Since I know in advance the date of our baby’s birth I decided to look up the saint for that day. I was initially disappointed that the baby wouldn’t be born on July 11, the feast of his patron saint, Benedict. But I realized I was being silly and that perhaps God had given us this other day for a reason. And so I discovered that July 9 is the feast of St. Augustine Zhao Rong and companions. Not recognizing the name, I had to do a bit of research to find out more. Before I looked anything up, it was pretty obvious that I was going to find out about a group of martyrs. That’s what “and companions” usually means. Well, I thought. A group who certainly knew about suffering. Perhaps they will be the witnesses to help me in my time of trial.
Here’s what I learned. First the bare bones:
The 120 martyrs in this group died between 1648 and 1930. Most of them (87) were born in China and were children, parents, catechists or laborers, ranging from nine years of age to 72. This group includes four Chinese diocesan priests.
The 33 foreign-born martyrs were mostly priests or women religious, especially from the Order of Preachers, the Paris Foreign Mission Society, the Friars Minor, Jesuits, Salesians and Franciscan Missionaries of Mary.
Augustine Zhao Rong was a Chinese solider who accompanied Bishop John Gabriel Taurin Dufresse (Paris Foreign Mission Society) to his martyrdom in Beijing. Augustine was baptized and not long after was ordained as a diocesan priest. He was martyred in 1815.
Beatified in groups at various times, these 120 martyrs were canonized in Rome on October 1, 2000.
Sometimes it�s not until you see something in black and white like that, that you realize the totality of what has happened. Numbers are an abstraction. But names and details tell the story.
And it was that way for me, too, with the Chinese Martyrs. I didn�t really know much about them until I was asked to preach this evening. But again, as I read their stories, I found myself overwhelmed. The loss was so great.
But so was their courage.
If you visit the Vatican website, there are details about the 120 people who are counted among those martyrs we remember tonight. Most of them died in the 19th century, persecuted during the Boxer Rebellion. Reading about them, you�re struck by several things.
First, are the ages. So many were children. Three, four years old. One was ten months old. Some were teenagers, like 14-year-old Wang Anna�who refused to renounce her faith. Moments before her death, she cried out: �The door of heaven is open to all,� then whispered, �Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.� Seconds later, she was beheaded.
So many of them were also lay people. Mothers and fathers, even entire families. They were people like 18-year-old Chi Zhuzi, who became a Catholic at 17, and was disowned by his family. He was eventually captured and ordered to publicly worship idols. When he refused, they cut off his right arm. He still refused, declaring: �Every piece of my flesh, every drop of my blood will tell you that I am Christian.� He died by mutilation.
And about a quarter of the martyrs weren�t from China. While 87 of them were native Chinese � the first ever to be canonized—33 of them were missionaries, from France, or Germany, or Italy, who went to China to proclaim the Kingdom of God�and met bloodshed. This is one reason Pope John Paul first announced this memorial on October the first, 2000�the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, the patroness of missionaries.
But every day we are reminded: the mission goes on. And so does the struggle. Chinese Catholics today are still being persecuted � authentic Catholicism is essentially an underground religion. And yet there is such great fervor, and devotion. The gospel today tells us if a grain of wheat dies, it produces much fruit. I think maybe the blood of so many Chinese Martyrs has produced this fruit: a deep and growing faith among the Chinese people. We all pray for the day when their persecution will end.
As I’ve prepared for this day I have sought the intercession of these martyrs and during my surgery I plan to pray for the Church in China and offer it up as an intention as I offer the pain and fear of surgery and recovery. This surgery scares me; but I know that it is nothing compared to the suffering of all the men and women and children who have died because of the persecutions in China. And I also am brought to consider all the innocent children who have never been born, by c-section or otherwise, because of the Chinese government’s terrible anti-life policies.
All-powerful, ever-living God, turn our weakness into strength. As you gave your martyrs Augustine Zhao Rong and his companions the courage to suffer death for Christ, give us the courage to live in faithful witness to you. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.