History of Asian Missions


A bimonthly missionary letter to foster prayers for Asia
No. 4

I - History of the Asian Missions - China Part I
II - A Missionary Story from China - A baptism in a closed coffin
For the Missions of Asia: One Million Hail Marys Daily

I - History of the Asian Missions China  Part I

In 1625, some workmen were preparing the foundations for a new building near Ch’ang-an when they uncovered a large stone tablet engraved with Chinese characters along with another script that was not immediately decipherable.  The city governor of Ch’ang-an had the bulky stone taken to a temple, where, but for another happy chance, it might have remained gathering dust in obscurity, its little mine of information unsuspected by the world.  Fortunately, a recent Chinese convert to Catholicism happened to see the stone in the temple and took a rubbing of its inscription, which he sent to a friend in Hangchow.  This friend, also a Christian convert, was a scholar called Li Chih-Tsao.  Having read the characters, Li made the following comment: "I was living in retirement in the country... when my friend... had the kindness to send me a copy of the tablet of the T’ang, saying to me: ‘It has the title, Praise the Monument Recalling the Propagation in the Middle Kingdom of the Illustrious Religion.’  We had not heard of this religion before.  Could it be the holy religion that Ricci had come to preach from the farthest West?"

Li was mistaken.  The great Jesuit father Ricci (of whom we shall hear later) was a Roman Catholic, and the stone described the arrival and progress in China of a sect which broke off from Catholicism called Nestorianism (the heresy which says that in Our Lord Jesus Christ there are two natures and two persons).

Presently, the Chinese inscription from the stone reached the Jesuits in Peking, and one of them, Father Semedo made the first translation of it into a European language.  The name Alopen occurred in the inscription along with the Chinese name Ta-ch’in, which designated roughly the area we now call Syria.

Alopen, then, is the first Western visitor to China whose name is known.  The stone credits him with founding a Nestorian church in China.  Most historians have inferred that he was a monk, although there is only one contemporary statement to this effect.  However that may be, the story of the Nestorians in China in the T’ang dynasty is a fascinating one, partly because it contains some of the earliest news we have of Westerners in the Middle Kingdom, and partly because in it we find even at this very distant date the element of later events which overtook other Westerners when they came to China.

Alopen arrived in China in 635 A.D.  The Nestorians expanded and survived until 845 A.D. when an edict of the new emperor Wu Tsung eradicated them completely.  What happened to them after that is not known.  In China, even today, a Nestorian Cross comes to light now and then in an unexpected place.  Father Ricci (+1638) seven or eight hundred years after the T’ang dynasty was puzzled from time to time when he discovered people in China who made the sign of the Cross but did not know what it meant.  They were called "the Adorers of the Cross" in North China.

The Priest who was a heavy Man

It would be foolish to approach the journey of Friar William of Rubruck with anything but humility.  For it was with this fundamental attitude that he approached his own life, the hazards of his trip, and the pitiless Mongols whom he so ardently wished to bring to his God.  Although he never reached China proper, never crossed the Great Wall, he did have close contact with the rulers of China, and for this reason as well as for the magnitude of his travels along roads to be followed by later visitors to China, his story has a very real bearing on our own.

Unfortunately, the only description we have of Friar William is his own remark that at the time of his travels he was "a very heavy man".  As to his birth and death, we are ignorant of the dates, but it seems that he came from a village in French Flanders.  He emerges among the crossed swords of popes and emperors that characterised his times, when the Saracens were occupying the Holy Land and the West was crusading to rescue it from them, and when the Mongols had already overrun most of Eastern Europe, decimating its population and striking terror in the hearts of popes and kings alike, he emerges, solid as that rock on which his faith was founded, and never wavers from the goals he set for himself.

We know little of his appearance, but of his character we have an excellent picture in his own words -- in those dog-Latin sentences in which he set down the report of his journey for Saint Louis IX of France who had sent him across the wastes of Asia at a time when the king was considering a Franco-Mongol alliance against the Muslim of Iraq (1249).  Unwittingly, he gives a remarkable full account of himself, one that leaps clearly out of the astounding tale he has to tell of that pagan wilderness of barbarity and ice through which he went toward China.

St. Louis sent Friar William to Sartaq, son of the great general Batu, as rumours had reached Europe of Sartaq’s baptism.  The Friar reached Sartaq but met with disappointment: "They have risen so much in their pride," he wrote, "that they may believe somewhat in Christ, yet they will not be called Christians, wishing to exalt their own name of Mongol above all others."  Sartaq sent him further to his father Batu who in turn sent in another three months journey further to the great Khan of the Mongol Empire, in Karakorum.  The Flemish Franciscan spent eight months at the court of the Khan where, relieved of all diplomatic obligations, he managed to begin an embryo of missionary activity.  Beside taking part in theological controversies between various religious groups, his apostolate was mainly aimed at the Christians transplanted in Mongolia.  In Karakorum, in found French, Hungarian, English and Coman (from South Russia) Catholics as well as others from the various Eastern rites, all in a miserable religious condition.  Our Friar had to instruct these deported souls on the true obligations of their faith and was also able to put together a few books for some Hungarian clerics.

He left Karakorum in August 1254, and on his way back towards Paris, which he reaches in just over a year later, he noticed that the news of Sartaq’s alleged conversion had put other missionaries on the road, especially some groups of Dominicans.  A year earlier, in July 1253, pope Innocent IV had granted special privileges to the friars of the Order of Preachers leaving for the East and Far East.  It was the signal of new missionary endeavors in the Mongol Empire, following the diplomatic missions of 1245-1250.

(Sources: Histoire Universelle des Missions Catholiques, Paris, 1955, vol.1, pp. 173-195; Barbarians and Mandarins, Thirteen centuries of Western Travellers in China, by Nigel Cameron, Hong Kong, 1970,  pp. 17-60)

(To be continued) 

II - A Missionary Story from China A baptism in a closed coffin

On the edge of a little hill overlooking the sea, Yen-Tai, a little Chinese town, staged its gray roofs and yellow lanes.  In the far distance, brick-red mountains cut the sky with their sinuous lines while nearby, the sea, joining its deep and rhythmic voice to the murmurs of the beach laid majestically the white creases of its blue-green blanket.

In a bright day of the fair Chinese light, Sister Etienne had just left her hospital and was heading to the back of the town where stood quietly behind the lumps of thick trees a settlement of lepers.  Slowly, along the sandy beach path, she was running her fingers on her beads for the poor lepers she couldn’t cure.  Divine Providence heard her prayers that morning in a way she could never have imagined, preparing her for the most touching of all cures.

She had just reached the rice-fields when the sound of heavy footsteps hit her ears.  Two men, also heading for the colony of lepers but coming from another direction, were carrying on their shoulders a long and narrow box.  At a glance she recognised the porters: two Chinese fantassins of General Fong-Ta-Seu, famous for the ferocious discipline he had imposed on his troops of which a division was then stationed in Yen-Tai.  As a matter of fact, Sister Etienne had even nursed these very two soldiers and many others in the hospital.

-Good morning, she said, where are you hurrying like that?
-Behind the woods, they replied without stopping.  We have to bury this.
And looking at the coffin they continued their way visibly embarrassed.
-Good luck, she shouted back.

They were carrying a dead man, what else did she need to know?  However as they distanced her, a frightful feeling shook the good Sister.  At first, choked knocks, then sliding between the disjointed planks, wounded and bleeding fingers of a begging hand appeared.  What awful drama was behind that mystery, that dreadful vision?

The dead was alive!  Coming back from a coma by the rough road? Awaken at the Sister’s voice?

Sister Etienne ran towards that anguished hand, took it gently in hers and, controlling by the grace of God the deep emotion tightening her throat, she asked:
-Who are you?
-Leang-T’Sou, answered a half-silent voice...  I will die...  Have pity on me, don’t let me die, you, my Mother...
-You recognise me?
-Yes, you are the ‘soldiers’ Sister’...
-What have you done, my dear Leang-T’Sou?
-I wanted to escape, to go back to my fields, to see my aging father...  They caught me...  They shot me...  But didn’t kill me....  Have pity on me!

She then understood the whole story: Rapidly caught by Fong-Ta-Seu’s agents, the unfortunate deserter had been judged and sentenced to death, but the bullets had missed the vital spots.  Without waiting for his last breath, they had thrown him in a rough white-wooden bow to bury him like that, as fast as possible.  What a horrible agony!

What could she do? She tried to reason with the two porters to bring the dying man to the nearby leper colony.  But they did not even bother to slow their paste, fearing too much a retaliation of their chiefs if ever they were caught, and the fear of being buried alive themselves too was hardening them and rendering them more cruel.

Seeing that she gained nothing talking, Sister Etienne attempted to convert the dying man.  Through the cracks of his coffin, she taught him that there was a just God, that we have a soul destined to know Him and love Him in an unending happiness.

Leang-T’Sou listened, acquiesced, amazed... begged forgiveness.  Soon, she could pour on his now submissive and believing hand the redeeming water of baptism.

Only then did Sister leave that convert of the last hour, this privileged of God, and she followed him with her eyes until the group disappeared behind the patch of trees.

An hour later, returning from her lepers, she took again the beach trail.  The sea was calmly resting, on the wet beach birds were hunting for fresh food.  In the distance, two soldiers were entering the town empty handed.

From Annales de la Propagation de la Foi, Quebec, Sept.-Oct. 1938, pp. 200-202.

For the Missions of Asia: One Million Hail Marys Daily

    As An act of faith in the all powerful intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mediatrix of all Graces, and as a token of missionary charity towards the very great number of souls in Asia, 

    I wish to pledge ____ decades of the Rosary everyday  "For the Missions of Asia"

    I understand that I need not necessarily add extra prayers but that simply need to add that intention "For the Missions of Asia" to my usual daily prayers. 
Name: _____________________________________________ 
Send this form (or a copy) toFather Superior, Our Lady of Victories, 2 Canon Road, New Manila, Quezon City 1112, Philippines. 
The progress of this ongoing spiritual bouquet will be related in the future issues of the Missionary Letter.  As of May 1, 1998, around 250,000 Hail Marys are being said daily for this intention.  This letter will be sent free of charge to all those who pledge to pray "For the Missions of Asia".  (Those who attend Asian Mass centers can get their copy there.)

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