China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2018/Jan

Blessed and saints in Hong Kong

The Catholic Church in Hong Kong has been the living and working place of special people, some of whom the Church has officially declared Blesseds or Saints. They are not well known to local Catholics. Some others, however, have shed their blood in order to keep and confess their faith, but, unfortunately, have remained unknown and their records are hidden in the archives. Let us consider the first group.

Born in Saint-Christo-en-Janet, Loire, France, on 1 March 1824, St. Jean-Louis Bonnard (1824 to 1852) joined the Missions Etrangères de Paris (Paris Foreign Mission Society [MEP]) on 4 November 1846 and was ordained to the priesthood on 23 December 1848. He arrived in Hong Kong on 5 July 1849 and remained here for about eight months, studying the Chinese language, doing evangelising work and teaching six seminarians.

He then left for Vietnam via Guangdong. There he carried out apostolic work first at Ke-bang, then at Ke-trinh and finally at Boi-xuyen. Accused of spreading the Catholic faith, he was arrested in a small community of his district and brought to Nam-dinh.

During his 40 days in prison, he refused to betray his faith or to reveal the names of people who gave him refuge. Fortunately, a Vietnamese priest was able visit him twice and bring him the Eucharist, enabling him to exchange correspondence with his bishop.

Then he was sentenced to death on the charge of preaching a perverse religion and beheaded on 1 May 1852. The previous day, he had written: “Tomorrow, Saturday, feast of Ss. Apostles Philip and James…, here I believe, the day fixed for my sacrifice. I die happy. May the Lord be blessed. The vigil of my death, 4 April 1852.” He was proclaimed a saint on 19 June 1988.

The second special person is St. Jean-Theophane Vénard (1829 to 1861), also a French member of the MEP. He came to Hong Kong in 1852 where he taught philosophy in the seminary run by the society for their missions. He left Hong Kong on 26 May 1854 on mission to West Tonkin (present day North Vietnam).

Shortly after his arrival, a new royal edict was issued against the Christian faith. Missionaries were forced to seek refuge in caves, woods, or among the faithful. Father Vénard, whose constitution had always been delicate, suffered almost constantly, but continued to exercise his ministry as well as teach in the seminary.

On 30 November 1860, he was betrayed and captured. Tried before a mandarin, he refused to apostatise and was sentenced to be beheaded. He remained a captive until 2 February 1861, during which time he lived chained in a cage, from where he wrote beautiful and consoling letters, joyful in anticipation of his crown.

On the way to martyrdom, Father Vénard chanted psalms and hymns.

His head, after exposure at the top of a pole, was secured by the faithful and is now venerated in Tonkin. The body rests in the crypt at the MEP headquarters in Paris. He was beatified on 2 May 1909, and canonised on 19 June 1988.

Famous for having inspired St. Therese of Lisieux, who said that St. Jean-Théophane was someone who had lived her own image of a martyr and missionary.

In reading one of his letters, and the most famous line, “We are all flowers planted on this earth, which God plucks in His own good time, some a little sooner, some a little later,” St. Therese came to understand and use the image of being the ‘Little Flower’, whom God nevertheless cared for and cultivated, despite her diminunitive size.

The third saint is St. Joseph Freinademetz (1852 to 1908), a member of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD), native of Badia, a village in Tyrol, a region then belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire but now a part of Italy.

He arrived in Hong Kong on 20 April 1879, together with a confrère, Father John Baptist Anzer, the first two members of the SVD to be sent to China. He underwent his initial missionary training and started to learn the Chinese language from August 1879 to April 1881, mainly in Sai Kung, then in Baoan district (now the New Territories).

He found the adaptation process rather challenging with both the language and food. However, he encouraged a friend who was meeting with similar difficulties: saying: “Do not be afraid. Poverty is surely the shortest way to Paradise. I have here also not much. I am living in the midst of pagans. But, I cannot thank our Lord enough for having called me to be a missionary in China. I have to make many sacrifices, that is clear. I know, however, that sacrifices are the greatest treasures which the Lord gives us. Sometimes when I think I have left father and mother behind forever, it weighs on my shoulders like a mighty boulder…”

Loneliness too was a cause for pain since Father Luigi Piazzoli, the missionary in charge, had to go around for his apostolic tours of the villages. Father Freinademetz derived some consolation in celebrating Mass and administering the sacraments, which were then performed in Latin, both in Sai Kung and in other surrounding villages.

The baptism registers record five baptisms administered by him in different villages. Every two months he sailed to Hong Kong to meet his confrère, or to get some medicine and a cure for his fevers.

Later, Bishop Raimondi invited him to pay a week-long visit to the island of Lantau to explore the possibility for its evangelisation. Then, he returned to Sai Kung. In early April 1881, the bishop received the news that South Shandong had been entrusted to the SVD.

Father Freinademetz had to go there. He said goodbye to the Catholic community and to Father Piazzoli, and sailed back to Hong Kong where, on May 23, he boarded a ship for Shanghai and for his new mission in Shandong.

There, Father Freinademetz utitlised all his energies as a pioneer missionary in evangelisation, pastoral ministry and teaching until his death on 28 January 1908, in Daijiazhuang.

He was declared a blessed on 19 October 1975 and a saint on 5 October 2003.

The fourth is Blessed Father Gabriele Maria Allegra (1907 to 1976), an Italian member of the Order of Friars Minor, who was born in Sicily. He went to China in 1931 and in 1945, with a group of confrères, founded the Duns Scotus Studium Biblicum Francescanum with the purpose of translating the Catholic Bible into Chinese.

Due to the war, he moved the Studium to Hong Kong in 1948 and finished the complete translation of the bible in 1968.

The translation work was painstaking and intense. Father Allegra was known for working too hard, often compromising his health. He used to say, “The most enviable fate for a Franciscan who doesn’t obtain the grace of martyrdom, is to die while he is working.”

On Christmas Day 1968, Father Allegra achieved his life’s ambition when the first one-volume bible was published in Chinese. This version is still the main Catholic Chinese text today and is considered the most faithful to the original manuscript.

Then in 1975, the Chinese biblical dictionary was published, followed by other publications. Father Allegra saw the doctrine of the absolute primacy of Christ as being central to understanding the sacred scriptures and God’s design in creating and redeeming the universe. He was renowned for his knowledge of the theology and philosophy of Blessed John Duns Scotus and was even invited by Oxford University to give the 700th centenary lecture on him.

Although the translation of the bible was the main focus of Father Allegra’s work and he is usually considered primarily a scripture scholar, he took time to preach retreats, guide religious sisters and help the poor and the sick, particularly spending many holidays with the lepers in Macau.

In his later years, Father Allegra suffered severely from heart trouble and high blood pressure. A rest and recovery period was recommended in Italy, but he chose to return to the Studium Biblicum in Hong Kong to work to the end.

He wrote: “Everybody thinks that I’m sick, but I can still work so let’s go on! The ideal is worth more than life!” He died in Hong Kong in 1976 and was declared a blessed on 29 September 2012.

The Church celebrates the feast days of St. Joseph Freinademetz and St. Jean-Theophane Venard on January 28 and February 2 respectively.

Let us follow their footsteps and share the Good News beginning in Hong Kong.