A mere five weeks ago I sat beside Fr Ignatius Cao Junliang at a wedding reception in Wuhan. Although it was my first time to meet him, I had heard about him many times from the grandmother of the bridegroom whose wedding reception we were attending.
Born in 1980 to a sick and undernourished mother, the family believe that his life was saved by the kind intervention of the Catholic doctor who delivered him. Dr Deng Chongzhen, whose teenage membership of the Legion of Mary resulted in years of personal consequences, provided the family with the means to buy milk powder to nourish the infant. Those early events were never forgotten by the family.
Twenty years later the friendship was renewed. Ignatius eventually entered the seminary, was ordained and ministered in Jianxi province, the neighbouring province to Hubei, where Wuhan is the capital.
The arrival of Fr Ignatius to Wuhan to attend the wedding of Dr Deng’s only grandson highlighted a bond that had been initiated in difficult circumstances just over 40 years ago. The evening before the wedding, in typical Chinese style, he had brought gifts of milk and other food to Dr Deng, as well as a statue of Our Lady which was gratefully accepted.
The timing of the wedding one day before the reopening of churches in Wuhan due to a few local lockdowns resulted in the wedding Mass being held in Dr Deng’s home. Fr Ignatius attended with a few local priests and a small number of Catholics.
When I joined the celebrations at the restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised to be sitting beside Fr Cao. Before the meal began Dr Deng made sure that I received a complete update on all the details about their long friendship, I availing of the opportunity to assure her that she had done very well in all she had done for him 40 years earlier.
A priest at the same table was looking through a set of 1938 mission magazines which he had just received from another priest, all part of his effort to research the history of a congregation of Chinese sisters in nearby Hanyang.
Fr Ignatius took his opportunity to look through the magazines and eventually found material relevant to his own province, photographs and articles about Bishop Patrick Cleary, an Irish Columban in Nancheng Diocese. Fr Ignatius enquired about the possibility of receiving copies of these magazines, something he felt would be a great help in his role of gathering historical material for the Church in the province.
At the end of the wedding celebration Fr Ignatius and I exchanged contact details and promised to stay in touch, my occasional visits to his province being enough to ensure that future meetings would be possible.
Last week brought the shocking news that he, his brother and another Catholic were killed instantly on the first day of October, feast day of St Therese of the Child Jesus, patroness of the missions. They were smashed from behind by a truck as they awaited the clearing of the motorway where an accident had already taken place ahead of them in the early hours of the morning.
News of the tragedy spread quickly among the Catholic community, disbelief here in Wuhan among the people who had met him on the occasion of the wedding. During that visit he had also accompanied his bishop to the episcopal ordination of Bishop Cui Qingqi three days later, who was Wuhan’s first bishop after a 14-year wait.
Visiting the home of Dr Deng last week was a poignant experience as she spoke about the young priest’s life, his birth to an impoverished family and the unlikely circumstances that led to their life-long friendship. She also showed me the statue of Our Lady that he had kindly brought to her last month and even spoke about the food he brought to her that still awaits eating, all a reflection of his kindness.
The Church in China is a small entity in comparison to the scale of what happens in other sections of society in this vast country. For years the Church has endured many pressures but invariably finds a way to negotiate a way forward. In central China, the Church’s membership is much smaller in number than in other parts of the country. Therefore, the sudden death of one of its priests, his brother and another Catholic has really stunned people.
As in all situations of the death of a young person, there are no easy answers. In the case of Fr Ignatius, a life that began in the most fragile of surroundings has been lost with two others in an equally vulnerable situation. For those who knew him from his earliest days, it is a painful letting go, a situation in which the sufferings of Christ on the Cross are probably the only image that come to mind.
Just as Mary stood helpless beside the Cross on Calvary, a small statue of Our Lady in a two-bedroom apartment in Wuhan might become a consoling presence for Dr Deng. She celebrated her 87th birthday on the same day that she was been asked to let go of the infant that she protected so well more than 40 years ago.
Courtesy: Independent Catholic News – https://www.indcatholicnews.com