Monthly Archives: April 2009

Glorious Wounds: Three Missionaries from China

Today Passionists throughout the world celebrate the Feast of the Glorious Wounds of Christ. They are glorious wounds, marks of risen life, not of death. They are bathed in the light of the Resurrection. When Jesus showed his wounds to his disciples after he had risen, they “rejoiced at the sight of the Lord.”

Today marks the anniversary of the death in China of Fathers Walter Coveyou, Clement Seybold, and Godfrey Holbein on April 24, 1929. After taking part in a community retreat the three young Passionist priests were traveling to the mission at Yuanchow, Hunan. After spending the night at an inn they were attacked by Chinese bandits and murdered. They were the first three American Catholic missionaries to be killed in China.

Fr. Robert Carbonneau,CP

Fr. Robert Carbonneau,CP

We marked their death with a symposium organized by Rev. Robert E. Carbonneau, CP, Ph.D, of the  Passionist Historical Archives, here in Union City, NJ. Portraits of the three were exhibited and their legacy explored.

What did their lives and sacrifice accomplish? Six scholars looked at the time and circumstances in China when the missionaries were killed:

  • Dr. Jeffrey Kinkley, Ph.D, Professor of History, St. John’s University, NY
  • Dr. Joseph Lee, Ph.D, Professor of History, Pace University, NY
  • Dr. Kathleen Lodwick, Ph.D, Professor of History, Penn State University, Fogelville, Pa.
  • Rev. Marcel Marcil, SJ, US Catholic China Bureau, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ
  • Dr. Edward Mc Cord, Ph.D, Professor of History, George Washington University, Washington, DC.
  • Rev. Robert E. Carbonneau, CP, Ph.D.  Passionist Historical Archives, Union City, NJ.


Western Hunan was a dangerous, bandit-ridden place at the time, controlled by war lords and their roving armies. Central and regional governments had little power, especially in Hunan, probably the most lawless place in China.

Foreigners traveling in the area needed armed escorts to get from place to place. It was similar to Somalia today.  The missionaries who were killed were unarmed and unprotected.

The Passionists, like other missionaries at the time, brought needed food and medical help, but also some basic order to the troubled territory where they were and offered it a connection to the outside world. Reports of religious orders like the Passionists, found in their archives today, offer essential information about Chinese history, culture and political development. They were early ethnographers, as their descriptions of China found in articles in The Sign magazine, make clear.

The missionaries won converts to Christianity through families, usually through the elders, and Christianity became a strong community based movement  through family structures that remained even through the Communist era. The missionaries taught basic Christian beliefs, but they were tolerant when families used customary Chinese religious practices for funerals and weddings. The recent transferral of the graves of the three missionaries to an honorable resting place witnesses the reverence Chinese Christians have for these ancestors in the faith. The missionaries have become embedded in their family tree, so important for families in China.

The death of these three missionaries in 1929 came as North and South America were turning from their own continents to the world beyond. China was the first destination for American efforts. The tragedy shocked the Americas, where interest in China was high among American Christians.

Often enough in dire circumstances like those in Western Hunan, various Christian groups showed a surprising cooperation with each other and united to bring common relief.

We think of globalization as a recent movement, but we can forget the global effects Christian missionaries like the Passionists initiated.

Probably those who killed the missionaries were robbers looking for whatever valuables they had and had no religious or political motivation. But the heroism of these men, who left home and the world where they were born and grew up, and united themselves to troubled land and people has to be praised.

We rejoice in their wounds.

You can read more on the Passionist China missionaries at

You can see a video on the mission in Hunan at

The Holy Eucharist

Easter is a time for sacraments, signs of faith that unite us to the Risen Christ. Besides baptism, many will receive the Eucharist for the first time in our churches this month. Liz’s two children are making their First Communion this weekend and many other children throughout the world will be too.

Here are some words from St. Cyril of Jerusalem on the Eucharist.
“On the night he was betrayed our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said: “Take, eat: this is my body.” He took the cup, gave thanks and said: “Take, drink: this is my blood.” Since Christ himself has declared the bread to be his body, who can have any further doubt? Since he himself has said quite categorically, This is my blood, who would dare to question it and say that it is not his blood?

Therefore, it is with complete assurance that we receive the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ. His body is given to us under the symbol of bread, and his blood is given to us under the symbol of wine, in order to make us by receiving them one body and blood with him. Having his body and blood in our members, we become bearers of Christ and sharers, as Saint Peter says, in the divine nature.”

What a clear affirmation of what the Eucharist is! This is our faith. We don’t decide  ourselves what to believe.  The Risen Christ offers it to us through the witness of his apostles, the signs of the sacraments, the celebration of feasts, and the testimony of generations of believers who are his church.

Like Baptism, the Eucharist brings joy to our hearts, the Saint says:
“You have been taught and you are firmly convinced that what looks and tastes like bread and wine is not bread and wine but the body and the blood of Christ. David referred to this long ago when he sang: Bread gives strength to our hearts and makes our face shine with the oil of gladness. Strengthen your heart, then, by receiving this bread as spiritual bread, and bring joy to the face of your soul.”

The sacraments are signs of the Risen Christ who brings our world and us “news of great joy.”
There’s an on-line version of the Church’s office of readings at

Signs of Faith

“What shall we do?” those in Jerusalem who hear Peter ‘s witness to the Risen Jesus ask. “Repent and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus so that your sins will be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” Peter responds. (Acts 2,38)

Now at the Easter Vigil we baptize those who hear the Easter message for the first time and we who are already baptized renew our baptismal commitment. We ask forgiveness for our sins and a greater openness to the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We’re reading these days ( from the wonderful catechetical sermons of Cyril, the 4th century bishop of Jerusalem, which he gave to the newly baptized of his community, in the great church of the Anastasis, built over the tomb of Jesus and the rock of Calvary. Today it’s called the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Those being baptized were led down into a pool of water to symbolically die and rise in the very place where Jesus died and rose again. What a powerful experience that must have been!

They were anointed as they came from the baptismal pool. The Holy Spirit was given to them.
Cyril explains that this is the same Spirit who rested on Jesus when he came from the Jordan. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor.”

It’s “the oil of gladness,” Cyril says, “ a source of spiritual joy.” “Rejoice,” is a word you hear over and over in the gospel, especially at Easter. Before you run off to do anything, take time to rejoice and don’t stop rejoicing.

I watched Susan Boyle, the wonderful 47 year old woman from Scotland, who sings like an angel and looks like a nobody. Over 2 million have watched her so far on Youtube sing on Britains Got Talent 2009. Look at the joy that pours out of her.

Yes, she’s got a wonderful voice, but see her joy.

Mary Magdalene

Besides Peter, Mary Magdalene is a key witness to the resurrection of Jesus. Her story is told in John’s gospel which speaks of their meeting in the garden. For the rest of her years Mary would remember those moments by the tomb.

In the morning darkness she had come weeping for the one she had thought lost forever. She had heard him call her name, “Mary”. She had turned to see him alive and the garden became paradise.

Like a new Eve she had been sent by Jesus to bring news of life to all the living. She was his apostle to the apostles. The belief of Christians in the resurrection of Jesus would be founded on this woman’s word.

On Easter Sunday the church questions her:

“Tell us, Mary, what did you see on the way?
‘I saw the tomb of the now living Christ.
I saw the glory of Christ, now risen.
I saw angels who gave witness;
the cloths, too, which once covered head and limbs.
Christ my hope had indeed arisen.
He will go before his own into Galilee.'”
–Easter sequence

Fascinated by her story, medieval spiritual writers added simple human details to the Gospel accounts. According to the author of the Meditations on the Life of Christ, Mary held the feet of Jesus when he was taken down from the cross, because she had kissed them and washed them with her tears once before.

“(At the tomb) she could not think, or speak, or hear anything except about him. When she cried and paid no attention to the angels, her Lord could not hold back any longer for love… ‘Woman, whom do you seek? Why do you weep?’ And she, as if drugged, not recognizing him said, ‘Lord, if you carried him away, tell me where, and I will take him.’ Look at her. With tear-stained face she begs him to lead her to the one seeks. She always hopes to hear something new of her Beloved. Then the Lord says to her, ‘Mary’.

“It was as though she came back to life, and recognizing his voice, she said with indescribable joy, ‘Rabbi, you are the Lord I was seeking. Why did you hide from me so long? …I tell you so much grief from your passion filled my heart that I forgot everything else. I could remember nothing except your dead body and the place where I buried it, and so I brought ointment this morning. But you have come back to us.’

“And they stayed there lovingly with great joy and gladness. She looked at him closely and asked him about each thing, and he answered willingly. Now, truly, the Passover feast had come. Although it seemed that the Lord held back from her, I can hardly believe that she did not touch him before he departed, kissing his feet and his hands.”
For more on Mary Magdalene, see

Easter Readings

In the weeks following Easter, the Catholic church in its readings focuses on the witness of Peter the Apostle, leader of Jesus’ disciples and a key eyewitness to his resurrection. He speaks in the first readings at Mass from the Acts of the Apostles, which report what he said to the people in Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection.

In the office of readings Peter’s 1st Letter is read. Peter speaks from Rome to the gentile churches along the Black Sea, according to Raymond Brown in his interesting commentary in “An Introduction to the New Testament.” The churches the apostles writes to were founded from Jerusalem, from the pilgrims Peter spoke to immediately after Jesus’ resurrection.

Now, years later, Peter reaches out to these churches whose founders had asked for baptism in Jerusalem; he reminds them what that sign meant–they received “ a new birth, unto hope which draws its life from the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.”

The churches are suffering “many trials” and the apostle tells them they are being tested like gold in the fire.

Brown thinks the trials may come from a lack of acceptance these believers are experiencing from their neighbors who misinterpret their beliefs and ostracize  them because they seem so out of step with the culture and thinking of the times.

Peter reminds them of the dignity they have as God’s people; like the Jews journeying out of Egypt they should not forget their destiny.

Maybe we’re not too far from the situation of those Christians from Pontus and Cappadocia today. We need reminding about who we are.

I wish there were a better way to bring the wealth of our liturgical readings to ordinary people.

The Rocks were Rent

I’ve been thinking about the earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, that claimed 292 lives. We stopped on our pilgrimage from St. Mary’s at that beautiful old medieval city on our way fron the shrine of St. Gabriel in the Abruzzi last November. Now it’s in ruins.

In January, 1915, an earthquake hit the town of Pescina, about 25 miles from Aquila, killing 3,500 of the town 5,000 people. The Italian writer, Ignazio Silone, a native of the town, dug his mother’s body from its rubble and would remember the day the rest of his life.

“In an earthquake,” he wrote, “everyone dies: rich and poor, learned and illiterate, politicians and people. An earthquake accomplishes what words and laws promise and never achieve: the equality of all.”

News from the Passionist shrine, not far away, was that the community there were sleeping in cars outside the buildings, which have been shaken by the shocks.

They buried their dead in L’Aquila on Good Friday at a mass funeral.

Earthquakes are awful experiences. They ‘re the harsh face of nature– our mother, our sister, our brother– that nourishes us with life and delights us with beauty. Yet, nature also brings death and destruction. With all our technical expertise we can’t predict when or where the earth will open up.  Quakes are no respecters of persons: old, young, rich, poor are taken.  Treasured buildings completely destroyed.

It’s interesting that Matthew’s gospel says “the rocks were rent” when Jesus died. He was describing an earthquake. But this one reverses the equation; it brings the dead to life.

“This day you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus says to the thief hanging in the dark at his side. As the rocks are rent, the dead rise. Jesus’ resurrection reaches out to all humanity, to all the dead.  And the earth itself takes part in the mystery. An earthquake, its sign of death, becomes a sign of resurrection.

The mystery of his cross speaks to the mystery of death. As the earth quakes, God wills that there be life.

On television news from Aquila, a reporter picked up a cross from the rubble and handed it to a Franciscan priest who was showing him a ruined church. Then the earth quaked again and they had to get out of the church. How significant his gesture was!

Good Friday

What would we see if we were there when Jesus was crucified?

In the somber half-gloom – that darkness the gospels describe- Jesus Christ would hang from a rough cross. Not a shining cross of silver or gold, but a stark cross of rugged wood.

Our eyes would see a man dying slowly without relief, a crucified man, his body wrenched by pain. A sight not easy to look at.

What would we hear if we were there when Jesus was crucified?

The harsh thud of nails driven through wood and flesh, the moaning of the dying, the periodic insults shouted to the cross, the mockery of his enemies to his claim of divine sonship, the few gasping words of Jesus himself. Sounds not pleasant to the human ear.

Only faith tells us there is something more about the crucifixion of Jesus. In that unlikely place, in pain and sorrow, God showed love for a sinful world.

May our vision of faith grow till we value life in the light of our faith in the Son of God “who loved us and gave himself up for us.”

Lord Jesus,
Redeemer of all,
hear my prayer.

For the love you bear
to those who ask forgiveness,
look mercifully on me,
as once you looked on Mary Magdalene
and on Peter who denied you.

Look on me, Lord Jesus Christ,
as you looked on the thief on his cross
and on every sinner
whom you have ever forgiven.

Look on me, merciful Lord,
as you looked on your mother, Mary,
standing in sorrow beneath your cross.
Let me feel in my heart her compassion for you,
and let my eyes weep for the sorrows
my sins have caused.

Call me from darkness
to my Father’s house,
give me a new heart
and a place at your side
at the banquet of your kingdom.