01.jpgSINGAPORE - The feast of St. Augustine Zhao Rong and 119 companions, commonly called the 120 Chinese martyrs, will be celebrated in our churches on Jul 9.

Right, the 13-foot high and 8.5-foot wide painting, "Canonization of the Saints", by 45-year-old artist, Li Chien-yi, a Buddhist, depicting 120 beatified Chinese martyrs, was hung at the Vatican during the martyrs' canonization ceremony. [Click to see it in full.]

The martyrs - 87 native Chinese and 33 foreign missionaries killed between 1648 and 1930 - loved China and the church, Pope John Paul II said. The pope called them universal models of "courage and integrity" in a canonization ceremony on Oct 1, 2000. It was a religious ceremony that the Chinese government did not take kindly to.

But there was a silver lining in their loud objections. The Chinese government gave so much publicity to the canonizations in all the mass media that "it caused everyone in Hong Kong, and in the whole world, to become aware that the Catholic Church was holding a canonization ceremony", remarked Father Francis Li Yu-ming, whose grandfather and an uncle were among those beheaded on Jul 14, 1900; his father escaped by a miracle.

Father Li added: "Curiosity was aroused among those who heard the news, and they asked questions like: What is a canonization? Who are the people being canonized? Why are they being canonized? And why are people opposed to their being canonized?"

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Feast of Augustine Zhao Rong and 119 companions

THE FEAST OF St. Augustine Zhao Rong and 119 companions, commonly called the 120 martyrs of China, will be celebrated on Jul 9. The feast has been included for the first time in the Ordo for the Singapore Archdiocese although it has been included in the Roman Ordo for five years.

Among the 120 martyrs were 87 Chinese and 33 foreigners. Augustine Zhao Rong was neither the first of the martyrs nor the one highest in the church hierachy among them - there were seven bishops, but none native.

Augustinus Zhao Rong (1746-1815) was placed first on the list because he was the first native priest martyr. A native mandarin of Guizhou, he was baptized a Catholic at the age of 30 and ordained a priest five years later. His desire for baptism came after his service as one of the soldiers who escorted Monsignor Dufresse (another of the 120 martyrs who was later beheaded) from Chengdu to Beijing.

Rome decides who is to be canonized (there are many thousands more who died for the faith in China but have not been canonized) and Rome decides the status of the particular saint in the church. By giving the 120 Chinese martyrs the status of universal memorial celebration, Rome affirms their importance to the universal church and to the church in China.

"I know that you are spiritually united with us, and I am certain that you understand that this is a special moment of grace for the whole church and for the entire Catholic community in China," Pope John Paul II said to Catholics in China at the canonization ceremony on Oct 1, 2000. He prayed that the new saints would "comfort and sustain" the Catholics in China. "Like them you bravely and generously bear witness to your fidelity to Jesus Christ and to your genuine love of your people," he said.

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Chinese martyrs represent three centuries of persecution

02.jpgThis tapestry represents the Chinese martyrs at the canonization ceremony in St. Peter's Square on Oct 1, 2000. Depicted in the tapestry is a cross around which is woven with vine. At the foot of the cross is a lotus flower in a pool of blood. On either side, "the blood of the martyrs, the seed of Christians" is written in Chinese and Latin. [Click to see in full.]

CHINA'S FIRST SAINTS - A group of 120 Chinese and European martyrs spanning three centuries - were canonized by Pope John Paul II at an Oct 1, 2000 ceremony in St. Peter's Square.

Eighty-six of the martyrs were killed about a hundred years ago in China's anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion, in which an estimated 30,000 Catholics were killed.

Those canonized range in age from seven to 79. They include 87 Chinese nationals, all lay men and women except for four priests. The other 33 were missionaries from Spain, France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands: seven bishops, 18 priests, one religious brother and seven nuns.

Spanish Dominican Father Francesco Fernandez de Capillas, beheaded in 1648 while reciting the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, is recognized by the church as China's first martyr.

The other martyrs are:

— Five Spanish missionaries killed in a wave of persecutions in southeast China in the mid-18th century. One was beheaded; the others were suffocated or strangled.

— 26 people killed between 1816 and 1862 in a series of anti-Christian edicts issued by two successive Chinese emperors, including a French priest betrayed by a Chinese Christian for 30 coins and a 57-year-old Chinese man who was executed two days after being baptized.

— 86 Catholics killed in the Boxer Rebellion, including 39 lay Chinese men and 27 lay Chinese women. Among them are two Jesuits killed at a church altar and a Chinese man who protested at his trial that he was a Christian over the attempts of his friends to testify otherwise.

— One Italian Salesian bishop and an Italian Salesian priest killed in 1930 by communist soldiers.

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120 Chinese Martyrs

03.jpgRight, Italian missionary Bishop Luigi Versiglia, pictured here sometime before 1920 as a young priest in his Cantonese mission, gives a catechesis. The bishop was killed by renegade communist soldiers in 1930. He is among the 120 martyrs of China. [Click to see in full.]

Pope John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese and missionary martyrs and called them universal models of "courage and integrity" in a ceremony on Oct 1, 2000. It was a religious ceremony that the Chinese government did not take kindly to.

THE 120 MARTYRS of China - 87 native Chinese and 33 foreign missionaries killed between 1648 and 1930 - loved China and the church, Pope John Paul said.

Defending the new saints' reputation for holiness against accusations by Chinese government representatives that some of them were "evil-doing sinners", he said the Holy Year was the right time to highlight their "heroic witness". The Mass, celebrated in St. Peter's Square featured Chinese singing, readings and incense-bearing processions.

Chinese authorities, who had branded the martyrs as anti-Chinese criminals in the days leading to the Mass, expressed fresh indignation at the canonizations and said the move would seriously damage future dialogue with the Vatican. A Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said some of the martyrs were "evil-doing sinners" who raped, looted and committed unforgivable crimes against the Chinese people.

In his sermon, the pope touched gently upon the political issues, saying the martyrs had lived during complex and difficult periods of Chinese history. Most were killed during the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion of 1900. He said the canonization Mass, however, was not the moment to "form judgements on these historical periods; this could and should be done in other circumstances".

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"Today... the church intends only to recognize that these martyrsare an example of courage and integrity for all of us and do honour to the noble Chinese people," he said.

At an audience with pilgrims the next day, the pope stressed that the canonizations were not an attempt to legitimize the colonial policies of past eras. He said critics who see only errors and limits in the missionaries' actions were not being objective; but if mistakes were made in the missionary effort, he added, "we ask forgiveness".

At the canonization Mass, the pope said the foreign missionary martyrs in the group had "sincerely loved China, giving all their energy to the country". The pontiff also spoke of the deep faith shown by the martyrs in the face of death. He recalled 14-year-old Anna Wang, who before being beheaded declared to her executioners: "The door of heaven is open to everyone."

He said that 18-year-old Chi Zhuzi, even as he was being skinned alive, cried out: "Every piece of my flesh and every drop of my blood will tell you again that I am a Christian."

At the end of the Mass, which was broadcast to China by Vatican Radio, the pope told Chinese Catholics that he prayed for them daily, understood their trials and was sure they supported the canonizations. "I know that you are spiritually united with us, and I am certain that you understand that this is a special moment of grace for the whole church and for the entire Catholic community in China," he said. Pope John Paul prayed that the new saints would "comfort and sustain" the Catholics in China. "Like them you bravely and generously bear witness to your fidelity to Jesus Christ and to your genuine love of your people," he said.

The pope's words attempted to bridge the growing rift between the Vatican and China's communist government over the new saints. In a crescendo of criticism that began in mid-September, Chinese authorities first questioned the motives and timing of the canonizations, then said that most of the martyrs were agents of Western imperialism and deserved their fate.

Those canonized included four priests born in China and seven European bishops. The 120 martyrs ranged in age from seven to 79. Nearly three-fourths of them died in the Boxer Rebellion, during which an estimated 30,000 Catholics were killed. China's current government has applauded the nationalistic fervour of the 1900 uprising.

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China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Sun Yuxi, told reporters before the canonization ceremony that most of the martyrs "were executed for violating Chinese law during the invasion of China by imperialists and colonialists". He said their canonization "distorts truth and history, beatifies imperialism and slanders the peace-loving Chinese people". Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Vatican was "deeply saddened" by Sun's remarks, especially by his claim that many of the martyrs were guilty of "enormous crimes".

"The misdeeds which were committed by colonial powers" cannot be blamed on the martyrs, the Vatican spokesman said. "How is it possible to imagine that the Holy See would canonize persons who have committed 'enormous crimes'?" he asked. China had earlier objected to the date of the canonizations, which fell on the Oct 1 anniversary of the communist takeover of China, a national holiday in the country. The Vatican called that a coincidence, saying it chose the date traditionally used to honour the church's missionaries.

In the Catholic Church calendar, Oct 1 is the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, patron saint of missions. That day was chosen for the canonization because the history of Catholicism in China is intimately linked to missionary work and there are many missioners among the 120 martyrs.

Sentiment among Chinese Catholics over the canonizations appeared sharply divided between the clandestine and the government-backed wings of the church. The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China issued a statement denouncing the canonization of the 33 foreign missionaries. They also expressed dissatisfaction that the mainland bishops had been left out of the process and said the choice of China's National Day for the canonization humiliates the Chinese people. Local church celebrations of the canonizations were barred in mainland China amid repeated harsh condemnations by the Chinese government and top Chinese church officials.

Bishops and priests in various Chinese dioceses, who all asked not to be named, said that they had been pressured by the government to avoid speaking publicly about the canonizations. But the Vatican missionary news agency, Fides, reported that 57 bishops of mainland China, representing the government-backed and underground church, had sent a signed petition to the pope requesting the canonizations. Church leaders from Hong Kong and Taiwan defended the canonizations.

In the midst of the controversy, China published revised restrictions on religious activities by foreigners, reiterating a ban on proselytizing by foreigners, prohibiting foreigners from bringing religious items into the country except for personal use, and requiring teachers and speakers at any religious gathering to have prior approval from the central government's religious affairs office.

Editor's note: For more information on the 120 martyrs, visit the Vatican website at http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ns_lit_doc_20001001_zhao-rongcompagni_en.html

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Brief history of the Catholic Church in China

CATHOLIC SCHOLARS AND sociologists sometimes refer to the current religious revival in China as the country's fifth evangelization.

They consider the first evangelization when an Assyrian monk, Alopen, brought Christianity across the Silk Road to what is now Xi'an, China, in the seventh century. The period was commemorated with the erection of the Nestorian Stone, a 10-foot-high tablet that describes Christian doctrine and ceremonies, the development of Christianity in China and the support Christianity was given by some emperors of the Tang Dynasty. The stone contains doctrinal, historical and eulogistic contents that most scholars say could be accepted by all Christians today. The stone is preserved in the Provincial Museum of Shaanxi, in Xi'an.

Late in the 13th century, Italian Franciscan Father John of Montecorvino became the first Catholic missionary to China, and the period that followed became known as the second evangelization. In 1307, Pope Clement V made Father John an archbishop for his success at converting some high-level Chinese officials, baptizing about 6,000 people and erecting churches.

The Franciscans operated in China for nearly 100 years; the New Catholic Encyclopedia indicates that in 1368 China might have had as many as 30,000 Catholics, although most did not belong to the majority Han ethnic group. This period was the second evangelization.

Early in the 16th century, Jesuits, Franciscans, Augustinians and Dominicans tried to gain a foothold in China but could not make it past the port of Guangzhou, where they were allowed to stay for short periods. Later in the 16th century, Italian Jesuit Fathers Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci took up residence in Zhaozhou, dressing first as Buddhist monks, then as Confucian scholars. With their displays of scientific instruments from the West they gained the respect and protection of several Confucian literati. Father Ruggieri returned to Europe to try to get more support, and Father Ricci was able to settle in Beijing in 1601. The Jesuits later helped reform errors in the imperial calendar, which increased the missionaries' prestige.

By 1635, other religious orders began arriving in China, and soon the country was divided into territories for the religious orders. By 1700 the Catholic Church had about 200,000 Chinese members, but the so-called Chinese Rites Controversy stunted development of the church. Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and members of the Paris Foreign Mission Society objected to Jesuit acceptance of Chinese rituals used to honour ancestors as well as to Chinese names for God. Papal decrees in 1715 and 1742 banned the Chinese Rites, and the emperor reacted by prohibiting the preaching of Christianity and by ordering the deportation of missionaries who did not use them. This period in the 16th and 17th centuries is known as the third evangelization.

The fourth evangelization occurred in the mid-1800s, when the Treaty of Tianjin guaranteed religious liberty for all Christians, including those in China's interior region. Multiple missionary orders returned to China, and the Vatican began organizing ecclesiastical territories under the orders' jurisdiction. These flourished until the communist takeover in 1949 and the subsequent suppression of the church, including the expulsion of foreign missionaries and the imprisonment and torture of religious during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

The fifth evangelization is identified as beginning in the 1980s, when China began allowing the practice of religion. Some scholars say that, unlike the other evangelizations, which depended on foreign missionaries, this era is marked by Chinese Catholics keeping and transmitting the faith.

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How Grandpa and Uncle died for the faith (and why Father did not)

04.jpgDuring the 1900 Boxer Uprising, 2,418 Catholics were killed in the Shanxi province. Among them were 69 Catholics in Taiyuan, including the grandfather and uncle of Father Francis Li Yuming, who were killed between Jul 9-14, 1900. Twenty-six of them were among the 120 martyrs whom Pope John Paul II canonizing on Oct 1, 2000, but Father Li's grandfather and uncle were not among them.

Father Li, a native of Taiyuan, was ordained a priest in Hong Kong in 1957. He presented recollections of his mother and father on the killing of his grandfather and uncle at a Mass to commemorate the canonization of the 120 martyrs.

Following is the text of what Father Li said:

THE GOSPEL TELLS us that everyone who follows Jesus will not only receive a hundredfold reward, but they will also meet with persecution. Jesus noticed Peter's reaction to these words. So at the Last Supper he repeated them to his disciples: "If the world hates you, realize that it has hated me before you... If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also" (John 15:18-20).

The history of the church informs us that the church grows in the midst of persecution. "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians." This is the reason that the church in China has been growing.

I feel very honoured to be able to give testimony about the martyrs in my own family and hometown. They were really martyrs for the faith.

The word "martyrdom" in the context of the Christian faith means to witness to one's faith and even to sacrifice one's life for one's faith. For example, when speaking of the Boxer Revolution of 100 years ago, if you were ordered to support the Qing Dynasty government, and you were killed for not doing so, this would not be considered martyrdom.

However, the Boxers ordered the missionaries and the Christians to renounce their faith. They were killed because they refused to do so. This is called martyrdom. During the persecutions in the year 1900 in Shanxi Province, the names of 2,418 Christians were reported to the Vatican as giving their lives for their faith.

In Taiyuan City altogether 69 persons were martyrs for the Lord. From these, only 26 were canonized as saints on Oct 1 this year. The 69 martyrs gave up their lives on three different days, Jul 9, 12 and 14. Two lay women died on Jul 12, and 39 Catholics died on Jul 14. Among them were my grandfather Li Zhongyi and an uncle, Li Shiyan. Three others were seriously wounded including my father, Li Shiheng. What follows here is the testimony of the experiences of my mother and my father at that time.

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A soldier shouted at us: "Do you deny your religion or not?"

THE FOLLOWING IS my mother's report (in her own words): At about 4 o'clock on the afternoon of Jul 9, just as we were reciting our prayers, we suddenly heard beautiful music coming from the heavens. We had never heard such music before.

Suddenly we saw an orderly row of large white banners coming towards us from Taiyuan City. When the banners passed over our heads the music got louder and more pleasant to the ear. Everyone clasped their hands on their hearts and knelt down.

We began to encourage one another, and to think that this was certainly a sign that the bishops and priests had already given their lives for their faith. Sure enough, the next day a band of soldiers came to our place and announced that the bishops and others had been killed. Then we all thought that the time had arrived for us to give up our lives for our faith. We all began to prepare ourselves by continuously reciting prayers.

After a little while a soldier shouted at us: 'Do you deny your religion or not?' Not a sound was heard in response. Then the soldier shouted an order that two of the older Christian women should be strung up in the garden. He did this to arouse a fear of death in the hearts of the younger women. The two older women were not in the least afraid.

They continually encouraged the younger ones, saying, "Young ladies, don't be afraid; now the gate of heaven is open; quickly prepare yourselves to ascend into heaven!"

On Jul 12 some of the officials came again and tried to frighten us into denying our faith. Again they were met with dead silence. Then the officials took down the two older women who had been strung up and brought them outside. In a little while, the soldiers brought in two bowls of blood, and told us that it was the blood of the two women whom they had killed. They did not kill us, but sent us back to the church.

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My grandfather said, "Let's go, we're going to heaven today!"

THE FOLLOWING IS (based on) my father's report: On Jul 14, Yuxian, the governor of Shanxi Province, issued an order: "All male Christians who are unwilling to deny their faith must gather near the North Gate." When the Catholics heard this order they became very excited and their hearts were filled with joy. They all began marching towards the appointed place. Along the way they supported and encouraged one another.

My grandfather was one of these fervent Catholics. As soon as he heard the order, he said to my then 15- ear-old father and my uncle, "Let's go, we're going to go to heaven today!" He then said goodbye to his family, and began walking towards the place of martyrdom. From their home to the appointed place was only about a 20-minute walk, but they had to pass through some winding streets.

When they arrived at the place of martyrdom, many Catholics had already gathered there. Most people knew one another. The place was not very large and the Christians were many. Each one was barely able to find space for himself. Everyone knelt down in a very composed manner and began to recite their favourite prayers.

According to the custom of the time, the men wore the pigtail. In order to make it easier for the executioner to kill them, each one brought the pigtail forward over their heads and held it in front of them with their hands. They also bent their backs forward and stretched their necks out as far as they could. In this way there was enough space for the sword to strike them cleanly.

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At the command "Kill", the executioners began swinging their swords helter-skelter. My grandfather and uncle... their heads were swiftly and cleanly severed from their bodies.

THEY WAITED FOR over three hours in the morning, and there was still no sign of the executioners. The Christians began to become agitated. Was it possible they would be denied the crown of martyrdom? Then about noon, a band of executioners, led by some soldiers, arrived at the place. The volume of the Christians' prayers grew louder. And they stretched their necks even straighter. At the sound of the command "Kill", the executioners began swinging their swords helter-skelter.

My grandfather and uncle were kneeling along the path of the square. Their heads were swiftly and cleanly severed from their bodies. It so happened that my father was kneeling next to a large rock. Therefore when the sword came down, most of it struck the rock, and it only cut open some flesh on his neck. His throat was not damaged. Because the Christians were many, the executioners did not pay close attention as to whether the heads of everyone were separated from their bodies. In this way my father was denied the privilege of seeing God face to face, as my grandfather and uncle did.

The swordsmen had executed only about 10 percent of the Christians when the commander gave the order to stop the killing. The soldiers and executioners began to return to their barracks.

The Catholics who had not been martyred were greatly disappointed. They blocked the withdrawal of the executioners, beseeching them to kill them also. But nothing could be done. The order had already been given. The executioners would not wield their swords again. The Christians fell into each other's arms weeping.

My grandfather and uncle were among the 39 martyred for the faith that day. My father was wounded but survived. He would later say, "When the sword of the executioner came down upon my neck, the only thing I felt was the coldness of it. Then I lapsed into unconsciousness. I lay in a pool of blood for two days and two nights. I do not know how much blood I lost."

On the morning of the third day, that is, Jul 16, a non-Christian was passing by, and he noticed a slight movement among the corpses. He went closer, and saw that it was someone he knew. Then he heard my father whisper, "I am thirsty." This good-hearted person, realizing that (my father) had lost a lot of blood, took some rainwater from a puddle in a piece of broken crockery, and drop by drop poured it onto his lips. He then ran to my grandmother to report that her son was still alive. She brought him to live temporarily in another village located about 10 miles from the city.

No medicine was applied to my father's wound, nor did the family have any money to have injections or to buy pills. My grandmother just entrusted my father to God's care. God will arrange everything, she thought. Miraculously, the wound closed and became completely healed. Later, when my father narrated the story of his near-martyrdom to others, he always said: "From the time I received my wound until it was completely healed, I never felt any pain. Doesn't that prove that God is always with me?"

HEARING ABOUT THE experiences of the martyr-saints causes us to feel that what Saint Paul wrote was right: "No creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus Our Lord" (Romans 8:39). Through the intercession of the martyr saints of China, let us ask the Lord to help us follow their example and witness to the Gospel in our daily lives by loving God and loving others.

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