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In the footsteps of early missionaries

HONG KONG (SE): In the manner in which St. Columban proclaimed himself an exile for Christ when he left his native Ireland for Europe over 1,400 years ago, a group of Chinese priests, sisters and lay people from Wuhan carried a banner reading, Exiles for Christ, as they travelled in pilgrimage along the Han River from Hanyang between November 11 and 14 in the footsteps of the Columban missionaries of the 1920s.

The organiser of the pilgrimage, Father Joseph Li, said that the three-day journey served to awaken something in the hearts of all who took part.

“We felt a communion and a togetherness with the missionaries who did so much to nourish the faith among our communities,” Father Li reflected.

Sister Li, from Xianto, said that she was conscious of a deepening gratitude forming inside her heart, as her appreciation of the growth of the faith in Hanyang deepened.

She said that when the group stopped at the hilltop where hundreds of thousands refugees huddled during the great floods of 1931, she was filled with awe listening to the story of the work that the Bishop Edward Galvin and the Columban sisters and priests did in sustaining them over the six to eight months their homes remained under water.

“Now I feel I am more ready to be an exile for Christ myself,” Sister Li said.

Travelling in four mini buses, the 28 pilgrims covered a distance of some 300 kilometres, as they wound their way along the twisted path of the Han River.

At each stop they raised the red banner bearing the words of St. Columban, Peregrinari Pro Christo (exiles for Christ) to capture something of the spirit that drove him to leave his homeland, renounce his position and social status, to preach Christ in a hostile environment.

The group visited Shau Town Village, where local people told them that there are no longer any Catholics, but the ruins of what was once a sizeable stone church and a two-story convent and rectory now stand only as a monument to what was once a thriving faith community.

At another stop, a former seminary, displaying fine architecture and still in good repair, as it is now used as dormitory for government workers, reflects a past hope that although dented, refreshed the determination of the pilgrim group to cherish their faith and work to build strong local Church communities in the future.

But most moving of all were the tombs of the Columbans who died in China. Father Charles Cullen came from Ireland in the 1920s, but died two years later at the age of 27.

Bishop Galvin wrote of his death, “When night came… there was no coffin to be had. In this appalling difficulty, a friend turned up where you least expected to find one. A pagan gave the coffin he had prepared for himself, and a very fine one it was!”

At this point, a priest suggested that the exact place of his burial be located and a replica of the coffin be made and reburied at the parish church.

But as the group reflected on this, one asked why, as Father Cullen is already in the place where he belongs. Another said, “Most people look for a place to settle down, but Father Cullen was a missionary and his life was lived on the road.”

The group was further inspired at the tomb of Bishop Peter Zhang Boren, the first Chinese bishop of Hanyang, who died in semi-isolation in a small village in 2005, where he had been an English teacher to small children since his release from prison.

Bishop Zhang was a subject of intense interest to the Communist Party in the early 1950s, as he was seen as a prize candidate for the newly-formed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

He subsequently spent 24 years in prison, before being released and sent to teach English in a village, which he found difficult after not using the language for so long. However, he was able to carry on a clandestine ministry among the people and was buried with honour by the local Catholic community.

One night in a darkened hotel room near an old labour camp where priests had been interned in the past, the pilgrims fasted as they gathered to share their reflections, just as they shared the light of the candles placed on the table where the Eucharist was to be celebrated.

Father Li told stories of the exiles for Christ who brought the good news of Jesus to the far reaches of the world, likening it to the beginning of the sojourn of Abraham, our father in faith, and then the spread of Christianity from Europe into Asia through people like St. Columban and, finally, the missionaries like him ,who proclaimed the faith in Hanyang.

At the final destination of Bai Hu Village, Tianmen, the Chinese priests donned red stoles for a Mass in remembrance of the sacrifices, sweat and tears of all those who had donated their lives to the passing on of the faith and are now buried in their land like seeds of belief.

Father Li concluded, “In their lives, and even in death, they are an inspiration.”