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DYING FOR THE FAITH IN CHINA

Father Francis's picture
Blessed Gregory and Companions

The disciples were warned by Jesus that following Him would involve hardship and danger. A century ago Blessed Gregory and his friends suffered horrifying martyrdom when they became victims of Chinese nationalist fervour.

Towards the end of the 19th century European powers were opening up new trade opportunities and gaining a foothold in China, but then the Chinese became angry at the growing influence of western culture which seemed to threaten their own traditions. In 1900 that anger erupted into violence, when a fiercely nationalist group known as the Boxers organised a revolt. They attacked foreign embassies in Peking, and around 300 people were killed. It took the combined forces of Europe, Japan and the USA to defeat the rebellion and take control of the city.

Meanwhile, Chinese hatred of foreign domination extended to the Christian faith which had been introduced by missionaries and the rebels, encouraged by the Chinese Empress, began burning churches and attacking religious communities.

The province of Shansi, in the north, was a centre of Franciscan missionary activity. Bishop Gregory Grassi's residence was there, and a seminary and an orphanage run by the Franciscan Sisters of Mary. During the night of July 5 soldiers arrested the bishop and his assistant, along with a number of Sisters and seminarians. They were handled roughly and their hands tied behind their backs. Accompanied by abuse and insults from the Boxers, they were taken to prison, where they were joined by Chinese converts who worked at the mission. One other convert entered the prison voluntarily, to share his friends' ordeal.

On July 9 Bishop Gregory and his companions were taken before the provincial governor who accused them of trying to upset the people of China by introducing a foreign religion. Bishop Gregory replied, "We have never injured anyone. All our efforts have been directed to helping as many as we could." The governor ordered them to be executed and they were killed, on the spot in a frenzy of violence and cruelty, as the soldiers hacked them to death with swords.

There were 29 martyrs in total, 15 of them Franciscan missionaries and 14 Chinese people. Many other Christians also suffered during the Boxer uprising. The courage of those missionaries and their converts is an inspiration to the Chinese Church today. The number of Catholics in China is growing but the Church still struggles in the face of government opposition. We think particularly at this time of Hong Kong which is now under Communist rule. The Chinese government forbids association with "foreign powers" which includes the Vatican.

Let us give our Chinese brothers and sisters our support and prayers. May Blessed Gregory Grassi and his companions pray for them and encourage them to hold onto their faith.