by Rev. Vic Kevin Ferrer
There are more than 10,000 recognized saints in the Catholic Church and the 365 days of a year would not suffice to commemorate every single one of them. That is why the Church designated a day to commemorate all of them at once including those who are known to God alone. It is the Solemnity of All Saints every November 1. There are some saints however, specially martyrs, who are commemorated as a group if they belonged to the same religious order or came from the same country or even when they suffered persecution around a given period at a certain place.
The Chinese Martyrs
July 9 is the Optional Memorial of the Chinese martyrs St. Augustine Zhao Rong and companions. It is optional not because they are inferior to other saints, but because the Church acknowledges the varying significance of saints in different localities.
St. Lorenzo Ruiz for example is celebrated as an Obligatory Memorial every September 28 only in the Philippines because he was a Filipino. Elsewhere in the world his memorial is optional.
The Chinese Martyrs: Augustine Zhao Rong and Companions, Martyrs
Augustine, the Chinese Soldier
Zhao Rong was a Chinese soldier who was assigned to escort the French missionary Bishop Dufresse from Chengdu to his execution in Beijing. The bishop’s patience on his way to martyrdom moved the young Zhao Rong so much that he later asked to be baptized.
Given the name Augustine at his baptism, he later sent to a seminary and then was ordained a priest.
First Chinese Martyr
In 1815, Augustine Zhao Rong was arrested, tortured, and ultimately died a martyr. He was the first Chinese priest to die a martyr.
You might argue that the 119 companion martyrs of St. Augustine Zhao Rong were not all Chinese. Indeed 33 of them were foreign missionaries, mostly Europeans, but as Pope St. John Paul II said, they “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. Their tombs are there as if to signify their definitive belonging to China, which they deeply loved, although with their human limitations, and for which they spent all their energies.”
The 86 others were Chinese men, women, and children from all walks of life- priests, catechists, lay people, mothers and fathers. One of them, 18-year-old Chi Zhuzi was just preparing for his baptism when he was captured and tortured. Refusing to denounce Christ his right arm was cut off and as he was being flayed alive he cried out: "Every piece of my flesh, every drop of my blood will tell you that I am Christian."
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” - Tertullian
The word martyr in Greek originally means witness. In the earliest times of the Church the term applied to the apostles who actually witnessed Christ’s life and resurrection. Later on it was applied to those Christians who suffered and died because of their faith. That is how we currently define the term. Reflecting on this, you might ask: why call them martyrs, meaning witnesses, and not say heroes or defenders?
The martyrs bore witness to the faith unto their death. They were so convinced of the message of the Gospel that nothing not even death could turn them around. They are martyrs because they saw their reward in heaven and so like innocent lambs they were led to the slaughter. They are martyrs because they did not fight back and loved those who hated them.
Blood of the Martyrs
I thought that was it until one time at Holy Mass a line from the Preface for Martyrs struck me. This is in Tagalog and I could not find the exact same sense in the English version. It says and I quote “Tulad ng naganap sa iyong Anak ang dugo ng mga martir ay dumanak hindi dahil sa katatagang likas kundi dahil sa iyong bigay na lakas.” (Like what happened to Your Son, the martyrs spilled their blood not because of their own strength but because of the strength that You have given them.)
They are martyrs and they are our witnesses to a God who remains faithful until the end. God was with them in their patient endurance of suffering.
To die a martyr is a tremendous grace that could only come from God.