Finally, we have a biography of one of the greatest confessors of the Faith of the twentieth century — the dry martyr, Ignatius Cardinal Kung Pin-Mei. The author, Monsignor Stephen M. DiGiovanni, had been assigned in 2010 by William E. Lori, then Bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut (the diocese in which Cardinal Kung died), to compile biographical information of Cardinal Kung and keep a record of any reported miracles attributed to his intercession.
Monsignor DiGiovanni’s book, Ignatius: The Life Of Ignatius Cardinal Kung Pin-Mei, grew out of a six part biographical series he wrote for the weekly bulletin of the Basilica of Saint John the Evangelist in Stamford, Connecticut, where the Monsignor was pastor and parochial vicar.
The book documents important historical testimony of the Church in China just prior to and after the Communist takeover. It is an inspiring account of an exceptional shepherd, one who is unquestionably canonizable. There were eight bishops who suffered in communist prisons and labor camps (usually with mental and/or physical torture) either as cardinals or who were named cardinals after their release. Cardinal Kung’s jail time was the longest of all. While in prison, the bishop was named a cardinal secretly, in pectore, by Pope John Paul II, during his first consistory in 1979. He was not informed of this until his release in 1988. As Monsignor Di Giovanni notes, Bishop Fulton Sheen, in his Mission magazine (1957) wrote: “The West has its Mindszenty, but the East has its Kung. God is glorified in His saints.”
The author begins his biography in the usual way with the Kung family background. Ignatius, the oldest of four siblings, was born in 1901 to fifth generation Catholics, Kung Xin Yuan and his wife Li Yian Yuing. The Cardinal’s life spanned the whole of the twentieth century (1901-2000). The Monsignor covers Ignatius’ fascinating childhood, his classical Chinese education, first under his Aunt Martha, a consecrated virgin who had a huge influence on his life, and later, under the Jesuits in high school and seminary. The early part of the biography is peppered with delightful anecdotes, which give the reader an appreciation of Chinese culture as well as the supernatural culture which perfects that which is inherited ethnically. I was astonished to read that the young students of Shanghai had to memorize one hundred of the nation’s most cherished poems and that the Cardinal was able to recite from them even in his nineties.
The bulk of DiGiovanni’s masterful work covers Cardinal Kung’s episcopate as the first Chinese Bishop of Shanghai (China’s largest Catholic diocese) and, as such, his ordeal with the Communist authorities after their takeover in 1949. As the author points out, as bishop, Ignatius Kung had not only to sacramentally nurture and educate his flock, but he had to prepare them (one million souls) for imprisonment and possible martyrdom. To help achieve this, he fostered the work of missioner Father Aidan McGrath and his Legion of Mary. Too, from 1952-1955, he organized round-the-clock perpetual Rosaries, daily Benediction, Marian processions, and other devotional exercises in all eighty of the diocesan parishes; in addition, on August 22, 1952 he solemnly consecrated his diocese to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Furthermore, that same year, he took all the diocese’s seminarians and priests on a pilgrimage to the patronal shrine of Our Lady of Sheshan and each of them singly vowed Our Lady, reading from a prepared text, that he would steadfastly keep the Faith and remain loyal to the Vicar of Christ. As the Cardinal later noted, almost all the clergy kept that vow.
In the early 1950s, Cardinal Kung was declared by the Communist authorities in Shanghai to be “public enemy number one,” but it wasn’t until September 8, 1955, that they arrested him along with three hundred other prominent Catholics, clergy and lay. He was sent to prison without a trial and remained a captive, even enduring, at times, solitary confinement, for nearly thirty-three years.
This is the story of Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei. Monsignor DiGiovanni packs 101 pages with the history, passion, and adventure of a joyful shepherd whose mission was to suffer, not only imprisonment — and all the humiliations that went with life behind Communist bars — but separation from his flock, betrayal by some, and abandonment. Locked up for a third of his life, Bishop Kung had to keep his mind and body active just to maintain sanity. He prayed ceaselessly even while doing his half-hour traditional Chinese exercise. This is the story of a man of iron will, who, as you will read, would shout out before three thousand people, his hands tied behind his back, on a public stage in a mock trial, “Long live Christ the King, Long live the Pope!” ‘Just nod your head,’ he would later be baited on by his godless persecutors, ‘accept the head position in the Catholic Patriotic Association, many of your clergy have joined, just deny your allegiance to this foreigner in Rome, you don’t even have to sign anything, and we will let you go free.’ The neck of this stalwart shepherd did not budge. It was not the neck of a hireling, it was a neck made of steel.
In addition to the biography, the author adds seventeen appendices. These include papal encyclicals on China and Communism, a Letter of Pope Paul VI to Bishop Kung (written in 1974 while he was in prison), his solemn, judicious, and exhaustively written Letter of Appeal (composed in 1979), sermons by Ignatius Kung, given as Bishop and later as Cardinal after his release, and, last but not least, his filial meditations on the Stations of the Cross and the Seven Last Words.