G. Gregory Gay, C.M. Superior General
G. Gregory Gay, C.M. Superior General
My brothers and sisters in Jesus and Saint Vincent,
I am honored to offer a greeting to those assembled at this conference commemorating the anniversary of the “Martyrs of Zhengding Church”. Even though many of us here know well the history, I have singled out those moments, which I consider to be most expressive of the Vincentian Charism and the presence of God’s grace in the life of Bishop Shraven and his companions. Led by Vincentian Bishop Frans Schraven, nine men gave their lives for the faith to prevent the capture and enslavement of young Chinese women by the Japanese army in 1937. Seven martyrs were members of the Congregation of the Mission, a community of priests and brothers founded by St. Vincent de Paul. The other two martyrs were a Trappist priest and a layman, who served as an organist. All died in service to the Catholic community in what was then the apostolic vicariate of Chengdingfu, now Zhengding.
These nine martyrs were from the Netherlands, France, Austria, and Slovakia. Although from different lands and languages, they were united in one purpose: to be in the words of St. Paul, “ambassadors for Christ, God, as it were, appealing through us.” (2 Cor.5:20) They left the comforts of homeland, religious community, and family to serve the Catholic community in China according to their religious charisms, talents, and abilities.
Bishop Schraven led the apostolic vicariate from 1921 until his martyrdom in 1937. All thirty-eight years of his ordained ministry were spent in China serving the Church and its people. However, in concert with the other martyrs, his protection extended beyond the members of his beloved Vicariate. On October 9, 1937, as the Japanese army invaded the city of Zhengding, Bishop Schraven was protecting over 4000 refugees, mostly women and children.
As all here know well, the Japanese soldiers plundered the city, killing, and destroying all in their path. The Japanese authorities demanded that Bishop Schraven release 200 of the female refugees, so they could become sex slaves (or ‘comfort women’ as they were so crudely called) to be abused by their soldiers. Bishop Schraven flatly refused. A local legend has it that he defiantly said to the authorities, “You may kill me if you want, but as for me giving you what you want- never!” That evening, after the city had fallen, the Bishop and his companions were taken away by a gang of masked men, never to see again. Months after their abduction, they found Bishop Schraven’s bloodstained skullcap, a rosary, and some burned bones outside a Buddhist pagoda not far from the Cathedral. By 1973, the story of how they had been tortured, killed, and burned to death on a funeral pyre was gradually pieced together and eventually corroborated through the testimony of a former Japanese commander and area residents.
However, this conference is not meant to focus on how they died, but how they lived. These martyrs “served the Lord with gladness,” (Ps. 100:1) ready to go to any lengths to spread the Gospel joy and evangelize the poor. This occasion is one to rejoice in their authentic witness to the Lord, and celebrate lives of true faith. St. Vincent de Paul, reflecting on the reality of martyrdom, said: “If we were to visit a place where a martyr has passed through, we would approach it only with respect, and would kiss the spot with great reverence…let us look upon them as martyrs of Jesus Christ, because they were serving the neighbor out of love for Him.” (CCD: IX, 270)
I am grateful to my confreres of the Province of Holland and the Bishop Schraven Foundation for willingness to advance the cause of these noble martyrs, whose sacrifice of their lives inspires the Church and the Congregation of the Mission to continue onward in missionary endeavors. The Church Father, Tertullian, made the infamous observation that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” (Apologeticus, Chapter 50) Despite what were endless times of suffering and persecution, the early Christian Church grew and banded together in a witness that no human force could ever halt or reverse. That witness of the ‘blood of martyrs’ continues today. Let us use this time to learn about these events, so that together we might become a strong Body of Christ.
In a letter to his family in Limburg, Holland in the last year of his life, Bishop Frans Schraven wrote prophetically of how he was spiritually prepared to face an uncertain future, noting: “It is essential that we are ready when God calls us.” May his readiness and the Christian witness of Bishop Schraven and his companions inspire and deepen our faith.
G. Gregory Gay, C.M.