By Mark Miravalle
STEUBENVILLE, Ohio, NOV. 11, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The second joyful face of the Chinese Church is usually a hidden face. Hidden behind walls, behind bars, behind police blockades. He is an underground bishop, and his great offering to the Church in China is his “white” martyrdom, and what seems at times to be his approaching “red” or bloody martyrdom.
Let us call him Bishop “U” for “underground,” in contrast to the aforementioned Bishop “O” for “open” or above-ground church registered with the government.
In the specific case of Bishop “U” and his relation to the local government, registering with the Patriotic Association would mean direct moral compromise for him and for his people. This is because in his region it would be advancing an agenda that is counter to the teachings of the Church and independent from the Roman Pontiff. Without getting into imprudent detail, suffice it to say that this bishop has no choice but to witness to his Catholic faith and his unconditional loyalty to the Holy Father. This he has done unfailingly throughout repeated persecutions that have cost more than 20 years of his life spent in prison or detainment and separation from his flock, for the simple reason that he will not say “yes” to Beijing and “no” to Christ.
We traveled to his diocese by train, a journey of several hours outside a major city. Arriving at a rail terminal, we were met by a young man dressed with a rather loud tie, and similarly lively and somewhat uncoordinated clothing, something like what might be worn by a country dweller in his first outing to a major city. We were gathered into two cars and drove from station en route to a more rural setting. We soon learned that the young gentleman who met us is Fr. “X,” a professor in the underground seminary.
After approximately an hour’s car ride, we turned off onto a dirt road, and arrived at a small complex of humble residential structures, the entrance of which was one small building with two large doors, prohibiting any view of what lay inside. We were led through them into a small courtyard, and from there to a reception room of modest appearance.
At this point, numerous young men entered the room. Fr. “X” introduced us to two other priests, Fr. “L” and Fr. “F,” and then to the remainder of the men, the seminarians. When asked whether this had been the seminary location for an extended time, Fr. “X” replied that in past years the seminary had stayed in one location for an entire year, but in recent years its location had to be changed several times a year. I recalled that during my previous visit to this region, we had passed an old abandoned brick structure half in ruins and surrounded by a deserted set of farm buildings, and the underground religious with us had said, “That’s our seminary for the time being.”
Ordained in the dark
An account of a recent ordination also helps to give flesh to the reality of what a vocation for the underground Church means. A certain seminarian, who actually had temporary access to partial, out of country theological instruction, had been ready for ordination for some time, but he had to await the release of his bishop from prison. Finally, the day came, and the seminarian was alerted to be prepared at any time for the call to come to a specific location for the ordination. Weeks passed, but still no call. Friends from his previous seminary had been writing for months, asking, “When is the date of your ordination?” The humble seminarian responded simply, “I do not know.”
Finally, the call came. The seminarian was instructed to go to a certain building, to enter the basement in the dark and to remain until the bishop arrived. The seminarian arrived early in the morning and waited and waited, and still no bishop. Finally at day’s end, the seminarian heard the upstairs door open, and someone walking down the steps. It was the bishop, accompanied by one other priest. And there, in the dark, in the basement, without any family members, friends, or even brother clergy save one, the bishop enacted the sacred rite, which transformed the seminarian into another Christ.
Weeks later, the newly ordained priest received correspondence from his previous seminary brethren. Upon hearing that he had indeed been ordained, they asked with jubilation for the young priest to send pictures of the ceremony and the subsequent celebration. But there was no public ceremony, celebration, community laud. The priest went to a designated spot and offered his first Mass the next day in service of Christ and in service of his people. His fellow seminarians in another land just did not understand. So, too, we often do not understand what it means to be a priest of the underground Church in China.
Initially cautious about the presence of foreigners, understandably so, the priests and seminarians soon warmed up during our theological and spiritual discussions. By the end of our stay together, we felt a union of mind, heart, and trust that in other circumstances might have taken years to develop. We ended by exchanging mutual accounts of admiration for Bishop “U,” along with the promise to return for future collaborative efforts for the Church in this diocese.
We were told by one his religious daughters that the bishop’s superhuman endurance of the never-ending persecution derives from his phenomenal prayer life. Rising early in the morning, he typically makes three holy hours a day (whenever, of course, he has access to the Blessed Sacrament and Mass — typically not granted him during his imprisonment periods), the offering of Mass, the praying of the divine office, coupled with several rosaries prayed throughout the day. He is ever beloved by his clergy, religious and people, and they would willingly offer their lives for his protection. Some of his clergy have indeed risked their lives to do so.
His serenity can only come from another world. One witness attested to the fact that even during an unexpected visit by police and high officials from the persecuting religious affairs bureau, Bishop “U” never lost his peace. During a brief sojourn of freedom when he returned to his people, witnesses state that, despite the frightening possibility that he would be immediately taken back to prison, he radiated a peace of heart with smile on his face that could only have come from a heavenly source.
We next encountered an individual who has been responsible for some extremely valuable publishing for the underground Church. A woman, full of charm, elegance, and the humility that rightly accompanies authentic Catholic culture, she uses the best and most discrete of her virtuous wiles to provide the underground Church with valuable publications for catechetical instruction and spiritual formation.
This woman, Miss “P,” refused to take the slightest bit of credit for any of her gallant and daring undertakings. Her responses were limited simply to, “Thanks be to God. Our Lady provides for everything. It is all privilege to serve God. I am not worthy.”
Upon mention of her repeated reference to the Blessed Mother and her obviously intimate devotion to her, Miss “P” responded: “Our Blessed Mother loves us very much. I always ask Ma li ya, Shengmu (Mary, Holy Mother) for help. I do perpetual novenas to her. She loves us very much.”
Upon leaving this inspirational woman, I added to her vocation of Christian suffering by exposing her to my frightfully painful, though well-intended, Chinese farewell (which was kindly translated for me into Mandarin by a Chinese horticulture researcher who sat next to me on the plane flight over): “Women ai ni. Ni yong yaan zai wode xin Li, he zai Yesu he Ma li ya de xin Li. Xie xie nin!” (We love you. You will remain deeply in our hearts, and in the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, forever. Thank you!).
All spiritual fruits growing and flowing from this region should rightly be recognized as being watered in mystical connection with the chief shepherd-vict
im soul of this diocese. As episcopal high priest, Bishop “U” imitates the Eternal High Priest in offering the two greatest sacrifices for his people — the offering of the Mass and the offering of his life. The fruit of blood and water are apparent amidst the most intense of governmental persecution.
As part of our small sacrifice within this oriental Church of sacrifice, we were deprived of direct experience of the smiling face of Bishop “U,” due to his ongoing exile from his people at the hands of the religious affairs bureau and the local authority of government officials. His suffering witness remains an inspiration beyond words.
The less experienced or less wise voices of the “open” Church might be tempted to conclude that the suffering of Bishop “U” is simply the avoidable effect of an old school, elderly bishop from past regimes, who stubbornly refuses to follow through with the pro forma registration with the Patriotic Association, where some secondary cooperation with the government would simply alleviate this pointless persecution. They would be grossly misjudging the particular situation in the region of Bishop “U,” where cooperation in his situation would be tantamount to advocating and embodying an ecclesio-political movement independent of Rome and proximate to the state. A man, a bishop, fire-tried with a quarter-century of imprisonment and harassment could never acquiescence to this concession of Christian conscience.
The quintessential call of Benedict XVI in his letter to the Chinese Church is unity. Unity.
This is why it is imperative that Chinese Catholics, through God’s grace of forgiveness and healing, must let go of the hurt of past confusions, defections, and potential betrayals, and move on to the great task ahead of them, united as one Church under one Holy Father.
Let those in the “open Church,” who are able to cooperate with local authorities without moral compromise to Rome and its teachings, continue to do so for the authentic advancement of the Church. Let them avoid any judgment of their “underground” brothers and sisters who, due to substantially different circumstances, cannot. Let them be united in heart with their “underground” brothers and sisters.
Let those of the “underground Church,” who properly refuse to cooperate with intrinsic rejection of papal authority and Catholic life, continue to do so for the advancement of the Church. Let them avoid any judgment of their “open” Church brothers and sisters who, due to substantially different circumstances, can cooperate with local authorities for the Church’s good. Let them be united in heart with their “open” Church brothers and sisters, faithful to Rome.
Only in this way, united in trust and truth, firmly upon the rock of Peter and obedient to his directives, can the small but unswerving Catholic Church in China reflect the Christian joy radiating from the faces of both Bishop “O” and Bishop “U,” historical heroes leading the charge on two critical fronts, one active, the other coredemptive¬ — and at the same time accomplish the evangelical mission given it by the Founder himself, to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19).[Parts 1 and 2 of this article appeared Sunday (www.zenit.org/article-24205?l=english) and Monday (www.zenit.org/article-24214?l=english)]
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Mark Miravalle is a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Author of more than a dozen books on Mariology, and editor of “Mariology: A Guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, and Consecrated Persons,” he wrote “The Seven Sorrows of China” in 2007. He is married and has eight children.