Of Many Things

The Society of Jesus and China have a long and complicated history, one that goes back to the very beginnings of the order. One of the co-founders of the Jesuits, the great St. Francis Xavier, died during his attempt to reach the Chinese mainland. Thirty years later, in 1582, Matteo Ricci, S.J., succeeded where Xavier had failed, bringing the Catholic faith as well as Western science, mathematics and astronomy to the Eastern world. Today, at the China Millennium Monument in Beijing, Father Ricci is the only Westerner included in the pantheon of those recognized for outstanding contributions to the development of Chinese civilization.

In the four centuries since Father Ricci’s exploits, the relations between the Jesuits and China have closely paralleled those between the West and Beijing. America’s most significant coverage of the church in China was in 1988, when we published excerpts from the newly released memoirs of Dominic Tang, S.J., (d. 1995), the last Roman Catholic archbishop of Canton officially recognized by the Holy See. The following reflection by John W. Donohue, S.J., appeared in this column on July 9, 1988. 

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Archbishop Tang was born in Hong Kong on May 13, 1908; entered the Society of Jesus in 1930, and was ordained in 1941. Nine years later, when he was running a parish and school in Shekki, a Southeast-China town not far from Macau, Rome appointed him Apostolic Administrator of Canton. A Chinese nun inclined to gloomy prophecy told him, “Your vocation to be a bishop is a vocation to be imprisoned.”

Bishop Tang, who as administrator did not have the title of archbishop, guessed that much himself and was not surprised when he was arrested in February 1958. One of the first things he saw at the police station was a poster indicting him: “Tang Yee-ming is the most faithful running dog of the reactionary Vatican.” Although he was neither officially tried nor sentenced, he was kept in prison for the next 22 years. Much of that time he spent in solitary confinement in a tiny and almost lightless cell furnished only with a bench for sleeping.

Since he was not permitted either to write or receive letters, his relatives and friends presumed by the 1970s that he was dead. But on a morning in June 1980, he was told that the Government, in its “great clemency,” was freeing him even though he was still unreformed. The rosary confiscated 22 years before was returned, but not the episcopal ring set with a ruby....

“I believe that one reason why they put me in prison,” he writes, “was that they wanted me to change my thoughts and religious ideology.” His jailers did not use the physical torture that has been commonplace under right-wing regimes in “Catholic” countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Honduras. But the Archbishop did have to endure relentlessly harsh confinement with the meagerest rations of food and clothing and with frequent interrogations that sometimes lasted all day and night....

“One day repeated another,” he writes, “one year repeated another.” In the most uplifting of his vividly instructive pages, Archbishop Tang describes how he filled those prison days with a schedule of prayer, meditation and hymns. That program kept him, he says, from losing either faith or heart. Besides, he adds, God has given him “the grace of an optimistic spirit.” And so he ends the stirring testimony of this remarkable little book with a serene affirmation: “God’s help and protection is always with the Church.”

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