(Continuing Fr. Kevin’s reflections of late…)
Several years ago, I had charge of a young adults group in Washington D.C. One Thursday evening we choose as our activity a conversation in which each member presented two or three of his or her favorite saints to the group. The Blessed Mother was taken as a given, but beyond that the field for discussion was wide open. The saints with the most interest were St. Joseph followed closely by St. Therese of Lisieux, and there were others.
Now, I am very excited to hear about saints and especially about ones who are little known. A young lawyer in the group said that he carried a holy card in his wallet of his favorite saint. Drawing the wallet from his back pocket we watched with expectation as he produced a holy card that looked like a print of a small watercolor. The image was… St. Anna Wang. I along with the others was stumped, having never heard of her and we listened. Anna, he explained, was a teenage martyr from China who was killed in the early twentieth century.
China has long been thought of as a protective culture wary of outside influences. High School history classes in our “western world”, while considering Chinese history, introduced to our vocabulary the word “xenophobia”, a word meaning fear of foreigners. The iconic monument of China in our collective cultural consciousness is the Great Wall. Walls provide protection from outside threats. From time to time news headlines speculate over Chinese policy, wondering if certain policies are raising again a specter of xenophobia.
The Gospel comes to us all from outside, from the Heart of Christ to all of us by way of the first Apostles and Disciples who gathered around Jesus in the Holy Land. The first archeological record of Christian missionaries in China is recorded on a stone stele or column dating to the 8th century. These stone columns were used to record decisions of the emperor. The inscription describes the work of Syrian monks in the 7th century and recommends the Christian religion as good. China sometimes softened on the acceptance of foreign influence, but often hardened again.
The early 20th century saw what history books describe as the Boxer Rebellion in China. The “Boxers” originated as a secret society that sought to protect China from interests of outside nations that were viewed as imperialistic. In and around 1900 China saw a heightening of violence against foreign diplomats and embassies. Some also considered Chinese Christians to be a threat because of their association with this foreign “philosophy” that had ties to European missionaries. Throughout the centuries at times of xenophobic revival tens of thousands of Catholic, Orthodox, and protestant Christians were put to death in the anti-foreigner hysteria. Most of these were Chinese.
Anna Wang was martyred in 1900 at the age of 14. Her parents were Catholics and prior to her own death she was witness to the deaths of other Christians, including a mother and young son. When her turn came, Anna refused to renounce her faith saying: “Do not touch me; I am a Christian. I prefer to die rather than give up my faith.” The executioner proceeded to cut off Anna’s right arm with a sword; he then indicated that she could escape death, if only she would give up the faith. Anna replied “The door of Heaven is now open.” With this she bowed her head and called on the Name of Jesus three times. The swordsman then chopped off her head.
This brave young woman who persevered in her love for Jesus in the midst of terror was canonized by Bl. John Paul II in the Great Jubilee year 2000 on October 1st. The first of October is the feast of St. Therese who championed the spirituality of childlike confidence in God’s goodness and who herself had desires of being a missionary contemplative in China. The canonization ceremonies raised to the honors of the altar 120 Chinese martyrs, of these, Pope John Paul drew attention to two in his homily; one of these was Anna whom the pope reminded the crowd was “radiant” before her persecutors, confident that her Lord Jesus Christ had indeed prepared a home for her in heaven. The other was a young man of 18 years, St. Chi Zhuzi who told his executioners as they prepared to flay him: “Every piece of my flesh, every drop of my blood will tell you that I am Christian”
In hearing of the witness of this young woman and man, we are reminded of the priority of faith and the joy of abandonment to Jesus Christ. From their example we see a courage that invites us beyond the frivolity which is often proposed to us in youth to a seriousness of purpose and loving adventure in Christ that glimpses with lively anticipation the joy of fulfillment.
We ask the intercession of Anna Wang, Chi Zhuzi, St. Therese and other young holy people who have gone before us on the Way. We ask them to pray for our young people and for the Christians of China. These saints show to us the great result of virtuous youth who live in communion with Jesus and who strive for virtue.
For we who are older, recall the words of Psalm 103, reminding us that through the Lord’s power our “youth is renewed like the eagle’s”. The eagle was a symbol of perennial vigor. Let us then not bow our heads in defeated shame at the memory of past sins and time wasted but in reverence, like Anna, before the King of kings and Lord of Mercy who always promises a new beginning and a heavenly home to those who follow Him.