CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 18 May 2019

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Dutch martyr in China and pioneering missionary up for canonisation

HONG KONG (SE): Two causes for canonisation of priests who laboured on mission in China are currently under consideration in Europe.

Though widely separated in time and experience, the pioneering Jesuit of the 16th and 17th centuries, Father Matteo Ricci, and nine victims of the Japanese occupation in the 1930s may yet share recognition for holiness from the Catholic Church.

The Italian Father Ricci is well known in many circles worldwide for his work in establishing the Church as a credible presence in the Forbidden City, as well for laying the foundations for links between China and Europe.

Maybe less well known is the heroism of Dutch Bishop Frans Schraven and his eight companions, who died in protecting young Chinese women and girls from the sexual ravages of the occupying Japanese Imperial Army.

While Father Ricci’s cause is well advanced and the convener of his investigation, Bishop Claudio Guiliodori, from his hometown in Macerata, Italy, has announced that information gathering will close on May 11 and be forwarded to the Vatican Congregation for Causes for Saints, the cause of Bishop Schraven and his Companions has just opened.

A press release from the Monsignor Schraven Foundation in the Netherlands announced on March 26 that Bishop Frans Wiertz, from the diocese of Roermond, opened an investigation on March 23 in the Mission House of St. Joseph of the Lazarist, the congregation (often referred to as Vincentians) to which Bishop Schraven belonged, in Panningen.

The investigation will seek to establish that Bishop Schraven and his Companions died for the faith and are worthy of consideration for canonisation.

On 9 October 1937, at the height of the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese Imperial Army took possession of the city now called Zhengding in northern China.

As a reward for their hard work, the commander of the Japanese forces gave his men an eight-day free pass to the city, during which they were free to plunder, rape, burn and pillage.

The Dutch bishop of the vicariate of Zhengding at the time, Bishop Schraven, had been offering safe refuge at this residence to around 5,000 people, mostly young Chinese women and girls.

He was flying the French flag above the building in an effort to claim foreign diplomatic protection, but the Japanese soldiers arrived at the compound and demanded that he hand over 200 of those seeking shelter to act as comfort women.

The Monsignor Schraven Foundation says that the bishop refused, saying, “You can kill me, but I will never give you what you are demanding.”

It is reported that an officer of the occupying forces replied, “That may be sooner than you think!”

On the same evening, a group of masked men is reported to have entered the dining room in the bishop’s house where about 20 priests were taking supper. They singled out the nine Europeans present, blindfolded and handcuffed them, then dragged them into a truck and spirited them off into the night.

It was over six weeks later that it was discovered that the nine had been doused with petrol and burned alive on that same evening.

The group has become known as Bishop Schraven and his Companions and the initial investigation into their cause for beatification and declaration as martyrs is expected to continue for around six months.

Bishop Schraven was arrested together with his Lazarist companions, two Dutch priests, Father Gerard Wouters and Father Antoon Gerts; as well as Father Thomas Ceska, who had been born in Croatia but raised in Austria; Frenchmen, Father Lucien Charny and Father Eugene-Antoine Bertrand; together with a French Trappist, Father André Robial.

Brother Wladislaw, from Poland, and a layman, Anton Biskupits, from Slovakia, were also among the nine abducted from the bishop’s residence.

All are being put forward as martyrs for the faith and for recognition as saints of the Catholic Church.

UCA News reported on March 28 that although there was an angry reaction to the canonisation of the Chinese Martyrs back in 2000, as they had mostly been murdered during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and were seen as having supported foreign imperialism, because Bishop Schraven and his Companions were murdered by the Japanese, it is not expected to ruffle any Beijing feathers.

The Hong Kong-based news agency quoted Father Joseph Cheng, from Zhengding, as saying, “Their killing had nothing to do with the Chinese people.”

He added that that their beatification may also be good ammunition for Beijing to use against the Japanese in the current relationship freeze over disputed territories.

The priest added that today, the Church in the area where Bishop Schraven laboured has grown to have a population of around 100,000 people, mostly belonging to unofficial communities.

He added that Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguio has been living under close government scrutiny for some years.

Bishop Schraven was born in 1873. He finished his studies for the priesthood in Paris and was ordained in 1899, arriving in China a short time later.

Although little may be remembered about him in China, his life and death has been celebrated in the Netherlands.

Last year, on the 75th anniversary of his death, the Monsignor Schraven Foundation held a weeklong celebration and seminar to mark the occasion.

Father Francis Masakatsu Fukamizu made an official apology for Japanese atrocities in China on behalf of the Japanese Bishops’ Conference and the Vatican was represented by Hong Kong-born Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-fai.

Father Fukamizu had visited the Netherlands previously with the late archbishop of Tokyo, Peter Seiichi Cardinal Shirayanagi, to apologise for Japanese atrocities in the Dutch East Indies.

The weeklong seminar included papers presented on violence against women in modern society by Erik Borgman, from the University of Tilberg, who combined motivation for martyrdom with sexual violence in his presentation.

Archbishop Hon blessed a 12 by 3.5 metre community painting prepared over the six weeks leading up to the celebrations for Bishop Schraven, while Father Jan Haen took the last recorded words of Bishop Schraven as his inspiration for a comic strip book of his life, Over my Dead Body.

Geert de Sutter also produced a comic strip, Post from China, on his life and death, which received an award for the best Dutch-language religious comic for 2012. 

It is described as a story of lived faith and surprising reality.

The Monsignor Schraven Foundation says that rather than erect statues to martyrs, they should be made into road direction signs to point each man and woman along the path of respect for the dignity of each and every person.

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