unknown Martyrs.

When the whirlwind finally subsided, and Chairman Deng announced an ear of democratic reform, the Patriotic Association sprang to new life. The Patriotic Association opened 5,000 new churches, 15 seminaries, and a few hundred convents. But the Roman Catholic Church remained forbidden, acting only underground. Still the loyal Catholics remained faithful. Although statistic are unreliable, early in the 1990s the Vatican estimated that there were 6 million parishioners active in the Patriotic Association, and 7 million in the (underground) Roman Catholic Church.

During the ascendancy of the Patriotic Association, the government made frequent overtures to attract the support of Catholics, often blaming previous persecutions on the Red Guards and the Gang of Four. Periods of relaxation alternated with periods of tension, as the Communist leaders used a carrot-and-stick approach to entice Catholics into the Patriotic Association. Throughout that time-and up to today-the persecution continued, and the number of prisoners of conscience steadily increased.

The most recent stage of persecution dates from 1992, with the beginning of the government's move toward Synthetic Control. All departments of government, all party organizations, all civilian associations, and all industrial units were called into action, in what amounted to an emergency mobilization. All were told to strive for national unity-which, of course, would entail the rejection of any foreign allegiances such as the Catholics' allegiance to the Pope.

From the perspective of the Communist Party, the Catholic Church is a foreign enemy. The Patriotic Association was erected to confuse Catholics, creating its own bishops and building its own churches in order to weaken the hold of the universal Church. It is both illicit and invalid.

Nevertheless, the Patriotic Association receives assistance from Catholics in other lands, most notably in Europe and North America. Through student exchanges, seminarians active in the Patriotic Association have been educated at seminaries in North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia. But it is noteworthy that they are called back to China to be ordained by Patriotic bishops-suggesting that they have been told not to accept ordination by Catholic bishops outside China.

To compound the confusion, in 1992 the government publicized the fact that Pope John Paul had extended recognition to some 20 or 20 bishops of the Patriotic Association, granting them faculties to govern authentic dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church. The government's propaganda campaign implied that the Pope had bowed to the will of the government, and agreed to recognize the Patriotic Association. In fact, many of the Catholics who have remained loyal to Rome throughout these years of struggle now refuse to accept the authority of the Patriotic bishops who have been recognized by Rome; this is a continuing source of division among Chinese Catholics.

Also in 1992, the National Catholic People's Congress codified all religious laws, creating a new constitution for the bishops' conference, the Patriotic Association, and the Committee of Catholic Religious Affairs. The fundamental principle behind these reforms, again, was freedom from foreign influence. These laws are being systematically enforced, through arrests, confiscations, and intimidation. To avoid public attention, the government has adopted a policy of quick arrests followed by quick releases, and the lack of public information has generally prevented the release of news about the new stage of persecution to Catholics in the West.

But while the persecution is now quiet and subtle, it is also constant. In fact, it is constantly getting worse! For the cause of truth, for their loyalty to the Holy See, the faithful Catholics of China have been suffering persecution for 47 years. But they are suffering for righteousness, and so as they suffer they can rejoice in the 8th Beatitude. They suffer real pain, but never defeat, because their suffering opens the gates of the Kingdom.

This essay is abstracted from a considerably longer report, which will delivered by Father Lu to the Fifth World Congress on Christian Philosophy, held in Lublin on August 20-22, 1996.