The vast land of China, with its incredibly large population of cheerful people, has a long history of resistance to the Gospel. Not that the Christian faith has been without its missionaries. Nestorian Christians preached in China from the 7th to the 14th centuries with modest success. The Franciscans pioneered there from 1294 to 1368. In the seventeenth century, the Jesuits, followed by other western missionary orders, won a larger following for a couple of centuries until foreigners were excluded. From 1842 on, when China reopened trade gates to the West, missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, were able to get a better foothold in at least a part of China. This good fortune lasted through World War II. Conditions were still so good in 1946 that Pope Pius XII established a Chinese Catholic hierarchy, and even named China’s first cardinal. (By 1946, there were 3.3 million Catholics in a total population of 461 million.) But then there occurred what had occurred so often before: the Chinese suddenly ousted all foreigners and persecuted Christianity. Yesterday it was the emperors; today it is the Chinese Communists who refuse to acknowledge Catholicism affiliated with the pope.
So much for the background. In 1900, a typical persecution broke out against Catholics tied in with a hatred of foreigners. It was carried on by a secret society named the “Virtuous Harmony Society,” but known to Europeans as the “Boxers.” The “Boxer” attack on foreigners, encouraged by the Chinese Emperor, lasted only a couple of months in 1900; but their purge resulted in the death of at least 11,000 Catholics!
A number of these martyrs have since been beatified. The first twenty-nine were declared blessed by Pope Pius XII in 1946.
The largest percentage of this group were done to death at Taiyuan by Governor Yu Hsien, who first forbade Christians to gather for prayers. The leading person arrested was the Italian missionary bishop, Gregory Grassi, a Franciscan, aged sixty-seven. With him were his coadjutor bishop, Franciscan Francesco Fogolla; a Franciscan priest, and a Franciscan lay brother. Another bishop and two additional missionaries had been killed shortly before. Seven young Franciscan Missionary nuns from France, Italy, Belgium and Holland suffered death at the same time, along with five native seminarians and nine Chinese Catholic servants, who were too loyal to desert their missionaries.
Bishop Grassi and his group were herded into a building, whose name, ironically, was the “Inn of Heavenly Peace.” After torture they were beheaded. The missionary nuns knelt, and held their white veils aside for the death blow.
Of course, the Boxers’ hatred of these foreign Christians had mixed motives. Were these twenty-nine killed, then “for their faith” or as “political” enemies? In their case, antipathy to the Faith was certainly the governing motive. In his proclamation, Governor Yu Hsien had said: “The European religion is wicked and cruel, it despises the spirit and oppresses people. All (Chinese) Christians who do not sincerely repudiate it will be executed …Christians, hear and tremble! Give up this perverse religion! Let all Christians fear and obey: the Boxers will not hurt persons – it is this religion they hate.” That is clear enough. Indeed, thirty-seven persons connected with a local Protestant mission were killed around the same time. They too, died for the Gospel, not for politics.
Some day, in God’s good time, there will be a breakthrough, and China will open her doors permanently and effectively to the Gospel. We pray for that day. Perhaps it is because Chinese territory is so immense that much blood like that of the Blessed Boxer victims must first be shed to “irrigate” the soil. Then the Faith can finally take lasting root.
–Father Robert F. McNamara