Rarely do we hear about the atrocities of the Maoist regime in China. Everyone seems to know about Hitler’s tyranny leading to the Holocaust. Many know of Stalin’s oppression of minorities and others in the Gulag work camps. What most of us do not know is that the Maoist regime was doing as much or more to oppress its people–and the Catholic Church in particular–as Germany and Communist Russia.
The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs traces the experience of a number of different priests, monks, and laypeople during the Maoist takeover of the Nationalist government, a struggle that lasted almost 40 years. The stories are convicting to those of us who have not seen widespread religious persecution in our nation. Although the “official” government position was that it respected freedom of religion, many Christians were forced to denounce the Church and their faith in favor of the government “doctrine.”
But through all these terrible accounts of suffering and spiritual anguish, the beauty of the Faith shines through:
Gulag and laogai, which were supposed to be laboratories for molding the “new man” according to the dictates of ideology, have indeed brought to light “new men,” but from the newness of the gospel instead: men who, in the hour of trial, discovered the mysterious presence of God and drew from their faith unexpected resources for withstanding difficulties, insults, suffering and torture. (from the Introduction)
Ordinary people became extraordinary witnesses to Christ throughout these struggles. At times, the Chinese officials were so taken aback, they did not know what to do with the Christians:
Father Li, who had already passed through a very difficult period before the Cultural Revolution, was sufficiently well prepared. Every time he was thrust onto the platform and forced to endure the endless series of accusations and insults, he put up with it in silence, closing his eyes and praying, asking God to pardon his accusers and to free the country from the terrible disorder into which it had fallen. His calm and balanced comportment always ended up baffling his accusers, who would let him go after a few minutes. And the priest went back to conversing with his friends as though nothing had happened. The people, who wondered how he could maintain such complete calm under such difficult circumstances, asked him to let them know his techniques. But the priest replied: “If you are sure of your innocence and have done nothing wrong, you will have peace of mind. If your mind is at peace, then, even if other people speak nonsense about you, it won’t be able to disturb you.”
This peace of soul was a common theme running through the many stories in the book. It is this peace of soul that we are called to have in the face of suffering and persecution and attacks in our own society. We are called to persevere and to focus on our eternal goal, as did the Trappists of Yangjiaping who rose for Matins at 4 a.m. despite their monastery being pillaged by the Communists.
These stories are an inspiration to modern-day Catholics. Whether one has experienced widespread persecution on a national scale or little persecutions from co-workers or family members, those who have gone before us show us that it is possible to be faithful to the end and to show God’s glory to the world. May we too strive to be witnesses for Christ.