Recently I was privileged to join a party of 27 pilgrims (including guides and tour leaders) on a trip to China to celebrate 100 years of Columban Mission.

Our tour was put together by Dr. Jeremy Clarke PhD, CEO of Sino Immersions, Manly NSW in conjunction with the Editor of the Australian Far East magazine, Mrs Janette Mentha. They both lead the tour in conjunction with Columban Fathers Tommy Murphy and Dan Troy, and Sino representative Angus Gilbert.

Why China? The Missionary Society of St Columban, (originally named St Columban’s Foreign Mission Society) was founded by Fr. Edward Galvin (Later Bishop) and Fr John Blowick in Ireland for the China Mission. Our pilgrimage was to follow in the early Columban missionaries’ footsteps as well as to visit sites of other early missionary activity dating back to the sixteenth century.

As with any holy pilgrimage, God’s grace goes with the group. In our case, just prior to the start of our journey, the Holy Spirit set the agenda with a message from Pope Francis to the Catholics of China and to the Universal Church announcing the first formal agreement between the Vatican and the current Government in Beijing on the appointment of bishops in China.

In his message, the Pope also stated “……seeking the good of the Church in China…………..I have determined to grant reconciliation to the remaining seven “official” bishops ordained without papal mandate and, having lifted every relevant canonical sanction, to readmit them to full ecclesial communion.”

With his letter the Pope has reunited all Catholics, both those practising in the underground Church in China and those practicing under the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association with the Universal Church.

During a reflection session, our missionary leader said that as pilgrims we joined them in their mission work in China. So the pilgrimage began.

On our first day in Hong Kong a small group of us visited Macau which was originally a Portuguese trading post. This became an important base for early Christian missionaries like St. Francis Xavier who stayed there on his way to Japan and the Italian Jesuit, Fr. Matteo Ricchi, the founder of the Church in China who studied Chinese there before embarking on his mission activity in Beijing in 1582.

We also visited the site of St. Paul’s Cathedral which was burnt down in 1855. The façade is still standing, displaying statues of the saints including St Ignatius, the Virgin Mary standing on the serpent, and above the figure of Jesus. These statues had been carved by Japanese Catholic refugees fleeing the persecution in Japan. Behind the façade we visited a crypt which is now a museum containing historical information on the early Church in Macau.

St Pauls’ Cathedral facade, Macau

In a nearby garden was a statue of Fr Matteo Ricchi.

Fr Matteo Ricchi S.J.

The next day we visited the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Hong Kong. Local guides took us on an hour-long tour through the Cathedral. These women were dedicated volunteers who conduct regular tours for visitors to the cathedral. What was outstanding, was the tour was an actual catechesis of our faith.

The afternoon was spent at the Columban Headquarters which is located in the mountains outside Hong Kong where we met with the General Council Members who spoke to our group and answered questions about the Columbans and their current mission work.

We then met with the Columban Lay Mission Leadership Group that included two young women from the Philippines and Korea and an Irishman who inspired us with their stories of why they joined the Lay Missionaries and the work that they were doing. We heard that in Taiwan, the women conduct communion services in communities because the priest can only visit once a month.

Our final guest speaker was Jackie, head of the Hong Kong Catholic Social Justice Group. This inspiring young woman told of her work in social justice in Hong Kong and the difficulties she encounters in this work. She had been arrested on a number of occasions in her support of social justice issues and is undaunted in her quest for justice.

From Hong Kong we flew to Wuhan, where the Han River meets the Yangtze, and where fifty years ago Mao had his famous swim in the Yangtze River signalling the return of the Great Helmsman. More importantly, it was where Fr.Galvin and his fourteen companion Columbans arrived in 1923 to commence the China Mission. It was in Wuhan that the Hangyan Diocese for formed and where Bishop Galvin remained until his expulsion by the Communists in 1952.

Our visit to St. Columbans Cathedral in Wuhan was a memorable one; when taken over by the Communists the building was turned into a factory. It was later returned to the Church and was restored and reopened in 1990.

Here we were joined by nine sisters of the Order of Our Lady of Hangyang, originally founded by Bishop Galvin, and still maintaining their good works in the diocese. The sisters live in a convent at the rear of the cathedral. Following Mass which was attended by some local parishioners, we enjoyed a Chinese lunch provided by the local parishioners.

St Columban’s Cathedral, Hangyang

Nearby we visited the site of the first Sisters convent and school that is now a teacher’s training college. Then to the original headquarters of the Columbans that is now a school. Both sites are heritage listed.

The next day took us into the surrounding countryside, to the town of Xianto where the Columbans had worked. It was here that we were to experience the fruits of their labours. Arrangements had been made for Mass to be celebrated in the local church. Fr Dan Troy said that there may be a few locals coming to Mass – well it was more than a few. On arrival we were greeted by the sounds of singing coming from the church; we entered into a church  full of local people, old, young, middle-aged, women and men all singing hymns. Mass said in English was a truly universal celebration, with Columban Fr Antonio from Korea now working in Taiwan as main concelebrant, with Fr. Bernard a Kiwi from our group and Fr Dan from Ireland, assisted by Deacon Peter (a Chinese Columban to be ordained in January for work in Pakistan). They were assisted by four local acolytes.

Deacon Peter (centre)

While the Mass was in English, Fr Antonio addressed the congregation in Chinese and invited our Chinese hosts to sing the Our Father in Chinese. At the conclusion of Mass, it was moving to see the local people coming forward to receive individual blessings from the priests. Many of them were elderly and had suffered during the times of the persecution. We were then escorted to a nearby hall for lunch where we enjoy the local cuisine provided by the parishioners.

In the afternoon we visited the new diocesan centre where the new Church of The Trinity was in its final stages of completion and to be opened in the New Year. Next to the church was an imposing three story construction to hold the pastoral offices. While partaking of afternoon tea in the grounds the parish band arrived, back from playing at at funeral; they were quickly organised by the parish administrator to play an impromptu performance for us, the joy on their faces said it all. We responded with our rendition of Waltzing Matilda.

New Church of the Holy Trinity
Parish Band

On the next stage of our journey we took a train to Nangfeng, a place of major Columban history.  It was in Nangfeng in 1929 that young Columban, Fr. Timothy Leonard was taken from his church by bandits and shot in a nearby bush. We attended Mass in that same Church and visited Fr Leonard’s grave and tomb, which now stands on a hill in a local mandarin orchid. It has been lovingly restored and is cared for by local Catholics; here we gathered in prayer.

Grave of Fr Tim Leonard

Our next point of call was Shanghai for an overnight whistle stop, giving us the opportunity to walk along the famous Bund (a waterfront area in central Shanghai). It was here that Fr. Galvin and his fellow Columbans entered into China, taking a river boat up the Yangtze to Wuhan.

Then we travelled some 1200 kilometres to Beijing by bullet train at speeds of up to 300kph. Our hotel was located next door to St. Joseph’s Cathedral which offered us the opportunity for 6.30am Mass which I attended with about 60 local people. It was here in this Church, with the permission of the local Parish Priest that we celebrated our farewell Mass.

St Joseph’s Cathedral, Beijing

The next day was site-seeing with an 8.30am start by bus to the Great Wall. The bus ride was an opportunity for Fr Tommy Murphy to address the group and remind us of what Bishop Galvin had said when he went to China – “We are here to do the will of God.”  He then asked us to reflect on what our role was on this trip and what it might be when we returned home.

The Great Wall of China

We listened to an overview of the wall by our local tour guide, David. He said that young men had been seconded to build the wall with thousands dying from starvation and exhaustion. Many of the bodies were buried into the wall to form part of the structure. Walking on the great wonder of the world and appreciating its history was very humbling and exciting.

Back to our pilgrimage Fr. Tommy Murphy took us to visit the cemetery of Fr Matteo Ricchi and some 69 early European missionaries. The cemetery is located behind the old seminary, which is now a training school for the Chinese cadres. Through Fr Murphy’s contacts we were able to enter the grounds and enjoyed a tour with a local guide who explained the history of the site and translated some of the Latin inscriptions on the tomb stones. It is fortunate that the cemetery is still with us today as during various uprisings the head-stones had been buried by local Catholics to save them from destruction. This had occurred on three occasions, firstly during the Boxer wars, then the Communist takeover over and finally during the Cultural Revolution.

Tomb stone of Fr Matteo Ricchi S.J.

I also had the opportunity to visit and walk in Tiananmen Square and the Ancient Observatory where Jesuit missionaries worked in the seventeenth century.

Tiananmen Square

On the final day of the pilgrimage Fr Tommy arranged for a visit to the Beijing seminary, where he works as a Spiritual Director to ten seminarians. The President of the seminary Bishop Joseph Li Shan, newly joined to the Universal Church by Pope Francis invited our party to celebrate Mass in the college chapel. Here we were joined there by the 69 seminarians for fifteen minutes of prayer prior to lunch.

Catholic Seminary, Beijing

This celebration of Mass with the future of the Chinese Church was a fitting end to what had been a packed and spiritually enriching pilgrimage.

Please remember the Church in China as it moves forward.

Ray Lowe

Member of the Bunbury Diocesan Social Justice Committee