Today, July 9, the Church celebrates the feast day of Chinese Martyrs, 120 faithful Catholics assassinated for their faith between 1648 and 1930. 86 of them died in 1900, during the so-called “Boxer Rebellion,” a Chinese anti-Western revolt that caused the killing of Catholic, Evangelical and Anglican missionaries as well as other Europeans and Americans.
Of the group canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 1st of 2000, 87 were Chinese laypeople and 33 were missionaries.
The feast is an occasion for the Chinese Catholic diaspora, and for the Universal Catholic church as a whole, to pray for Christians currently persecuted in Communist China, especially those Catholics who despite being a minority in Hong Kong, constitute the backbone of the freedom movement and are currently being jailed such as Catholic convert Jimmy Lai, owner of the pro-democracy paper Apple News; or those forced to exile, like pro-democracy Catholic leader Joseph Cheng.
“Chinese men and women of every age and state, priests, religious and lay people, showed the same conviction and joy, sealing their unfailing fidelity to Christ and the Church with the gift of their lives,” said St. John Paul II during the canonization.
“Resplendent in this host of martyrs are also the 33 missionaries who left their land and sought to immerse themselves in the Chinese world, lovingly assimilating its features in the desire to proclaim Christ and to serve those people.”
Of the 33 foreign-born missionaries, most were priests and religious, including members of the Order of Preachers, Friars Minor, Jesuits, Salesians and Franciscan Missionaries of Mary.
One of the more well-known native martyrs was a 14-year-old Chinese girl named Ann Wang, who was killed during the Boxer Rebellion when she refused to apostatize. She bravely withstood the threats of her torturers, and just as she was about to be beheaded, she radiantly declared, “The door of heaven is open to all ” and repeated the name of Jesus three times.
Another of the martyrs was 18-year-old Chi Zhuzi, who had been preparing to receive the sacrament of Baptism when he was caught on the road one night and ordered to worship idols. He refused to do so, revealing his belief in Christ. His right arm was cut off and he was tortured, but he would not deny his faith. Rather, he fearlessly pronounced to his captors, before being flayed alive, “Every piece of my flesh, every drop of my blood will tell you that I am Christian.”
Augustine Zhao Rong was the first native Chinese priest to become a martyr. Born in 1746, he served as one of the soldiers who escorted Bishop John Gabriel Taurin Dufresse to his martyrdom in Beijing. The witness of the bishop led Augustine to seek baptism at age 30. He was ordained a priest five years later and was martyred in 1815.
During the canonisation Mass, Pope John Paul II thanked God for blessing the Church with the heroic witness of the 120 martyrs, whom he called “an example of courage and consistency to us all.”