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Cardinal’s Witness Inspires Novel

Interview With Author Tom Grace

By Carrie Gress

ANN ARBOR, Michigan, NOV. 25, 2007 ( Hearing the story of Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-mei’s martyrdom told by a U.S. senator sparked the imagination of author Tom Grace, whose latest fictional novel was inspired by the history of the Chinese prelate.

In this interview with ZENIT, Grace discusses The Secret Cardinal, published by Vanguard Press.

Grace, an architect by trade, has also authored “Bird of Prey,” “Quantum,” “Twisted Web,” and “Spyder Web,” featuring the fictional character of Nolan Kilkenny.

Q: Your book “The Secret Cardinal” is a fictional suspense novel hinging on an imprisoned Chinese cardinal created “in pectore” (in secret). What was the inspiration for the book?

Grace: In March 2000, Senator Joseph Lieberman delivered a stirring tribute from the floor of the U.S. Senate to mark the passing of Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-mei. From this tribute, I learned of the difficult political situation that still exists between China and the Holy See, of the persecution of Roman Catholics and other people of faith in China, of the existence of secret cardinals and the underground Church in China, and of the incredible witness to the faith made by the late Cardinal Kung during decades as a prisoner and an enemy of the Chinese state. Lieberman’s tribute sparked my imagination and set me off on the journey that resulted in “The Secret Cardinal.”

As a Catholic, I could not help but be moved by the tale of Kung’s long, dry martyrdom, his unshakable faith, and his unwavering loyalty to the Church and the Pope. I drew on Kung’s honor, loyalty and faith in crafting the title character of my novel. And like Kung, my fictional bishop had his blood shed for the Church and truly earned the right to wear the red of a cardinal.

As a writer, I found a vein of rich themes in the real situation to draw upon in my novel. “The Secret Cardinal” operates on many levels — it’s a tale of good and evil, of Church and state, of faith and atheism, and of loss and redemption.

Geopolitically, the story is David and Goliath, pitting a tiny city-state against the fourth largest and most populous nation in the world in a conflict that touches over 2.5 billion people at its broadest scope. I indulged my fascination with the history and beauty of Rome and China in crafting this novel, but at its core, “The Secret Cardinal” is a story about a man imprisoned for the crime of his faith and the daring effort to rescue him.

Q: Though a piece of fiction, there are very clear connections between your characters and those in real life, namely, your fictitious Pope Leo XIV and Pope John Paul II. Why did you use these connections?

Grace: Fiction requires a certain amount of reality, or at least familiarity, to render it believable to the reader. There is a wonderful photograph of John Paul II kissing Cardinal Kung on the forehead that speaks volumes about the special relationship that existed between these two men. Both men understood religious persecution in a way that only comes from bloody personal experience and I needed this dynamic for my story to resonate with my readers.

The decision to liberate a bishop from a Chinese prison is not one a Pope would make lightly. To make such a decision believable, I needed a Pope who had experienced religious persecution firsthand, who was active in supporting the underground Church in China, and who had endured decades of fruitless diplomacy with Beijing over imprisoned Roman Catholic clergy. I could imagine such a Pope, near the end of a long historic reign and stymied over the frustrating diplomatic impasse, making such a decision in the wake of an atrocity like the Tiananmen Square massacre. The fact that we had such a Pope makes what I’m proposing plausible.

Q: “The Secret Cardinal” gives a small window into the Church in China. Do you think it is an accurate picture or is that largely fictional as well?

Grace: In September, a Chinese Roman Catholic bishop died while in police custody and, within hours of his death, his body was cremated and interred. In October, Benedict XVI’s open letter to all Chinese Catholics was decried as an evil document by a senior official of the “Patriotic Church,” and those found in possession of the Pope’s letter have been dealt with severely. The dwindling numbers of Roman Catholic bishops that remain in China are either in prison, under house arrest or in hiding. I believe my novel fairly portrays the situation in China, and the positive responses I’ve received from Chinese Catholic émigrés and seminarians studying in the United States bears this out.

Treatment of the Church in China varies from province to province. In some places, Roman Catholics openly practice in churches with no state affiliation, while in others, persecution has driven the Church completely underground. Ironically, the Vatican reports that most of the bishops in the “Patriotic Church” have quietly sought and received the Pope’s blessing for their episcopal appointments, though none of these bishops has made their communion with Rome public. My fictional Cardinal Donoher puts it best: “The tangled mess of Church and state in China is simply a quagmire.”

Q: You describe at a few points in the book how hard it is for Westerns to understand the suffering many endure for the Catholic faith. Was this part of your motivation in writing the book — as something of a reminder to the West to not take faith for granted?

Grace: Absolutely. Prior to writing “The Secret Cardinal” I thought of Christian persecution as something that happened in the early years of the Church, but far more people died for the faith in the past century, and Catholic martyrs are being made today in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Iraqi Catholics, who are the last people on Earth still speaking the same language as Jesus Christ, are being murdered, persecuted and driven from their homes today because of their faith. It is easy for people in the West to be lax about their faith because no one is trying to take it away.

In March 2006, Beijing reacted strongly to the elevation of Bishop Zen of Hong Kong to cardinal, decrying it as a hostile act against the Chinese government. In the months that followed, Beijing ordained several bishops without papal approval and raised the possibility of excommunication.

On Sept. 1 of this year, Beijing enacted a law that granted the state sole authority over the reincarnation of Buddhist lamas, much as the state has sole authority to name Catholic bishops. This law is a move to control the succession of the Dalai Lama, who resides in exile outside of Tibet.

The Dalai Lama’s recent high-profile visits to the U.S. and Canadian capitals drew harsh criticism from Beijing and threats of dire consequences, though such threats against important trading partners have in the past proved empty. Strongly worded statements are already flowing out of Beijing in an attempt to derail a formal meeting between the Dalai Lama and Benedict XVI on Dec. 13. As the Holy See does not enjoy diplomatic or trade relations with China, Beijing’s threats may not prove hollow, as was the case following the elevation of Cardinal Zen.

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