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Columbans are poised for a rebirth in China more than 50 years after the sacrifices of Fr. Tom Ellis and other Columban heroes.
Fr. Hugh MacMahon
Five years ago, I stood on the porch of the hundred-year-old Gothic church in Nancheng, waiting for a tropical downpour to pass. With me in this central China city were a fellow Columban priest and Fr. Thomas Yu, pastor of the church and of the area that was once the Columbans’ second diocese in China.
Soon, an elderly lady and her grandchild joined us. She was studying us as she chatted in the local dialect with Fr. Yu and, in response to we Columbans’ enquiring looks, he explained that she wanted to know if we belonged to the same group as Zhang Shen-fu—Columban Father Tom Ellis.
Columban Father Tom Ellis, who died in 1945, is pictured with Columban Sisters in China.
When he replied that we were, she told him that it was thanks to Fr. Ellis that she and her family had survived the devastation and famine after the Japanese leveled Nancheng in 1942. Fr. Ellis had opened the church—the only building left standing in the town—to the homeless residents.
Over the following months, Fr. Ellis sheltered and fed thousands of people, thanks to the resources hastily gathered by the local bishop, Patrick Cleary. Tragically, Fr. Ellis died in 1945 from neglecting his own health.
The lady we met that day, nearly 60 years later, had never forgotten Zhang Shen-fu. Although she was not a Catholic, she called him a saint. Many of the surviving Catholics in Nancheng also referred to him in those terms. I was moved that even 50 years after missionaries had been expelled from China, there were still people in Nancheng who remembered them with appreciation.
Hardships & Limited Success.
Fr. Yu himself is an important link to the early days. He had been imprisoned with other Columban priests in the early 1950s while he was still a seminarian. Today, he looks back on those days almost with nostalgia.
His respect and affection for the priests is obvious since they were his model during those difficult years. He spent 30 years either in jail or labor camps, and little news of him reached the Columbans until shortly before his release in 1988.
At that time, Fr. Yu was allowed to return to Nancheng as pastor and has renewed his contact with the Columbans. One of the highlights of his later life was the opportunity to visit the graves of Columban missionaries he had known in China and to meet the Holy Father in Rome.
At the golden jubilee celebrations for the Columban Society in 1968, Bishop Cleary was asked was whether the sacrifices and efforts made by the Columbans in China had been a waste, considering their hardships and limited success.
He replied, “The harvest garnered there was immense. The good seed remains in the ground for a second spring.”
During that visit to Nancheng five years ago, I felt the second spring had already begun.
A Changing View
Since the Columbans were expelled from China in 1952 by its Communist government, the Columbans themselves have changed, along with and the worldwide attitude to the Catholic Church, religion and mission. Our expulsion from China allowed us to expand our mission to other countries after planting the seeds of faith in China.
Reading the memoirs of early Columban missionaries made me aware of how much China has been transformed. An account of the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 1922 in Hanyang, just one year after the Columbans arrived in China, describes a procession from their house outside the walls, led by students carrying lanterns, in through the city gates that had been specially opened for them by the night guard, thanks to the cooperation of a local mandarin.
Today, there are no city walls in Hanyang or Nancheng, no local mandarins and no public processions through the streets. We are now in the China of the 21st century with its modern buildings, highways and industrial achievements. Its young people are bright and curious, eager to make a contribution to family and country and to learn from the Western world.
Religion is tolerated in modern China, but only as a private matter, not to be witnessed to or shared in public. The range of activities in which missionaries can be engaged is limited.
The Columbans are an older society too, and the Society has taken on obligations in other parts of the world. However, these challenges have made the Society reconsider what mission should mean today and what Christianity has to offer modern China.
One of Bishop Cleary’s pastoral priorities had been the training of a young Chinese clergy to take over for the Columbans. Today’s Columbans are following that tradition by calling upon their friends and contacts in the United States, Ireland and Great Britain to join them in helping young Chinese priests, Sisters and lay Catholics to study abroad and widen their experience. This will better prepare them to build a Chinese Church that is true to its age-old national culture and the traditions of the Catholic Church.
The Society is also renewing contacts in the areas in which Columbans worked, especially Hanyang and Nancheng. We are collaborating with the young clergy and lay people there in witnessing to their faith through concern for their neighbors, especially those suffering from neglect because of financial, physical or mental disabilities.
There is continuity there also, not just in the areas in which they work, but with the services rendered by the early Columbans during the wars, disturbances, floods and famines from the 1920s to the 1950s.
A Ceremony Of Great Symbolism
The fruit of Columban efforts to build upon old contacts in China and develop new ones was obvious in a recent celebration in Hanyang. Three Columban students, two from the Philippines and one from Korea, had just completed their two-year international mission program in China and were scheduled to formally renew their commitment to the Society.
The ceremony was held in an apartment with 30 people present. Twelve of them were Columbans, and the rest were young local priests, Sisters and lay people who had become their friends and coworkers.
These local contacts provided the openings for the seminarians to experience life in China today by being part of pastoral and social projects. This breakthrough was a sign of hope for the future and how much has already been accomplished.
Another Columban initiative is to invite teachers and other foreign volunteers to live and work in China for at least one year to offer their skills and experience to Chinese students. English is as important as mathematics in China today, but the students also want to know what motivates and concerns people from the West.
Their contact with the volunteer foreign teachers broadens their world vision and leads to better mutual understanding. This, too, continues a tradition started by Bishops Cleary and Bishop Edward Galvin (the Columban Society’s cofounder) who invited doctors, engineers and other talented lay people from the West to join in them in helping the poor of Hanyang and Nancheng.
Ninety years after the Society was established, Bishops Cleary, Galvin and other early Columbans must be delighted to see that the seeds they planted are coming to life and a new second spring has begun.
Columban Father Hugh MacMahon of Ireland is the manager of AITECE, a program that brings volunteer foreign teachers to China. Learn more about the program’s volunteering opportunities at www.aitece.com.