Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
January 26, 2004
Pray for this Chinese jewel
In a recent, privately published book, The Bright Cloud, Philomena Hsieh details how Communist persecution of the Catholic Church in China had a devastating effect on her life. In a world which brushes aside human rights violations in China and normalizes relations with the country all in the interest of increased trade, her's is a story that needs to be heard.
Hsieh converted to Catholicism in 1949 when she was 15, just a couple of months before the Communist Revolution. She quickly joined the Legion of Mary, but was startled when, in 1951, the legion was declared a counter-revolutionary organization.
On Sept. 8, 1955, Communist persecution of the Catholic Church began in earnest and Hsieh was one of hundreds of Shanghai Catholics arrested. She spent four months in a tiny cell with another woman before being released. She married her husband Francis in 1956 and he left China for Hong Kong the following year, hoping that she and their newborn son would follow.
That was not allowed to happen. In 1958, as part of a larger persecution, Philomena was arrested again and this time sent to a labour camp. "I thanked God for a second chance to suffer for my faith." She spent four years there, much of it engaged in gruelling hard labour at least 12 hours a day. Yet she thanked God for Catholics' opportunity to witness the faith there, mainly through their cheerful attitudes and acts of kindness to others.
The Communists were clearly out to destroy the Catholic Church, despite their pledges of freedom of religion. "I knew that the Communists could never destroy the Church: They were only instruments in God's hands for the purification and spread of his Church," she wrote.
Although freed from the labour camp in 1962, she found the persecution of the Church grew enormously in intensity during the Cultural Revolution which began in 1966. The gangs that terrorized the country in the years of politically-inspired anarchy repeatedly ransacked her home and the homes of many others. In fact, life was happier and more peaceful in the labour camps than it was during the Cultural Revolution.
It was only when she was able to leave for Hong Kong in 1978 during the first thaw in China-U.S. relations that she learned her husband had divorced her and remarried. Despite her grief over being deserted, she was grateful to at last be able to regularly celebrate the sacraments.
The persecution of the underground Catholic Church continues in China today. Currently, every underground bishop is in jail, under house arrest or in hiding. At least 20 priests were arrested last year. On April 12, a priest and 10 seminarians were arrested while praying the breviary on a picnic. The previous year, 31 underground Catholics, mainly laity, were arrested during a summer vacation catechism class.
The age of the martyrs is still alive in China. In 2000, Pope John Paul canonized 120 Chinese martyrs from the Communist persecution. The pope has called the Chinese Church "a precious jewel of the Catholic Church."
Despite the persecution, there are 12 million Catholics in China, only about four million of them part of the government-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Association. The Church in China has grown, despite 50 years of unrelenting persecution by a regime determined to wipe it out.
The anonymous author of the Foreword to The Bright Cloud calls Hsieh's testimony "a story of faith maturing in darkness and watered by tears but also nurtured by the warmth of love and the joy of faith's certainty of God's presence in all that befell her."
We in Canada need to support the suffering Church with our prayers. But we can also be inspired by the courage of millions of people determined to practise their faith in the face of persecution. Chinese Catholics pay an enormous price for making their faith the centre of their lives. May we, who do not face such persecution, make our witness as brilliant as theirs.
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