"A missioner looking for success would be drawn to Africa, where mission has produced results Maryknoll's founders could only dream of."

[ Rwanda & Burundi, ... the most Roman Catholic nations of Africa ... RC success !! ... JP ]


MAY 30, 1997

Page 15


Maryknollers return to roots in China

On the eve of Fr. Leo Shea's departure earlier this year, after completing six years as vicar general of the Maryknoll order, he spoke enthusiastically about going to China. After a semester of study at the Gregorian Institute in Rome, instead of returning to Venezuela where he had worked for 14 years, the 58 year-old missioner was going to teach English to Chinese university students.

Shea knew that in China he could not be the strong spokesman for human rights he had been in Venezuela, unless he wanted his tenure to be brief. Instead, he saw himself following in the footsteps of Maryknoll's pioneers, who first went to China in 1918. And that made all the difference.

The Chinese architectural style of Maryknoll's massive seminary overlooking the Hudson River north of New York City is iconic of the importance China once held for Maryknoll. For more than three decades, China was its principal mission. That ended when the communists expelled all missionaries in the early 1950s.

Maryknollers began to return quietly to China 15 years ago. Since then, 30 Maryknoll priests and sisters have worked there. Currently 15 teach in Chinese universities or work in hospitals. Though at first these were men and women who had worked in Asia, they are now going to China from other regions as well. China has become a high priority once again.

At the conclusion of the society's general chapter in Hong Kong last fall, the delegates strongly encouraged the new superior general, Fr. Raymond Finch; to go to China on his first official visit to the missions. "It was felt by many that this would signal the continuing importance and priority of this great nation as a field of endeavor for Maryknoll," wrote the new vice general, Fr. Jeremiah Burr. In February, after a brief stopover in Rome, Finch and Burr visited Shanghai, Beijing, Xi'an, Wuhan and Meixien.

China puts Maryknoll missioners in touch with their roots. In Meixien, formerly the Maryknoll diocese of Kaying, they were welcomed by Bishop Anthony Tchoung and Fr. Peter Liao, both ordained by Bishop Francis X. Ford, who was among the first five missioners sent to China in 1918 and who died in a Chinese prison in 1952. But there is no picking up where their predecessors left off nearly 50 years ago. The early missionaries preached, baptized, administered the sacraments, headed dioceses, founded seminaries and congregations, and established hospitals and leprosariums. The missioners now in China are forbidden to preach, celebrate the Mass or administer any of the sacraments. They can reveal the Christian message only by the way they live the "dialogue of life," as one missioner put it.

Still, enthusiasm runs high. A regional superior in Latin America even suggested last year that perhaps Latin America should be left to lay missioners and the priests should be reassigned to Asia. Such a course seems unlikely. However, Finch, the new superior general, spent 23 years in Peru and now sees mission challenges not only in the Orient but also in Africa and Latin America.

Maryknoll's first missions in Africa and Latin America were opened in the early 1940s when World War II displaced many of the missioners who had been in Asia. In contrast to China, where the gospel had not been previously proclaimed, Latin America had been Christianized centuries before and demanded a different kind of commitment from the missioner. Its essential characterstic is accompaniment, walking with the poor and oppressed in their strugle for life and liberation from sin and its effects. The martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador expressed it as being the voice of the voiceless.

Some Maryknollers, though, were never entirely comfortable with that response. Symbolically, at least, they see going to China as a return to the charism of the founders, bringing the Word of Christ where it has not been heard before. Many religious orders and congregations, seeking to assure their future, are also searching for roots. For Maryknollers, however, that journey takes them to a place where they worked before, one they did not leave willingly.

Yet Asia, with few exceptions, has yielded results only grudgingly. The notable exceptions are the Philippines, where 84 percent of the inhabitants are Catholic, and Korea, where Christians account for 49 percent of the population. Of China's 1.1 billion people, only 10 million are Catholic. In Japan, less than one percent of the population is Christian, and only half of that is Catholic. The proportions are similar in countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Cambodia.

A missioner looking for success would be drawn to Africa, where mission has produced results Maryknoll's founders could only dream of. There the church has multiplied from a mere two million to about 90 million in this century. In Maryknoll parishes in Tanzania, for example, the Easter season ends with the baptism of scores of catechumens.

But Africa, nonetheless, lacks China's appeal. Perhaps it's because China looms as unfinished business in comparison to Africa's strength. More likely, however, the answer lies in what the late Bishop James Edward Walsh wrote in an essay titled "The Definition of a Missioner."

Walsh, who spent eight years under house arrest and 12 years in prison for refusing to leave China, said, "The task of a missioner is to go to the place where he is not wanted to sell a pearl whose value, although of great price, is not recognized, to people who are determined not to accept it, even as a gift."

Moises Sandoval is editor of Revista Maryknoll, a Spanish-English mission magazine, and editor at large of Maryknoll magazine.