Our Legionary Martyrs
|Available in Spanish.|
Being asked to address this
evening’s PPC Conference (31 Oct. 2009) briought me back in time to my
first PPCs which were in France (1960 and 1961) and then in the Scottish
Highlands (1962 and 1963) and to events before that when we ran a weekly
French circle for Correspondents in Annunciata House set up by the late
Br. Harry O’Carroll. We had as our French teacher Miss Louise Gavan
Duffy who in 1916 was among the women’s units fighting and providing
support and medical services in the GPO. She was regarded as one of the
outstandingly courageous women of her day and her membership meant much
to Frank Duff and the legionaries of that time. And among the new French
Correspondents who attended the Frech Circle was Maurice Foley who was
appointed Correspondent for Dakar, Senegal. I actually have a precious
memento from him, a letter card from Cross Lane Hospital Scarborough
dated 22 July 1958. Despite having been ill in hospital for three weeks,
he promises to do his letter to Dakar and have it ready “by the middle
of next week - would this suit?” He goes on to say: “You may be
interested to hear that a group of students from UCD have just arrived
in London and are working with Praesidia there. I had hoped to join them
but won’t be able to now”. He was speaking of the first PPC volunteers,
“holiday apostles” as they were then called and that first team recorded
12 known conversions to the Catholic Faith. It is good to find that PPC
has ever since kept that priority before our minds, the seeking of
conversions to the Catholic Faith. Maurice was first PPC Chairman.
When asked to speak to you, I sought advice as to my topic. The Macabees was suggested to me. As this was a theme also dear to Br. Duff, I was happy to comply by reading again this book of the Bible and to pick out what seemed to most interest him in this amazing interlude in Jewish history. To read it was to confirm my belief that the history of all nations for good and ill is found prefigured in the history of the Jews. What most fired his imagination in the story of the Macabees and their struggle for the preservation of their faith and fatherland was the martyrdom of the seven brothers and their mother in 2 Machabees 7. The story has much to do with devotion to the true faith which is also the business of PPC.
The story of the Maccabees finds parallels also in the Legion and especially in its Martyrs. So let us recall our martyrs so that their spirit will sustain us. I have a collection of Maria Legionis begun from when I first joined the Legion. Those early issues, I still remember vividly and much of the matter in them. Later, as opportunity arose, I filled in with earlier issues until one day, I had a complete set. Alas, over time, as people asked for this issue or that and we had no photocopiers, gaps came in my collection. I remember Malta wanted to have a complete collection and that made a big hole in mine. However, what is left is still a goldmine.
I find the first Legion martyr mentioned is Fr. Joseph Seng (or Cheng, also spelt Shen, his full Chinese name being Shen Shi-Xian). He first met the Legion as a student in Rome. While teaching at Propaganda Fide College in Rome, he undertook the major task of translating the Legion Handbook into Chinese. His first copy sent to China was lost. He started again. After ordination, he spent 2 months in Dublin in 1949, meeting Frank Duff, deepening his knowledge of the Legion, attending Concilium. On his return to China, he was appointed to the Central Catholic Bureau in Shanghai, met Fr. McGrath and renewed his commitment to the Legion, becoming Spiritual Director of the English-speaking Curia of Shanghai and Diocesan Spiritual Director as well. He travelled to Tientsin where the legionaries got to like him so much that the called him “Uncle Joe”. Knowing that his moves were under surveillance, he did not hesitate to adopt the disguise of a beggar in tattered clothes and in this garb succeeded in visiting Bishops of various dioceses to promote the Legion. Then as the campaign against the Catholic Church worsened, he along with Fr. Aedan McGrath concentrated his energies on the work of the Central Catholic Bureau which, with the help of the Legion, warned the Catholics of all China against all the moves planned by the Communists to subvert the Church, especially the stratagem of the “Patriotic Catholic Association” designed to separate the Church from Rome. His picture appears on the cover of Vol. 9, No. 2 of 1953. The text describes him as “Spiritual Director of the Legion in Shanghai and joint-translator of the Handbook into Chinese. His imprisonment for legionary activities has just led to his death in a Communist prison”. The date of his death in prison seems to have been about Christmas 1952.
Was he the first of the many legionary martyrs. It is an item important to establish. Was he our Legion proto-martyr? There is of course Fr. Beda Chang SJ who was arrested at the same time as Fr. Seng. He was principal of St. Ignatius High School and a Faculty Head at the Aurora University. Friend and counsellor to the students, he would undoubtedly have been a Legion supporter. He died perhaps a year before Fr. Joseph Seng. He was the first martyr of the Communist era in China There were others who gave their lives about the same time but, as Mgr. Riberi said, even in the case of priests, their fate often became known only through accidental circumstances.
We do know of some of those others however. Br. Fan-lan-peng, President of the Curia of Taiyuan, was executed along with his Curia Secretary on December 24th 1952. Details of his heroic courage are recorded in Maria Legionis of June-August 1956. “I’m not afraid to die”, he told his torturers, “On the contrary, I consider it a blessing for it brings me freedom and everlasting union with my Lord and Saviour”. His last cry was “Long live the Legion of Mary”.
Br. Chang Huan-Hsiang, President of the Senatus of Beijing, was another. As President of what was viewed as the National Senatus of China, he knew what was in store for him if he refused to renounce the Legion. Accused by members of his own family, he was imprisoned, tortured and finally condemned by public trial and batoned to death in his home town.. The witness was a priest imprisoned in an adjoining cell who heard his last Confession, Fr. J. Schyns, a Scheut Missionary and Former Rector of the Verbist Academy, Beijing.
Br. Francis D.S. Shen, President of the Senatus of Shanghai, father of 7 children, is another arrested about the same time. His wife encouraged him to persevere in the Legion, saying “I will look after the children”. Arrested on 7 October 1951, according to Philomena Hsieh (The Bright Cloud, Taipei 2003), , he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Because he persisted in teaching the Faith, he was subjected to a second trial, condemned to death and executed on 30th November 1963.
Speaking at Los Angeles Comitium in 1957, Fr. John Chinn, a former Spiritual Director in China said that over 2000 Chinese legionaries had shed their blood for the Faith. Others, mainly missionaries expelled said that it was impossible to know the numbers. All they could say was that everywhere legionaries were being rounded up, questioned under duress and imprisoned. Very few renounced their membership and those that did, according to Frank Duff, were often suspected of having been planted in the Legion to furnish information. Some who genuinely faltered were known later to have gone to the police and withdrawn their renunciation. Frank puts the matter vehemently when he said in a pamphlet he wrote in 1965 at the behest of Tom Smith “I hold a personal grudge against Mao. He murdered 40,000 of our legionaries”. How did he arrive at that figure. “The expelled missionaries were reporting to Rome or to their Congregations” he said. Then they were coming over here. We got the whole picture.
Sr. Eamonn O’Sullivan (Molly to her Corkonian friends), a Franciscan Missionary of Mary who was an ardent legionary Spiritual Directress in Beijing died on 1st September 1966 in Hong-Kong after being thrown in a state of collapse on a railway baggage trolley by Red Gaurds and pushed across the bridge of Lowu which separated mainland China from Hong-Kong. The story of the sufferings she endured at the hands of the Red Guards is told in Fr. Des Forrestal’s book (The Bridge at Lowu – Veritas 1987). Her remains were brought home to Cork where the Lord Mayor and City Council received them at the City Hall before the funeral proceeded on its final stage to Loughglynn Convent. She too surely ranks as a Legion martyr. Fr. Forrestal in his book tells of the hundreds of young legionaries who attended at police barracks, not to sign confessions but equipped with sleeping blankets ready to go to prison rather than renounce the Legion. This happened not in one place but in many and so embarassed the police that some protested to higher authority as recorded by Internuncio Riberi.
The scene then Africa. Referring back to our French Circle with Miss Gavan_Duffy, I recall our getting a detailed report from Dahomey, the modern Republic of Benin, which told a different story but once again of legionary martyrs. It was the ethnic custom and still is that girls in a family were viewed as a financial asset because they could be given in marriage for a dowry. This is not necessarily evil because it has protected girls in their teenage years. In fact, I recall in a recent report from Central Africa where a young man had been given his bride on a promissory note, when he failed to produce the dowry which was probably a specified number of cattle, her parents came and “confiscated his bride”. In any case, there was a praesidium of girls who had all become Christians and had been baptised. But a number of them, three if I remember correctly, were given in marriage to pagans. These young legionaries refused to marry these pagan men. The result, which they knew in advance, was thet they were killed. These as far as I know were our proto-martyrs in Africa. Since that time, as in China, the roll of legionary martyrs has increased and continues to increase. Some names we know, most we don’t. Here are some who are listed as having died for the Faith or for having persisted in their Legion work despite warnings. It is subject to verification from original reports.
Balthasar Kalamu, one the first legionaries of Kasaye died for the Faith in 1961
Fortunat Kabangele, Secretary of Mweka Curia, also in the Kasaye, Congo
François Ilunga, President of Ruwe praesidium, Kolwezi, Congo
Abbé Thomas Beya, first translator of the Tschiluba Handbook
Pierre Boumsang, praesidium President in the Bassa country, Cameroun
Laurent Yumba, President of Kiambi Curia, Congo
Bernard Mabika and Henry Makena, President & Secretary of Lusambo Curia, Kasai
Blessed Marie Clémentine Nengapeta known as Anuarite who was active in the Legion in Bafwabaka, Congo, martyred in 1964 by Simbas who had deported some nuns and whose leader had chosen Anuarite for himself.
Cardinal Emile Biayenda of Brazzaville, a legionary and legionary Spiritual Director assassinated on March 23rd, 1977.
“A notable president of the praesidium in the Bassa country attached to the Samba Curia set up by the late Sr. Eileen Sheehy was Br. Pierre Boumsang. He was a Town Councillor and regarded as the pillar of his village. The Sub-Prefect for the area, a Protestant, noting the increase in terrorist attacks on the Mission stations, decided that Pierre was in danger and offered him, his wife and children, protection in a place close to the area Military Headquarters. Pierre thanked him and said “I am the Catechist here. What sort of Catechism lesson would it be for our Christians if I left now?”.Soon enough, the terrorists arrived. Pierre faced them with the words of Our Lord: “Since it is me you are looking for, let the rest go in peace.” They took him and also the teacher, a nephew of his who was a legionary too. At the entrance to the village Pierre said “This is the limit of my village. I promised I would not leave my Christians, so kill me here if you want to”. So they killed the two there with knives. Next day the Christians recovered their bodies and buried them in the vollage”.
I cannot pass the Congo without mentioning a famous Envoy who could be forgotten to-day, Anne O’Connor. All through that fratricidal period, she never ceased to travel, to encourage, to send reports. Whenever, she came to a military road-block, she would address the officer-in-charge “Légion de Marie – On passe!”. So much so that the Congolese soldiers called her “Général Jupe” and praesidia multiplied among the soldiers too.
Some of the accounts Anne sent are appalling to read but they merit reading if we are serious about our Faith. Here is one taken from Maria Legionis No. 1 of 1962.
Of Laurent Yumba, the following report given to us by a Priest:
“Laurent was a teacher and was captured by his sixth-year primary pupils who brought him to Manono, ill-treating him on the way. On arrival at Manono, he was imprisoned with other teachers and employees of the Géomine, about 30 in all. In gaol, our dear Br. Laurent Yumba instructed and prepared 11 of his fellow-prisoners for Baptism. On the day of their death, the executioner began by taking a draught of human blood and then set about his work. Laurent and his companions were first made to drink petrol; then the different members of their bodies were cut off, arms, ears, noses, etc., and thrown in a heap, after which the whole pile was set on fire.
That is how their martyrdom took place in which they bore heroic witness to our Faith. Here at Sola, we celebrated a solemn Requiem Mass – but for my part, I offered it as a Mass of thanksgiving for this wonderful grace. Let us rejoice in the Lord who has been pleased to select for Himself souls of choice from among the legionaries of Africa. What a source of grace for our unstable young Christian communities”.
I mention these names and their story so that we may take inspiration from them. They give glory to our movement. Their courage inspires us. Yet we should recall Frank Duff’s words “Though character may be shown in the great moments, it is in the little moments that it is made”. So even if not called to martyrdom as our Chinese and African brothers and Sisters were, nevertheless we can enter on the same path by showing courage in the little moments.
Lastly, it would not be right to omit mention of Mary Lee Walters, Secretary of Pittsburg Comitium, a martyr for purity. She was a lovely young woman, a really great and active legionary, who stayed on in her office to finish some work. She was approached by a man and when she did not respond to his advances, she was assaulted. Despite multiple stab-wounds, she fought to the end and gave her life for her virtue. Of her Frank Duff said, “She would be an even finer example than St. Maria Goretti as, over and above her heroic resistance, she had an inspiring record of apostolic work”.
One aspect of the sufferings of the legionaries was that Catholics everywhere, both in China where the first martyrdoms occurred and in the Congo a decade later, were awakened to the importance of the Legion and realised that they too were called to be active for the Faith. Take for instance the diocese of Tiyuan, China, a big place with a large population and a lot of industry. Nuncio Riberi and Fr. McGrath had been calling for a mobilisation but the diocese took no notice until the great Communist onslaught on the Legion began. They suddenly worke up and got organised and produced martyrs in their turn. In the Congo too, the Christians who were lackadaisical, began to hear about the Legion. If it was so important to Communists and fellow-travellers who wanted the missionaries out, then it must be something worthwhile and this thought process aided the rapid spread of the Legion.
And lest we think this savagery unparallelled, let us finish with an extract from the Maccabees so prominent in Br. Duff’s mind.
The glorious martyrdom of the seven brethren and their mother.
1 It came to pass also, that seven brethren, together with their mother, were apprehended, and compelled by the king to eat swine's flesh against the law, for which end they were tormented with whips and scourges. 2 But one of them, who was the eldest, said thus: What wouldst thou ask, or learn of us? we are ready to die rather than to transgress the laws of God, received from our fathers. 3 Then the king being angry commanded fryingpans, and brazen caldrons to be made hot: which forthwith were heated, 4 He commanded to cut out the tongue of him that had spoken first: and the skin of his head being drawn off, to chop off also the extremities of his hands and feet, the rest of his brethren, and his mother, looking on. 5 And when he was now maimed in all parts, he commanded him, being yet alive, to be brought to the fire, and to be fried in the fryingpan: and while he was suffering therein long torments, the rest, together with the mother, exhorted one another to die manfully,………..
Now the mother was to be admired above measure, and worthy to be remembered by good men, who beheld seven sons slain in the space of one day, and bore it with a good courage, for the hope that she had in God:
21 And she bravely exhorted every one of them in her own language, being filled with wisdom: and joining a man's heart to a woman's thought, 22 She said to them: I know not how you were formed in my womb: for I neither gave you breath, nor soul, nor life, neither did I frame the limbs of every one of you. 23 But the Creator of the world, that formed the nativity of man, and that found out the origin of all, he will restore to you again in his mercy, both breath and life, as now you despise yourselves for the sake of his laws. 24 Now Antiochus, thinking himself despised, and withal despising the voice of the upbraider, when the youngest was yet alive, did not only exhort him by words, but also assured him with an oath, that he would make him a rich and a happy man, and, if he would turn from the laws of his fathers, would take him for a friend, and furnish him with things necessary. 25 But when the young man was not moved with these things, the king called the mother, and counselled her to deal with the young man to save his life. 26 And when he had exhorted her with many words, she promised that she would counsel her son. 27 So bending herself towards him, mocking the cruel tyrant, she said in her own language: My son, have pity upon me, that bore thee nine months in my womb, and gave thee suck three years, and nourished thee, and brought thee up unto this age. 28 I beseech thee, my son, look upon heaven and earth, and all that is in them: and consider that God made them out of nothing, and mankind also: 29 So thou shalt not fear this tormentor, but being made a worthy partner with thy brethren, receive death, that in that mercy I may receive thee again with thy brethren. 30 While she was yet speaking these words, the young man said: For whom do you stay? I will not obey the commandment of the king, but the commandment of the law, which was given us by Moses. ……39 Then the king being incensed with anger, raged against him more cruelly than all the rest, taking it grievously that he was mocked. 40 So this man also died undefiled, wholly trusting in the Lord. 41 And last of all after the sons the mother also was consumed. 42 But now there is enough said of the sacrifices, and of the excessive cruelties.
Frank Duff’s idea was that the Legion formed part of the Church’s preparation for a colossal struggle that was coming in the next century. And we are already in that century.