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The Saint Who Helped Start a War

St. Auguste Chapdelaine
Memorial: February 29

Auguste Chapdelaine was born on February 6, 1814, in the tiny northwestern French village of La Rochelle-Normande.

Not much is known of his early life other than that his family were farmers, he was strong, and for this reason his parents were reluctant to “lose” him to the priesthood since they needed able-bodied people to work their land, especially as they grew older.

Ironically, it was the sudden death of two of his brothers that made his parents realize God’s calling for their youngest, and so they submitted to His will. Auguste entered the minor seminary at age 20.

He was much older than his fellow students, most of whom were ages 12-13. As a result, they called him, “Pops.” The nickname stuck for the rest of his life.

He received ordination in 1843, and after several months waiting for an assignment at home, his bishop appointed him as a parochial vicar in Boucey, France.

Before this appointment, he had told another one of his brothers, “I did not become a priest for those who already know God but for those who don’t.” Nonetheless he bided his time, and for seven years served the roughly 650 souls in the village.

Finally, around 1851, he was able to join the Foreign Missions of Paris (PIME) to work in one of their mission fields. The people of Boucey had grown to love him so much, they packed the church for his last Mass. Some didn’t understand why he wanted to leave them when he was so well regarded and his work so valued. Others perfectly understood his zeal to spread the Good News and blessed him on his way.

Before leaving for mission territory, he had to be evaluated by his PIME superiors at their seminary in Paris, called the “Polytechnic Institute of Martyrs” due to the huge number of its graduates who had given the ultimate witness for the Faith.

During his stay, he wrote a Carmelite who taught in Boucey, “If it’s true what they say, that Paris is the center of dissoluteness, it is also the home of much virtue.”

Finally after about a year in the French capital, he had his evaluation. Afterward he wrote his mother, “I am being sent to China. You must treat this as a sacrifice made for God, and He will reward you in eternity. At your death, you shall appear before Him in confidence [and He will remember] your generosity for His greater glory in sacrificing what is dearest to you. Please sign the letter you will send me as soon as possible s a sign of your consent and also as a sign of your forgiveness for all the sorrow I have caused you. And as sign of your blessing, please add a cross after your name.”

He then wrote his brother, Nicolas, “I thank God for the wonderful family He has given me and for the conduct of all its members…. It has been my greatest happiness on earth to have had such an honorable family.”

The journey was arduous. Departing in May from Le Havre, Netherlands, it took two weeks for the storm-tossed ship he and six other missionaries had boarded  just to exit the English Channel. Then because of unfavorable winds, rather than going around Africa, the ship’s captain headed west at the Canary Islands and made for Brazil, where they landed June 6, 1852. The seven men were in a 4’x6’ cabin with no ventilation, and once they passed the Equator, their room became unbearably hot. When they reached the southern tip of South America, of course they were in winter. Then, once around the Horn, instead of heading straight to China, bad winds forced them to make for Australia. They had not touched land in three months but finally landed in Singapore in September. They then made their way to Vietnam where, after some time, a Portuguese ship offered them passage to Hong Kong. But being monsoon season, they had to take refuge in Borneo and then head to the Philippines. All along the way, storms and hurricanes buffeted their ship.

They finally landed in Macau on Christmas Day, and reached Hong Kong on January 10, 1853.

First he stayed in Hong Kong for a period. Then in October 1853, he took a journey of three days to the west, during which he was beaten and robbed. Finally he arrived at the village of Yaoshan, Xilin County, Guangxi Province. He celebrated his first Mass there for 300 souls on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1854. Accompanying him was the lay catechist and future martyr, St. Jerome (aka, Hieronymus) Lu Tingmei († January 28, 1858). Ten days later authorities arrested him for illegal missionary activities.

The reason was that at this time in China’s history, Christianity was only legal in five open ports. Everywhere else, it was not permitted. Because of the threats he received after his release from jail, he traveled to neighboring Guizhou (aka, Kweichow) Province. By the end of the year, however, he had returned to minister to his people. His efforts led to several hundred people forswearing paganism, embracing Christ as their Savior, and entering the Church.

In February 1855, the pagan wife of a new convert didn’t like her husband chastising her for not being more like the Christian wives he knew. She complained to her brother and uncle, who denounced St. Auguste. Thus he was again arrested sometime between February 22 and the night of February 24-25, 1856 (sources vary), charged with the crime of propagating an illegal religion. Under Chinese law at the time, this was a capital crime.

When the local mandarin attempted to question him, Father, like Christ at His own trial, said very little. Furious at what he considered to be disrespect, the official had him flogged 150 times on the cheeks. The very first lash drew blood. We can only imagine what damage the other 149 blows did. Next Father received 300 lashes with a cane on his back. They stopped only when they saw he could not move.

But when they went to drag him back to his cell, after only a few steps, he rose and began walking as if in perfect health. The Chinese couldn’t believe their eyes. The saint told them, “It is the good God Who protects and blesses me.”

They next placed him in a custom made cage. His head fit through a hole in the top, and it was just tall enough for him to barely touch his toes on the ground. Furthermore the cage was constructed to hold his arms in place so that he could not use them to pull himself up in order to breath more easily. Thus he was always hovering between suffocation and barely breathing.

The mandarin offered to spare his life, however, provided he came up with a ransom of 400 silver talents. “I have no money,” he said, “only books.” What about 150 talents, then? he was asked. He replied, “Let the mandarin do what he pleases with me. I am in his hands.” Thus on February 29, 1856, they beheaded him. They needn’t have bothered, though. He had been beaten so badly and his body had been so tortured, he was already dead.

He had not sought out martyrdom. Not long before his arrest, he was reputed to have said, “He Who gives us our lives demands that we should take reasonable care of the gift. But if the danger comes to us, then happy those who are found worthy to suffer for His dear sake.” Nonetheless die he did.

Martyred at around this same time was St. Agnes Tsao Kou Ying, one of his lay catechists who had been stuck in the same sort of cage as he had been. Their cages were placed side-by-side, and while they could see one another, they could not talk. Doing so was impossible.

Also giving his life was St. Lawrence Bai Xiaoman, a layman who had promised to accompany Father to death if need be for the sake of Jesus Christ and the salvation of souls.

Learning of his death, the head of the French mission at Hong Kong sent this protest to Ye Ming-Chen, governor of Guangdong:

“The captivity of Mr. Chapdelaine, the torture he suffered, his cruel death, and the violence that was made to his body constitute, noble Imperial Commissioner, a blatant and odious violation of the solemn commitments to which he was consecrated. Your government therefore needs to give [some reparation] to France. You will not hesitate to give it me fully and entirely. You will propose the terms: I will have to then decide if the honor, dignity, and interests of the Government of my great Emperor allow me to accept. My desire is also to go to Canton and to confer in person with Your Excellency. You know an hour of friendly conversation more often than not advances the solution to important affairs than a month of written correspondence.

The Chinese were frankly tired of the foreign powers throwing their weight around. China, after all, has always been a great and mighty nation. Were it not for the Europeans’ advanced military technology—ironically, technology that had its birth in China—China would have swatted these “bearded foreign devils” away like flies.

Thus it shouldn’t surprise us that the Chinese government refused to apologize or offer compensation or any satisfaction for the life of Fr. Chapdelaine. After all, had he not clearly broken Chinese law by breaching the interior and preaching an illegal religion? He had. And was not the punishment for this beheading? It was. So for what was there to apologize? Abbé Chapdelaine wasn’t the only French citizen arrested for such activity. At the time, six of his countrymen were in custody for attempting to spread the gospel.

Furthermore, Father’s activities took place in territory where rebels were active (see the Christianity-inspired Taiping Rebellion here). How could it not be that a Frenchman – whose Christian government had not shown itself overly friendly or necessarily an ally to China – was doing something other than preaching religion? In fact, the Chinese viceroy asserted that Father’s activities had nothing whatsoever to do with religion. He was an agitating agent working against the government.

This turn of affairs was not necessarily disadvantageous to the French. Many of their countrymen had suffered martyrdom for their missionary work, and their government had never once taken action or retaliated. Now the sense was, “Enough is enough.” As the aforementioned minister wrote his nation’s Foreign Office:

If, in a word, the Representative of His Imperial Majesty would not but fail in his duty if he did not take advantage of the opportunity offered him to fix with one blow the errors or mistakes of the past and to bring out of the martyrdom of a missionary the complete emancipation of Christianity [in China].

As a result of the Chinese government’s refusal to apologize in any way, France thus used the incident as a pretext to join the United Kingdom in the Second Opium War. Britain’s purpose for the war was to have China legalize the opium trade (heroin comes from opium), expand its access to near-slave-wages Chinese labor (abuses of Chinese workers had led their government to cut off English access to such labor), and get China to exempt foreign imports from internal transit duties.

The war lasted until 1860. While it obtained for foreign missionaries access to China’s interior, all in all it was a shameful mess. One could say about it what the English politician Gladstone said about the First Opium War: “I feel in dread of the judgments of God upon England for our national iniquity towards China…. [This is] a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace.”

Pope St. John Paul II canonized St. Auguste and other Chinese martyrs on October 1, 2000, the same day (perhaps not coincidentally) as the anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The next day the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily released an article showing all the ways those canonized were actually bandits and other types of miscreants. It accused St. Auguste of raping women, of living with a woman named Cao, and of bribing officials on behalf of “bandits.”

Needless to say, the charges were the sorts of lies and politically motivated propaganda at which all communists excel.

God have mercy on their piddling souls.

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Father’s cage.

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