Thursday, July 22, 2010

Searching for Bishop Su

Searching for Bishop Su: Persecuted Chinese bishop gone but not forgotten
By Theresa Marie Moreau
First Published July 2006, in The Remnant Newspaper

From the back seat of the gypsy cab, Ming-Chuan “Joseph” Kung watched Beijing blur by. Everything had been pre-arranged. Everything. As the hired driver steered through the streets of the capital city of the People’s Republic of China, the seven passengers – a small delegation of Americans in town for a human rights conference – rode mostly in silence. Only periodic, superficial chitchat and the heavy breathing of the car’s heater broke the stillness of that wintry January 8 in 1994.
Soon, the touristy section stacked with American-style hotels, designed for the comfort of Westerners spoiled by Capitalism, melted into the background. The well-lighted streets and sidewalks packed with people eating, drinking, laughing that Saturday evening gave way to another reality.
Within a span of only a few minutes, a few miles, the cabbie maneuvered through the outer sections of the ancient city that very few foreigners ever get to see – the native Chinese area ravaged by fanatics fueled with Communist revolutionary ideology. The scenery turned bleak. The streets turned dark. Very few lights. Even fewer people.
In front of a dilapidated apartment building the car rolled to a stop. Even if the mercury hadn’t stalled below freezing, fear mixed with a foreboding dread would have chilled the visitors. From the safety of the cab, Kung took a quick look around, over his shoulder and into the shadows. Necessary to look for any sign of a spy – anyone who could possibly report (for a reward, of course) to officials the appearance of the foreign visitors.
This is not a joke. This is Communism.
Onto the sidewalk, Kung with the Americans stepped and entered the building. The cabbie remained with his coach. With only the dimmest light leaking from unknown sources, the group fumbled forward and found the main staircase. The building had no elevator. Up they climbed, ascending the dark six, seven or eight flights, stepping over the debris, mostly food, that littered the hallways and landings. What looked like Chinese cabbage – half rotten, half dried, splayed on bare floors – emanated a distinct, pungent odor. Without refrigeration, the residents needed to resort to archaic preservation through drying.
Finally, the foreigners found the right apartment and knocked.
A woman opened the door and welcomed them inside the main room, no bigger than a walk-in closet. The name of the woman was neither offered nor asked. In Communist China, information is a dangerous possession. Ignorance is encouraged, even among family members – just in case one is picked up by police and interrogated, for whatever reason. For security’s sake, it’s definitely better and safer not to know. Remember, this is Communism.
Cramped to begin with, the room had few inches to spare with an impromptu table-turned-altar taking up most of the space. Some of the guests sat. Others stood. Among them were U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) and Kung, founder of the Cardinal Kung Foundation in honor of his uncle, the late Cardinal Pin-Mei “Ignatius” Kung, Bishop of Shanghai, who suffered persecution in prison for the Faith for 30 years.
All waited for another invited guest: Bishop Zhi-Ming “Jacobus” Su. Minutes passed. Uncomfortable silence settled on the crowd. Finally, another knock.
The woman opened the door and let in Su, Bishop of Baoding, who greeted each of the Americans with a handshake and a humble smile. That night back in 1994 was to be a special night. Special, indeed. It was the first time a bishop from the underground Roman Catholic Church in China would not only meet face to face with a member of the United States Congress, but he would also celebrate the holy Mass for the high-ranking government official, a Roman Catholic.
However, there was one tiny problem. In Communist China, this secret meeting between the bishop and the Americans was (and still would be today) highly illegal – considered nothing less than a threat to the unity of Chinese society.
Officially, China is an atheist country and permits no religious practice outside government-approved organizations, such as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Notice the nomenclature: the Chinese, not Roman, Catholic Patriotic Association.
Even though the association’s Communist-approved and Communist-regulated churches may look Catholic, even though the priests may wear Roman collars, even though a portrait of the Pope may hang on the walls and even though the Mass may have the same rites and rubrics, this pseudo-religious club is not Roman Catholic. This is a non-Catholic catholicism, a la Communist style – with allegiance to the government, not the Vicar of Christ.
Su and the other Catholics filling the ranks of the Church Militant in the underground Roman Catholic Church in China are those faithful who will not deny the authority of the Pope by registering with the Patriotic Association, despite the constant threat of detainment, arrest, imprisonment, forced labor, torture, even death.
Indeed, the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, specifically Article 36, guarantees “freedom of religious belief,” but this does not mean freedom of religion. Anyone and everyone who wants to practice their Catholic faith must register with the Patriotic Association that oversees, regulates and approves or denies all goings-on in the government-sanctioned churches, for “religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”
Freedom of religion in China? No such thing.
Religious and personal freedom for the people of China began to disintegrate back in 1949 (after the end of the three-year Chinese Nationalist-Communist Civil War that followed in the wake of World War II), when the Communists defeated the Kuomintang – the Chinese Nationalist Party that fled to and settled in Taiwan.
Disdainful of anything that smacks of the democratic West, xenophobic Communists — the single-party power — have not and will not accept any outside influence, which most definitely includes the Vatican. Communists condemn and declare those faithful to the Bishop of Rome as counter-revolutionaries, political enemies who form a subversive organization, an illegal society using the cloak of religion to cover their treasonous deeds.
Being patriotic in China means being a revolutionary, which means being anti-imperialist and anti-papal, therefore anti-Roman Catholic. Roman Catholics are believed to be pro-imperialist and pro-papal; therefore, those who profess belief in the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church receive the politically incorrect “hat” of unpatriotic counter-revolutionary.
Try as they did, Communists found it difficult to destroy the Church from within. So they attempted to destroy it from without by establishing a government-controlled church to replace the Roman Catholic Church. As early as 1949, in an attempt to break with the Holy See, the People’s Republic of China established the Three-Self Reform Movement, so-called for its aim to be Self-governing, Self-supporting and Self-propagating.
Relations between the Vatican and China officially broke in 1951 after the Communists kicked out apostolic nuncio Archbishop Antonio Riberi. For the next couple years, they rounded up and expelled all foreign clergy and religious. Next, they began arresting and imprisoning Chinese priests and religious. Then the laity.
In 1957, the Three-Self Reform Movement was replaced by and integrated into the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, officially founded on July 15 of that year. During the subsequent Cultural Revolution (1966-76), all religious activities were banned and labeled as evil cults.
Since then, priests and bishops who refuse to register with the Patriotic Association but who offer Mass and the sacraments are said to be setting up illegal organizations and conducting illegal, counter-revolutionary activities, thus in violation of the nation’s Constitution, specifically Article 28, which decrees: “The state maintains public order and suppresses treasonable and other counter-revolutionary activities; it penalizes actions that endanger public security and disrupt the socialist economy and other criminal activities, and punishes and reforms criminals.”
For this reason, underground bishops, priests, nuns and laity who remain true to the Pope are often singled out and persecuted. For conducting counter-revolutionary activities, it is not unusual for non-registered Catholics to receive three-year sentences (for starters) in reform-through-labor camps, which have been compared to the legendary gulags of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the concentration camps favored by World War II Nazis.
Yet, despite the longa manus, the long-reaching hand of the Communists, the Church has not only continued to survive, it flourishes. In 1949, the Catholic Church had around 3 million faithful. Now, the estimate is about 10 million.
Bishop Su remained one of the faithful ones. For this reason, in 1994, by the time he was 60 years old, he had already spent almost 25 years in prisons and labor camps. He was arrested no fewer than five times. And despite the ever-present threat and danger that night in Beijing, he met with the Americans. A calm joy mixed with excitement settled over all those sitting in the small apartment. Two more guests were expected. Two of the approximate 50 underground bishops in China were thought to be on their way. The plan for the evening: To celebrate the Mass for the foreign guests.
Everyone sat and waited.
Minutes ticked by. No knock at the door. The two bishops still did not arrive. As time passed, an uneasiness that had settled in Kung’s heart since arriving in front of the apartment building began to make him believe that something was not right. Increasingly nervous, after about 15 minutes, he asked Su to start and not to wait for the others.
The decision was made.
Kung struck a match and lit the two Mass candles on the altar. The soft tones of Su’s voice lifted the prayers heavenward. Kung, who was born in China but immigrated to the United States in 1955, translated for the others. That small group of faithful prayed that night, kneeling on the bare concrete floor, not only for the persecuted, but also for the persecutors.
During the Mass, the following Bible passage, Isaias 42:6-7, was read: “I have given thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles: that thou mightest open the eyes of the blind, and bring forth the prisoner out of prison, and them that sit in the darkness out of the prison house.”
As the Mass ended and the evening wound down, everyone dug deep into their pockets for donations to give to Su. Plans were gently confirmed for the following day for Sunday Mass.
The other two bishops never arrived that night. It was not a total surprise when Kung heard much later that while on their way to the apartment, public security police for the Communist Party picked them up, detained them, interrogated them and released them later. This is a frequent, and not unexpected, occurrence for members of the underground Church in China.
On Sunday, mid-morning just after breakfast, the same gypsy cab driver – a trusted member of the underground Church – picked up Kung and two other Americans in front of their Beijing luxury lodgings – Shangri-La’s China World Hotel.
As the car rolled through China’s bleak countryside, the driver steered ahead for about a ninety-minute ride outside of Beijing and into the Baoding village, where they picked up Su. The bishop directed the driver. Ahead. Pull up ahead. The car moved forward.
Stationed at stealth positions, women and men of the underground church stood and watched and permitted the car to continue. The sentinels kept alert to the approach of Communists on the prowl for actions subversive to the Party. Unimpeded, the cab putt-putted toward the parking area, where the driver found a spot somewhere in the midst of the hundreds of bicycles, a popular mode of transportation. The Mass, offered by an elderly priest of the underground, had already begun.
Since it was in the dead of winter, there was neither a leaf on a tree nor a blade of grass on the ground. Kung, dressed only in a light overcoat, felt the sting of the wind. Nonetheless, he found a vacant piece of frozen earth and knelt beside the others. He looked around. Thousands of miles from his home in Connecticut, there he was kneeling with 450 underground Roman Catholics at an illegal gathering, in China.
Overwhelmed, he marveled at the outdoor Mass celebrated in a barnyard, transformed into a holy sanctuary. How appropriate. It was the Feast of the Epiphany, the celebration of the day the Magi arrived in Bethlehem to adore the newborn.
To the left, he noticed a donkey stable, which doubled that day as the sacristy, where the priest changed into and out of his vestments. To the right, a brick fire pit used to burn the village trash, with charred remains scattered in the heap: lanky sticks of discarded bamboo, singed wires, blackened metal poking through the ashes.
The altar, a wooden table, stood in the center, with a white canopy draped over and above to protect the sacrifice to be offered. A small crucifix – retrieved from its hiding place – was tacked to the wall. Also retrieved from its special secret place, the chalice shone in the morning light that penetrated the haze.
For communion, altar boys unrolled a bolt of long, white cloth over a makeshift rail. There, parishioners knelt to receive on their tongues, old-Church style, the smuggled hosts, made by underground nuns.
After the Mass, Su invited Kung for lunch at his home, a traditional one-story dried-mud structure, with a dried-mud floor, a half-broken door and a small, inadequate coal stove. But it was neat, tidy and welcoming. On a table between two chairs were two bowls filled with fruit. One with oranges. One with red and green freckled apples. The kitchen, so rudimentary, it only had a hole in the roof through which smoke from the coal-burning stove could escape. Su and Kung sought privacy in a small side room where they talked about confidential Church matters. Before leaving, Kung knelt before the bishop and received a blessing.
In the afternoon, the two men walked out of the house, into the yard and toward the car. The driver, who had waited outside, started the motor and Kung took his seat. Su remained in the yard. As the car drove off, Kung looked back. The bishop continued to stand, waving goodbye.
This is Kung’s last memory of Su.
Then it was time for Kung to return to the United States, but not before he received a more-than-firm handshake and a farewell warning from one of the highest-ranking Communist officials in the Religious Affairs Bureau, none other than Liu “Anthony” Bainian, the vice-chairman of the Patriotic Association. Bainian’s nickname? “China’s Pope.”
“You are here with an official delegation, so we give you face. But next time, if you come here again, alone by yourself, we will not stand on ceremony with you,” Bainian said in Chinese.
Kung understood. The Communists found out that the Americans had met with members of the underground Church. The Communists always find out everything.
Shortly after Kung arrived home, he received an urgent call from Baoding. Su had been arrested.
On January 20, eleven days after Kung, the Congressman and the others departed from China, Hebei Province police officers stormed into Su’s village home, picked him up and held him for interrogation.
Su’s whereabouts – unknown.
Frantic, Kung immediately telephoned Smith. Su needed help. Outraged, Smith notified colleagues in Congress. A letter-writing campaign to officials in the Chinese embassy soon began, vociferously defending the religious freedom of Su and demanding his release. After being detained for nine days, the bishop – who still refused to register with the Patriotic Association – was released on January 29.
For Su, life was relatively calm, for a while.
Two years later, the bishop had some unexpected guests drop in at his home. In February 1996, members of the security bureau “visited” Su and forced him into house arrest. This means that he was not free to come and go as he pleased, and he was definitely not allowed to meet with his parishioners or offer Mass or any of the sacraments.
Also under strict surveillance was his auxiliary bishop the Rev. Shuxin An, who, like Su, was watched at all times by security officers.
In April 1996, Su escaped, with the help of a few of the faithful in the underground Church. During this period of “freedom” he penned a letter to the Standing Committee of the People’s National Congress. “Thoroughly investigate the serious unlawful encroachment on the citizen’s rights,” he wrote. “Administer corrective measures to restore order and control to ensure that the civil rights and interests of the vast number of religious believers are protected.”
They investigated, all right – Su.
They administered corrective measures, all right – to Su. On October 8, 1997, authorities with the Public Security Bureau hunted down the bishop, found out that he had been hiding in the city of Xinji, in Hebei Province, approximately 280 kilometers south of Beijing. They wasted no time and arrested him.
That was the last time he was seen publicly. Yet, people still petition for information of the whereabouts of Su, who, if still alive, would be 73 years old this year. But in China, it’s not so easy to voice concerns. It’s easier for those outside the Communist death grip.
In Italy, the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, a 54-year-old priest with the Rome-based Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (Pontificium Institutum pro Missionibus Exteris), does all he can do to keep in the news the plight of the persecuted Chinese of the underground Church.
In March 1999, Cervellera, a newsman and then-editor of International Fides News Service, wrote an editorial asking that China’s president release Su and An or at least reveal where the two men were being held and under what charges.
In reaction to Cervellera’s plea, the Vatican issued its statement through Joaquin Navarro Valls, the 69-year-old Spaniard who recently (and finally) handed in his resignation as director of the Vatican press office, a post he’s held since 1984.
Valls, reportedly a devoted member of the controversial “secret” organization, Opus Dei, since the early 1970s, couldn’t do enough to distance the Holy See from Cervellera. He reportedly released this public statement found on the Internet. “The Secretariat of State up until now has taken no step concerning the liberation of the two bishops of Baoding. The circulation of such news was a personal initiative of Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, not agreed on by authorities at the Secretariat of State…Therefore, the ideas raised in the International Fides Service are Fr. Cervellera’s personal opinions for which he assumes full responsibility.”
Undaunted, Cervellera continued with his mission to help those persecuted in China. In February 2002, he published on the Fides Web site a list of missing bishops and priests. Incredibly, rather than backing Cervellera, the Vatican disciplined the missionary, this time with a pink slip. In April 2002, he reportedly was forced to clean out his desk, shown the door and told never to return to that newsroom. Ever.
But Cervellera never gave up. In November 2003 he joined the staff of Asia News, a monthly magazine that began publishing in 1986. Now, he’s the editor of, the tri-lingual (Chinese, English, and Italian) Web site version he created of the magazine., a European-based pipeline of information from the East to the West, is a must-read that has documented the abuses inflicted by the Communists upon the underground Catholics.
The same month that Cervellera joined Asia News, there was an update on Su. According to a posting on Kung’s Web site,, he had possibly been spotted around November 15, 2003. “Bishop Su was taken to the Officers’ Ward of the Baoding Central Hospital in Baoding, Hebei, for an eye operation and for heart ailments. He was heavily guarded by approximately twenty plainclothes government security personnel, including Mr. Jia Ruiqi, who is a high-ranking officer of the public security bureau of Baoding. It was reported that the name of Su is not officially registered in the hospital record.”
However, that was 2003. This is 2006, and Su’s whereabouts – unknown. Still. But Kung, 73, the same age as Su, has not given up. Neither has Cervellera. Nor Smith. Smith would like to return to China before the year is over. He wants to find Su, who during their meeting gave the politician a rosary, which the Congressman still uses to pray. “The government claims that he’s missing or can’t be found. That is so not believable. They know exactly where he is, and we believe, we can’t say absolutely, that they have him,” Smith said over the telephone from his D.C. office.
Smith, a 53-year-old member of the House of Representatives, has done plenty for human rights. He was a chairman on the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights when the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, authored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), was introduced and passed.
The subsequent International Religious Freedom Report 2005, released Nov. 8, 2005 by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, stated that reports have suggested that Su “had been held in a form of ‘house arrest.’ The government continued to deny having taken ‘any coercive measures’ against him and stated he was ‘traveling as a missionary.’”
Still, the search for Su continues.
Meanwhile, even though there’s been much political jibber-jabbering back and forth between China and the Vatican regarding the question of “diplomatic relations,” it seems as if the question of human rights has been lost in this pointless posturing.
Why isn’t the Vatican doing more to locate the bishop?
Last fall, Roger Mahony, the 70-year-old Cardinal of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, traveled to China, visiting various churches registered with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. He posed with various “priests” for snapshots as souvenirs of those joyful days. He even wrote two travel essays published in a couple November issues of the archdiocesan weekly tabloid, The Tidings.
Mahony wrote that he met bishops of the Patriotic Association, but he never mentioned meeting any underground bishop. Could that possibly be true? I had to find out.
Someone tipped me off that after the Sunday 10 a.m. Mass, Mahony meets and greets parishioners in the patio area outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, located in downtown Los Angeles. I found a spot and lingered.
Mahony exited the cathedral from a side exit and headed joyfully toward those of us standing beneath a potted tree, obviously waiting for him. “I read about your trip to China,” I said as I walked toward him, smiling. “Did you meet with any of the underground bishops? Did you request the whereabouts of Bishop Su of Baoding, who’s been missing since 1997?”
“No. I was there for a very special purpose. It wasn’t to stir up trouble. They wouldn’t have let me in.” He chuckled.
In what appeared to be an attempt to shake me off, he walked toward a parishioner holding two life-sized photos of the Cardinal to be autographed. Taking a Sharpie pen from the man, Mahony asked, “Where should I sign?”
I persisted.
“So, you weren’t able to find out any information, or even ask?”
“It was an opportunity to meet with the emerging leadership of the church, the young priests. They don’t know anything about it.”
The Cardinal maneuvered around a group of gawkers in an effort to avoid more questions.
But still, one remains unanswered.
Where is Bishop Su?
ENDNOTE: All Chinese names have been written in a manner to avoid confusion and to remain consistent with the English standard of writing proper names: given name first, family name last. In Chinese, names are traditionally written with family name first, given name last.
Theresa Marie Moreau can be reached at

Thursday, July 1, 2010

莫克勤 Father McGrath and the Battle for the Soul of China

Warrior Priest
Father McGrath and the Battle for the Soul of China

By Theresa Marie Moreau

First Published in The Remnant Newspaper, June 2007

A single ring from the doorbell echoed through the rectory on Rue Maresca, home to the Missionary Society of St. Columban priests quartered in Shanghai.

It was around 11 p.m., on the night of September 6, 1951.

With a big smile on his face, the Rev. Fr. Malachi Murphy answered the door, expecting friends from Soochow to be on the other side.

Instead, he found eleven police officers, all wearing white caps and drab green uniforms, standing dour-faced on the front steps. One pointed a sub-machine gun. His ten comrades brandished pistols.Stationed around the perimeter of the three-story rectory, dozens and dozens of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army stood watch. Their job: to make certain no one escaped the rectory. Murphy alerted his superior, the Rev. Fr. Edward McElroy, who promptly greeted his unwelcome guests.

“We want the names of everyone here,” one of the officers demanded of McElroy, who methodically ran down the litany of resident priests, finally coming to the Rev. Fr. William Aedan McGrath.

“That’s the one we want,” an officer blurted. “He’s being arrested on suspicion.”

“On suspicion of what?” McElroy asked.

“Read tomorrow’s paper,” taunted the officer, as he and the others pushed their way inside and advanced upstairs to the second floor, on reconnaissance for Communist enemy McGrath (pronounced mc-GRAW), spiritual director of China’s Legion of Mary, a Roman Catholic laity-based organization founded in Dublin, Ireland, in 1921.

For two hours, the authorities searched McGrath’s room, with its bed, night stand, a book of Gospels and a copy of Thomas à Kempis’ “My Imitation of Christ.” They found nothing. McGrath had anticipated his arrest and had destroyed any evidence that may have incriminated any one.
Nonetheless, the officers arrested the priest, pushed him into the hallway, sealed the door to his bedroom to limit access, then escorted him downstairs, where he kneeled before McElroy for absolution.

On his way out, McGrath happened to look at his watch. It was 1 a.m.

It’s now September 7, the vigil of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the foundation day of the Legion of Mary, he thought to himself, chuckling. The Communists have selected a good day, today.

For twenty-four years McGrath had lived in China, during a time when the fastest route to the Orient was a six-week-long, stomach-launching voyage aboard an ocean liner. In August 1930, the newly ordained, 24-year-old priest arrived at dock in Shanghai, more than 6,000 miles from his hometown of Dublin. But he didn’t stop there. From China’s international port city, he continued four more days and 700 miles westward on the Yangtze River, which washes across China’s waistline.

At last, he arrived at his destination: the Hanyang diocese, in the province of Hubei, explains McGrath in a series of talks on six audio cassettes, most recorded by the Rev. Fr. Francis Peffley, of the Arlington diocese. McGrath was born in Dublin on January 22, 1906 and died on Christmas Day 2000. Though time has deposited crackles and sputters on the tapes, McGrath’s Irish brogue is crisp, his humor quick and his passion unmistakable as he described his experiences in China.

McGrath landed in the Republic of China around the same time a smalltime thug in the burgeoning Chinese Communist Party began strong-arming his way to secular omnipotence by seizing control of a few ragtag armies that ate and pillaged its way only a hundred miles or so south of Hanyang, where McGrath lived.

Known as a bloodthirsty bandit, Tse-Tung Mao, (who would later be blamed for the deaths of 77 million Chinese) was backed with money and muscle from the Kremlin, the seat of political power in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Joseph Stalin, general secretary of the USSR’s Communist Party’s Central Committee, had plans for China and looked for someone to head a puppet regime there, wrote husband and wife Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in “Mao: The Unknown Story.”
Megalomaniac Mao looked like promising material.

Born on December 26, 1893, to a wealthy peasant family, Mao’s two-character given names, Tse-Tung, translate to “Shine on the East.” His mother, a Buddhist, performed a “baptism” upon her son, in a ritual during which an eight-foot-tall boulder “adopted” Mao, who was then given his baptismal name of Shisan-Yazi (Boy of Stone).

McGrath heard plenty about Mao and tried to stay out of his path. Around the time the missionary priest had finished his rookie year, he was called to his bishop’s office, where he learned of his first big assignment.

“You’re to be a parish priest. I’m sorry to say there is no church there. I’m even more sorry to say there is no house. I don’t know what you’ll do, or where you’ll live, but do your best,” said the Most Rev. Edward Galvin, who co-founded with the Rev. Fr. John Blowick the St. Columban missionary society in 1918.

Off McGrath went, 100 miles north, where he stayed for the next sixteen years. He had twenty-four mission villages to cover. Without a car or even roads, he walked one day’s journey from one village to the next, where he bunked down for a few days with parishioners in their mud-and-straw huts. It took two months to cover his parish, where he baptized, instructed, heard confessions, buried the dead, blessed graves. Whatever needed to be done, McGrath did it. He had no choice. There was no one else.

After a few months and already completely emotionally exhausted, McGrath pleaded with Galvin to send him back-up. A priest. A nun. Anyone. Galvin told him there was no one. Desperate, McGrath tried Catholic Action, a lay apostolic movement Pope Pius XI had promoted. He undertook this task, and his endeavor, which he later referred to as “McGrath’s Folly,” almost took him under. After reprimanding a group of parishioners, they took revenge by writing nasty letters about him to all the bishops in China.

Again McGrath pleaded with his bishop for help. Unable to send a priest, the bishop sent a book, “The Official Handbook of the Legion of Mary,” put together almost entirely by Frank Duff, who had founded the Legion of Mary on September 7, 1921.

Still stinging from his failed attempt with Catholic Action, the last thing McGrath wanted to do was try to coax parishioners to help him out. Nonetheless, he decided he’d give it a go, half-expecting and half-hoping it would fail – just to spite the bishop. For his first group, McGrath rounded up six uneducated peasants. For six months, he absolutely forbade the men to tell their wives about the meetings, which were held, in secret, once a week at midnight. This way, McGrath reasoned, no one would know when it failed. If word got out about a second failure, that would be just too much.

Long after the village dogs had stopped barking and everyone in the village (except the six men and McGrath) had fallen asleep, the first meeting began with all seven kneeling and praying five decades of the rosary. McGrath followed the handbook and assigned to each of the men evangelization tasks that he had no time to do. The following week, villagers were still in the street at midnight, so McGrath – on the QT – ordered his six recruits to return in two hours. So at 2 a.m., the second meeting began. It had been a success. His apostles had accomplished all their tasks.

That was McGrath’s introduction to the Legion of Mary. Formally, he joined the Legion by making his act of consecration to Christ through Mary, as suggested by St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716) in his book “True Devotion to Mary,” in which he explains that the best way to get to Christ is the way He came to the world – through His mother.

Before McGrath knew it, his Legion grew and grew, but China was in utter turmoil, being ripped apart by the Chinese Communists and Nationalists, as well as thousands of Japanese invaders.
Mao aimed the crosshairs of his site on his target, political enemy Kai-Shek Chiang, known as the “Generalissimo,” who headed the Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party, formed by a number of Republican groups (and Communists) several tumultuous years after the Republican Revolution of 1911 that ended 2,000 years of China’s dynastic rule.

In 1927, the Nationalists had split with its Communist contingent because of the Communist’s (especially Mao’s) incitement and sadistic fondness of mob violence, inspired by Karl Marx’s idealized class struggle about which he wrote in “The Communist Manifesto,” published in 1848.
The Japanese, by 1931, had invaded Manchuria, a region in northeast China. The invaders wanted to get their hands on China’s natural resources of coal, iron, gold and giant forests. When thousands of Japanese soldiers marched into the village where McGrath lived, they gave him boot. He was forced to leave his parish and return to Hanyang around 1938.

That’s the end of the diocese, he thought. For without me, it’s bound to fail.

After two and a half years, McGrath was permitted to return. And what he found in his diocese greatly surprised him and, perhaps, hurt his ego a little. Not only had the diocese survived without him, it flourished. The legionaries had done everything – baptized, instructed, witnessed marriages, everything except offer Mass and hear confessions.

McGrath’s diocese wasn’t the only thing that flourished in China.

So had Mao’s power. Since January 1, 1937, Mao had holed up in Yenan, an ancient city enclosed by thick walls. Beginning in 1942, Mao began his “Rectification Campaign,” the “Yenan Terror,” Chang and Halliday wrote, describing how Mao ordered thousands of his young Chinese People’s Volunteers thrown into prison caves carved into the loess mountains of Yenan. There, his victims would be “spy-proofed,” during which they endured endless interrogations, brainwashing sessions, thought examinations, physical torture, even death. Mao pursued his perverse pleasure of breaking and bending people, to have everyone under his control.

Despite Mao, the Chinese felt optimistic when, on August 15, 1945, Victory Over Japan (V-J) Day, the Japanese surrendered, thus ending World War II and the occupation. But it wasn’t quiet for long. An all-out civil war between Mao’s Communists and Chiang’s Nationalists ensued.

With atheist Mao winning most of the battles, the future didn’t look so cozy for Catholics.

Archbishop Antonio Riberi, papal internuncio to China from 1946 to 1951, realized that all foreign clergy, nuns and religious would be kicked out of China, and that the Chinese clergy, nuns and religious would be thrown into prison. Riberi knew something had to be done. And fast. In Africa, he had witnessed the evangelization power of the Legion of Mary, so he asked around and found out that only McGrath, in all of China, had started up a Legion of Mary.

In 1948, McGrath was enjoying some R&R back home in Ireland when he received a message from his superior general: “Archbishop Riberi, the nuncio from the Pope, has arrived in China and is looking for the Legion of Mary. He asked that you be taken out of your parish to help him establish the Legion in China.”

Not wasting a second, McGrath cut short his stay and returned, post haste, to Shanghai.
At their meeting, Riberi told McGrath, “Father, I want you, as fast as you can, to go all over China and start the Legion of Mary before it’s too late.”

“Archbishop, do you not think it’s too late? Mao will be in power in a few months,” McGrath answered.

“Do what you’re told,” Riberi ordered.

McGrath embraced his mission. Soon the number of Legions throughout China doubled, then tripled and continued to rapidly multiply. Legionaries, realizing just what was at stake with Mao and his regime riffraff, played an important part in disseminating to Catholics the truth behind the Communist disinformation propaganda.

Around this time, the revolutionary Reds had advanced into northern China, where they were finally able to link up with the USSR, their chief supplier of weapons. It wasn’t long before Mao drove Chiang from mainland China to Taiwan (historically known as Formosa). On October 1, 1949, the Chairman stood in Tiananmen Square and announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China – with himself the head of the beast.

Forever updating his enemies list, Mao readied for the purge of anyone not having correct revolutionary thought. Being patriotic in China means being a revolutionary. Having learned in Yenan the best tactics to collect valuable incriminating information, Mao dispatched his minions to begin collecting data on a grand scale across China, to weed out “counterrevolutionaries,” such as those faithful to the Pope, Christ’s Vicar.

In an attempt to break with the Holy See, the xenophobic Communists established, in 1949, the Three-Self Reform Movement, so-called for its aim to be Self-governing, Self-supporting and Self-propagating. Relations between the Vatican and China first froze then officially broke in 1951 after Mao kicked out Riberi.

But Mao discovered the “official church” wasn’t catching on. There was an underground Roman Catholic Church that was still alive, thriving. Furious, he dispatched spies to find the culprit, which was none other than the Legion of Mary, with McGrath its spiritual director.

This did not sit well with the Red regime. Mao had no choice. He kick started and revved up the propaganda machine to start attacking the Legion, labeling it none other than Public Enemy No. 1.
Special registration centers were opened. Outside the doors, 6-foot-tall signs posted: SECRET SUBVERSIVE ORGANIZATION, LEGION OF MARY, MEMBER REGISTRATION CENTER. Inside, Legionaries were to sign the following: “I, the undersigned, joined the reactionary Legion of Mary on (date) and conducted secret counterrevolutionary and evil activities against the government, the people, and Soviet Russia. I hereby resign from the Legion of Mary and promise never to participate in such activities in the future.”

Very few registered.

As part of the anti-Legionary, anti-Catholic campaign, loudspeakers nailed onto the trees seemingly everywhere blasted the Legion, as did segments on the radio, stories in the newspapers, posters on the buses, which encouraged one and all to attack the Legion and inform against the Legionaries.

Purges began.

Back in Shanghai, McGrath watched as police cars shrieked up and down the streets. People disappeared from their homes in the middle of the night, never to return. One of the priests in the city used to call himself the Chaplain to the Dying. He stood at his window. When police cars filled with people passed, he granted them absolution, just in case they were Catholics. The cars always returned empty.

From 1950 to 1951 McGrath waited to be arrested, terrified, spending a good deal of time on his knees in the chapel, going around the Stations of the Cross, trying to get courage from the Passion of Christ. At the twelfth station, when Christ is raised on the cross and dies, at first McGrath recited a common prayer: “May I die for love of thee, as thou hast died for love of me?”

Terrified, his knees shook so bad at the thought of death he stopped saying that prayer. Instead, he opted for Christ’s prayer (Luke 22:42) in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if thou wilt, remove this chalice from me: but yet not my will, but thine be done.”

Finally, they came for him.

The night McGrath was arrested, he was taken to a detention center, where he stayed for several months, until he was moved to Ward Road Prison, reportedly one of the largest prisons in the world, built smack dab in the industrial area of Shanghai. Enclosed by a security wall 5 meters (16.4 feet) high, the ten cell blocks sat on 60 mus, roughly equivalent to 10 acres. Built in 1901, it opened its doors in 1903. On May 28, 1949, it was taken over by the Military Control Committee of Shanghai and renamed the Shanghai People’s Court Prison, then renamed Shanghai Municipal Prison in 1951 (when it held 12,000 prisoners), then renamed Tilanqiao Prison in 1995.

A dozen soldiers, two with sub-machine guns aimed at McGrath, forced him to strip then searched him and his clothing for anything he could use to kill himself. They took his watch, rosary beads and religious medals. They removed the laces from his shoes, the buttons off his trousers and forced him to stand, naked, for hours. But they never removed his extra-large brown scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel hanging around his neck. McGrath took it as a sign.

The Blessed Mother is trying to tell me to stop worrying, he thought.

At 3 in the morning, guards ordered him to lie down on a bit of straw scattered on the cement floor. Even with a sub-machine gun trained on him, he fell asleep. At 5 a.m., McGrath was kicked awake, ordered to get dressed then hauled to his cell.

On his second day in prison, again the guards strip searched McGrath. Again, they seemingly missed his Our Lady of Mt. Carmel scapular.

Thank goodness. Mother is doing something. She’s giving me a sign. I’ve consecrated myself to her, and here is a sign: Quit worrying, thought McGrath. It wasn’t until three months later, with strip searches nearly every day, that the guards finally saw the scapular and ripped it from his neck.

On the third day of his arrest, McGrath was dragged out of his cell to an interrogation room, where he was forced to stand still for hours, as guards changed every sixty minutes. He was returned to his cell for a few minutes sleep, kicked awake again then dragged to the interrogation room, where he was forced to stand – handcuffed – from midnight until 3 a.m., answering questions. All he wanted to do was sleep.

One of the interrogators began to sneer at him.

“Ireland. Ha! We’ll be in Ireland to liberate you.”

Well, that woke McGrath up. “Thank you very much; we are liberated.”

“We’ll liberate you more,” said the interrogator, who walked over to McGrath, unscrewed the handcuffs and sent him downstairs to his cell to think about his “crimes.”

For McGrath’s thirty-two months behind bars, he thought of what that interrogator had said.
For thirty-two months, McGrath listened to men, women, young girls and boys dragged out of their cells, day and night, handcuffed, with shackles binding their legs, clinking as they shuffled along toward “liberation.”

Everyone around McGrath went mad.

A priest in a cell opposite McGrath vomited for two months, then was dragged out of his cell and died on November 11, 1951. McGrath heard later that the priest was the Rev. Fr. Cheng-Min “Beda” Chang, of the Society of Jesus.

To McGrath’s right, a boy cried and sobbed at night, talking to himself, shaking the bars, calling for his father, his mother, his brothers and sisters. After one month, it was all over. For the next five months, the boy shrieked his head off.

At first, McGrath thought it was going to shake him completely. He felt a fright creep into him. Then he remembered his act of consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and vowed he would never be uneasy about anything – past or future. McGrath sat down. A calm overcame the fear, and he went to sleep.

In the morning, when the whistle blew, he saw the rays of the sun shine through the windows above the fifth floor. He stood up, kissed the bars and prayed Galatians 6:14: “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.”

That became his morning offering, every morning.

Years later, while in Rome in 1980, McGrath was invited by Pope John Paul II to celebrate the Mass with him at the altar. After saying his post-Mass thanksgiving, the Pope met with McGrath. The Pontiff heard the parish priest had suffered in a Chinese prison for the faith.

“Father, what kept you sane in prison?”

“Holy Father, I have no doubt in the world. It was de Montfort’s “True Devotion to Mary.”

At this the Pope laughed and asked, “Is that true?”


“Do you know what kept me sane in Poland, when I was a student running from one house to another studying philosophy and theology?” the Pope asked pulling his sweat-stained copy of “True Devotion to Mary” out from under his cassock. “I found this little book on a table. It’s been in my pocket ever since, and I read a chapter every day.”

On April 9, 1952, McGrath was transferred to Ward Road Prison, where he received a piece of bamboo with his identification number: 2146. In his cell, there was no bed. No table. No chair. No window. The only light came from dim bulbs along the long corridor. No water. No toilet. Only a bucket – for waste elimination. So small was the cell that McGrath couldn’t stretch his arms out to the side without having to bend his fingers, and when he laid down, his 5-foot-3-inch frame fit, perfectly. Not another inch.

Twice a day, inmates received a minimum portion of brown rice, the kind usually used to feed livestock, slopped into filthy square tins, just wide enough to fit between the iron bars. The first at 9 a.m.; the second at 3 p.m. A single cup of hot water after each meal. They were not allowed to drink cold water.

His cellmates? Bedbugs. Thousands and thousands of bedbugs. McGrath would wake up in the middle of the night, and the bugs would be crawling all over his body, sucking his blood. In the mornings, he woke with tiny festering bubbles on his skin. McGrath considered it a bit unfair that he had bedbugs, but no bed.

In prison, McGrath was peaceful, yes, but not comfortable.

Having to endure endless interrogations during the night, it was next to impossible to keep his eyes open during the day. And all prisoners were never allowed to close their eyes for rest during the daytime. Sleep deprivation was a mental and physical torture used to soften up inmates for interrogations. McGrath was constantly caught and endlessly punished for dozing off in his cell. At times, guards bound his hands behind his back with French handcuffs, tightening the links. In the winter, he would be stripped naked and forced to stand in the freezing air for thirty minutes.

Birds sometimes entered the cell block through the upper-story windows opened to ventilate the human stench. One day McGrath noticed a sparrow hopping in front of his door of iron bars. When his next tin of rice came, he tucked a few grains in a crevice. Before too long, he heard a whistle and flicked the rice toward the bird, who ate so much McGrath thought he’d burst.

The sparrow became a regular mealtime mooch. One day McGrath noticed the bird whistled and flew away, then ten seconds later the guard appeared. With its acute hearing, the bird heard the key in the door, which caused him to take off.

McGrath was in luck. The sparrow signaled when the guard was coming, so he would have enough time to sit up, rub his eyes and keep them wide open, so as not to be caught with his eyes closed. When the sparrow reappeared and whistled, McGrath knew the guard was gone.

That sparrow stayed with McGrath during the rest of his imprisonment. Even when the guards opened the priest’s cell, made him pack up his bits of clothing and raggedy blanket, put a sack over his head, open the gate, lead him out and take him to another cell, whether another floor or another building altogether, within five minutes, McGrath heard a whistle. His loyal companion was there.
Inmates were also not allowed to talk, cough or sneeze, which guards claimed were ways of inner-prison communication. Everyone was to sit on the floor, all day everyday, and do nothing but think of their “crimes.”

One day a guard snapped at McGrath, “What are you doing?”

“I’m thinking about God,” McGrath answered.

“You’re not allowed to think about God.”

Nonetheless, McGrath settled into a very busy daily routine – mostly thinking about God.

As a seminarian he was trained never to waste time, to prepare his day, because if he let his mind wander, he would do and accomplish nothing. Therefore, while in prison, he mentally wrote out a schedule so that from 6 a.m., when the morning whistle blew, until 9 p.m., when the night whistle blew, he would be busy.

Upon waking, he kissed the bars and repeated his morning prayer, then went through the prayers of the Latin Mass, which he had remembered by rote. This was followed with a one-hour spiritual communion, then a spiritual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, complete with divine praises and Latin hymns.

Three rosaries before noon. Three after noon. Twice a day, he made a particular examination of conscience, in which he thought about his predominant passion that caused him the most trouble, counted how many times he failed and resolved to do better. McGrath’s predominant passion in prison? He was never to think of yesterday, never to think of tomorrow.

He would go through the Stations of the Cross.

Then two hours of study. What? He had nothing to study. Except one thing. He was permitted a toothbrush and toothpaste, which on the back stated in exact terms the number of germs that were killed per second by that particular toothpaste. So, everyday, that was his “spiritual” reading, to keep his mind busy.

For mental prayer and meditations, he went through each question and answer, one by one, in the “Baltimore Catechism,” which he knew by heart. Each Q & A opened up a vista of theology for him. He also composed sermons – in English, then translated them into French, Latin and Chinese.

In other words, he kept himself busy.

One day, McGrath received a postage stamp. Prisoners were able to secretly pass items to one another through various ways. When McGrath flipped over the stamp, he could see very, very small beautiful writing in pencil. It was from Wolf Gruen, a German Jew, an engineer thrown into prison on bogus charges of espionage.

“Dear Father, I would like to know something about the Catholic Church.”

McGrath wanted to begin instructing Gruen, but he had no paper, no pencil. Walter, a White Russian crook treated decently by the Communists because they considered him a “comrade,” had been given an inmate job of rolling the food cart from cell to cell, distributing the tins of rice during mealtimes.
One day, he noticed McGrath’s little piece of Foxford rug. The yellow colors caught his eye.

“Would you give me that?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I need it myself.”

“Do you want me to do anything for you? There’s a priest friend of yours down the row.”

“I can’t write him anything. I have no pencil. I have no paper.”

“I’ll get you some.”

So Walter the White Russian got his hands on little bits of rough, brown toilet paper and snuck it to McGrath, who used it to reply to Gruen and instructed him the best he could under the circumstances.
Eventually Gruen left the prison before McGrath.

“Have you any message for your people?” Gruen wrote in a final note.

“Just tell them that I’m here, and that I’m OK.”

Gruen went to Hong Kong and gave the message to a priest, who baptized McGrath’s catechumen.
After two years and eight months, guards entered McGrath’s cell and dragged him out. He had just finished making his third novena to St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, author of “True Devotion to Mary.”

“You are going to be executed,” guards taunted him.

McGrath was brought before a tribunal. He had never once seen a lawyer the entire thirty-two months he spent in Ward Road Prison.

“Do not talk,” they warned, then read out his “crimes” of “disrupting the youth of China.”

Nonetheless, they ordered his release, adding a final caution: “Leave this country and never come back.”

Later, two guards armed with sub-machine guns escorted McGrath and the Rev. Fr. Francis Xavier Legrand, of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Scheut, out of the prison and onto a train. Legrand had been arrested the same night as McGrath.

On the train ride, Legrand broke down.

“My God, I don’t know what happened to me,” Legrand confessed, with tears running down his cheeks. “At one period, I was standing for six days and six nights. They never let me move my feet.”

“My God, how could you do that? Did you not fall?” McGrath asked him.

“I was shackled, and I was handcuffed. I tried to fall. I longed to faint. I couldn’t, and every few hours, the judges would come in and they’d say, ‘You killed two men.’ And the guards would change every hour, and I went on standing. I remember it quite clearly, and then I didn’t know what was day and what was night, and at the end of six days and six nights, they came in and I remember it, but I don’t know what happened. I asked for paper, and I wrote that I killed two men.”

After the fifty-hour train ride, McGrath and Legrand, escorted by Communists, arrived in Canton,
then in Hong Kong, where the two priests were handed over to the British police.

But before the train ride from Shanghai to Hong Kong, before Legrand’s tearful confession, before McGrath left Ward Road Prison, he shuffled, in chains, from the make-shift courtroom to his final holding cell.

It would be his last day of imprisonment and his first of freedom. “What’s the date today?” McGrath asked someone nearby.

“April 28, 1954,” was the reply.

April 28, the unofficial feast day of St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort.

ENDNOTE: All Chinese names have been written in a manner to avoid confusion and to remain consistent with the English standard of writing proper names: given name first, family name last. In Chinese, names are traditionally written with family name first, followed by given names, usually consisting of two characters.

Theresa Marie Moreau may be reached at