“When you grow up, you will be a priest. You will go to seminary. You will offer sacrifice. Then you will go to prison.”
When Father Francis Chan (not his real name) first heard those words, spoken by his grandmother, he didn’t understand them. He didn’t know what a priest was. He didn’t know what the sacrifice of which she spoke was. He was just a boy, and his only experience of the Catholic faith was praying with his family behind closed doors, with curtains drawn.
But for all that his grandmother’s words confused him, Chan also knew that someday they would come to pass.
Born in China in 1965, Chan was only a year old when the Cultural Revolution began. His family, once extremely wealthy, had lost all they possessed in the Communist Revolution of 1949, and with the advent of the new revolution were determined to hold on to the one thing they had left: their Catholic faith.
“My family has been Catholic for more than 300 years,” Father Chan told Our Sunday Visitor. “Every single person. By the time I was born, we had nothing — no food, no clothes. But we had our Catholic faith. That made me very happy.”
‘I am so happy’
That happiness endured, despite the martyrdom of his bishop that he witnessed when he was only 5, despite the martyrdom of one of his grandmothers at the hands of Mao’s soldiers and despite the near martyrdom of another grandmother by the same.
The grandmother that survived was the grandmother who told Chan he must become a priest. When the soldiers came for her, they arrested her family as well, hoping their pleas would force her to renounce her faith. But that didn’t happen
“’Do not cry,’ she shouted at us,” Father Chan recalled. “’I am being beaten. It is wonderful. I am so happy.’”
With a grandmother like that, it’s little wonder Father Chan followed her advice, going to seminary in the early 1980s. By that time, the Cultural Revolution had ended and the Mass was again permitted in government-established churches. Chan attended one of the state’s official seminaries, was ordained and returned to his hometown to begin his priestly ministry.
The government knew that and permitted that. What the government didn’t know and would never have permitted was that while he was at university, Chan came into contact with an order of missionary priests, operating secretly within China. After his ordination, he joined the order, living their charism privately while he carried out his public ministry.
Doing the forbidden
And what a public ministry it was.
In the village where he served, Father Chan did the usual things Chinese priests do — offering Mass and hearing confessions. He also did what priests in China are forbidden to do. He catechized the faithful, founded an orphanage for abandoned babies and smuggled women in danger of being forced to abort their children to a safe house for pregnant women in Beijing.
“I would tell the women, ‘You cannot abort your baby. You were a baby once. You came from a mama. We all came from a mama,’” he said.
It wasn’t just pregnant women who heard about the evils of abortion from Father Chan. He spent years speaking out, frequently and publicly, against China’s one-child policy, and the attendant policies of mandatory birth control and forced abortion.
Although it’s hard for Catholics in the West to grasp, that’s something priests and religious in China simply don’t do.
“You have to understand, the most faithful Chinese are the people,” he told OSV. “Then the sisters. Then the priests. Then the bishops. The higher up the hierarchy you go, the less faith you find.”
Father Chan paid for his fidelity. He was arrested multiple times, beaten, spat upon and tortured, all by the government police.
“I kept telling them ‘I hate birth control. I hate communism,’” he said. “I love the Chinese people, and both hurt the Chinese people.”
Living in exile
Because of his refusal to be silent, Father Chan’s friends began to fear for his life. They obtained a visa and a passport for him, then whisked him out of the country to a major city in Western Europe. That was six years ago. Since then, Father Chan has tried to return, but China will have none of it … although in typical Chinese fashion, they won’t say so directly.
“When I go to the embassy to get a visa, they just say to me, ‘You should stay here. It’s better you should stay here. Nobody likes you in China. Even your bishop doesn’t like you.’”
So, for now, Father Chan remains in Europe, living with his order and ministering to the Chinese who come to live and study there. His heart, however, remains in China, and his most fervent prayer is that Catholics from America will develop a heart for China as well.
“Send missionaries,” he said, when asked what Catholics in America could do to help the Chinese people. “So many Protestants send missionaries, but so few Catholics do. The Chinese people want the Faith. They want to hear the Gospel. Come. Come to teach English or work in the orphanages. Just come and live with Chinese people. Help the Chinese people become Catholic.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor. To ensure the safety of other missionaries in his order serving in China, “Father Chan” asked that details that might betray his identity — his real name, order and current location — not be disclosed.