This year one of our featured speakers at the Saint Benedict Center Conference was Joseph Kung, the nephew of the late Cardinal Kung. Joseph knew his uncle intimately, both as a child and young man in China and, then, even more so three decades later, when his uncle was released from his thirty-two and a half year captivity into his custody. The Cardinal was eighty-six years old when he was finally released from a two and a half year house arrest, courtesy of the schismatic Catholic Patriotic Association, on January 5, 1988. Joseph and his wife Agnes arranged for the Cardinal’s coming to Stamford Connecticut for his immediate and urgently needed hospital care. Once the ailing Cardinal had recovered his health sufficiently Joseph was able (owing to the good graces of the local Ordinary, Bishop Curtis) to place him in the Queen of Clergy retirement home for aged priests from the Bridgeport diocese. For the last few years of Cardinal Kung’s life, Joseph and his wife took him into their own home in Stamford. He died on March 11, 2000.
The Kungs had a table at the Conference where they happily shared their memories of their heroic “Cardinal Uncle.” They also distributed literature relating to the Cardinal Kung Foundation itself, its purpose, goals, world-wide influence, and charitable works in promoting the growth of the Roman Catholic “underground” Church in China. One of the main purposes of the Foundation is to keep alive the names of the martyrs who have shed their blood, ever so slowly, in Communist labor camps and prisons. And, too, the Foundation’s web site and newsletters do more than any other Catholic media outlet to keep alive the names of the current victims of religious persecution in China; these include many bishops, priests, and hundreds of the Catholic laity.
Today there are over ten million true Catholics in China. All of them have suffered and continue to suffer for the Faith. Although ten million is only one per cent of the total population of this land of four million square miles, consider that this is over twice as many Catholics as there are in all of Catholic Ireland.
Cardinal Kung in his own self-deprecating way used to say that the strength of the Church in China was the fruit of the great sacrifices of the foreign missionaries. And this is true. However, the reason that the seeds of the Gospel bore such abundant fruit in China, especially in these past two centuries, was because of the richness of the soil provided by the indigenous clergy and religious of both sexes. The twentieth century blossomed with religious vocations in this vast ancient country, the nucleus of the Orient.
Our heroic prelate’s full name is Ignatius Cardinal Kung Pin-Mei. The surname Pin-Mei means “character of the winter blossom,” which is to flourish in harsh circumstances. He was born in 1901 into a devoutly Catholic middle-class family in a farming village outside of Shanghai. He was the first priest in this family of five generations of Catholics. And their first priest was also called by his Church to be a bishop and a cardinal. Hopefully, he will be even more — a canonized saint.
The person who had the greatest religious influence on young Ignatius was his Aunt Martha, a homebound consecrated virgin, the sister of his father Vincent. Too, there was a Marist brother who inspired the vocation to the priesthood. And then there were his principal educators, the old school Jesuits, who ran the middle and high schools that Ignatius attended in Shanghai. At the age of nineteen Ignatius entered the diocesan seminary.
After his ordination, Father Kung was immediately employed as a teacher in the Jesuit high school, and later, even though not a Jesuit, he was appointed headmaster of two of their high schools. In 1949, the year China turned Red, Father Kung was consecrated bishop of Soochow, a newly created diocese. One year later, he received the additional appointment as the first Chinese Bishop of Shanghai, the most populated city of China, and also the administrator of the diocese of Nanking, the ancient capital of China. To give an idea of what this would be compared to in the United States, it would be as if he were appointed bishop of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, all at the same time.
For five years Bishop Kung invigorated the Faith of about one million Catholics. He was extremely influential with the young, inspiring scores of vocations, and establishing six chapters of the Legion of Mary. Ninety-five percent of the students in his diocese became faithful members of the Legion. Hundreds of them suffered under the Communists, who singled out the Legionairies as a foreign “army” that must be destroyed. Mao Zedong actually labeled the Legion “Public Enemy Number One.” There were many martyrs among these young Marian apostles, including the president of the Shanghai chapters, Francis Shen, who was executed by the Reds in 1963. The Bishop had left all of them strong counsel, fortifying them for the worst to come, and instructing them never to compromise. Before his own imprisonment, many members replied in a joint letter to the bishop, expressing their fidelity to the Faith, and (literally) signing their names in blood.
The Bishop survived five years under the Communist oppression before they finally arrested him on September 8th, 1955, the feast of Our Lady’s nativity. It would be five more years before he was put on “trial” for crimes “against the people” and for being “a running dog of the imperialists.” When he was commanded at this trial to renounce the Pope, he protested: “ I am a Roman Catholic Bishop. If I denounce the Holy Father, not only would I not be a Bishop, I would not even be a Catholic. You can cut off my head, but you can never take away my duties.”
Ignatius Kung went to prison with whatever belongings he could wrap inside a towel. He had all of his teeth removed prior to the arrest, anticipating torture under the guise of extracting the gold fillings. He had formed members in Christ that would follow his example, many unto long prison terms, some unto death. Now he would have to guide his flock in silence, by his heroic example, enduring thirty-years of isolation. He would suffer the fire of grueling interrogations, of unrelenting false accusations in oppressive “struggle sessions,” of a monotonous routine, staring at the same walls day in and day out, and having the same plate of subsistence fare put before him so that he would not die of starvation. For those of us who have no experiential knowledge of what it is like to be contained like an animal, we can only wonder how oppressive was the isolation to his soul, especially for a man who longed to be an active shepherd to his flock; or, if that was not to be, then at least to be a martyr for the Church. Death would be better than this living hell. “Lord, take my soul,” he must have prayed. Every day was the same as the day before, eleven thousand of them, a nerve-wracking regimen without respite.
Surely, Our Lord must cast men such as Ignatius Kung from a different mold. For one third of his lifetime of ninety-eight years, this gifted champion of Christ lived virtually alone with God, shedding his blood every day interiorly, all the while faithfully reciting the same old devotional prayers: the holy rosary, the Ordinary prayers of the Mass, hymns and Psalms, canticles and litanies — whatever he could remember. His fingers were his beads. They were not going to break this bishop. All that was required to win his freedom was to renounce the Pope. He need not even sign his name to the defection. “Just nod your head,” they taunted him, “and all will be well for you.” Every time he heard these diabolical words his neck flexed to steel.
In his twenty-fourth year of captivity, Ignatius Kung was created a cardinal on June 29, 1979, at Pope John Paul II’s first consistory. This act was not done publicly, but as they phrase it in Latin, in pectore, secretly in the heart of the Pope. Our hero would not know about this elevation until he was released from his nearly three-year house arrest in 1987. He would hear of it from the Holy Father himself when he had his first private audience with the Pope in 1989.
The final twelve years of freedom of Ignatius Cardinal Kung were not lived in Taiwan (where he wanted to spend them among his exiled flock) but in Stamford, Connecticut. Although his family and the late Bishop Curtis of the Bridgeport diocese took care of his health, he would have much to suffer still interiorly — not from Communist cadres or CPA (Catholic Patriotic Association) mercenaries — but from fellow Catholic priests and hierarchs. As the principal voice of the underground Roman Catholic Church in China, the persecuted, the imprisoned, those enduring a living death in the laogai (labor camps) and the martyrs, the Bishop of Shanghai would be abandoned by way of clerical indifference. He would be betrayed by those religious orders that had abandoned the spirit of their founders, even though they had originally pioneered the eastern mission endeavor that led to his own blessed vocation. Maryknoll, the Jesuits, and other Catholic institutions (Aid to the Church in Need) are just a few of the more prominent players who have turned their backs on the underground Roman Catholic Church in China and given their support to the clergy of the schismatic Patriotic Association.
A Prince of the Catholic Church, a living martyr, Ignatius Kung would die in exile because he did “love justice more than iniquity” (Ps. 45:7). He would die without a penny to his name, totally dependent upon his nephew Joseph to lay him to rest in a temporary chapel mausoleum in California until his remains should be returned to the cathedral of Shanghai.
Those who came to our Conference were informed about the Church in China by a man who knows from first hand experience about what is happening to your fellow Catholics across the Pacific Ocean. They heard the shocking truth about the fraudulent machinations of the schismatic Catholic Patriotic Association and this pseudo-church’s supporters among our own ever-accommodating hierarchs. What is happening today to the Church in China is a major issue that cannot be ignored by genuine Catholics who are not only concerned but also willing to assist those who suffer for Christ every single day of their lives.