Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Martyrs of Shanxi

In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI visited a shrine in Rome dedicated to the martyrs of the twentieth century. “So many fell while they were carrying out the evangelizing mission of the Church,” he commented. “Their blood mingled with that of the indigenous Christians to which they had transmitted the faith.” The Holy Father’s words are an apt description of the Franciscan martyrs of Shanxi—a small band of religious whose own sacrifice ushered in an epoch of sacrifice. 

The Catholic Church in China traces its beginnings to missionary efforts in the thirteenth century. The Christian practice of those early pioneers naturally had a strong European flavor that was hard to reconcile with ancient Oriental customs. With each new encounter between the West and the Far East, however, missioners grew ever more skilled at inculturating the Faith and accommodating it as much as possible to the Chinese way of life.

This approach was enthusiastically adopted by the seven Franciscan Missionaries of Mary who traveled to the Chinese province of Shanxi in 1899. Hailing from four different European countries, the sisters settled in Taiyuan, the provincial capital, and threw themselves into their work—serving the poor through hospitals, orphanages, vocational training, and numerous other apostolates.

The needs were great in Shanxi; the demands on the sisters unrelenting. Still, the seven knew great joy as they manifested their love for Christ through their service, and the people of their adopted homeland reciprocated with affection. Sr. Mary Amandina was particularly singled out for her cheerfulness despite challenging conditions and often grueling work. She was known to the Chinese as “The European sister who is always laughing.”

St. M. Amandina (1872-1900)
Some in Shanxi disapproved of the sisters’ work, especially the provincial governer, Yu Xian. This was the period of the Boxer Rebellion—a violent reaction to Western influence in China—and Yu Xian took advantage of the tumult to press an assault on the fledgling Christian community and the missionaries who cultivated it. This attack was not wholly unexpected, as Sr. Amandina had previously expressed in a letter home. “The news is not good, danger is approaching, but we are peaceful,” she wrote. “I confide myself to God’s care and I pray Him to console and fortify the martyrs and those who have to suffer for His name.”

On July 5, 1900, Yu Xian imprisoned the seven sisters along with almost two dozen friars, seminarians, and lay faithful. Four days later, after a mock trial, the execution order was given, and the sisters were forced to witness the demise of their brethren. This cruel act of intimidation had little effect, and throughout the ordeal the sisters could be heard praying and chanting the Te Deum until they themselves were slaughtered. 

Sr. Amandina and her sisters, along with 113 other martyrs of China, were canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000. The next day in Rome, a group of 36 Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary pledged themselves to continue in the footsteps of the Shanxi martyrs and bring the Gospel to foreign lands—including two to be sent to China.

The feast of the Shanxi martyrs is July 9. 

A version of this story appeared in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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