The Irish priest who resisted China’s communists

The Legion of Mary quietly sustained the faith of beleaguered Chinese Catholics (Getty)

Perseverance Through Faith
by Fr W Aedan McGrath, Xlibris, 216pp, £21.99

The Legion of Mary was founded by Frank Duff in Dublin on September 7, 1921, and spread throughout the world during the 20th century. Duff died on November 7, 1980 and his Cause for canonisation is proceeding.

Fr Aedan McGrath, an Irish missionary priest, was the person largely responsible for spreading the Legion through China in the late 1940s and early 1950s, before the communists unleashed an all-out attack on the Marian society, accusing it of wanting to overthrow communist rule.

Fr McGrath was imprisoned in harsh conditions in a number of prisons for more than two-and-a-half years – including long periods in solitary confinement – before finally being expelled from China.

Right from the start of his imprisonment, though, he had a strong sense that he was being protected by the Blessed Virgin, although prison life was harsh. He slept on thin mats on concrete floors, having little food to eat, and being forbidden to talk to other prisoners.

During his numerous night-time interrogations, lasting many hours, he patiently explained that the Legion of Mary was a peaceful religious society. But he was harangued and told that he was a liar, and that unless he confessed the crimes of the Legion he would receive no leniency.

Fr McGrath described how, after he first arrived in China, he was sent, in 1933, to a remote parish by Bishop Edward Galvin, even though he knew virtually no Chinese (he had to learn it on the job).

He begged the bishop for another priest or Sisters to help him but was told there were none. Instead, in 1937, Bishop Galvin gave him The Official Handbook of the Legion of Mary and told him to start it in his parish.

Reluctantly, Fr McGrath agreed to do this, and was subsequently astonished at how, starting with six uneducated local men, he was able to inspire them to do an extraordinary amount of apostolic work. Just over six months later, he had five Presidia (groups) of men under him, made up of “135 first-class Legionaries”. It dawned on him that the Legion was an incredible gift to the Church – a way that the power of a single priest could be multiplied to an incredible degree.

After the war, Archbishop Riberi, the papal nuncio to China, decided that, given the advance of the communists, he must promote the Legion in China. The archbishop heard that Fr McGrath had started the Legion in his parish, and in 1948 asked him to start it up in as many places in China as he could and to work as quickly as possible. By January 1951, there were more than 1,000 Presidia in 90 Chinese dioceses.

For Fr McGrath, though, it was to be a harsh period of imprisonment, with long days with nothing to do, followed by nightly interrogations designed to break the prisoner down and admit his guilt. He was forbidden to sleep during the day.

Informers were the backbone of the communist system of complete control. Those who did inform received special privileges, and it was impossible for anyone to escape from the effects of the communist “cell system”. Everybody had to be in a local cell and cell members were obliged to inform against any other member who thought, spoke or acted against the “People’s” government – even if it was a close family member.

The result was that the whole country was like a gigantic prison camp where nobody could be certain that anyone they dealt with could be trusted. The Catholics of the Legion stood apart from this and so they had to be crushed.

After some time, Fr McGrath was able to work out a system of communicating with other prisoners with little notes on toilet paper which he wrote in pencil – and at Christmas 1952, the prisoners were even able to send each other small Christmas cards in secret.

He was careful to ensure that his whole day was occupied with prayers, including reciting the prayers of the Mass, and other mental activities, so that he didn’t lose his mind, as happened to more than one prisoner. One way of doing this was to create poems which he memorised.

The process of Fr McGrath’s release began, finally and fittingly, on April 28, 1954, the feast day of St Louis de Montfort. He noted that he heard his first words of “decent kindness” in three years when he crossed into Hong Kong, and a British policeman said to him: “Welcome, Father!”

After his release he travelled widely promoting the Legion of Mary. He died on Christmas Day 2000, aged 94.

Perseverance Through Faith is an inspiring tribute to how one man – and many ordinary Chinese Catholics – stood up to the communist system, strengthened by the spirituality of the Legion of Mary. The seed which Frank Duff planted in 1921 did indeed bear much good fruit, and continues to do so.