Columban Fr Kevin O’Neill with Bishop John Baptist. Photo: St Columbans Mission Society
The first time I saw eighty-six year old Bishop John Baptist was during the Easter Vigil Mass in the cathedral of his diocese in China. I was invited to concelebrate the Easter Vigil Mass with the parish priest and four other priests who worked in the diocesan offices located next to the cathedral. It was a very moving Easter ceremony. There was a large fire outside the church followed by a procession of the congregation into the church holding their candles lit from the Paschal candle. Primary school children read the readings with gusto. Just before the Gloria was sung a huge banner of the risen Jesus was unveiled over the main altar to the fanfare of trumpets as the lights in the church were turned on. This was followed by the traditional Chinese custom of fireworks outside the church whose loud sound filled hearts ringing in the joy of Easter. The symbol of water was in the form of a waterfall beautifully located for all to see on the right-hand side of the sanctuary. The congregation shouted aloud in unison the renewal of their baptismal promises while holding high their lighted candles. This was very powerful. Just before the beginning of the Eucharist prayer, the bishop was ushered onto the altar with the help of two seminarians. He sat in a chair beside me so I assisted with his standing and sitting for the remainder of the vigil mass. A few years earlier the bishop had a number of minor strokes which affected the feeling in his hands and his ability to walk unaided.
A few days after the Easter vigil I had the opportunity to talk with Bishop John Baptist. He was still quite frail then, lying in bed with a drip. Nevertheless, he graciously met with me. He was ordained a priest in 1951 at the age of twenty-eight. In 1999, at the age of seventy-six, he was ordained bishop. During our conversation, the bishop shared with me the need in his diocese for the formation of priests, sisters, seminarians and catechists. The sisters work in parishes, medical clinics and an orphanage. The priority of the diocese is mission outreach. The diocese is one of the poorer dioceses in China. It receives some financial assistance from Rome. After my meeting with the bishop, the Columbans were also able to give some ongoing financial assistance.
A few months after my first meeting with Bishop John Baptist I had the opportunity to return to the diocese. This time the bishop was in better health but still unable to walk unaided. During my second visit, the bishop shared with me a little of his experience in detention and prison. In 1965, at the age of forty-two, the bishop was put in detention. He spent eleven years in detention followed by nine years in prison.
It took the officials eleven years to charge him with being an anti-liberationist. He said life in detention was tougher than life in prison, though life in prison was also difficult. While in prison he shared a small cell with seven others. There was only one bed in the cell. If all seven slept on their side they could manage to fit onto the bed. If you needed to use the toilet during the night, said the bishop, your space on the bed would be gone. The toilet was in the corner of the cell. They were allowed to leave their cell for twenty minutes once a week. Food was passed into the cell through a small hole in the door. Meals consisted of soup and little vegetables. They had a change of clothes once a week. The bishop said he did not wash his body for the twenty years he was incarcerated. He said the smell in the prison cell was terrible. Bishop John Baptist was released from prison in 1985. He said for political reasons he had to leave his home diocese and take up work in the neighbouring diocese where he became the bishop.
When Bishop John Baptist was in prison his family sent him a dictionary and the book “A Tale of Two Cities”. He used these to study English. During our conversation, which was in Mandarin Chinese, he would occasionally add a few sentences of English saying, “can I now practice my English with you”. He said he had a good grasp of Latin so that helped with learning English.
It was hard for me to fathom how an old man who had experienced so much suffering could be so serene. He didn’t even have a bad word to say about those who kept him captive all those years. I think deep down he had forgiven them, though of course, I imagine he could never forget what they did to him and others. The memories were real but forgiveness allowed him to move forward in life and reach the serenity so obvious in his face, his gestures, and speech.
On a third visit to the diocese, I was taken to meet the bishop who at the time was in his neighbouring home diocese appealing for financial support for his own diocese. He was speaking at the masses in a village where the total population of 10,000 is all Catholic. On this occasion, the bishop, aided by the deacon who took care of him, showed me around the large parish church that seated about 3,000 people.
Though old and frail, but strong in mind and spirit, Bishop John Baptist continued to be the pastor of the priests, sisters, seminarians and lay faithful in his diocese, waiting for the day a younger priest could take over the reins. The joy and hope of Easter that year surely lifted the bishop’s spirits as it had done during all those years he suffered incarceration. He continued to live and witness that Easter joy and hope in his later years in life.
I never had the chance to meet Bishop John Baptist again before he died. I know he would have had a sense of contentment in mind, heart and spirit knowing that his diocese was in the safe hands of God through the lives of the committed young priests and sisters and the active lay faithful as they too witness in their lives the joy and hope of Easter.
Fr Kevin O’Neill is assigned to China. He is presently working in Australia while awaiting his return to China.
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