THE MISSIONS OF ASIA
A bimonthly missionary letter to foster prayers
- History of the Asian Missions - China Part I
II - A Missionary Story from China - A baptism
in a closed coffin
For the Missions of Asia: One Million Hail
- History of the Asian Missions China
1625, some workmen were preparing the foundations for a new building
near Ch’ang-an when they uncovered a large stone tablet engraved
with Chinese characters along with another script that was not
immediately decipherable. The city governor of Ch’ang-an
had the bulky stone taken to a temple, where, but for another
happy chance, it might have remained gathering dust in obscurity,
its little mine of information unsuspected by the world.
Fortunately, a recent Chinese convert to Catholicism happened
to see the stone in the temple and took a rubbing of its inscription,
which he sent to a friend in Hangchow. This friend, also
a Christian convert, was a scholar called Li Chih-Tsao.
Having read the characters, Li made the following comment: "I
was living in retirement in the country... when my friend... had
the kindness to send me a copy of the tablet of the T’ang, saying
to me: ‘It has the title, Praise the Monument Recalling the Propagation
in the Middle Kingdom of the Illustrious Religion.’ We had
not heard of this religion before. Could it be the holy
religion that Ricci had come to preach from the farthest West?"
was mistaken. The great Jesuit father Ricci (of whom we
shall hear later) was a Roman Catholic, and the stone described
the arrival and progress in China of a sect which broke off from
Catholicism called Nestorianism (the heresy which says that in
Our Lord Jesus Christ there are two natures and two persons).
the Chinese inscription from the stone reached the Jesuits in
Peking, and one of them, Father Semedo made the first translation
of it into a European language. The name Alopen occurred
in the inscription along with the Chinese name Ta-ch’in, which
designated roughly the area we now call Syria.
then, is the first Western visitor to China whose name is known.
The stone credits him with founding a Nestorian church in China.
Most historians have inferred that he was a monk, although there
is only one contemporary statement to this effect. However
that may be, the story of the Nestorians in China in the T’ang
dynasty is a fascinating one, partly because it contains some
of the earliest news we have of Westerners in the Middle Kingdom,
and partly because in it we find even at this very distant date
the element of later events which overtook other Westerners when
they came to China.
arrived in China in 635 A.D. The Nestorians expanded and
survived until 845 A.D. when an edict of the new emperor Wu Tsung
eradicated them completely. What happened to them after
that is not known. In China, even today, a Nestorian Cross
comes to light now and then in an unexpected place. Father
Ricci (+1638) seven or eight hundred years after the T’ang dynasty
was puzzled from time to time when he discovered people in China
who made the sign of the Cross but did not know what it meant.
They were called "the Adorers of the Cross" in North China.
Priest who was a heavy Man
would be foolish to approach the journey of Friar William of Rubruck
with anything but humility. For it was with this fundamental
attitude that he approached his own life, the hazards of his trip,
and the pitiless Mongols whom he so ardently wished to bring to
his God. Although he never reached China proper, never crossed
the Great Wall, he did have close contact with the rulers of China,
and for this reason as well as for the magnitude of his travels
along roads to be followed by later visitors to China, his story
has a very real bearing on our own.
the only description we have of Friar William is his own remark
that at the time of his travels he was "a very heavy man".
As to his birth and death, we are ignorant of the dates, but it
seems that he came from a village in French Flanders. He
emerges among the crossed swords of popes and emperors that characterised
his times, when the Saracens were occupying the Holy Land and
the West was crusading to rescue it from them, and when the Mongols
had already overrun most of Eastern Europe, decimating its population
and striking terror in the hearts of popes and kings alike, he
emerges, solid as that rock on which his faith was founded, and
never wavers from the goals he set for himself.
We know little of his appearance, but of his character we have
an excellent picture in his own words -- in those dog-Latin sentences
in which he set down the report of his journey for Saint Louis
IX of France who had sent him across the wastes of Asia at a time
when the king was considering a Franco-Mongol alliance against
the Muslim of Iraq (1249). Unwittingly, he gives a remarkable
full account of himself, one that leaps clearly out of the astounding
tale he has to tell of that pagan wilderness of barbarity and
ice through which he went toward China.
Louis sent Friar William to Sartaq, son of the great general Batu,
as rumours had reached Europe of Sartaq’s baptism. The Friar
reached Sartaq but met with disappointment: "They have risen so
much in their pride," he wrote, "that they may believe somewhat
in Christ, yet they will not be called Christians, wishing to
exalt their own name of Mongol above all others." Sartaq
sent him further to his father Batu who in turn sent in another
three months journey further to the great Khan of the Mongol Empire,
in Karakorum. The Flemish Franciscan spent eight months
at the court of the Khan where, relieved of all diplomatic obligations,
he managed to begin an embryo of missionary activity. Beside
taking part in theological controversies between various religious
groups, his apostolate was mainly aimed at the Christians transplanted
in Mongolia. In Karakorum, in found French, Hungarian, English
and Coman (from South Russia) Catholics as well as others from
the various Eastern rites, all in a miserable religious condition.
Our Friar had to instruct these deported souls on the true obligations
of their faith and was also able to put together a few books for
some Hungarian clerics.
left Karakorum in August 1254, and on his way back towards Paris,
which he reaches in just over a year later, he noticed that the
news of Sartaq’s alleged conversion had put other missionaries
on the road, especially some groups of Dominicans. A year
earlier, in July 1253, pope Innocent IV had granted special privileges
to the friars of the Order of Preachers leaving for the East and
Far East. It was the signal of new missionary endeavors
in the Mongol Empire, following the diplomatic missions of 1245-1250.
Histoire Universelle des Missions Catholiques, Paris, 1955,
vol.1, pp. 173-195; Barbarians and Mandarins, Thirteen centuries
of Western Travellers in China, by Nigel Cameron, Hong Kong,
1970, pp. 17-60)
- A Missionary Story from China A
baptism in a closed coffin
the edge of a little hill overlooking the sea, Yen-Tai, a little
Chinese town, staged its gray roofs and yellow lanes. In
the far distance, brick-red mountains cut the sky with their sinuous
lines while nearby, the sea, joining its deep and rhythmic voice
to the murmurs of the beach laid majestically the white creases
of its blue-green blanket.
a bright day of the fair Chinese light, Sister Etienne had just
left her hospital and was heading to the back of the town where
stood quietly behind the lumps of thick trees a settlement of
lepers. Slowly, along the sandy beach path, she was running
her fingers on her beads for the poor lepers she couldn’t cure.
Divine Providence heard her prayers that morning in a way she
could never have imagined, preparing her for the most touching
of all cures.
had just reached the rice-fields when the sound of heavy footsteps
hit her ears. Two men, also heading for the colony of lepers
but coming from another direction, were carrying on their shoulders
a long and narrow box. At a glance she recognised the porters:
two Chinese fantassins of General Fong-Ta-Seu, famous for the
ferocious discipline he had imposed on his troops of which a division
was then stationed in Yen-Tai. As a matter of fact, Sister
Etienne had even nursed these very two soldiers and many others
in the hospital.
morning, she said, where are you hurrying like that?
-Behind the woods, they replied without stopping. We
have to bury this.
And looking at the coffin they continued their way visibly embarrassed.
-Good luck, she shouted back.
were carrying a dead man, what else did she need to know?
However as they distanced her, a frightful feeling shook the good
Sister. At first, choked knocks, then sliding between the
disjointed planks, wounded and bleeding fingers of a begging hand
appeared. What awful drama was behind that mystery, that
dead was alive! Coming back from a coma by the rough road?
Awaken at the Sister’s voice?
Etienne ran towards that anguished hand, took it gently in hers
and, controlling by the grace of God the deep emotion tightening
her throat, she asked:
-Who are you?
-Leang-T’Sou, answered a half-silent voice... I will
die... Have pity on me, don’t let me die, you, my Mother...
-You recognise me?
-Yes, you are the ‘soldiers’ Sister’...
-What have you done, my dear Leang-T’Sou?
-I wanted to escape, to go back to my fields, to see my aging
father... They caught me... They shot me...
But didn’t kill me.... Have pity on me!
then understood the whole story: Rapidly caught by Fong-Ta-Seu’s
agents, the unfortunate deserter had been judged and sentenced
to death, but the bullets had missed the vital spots. Without
waiting for his last breath, they had thrown him in a rough white-wooden
bow to bury him like that, as fast as possible. What a horrible
could she do? She tried to reason with the two porters to bring
the dying man to the nearby leper colony. But they did not
even bother to slow their paste, fearing too much a retaliation
of their chiefs if ever they were caught, and the fear of being
buried alive themselves too was hardening them and rendering them
that she gained nothing talking, Sister Etienne attempted to convert
the dying man. Through the cracks of his coffin, she taught
him that there was a just God, that we have a soul destined to
know Him and love Him in an unending happiness.
listened, acquiesced, amazed... begged forgiveness. Soon,
she could pour on his now submissive and believing hand the redeeming
water of baptism.
then did Sister leave that convert of the last hour, this privileged
of God, and she followed him with her eyes until the group disappeared
behind the patch of trees.
hour later, returning from her lepers, she took again the beach
trail. The sea was calmly resting, on the wet beach birds
were hunting for fresh food. In the distance, two soldiers
were entering the town empty handed.
Annales de la Propagation de la Foi, Quebec, Sept.-Oct.
1938, pp. 200-202.