During the night of September 8, 1955, Ignatius Ping-Mei Kung, Shanghai’s first native Chinese bishop, was arrested by Communist authorities. Before the night was over, police arrested more than three hundred Catholic priests, religious, and lay people in seminaries, churches and private homes around the city. Twelve hundred Shanghai Catholics were arrested by the end of that same month.
Bishop Kung was a Shanghai native, and his family had been Catholic for at least five generations. Few westerners are aware of this fact, but the Roman Catholic Church has had deep roots in China since the sixteenth century, and a large concentration of Catholics still live in Shanghai. The government claimed religious freedom was a basic right, so the Catholics were arrested because they were said to be counterrevolutionaries. They knew the real reason was because they would not renounce their loyalty to the Pope.
Four days after his arrest, Bishop Kung was brought out to a show trial that was held in a former greyhound racing stadium where mass trials and executions were held almost daily.
Fortunately, according to internal party documents that were declassified just long enough for historian Fr. Paul P. Mariani, S.J. to access them, the CP policy at that time was not to kill Catholics, because they didn’t want to create martyrs. Fr. Mariani wrote in his book Church Militant: Bishop Kung and Catholic Resistance in Communist Shanghai that the CP had established these goals: “to establish an independent church under the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), to educate Catholics to support this independent church, and to imprison any who stood in its way.”
Everyone in Shanghai had heard about or seen the mass arrests, sometimes of thousands at a time, with the arrested ones being driven off in red paddy wagons, and everyone would have known about the ongoing executions at the stadium where thousands of Shanghai residents were brought to witness the proceedings. Bishop Kung probably was not aware of the CP policy of not killing Catholics, and so when he was taken to the stadium he may not have known whether he was was facing death or imprisonment if he did not cooperate. Wearing only Chinese pajamas with his hands tied behind his back, the diminutive, 5 feet tall but audacious Bishop Kung was thrust before a microphone to confess his “errors.”
Instead he shouted: “Long live Christ the King! Long live the Pope!”
Many in the crowd responded, “Long live Christ the King! Long live Bishop Kung!”
The guards pointed their guns at the crowd and the cheering stopped. The authorities quickly whisked Bishop Kung away to solitary confinement and to continued and prolonged attempts to wear him down. He had a whole floor to himself at the prison, he later told reporters, and everyone was forbidden to make eye contact with him, except when they were trying to indoctrinate him in long grueling sessions. He continued to give this same answer whenever he was asked to renounce the Pope, “I am a Roman Catholic Bishop. If I denounce the Holy Father, not only would I not be a Bishop, I would not even be a Catholic. You can cut off my head, but you can never take away my duties.”
Bishop Kung was out of sight, but the world had not forgotten his heroic sacrifice. Two years after Kung’s arrest in 1955, Bishop Fulton Sheen wrote in his Mission magazine in 1957: “The West has its Mindszenty, but the East has its Kung.” (Jozsef Mindszenty, as you may know, was the leader of the Catholic Church in Hungary, who was given a life sentence by the communists in 1949 because of his resistance to the their policies.)
Five years after Bishop Kung’s arrest, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison. Kung was imprisoned for a total of thirty years, unable to correspond with anyone, even members of his own family. He was forbidden to say Mass, and he was not permitted to read the Bible. Many other loyal Shanghai Catholics endured the same kinds of long prison sentences and either died in anonymity or were released after decades as old, broken, men and women.
When Bishop Kung Tricked Them Again
I enjoy imagining the frustration of the Communist officials twenty-nine years after the scene in the stadium, when Bishop Kung tricked them once again.
This event occurred in 1984 during an eleven day trip to China by Cardinal Jaimie Sin from the Philippines, whose father had been Chinese. Cardinal Sin asked the authorities to let him see Bishop Kung during his visit to his ancestral homeland. Probably because of international protests about the imprisonment of Bishop Kung, who was on an Amnesty International list of prisoners of conscience, they concurred.
The Communists set up a show meeting on October 27, 1984. They seated Cardinal Sin and Bishop Kung at opposite ends of a long dining table and surrounded them with Communist leaders and bishops of the CCPA. Cardinal Sin and Bishop Kung were not allowed to talk personally to each other, but they slyly used their wits to get around all the machinations that had been put into place to keep them from communicating.
Cardinal Sin was well known as a great joker–he would tell people he lived in the House of Sin, for example–so his part in what happened that night was consistently in character for him. Cardinal Sin invited each attendee to sing a song during the dinner, which is a common practice in the Philippines.
When Bishop Kung’s turn came, he looked directly at Cardinal Sin and began to sing in Latin the Gregorian chant that uses the words by which Christ made St. Peter the first Pope. “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam (You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church).”
After Bishop Kung sang just a few bars, a Bishop of the CCPA told his superiors of Kung’s ruse. They ordered Bishop Kung to be silent, but he looked at Cardinal Sin again and finished the song: “Et portæ inferi non prævalebunt (and the gates of hell will not prevail against it).” These word are sung multiple times every year during Latin Masses and the Divine Office for several feasts of the traditional liturgical calendar. Below is the Alleluia for July 29, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul.
In the Heart of the Pope
Cardinal Sin was soon able to pass onto the Vatican that clear message, that Bishop Kung had never stopped affirming his loyalty to the Pope as the head of the Catholic Church.
Bishop Kung did not know then that he had been secretly elevated to the College of Cardinals six years earlier. He found out only after his release–first from prison later in 1985, and after he was released from house arrest in 1988, when he moved with his nephew to Stanford, CT, to get medical care. Cardinal Kung said this in an interview in 1999, “One year after my arrival in the United States, I was well enough to go to Rome where I was warmly received by Pope John Paul II. During that meeting, I was told by the Holy Father that I had been elevated in 1979, in pectore, to the College of Cardinals. I kept this a secret until our Holy Father announced it to the world on May 29, 1991.”
In pectore means in the heart of the Pope. Elevations in pectore are sometimes done when a pope wants to honor a cleric while not putting him or other Catholics in danger in a situation where the Church is being persecuted.
Cardinal Kung finally received his red biretta on June 30, 1991 from Pope John Paul II. “When the Pope presented Cardinal Kung with his red hat in June 1991, the 90-year-old raised himself up from his wheelchair, put aside his cane and walked up the steps to kneel at the feet of the Holy Father. Visibly touched, the Pope lifted him up, gave him his cardinal’s hat and stood patiently as Cardinal Kung returned to his wheelchair to the sounds of a seven-minute standing ovation from 9,000 guests in the Vatican audience hall.”–”A Hero Dies in Exile” by Brian McGuire, National Catholic Register, Sunday, Mar 19, 2000.
For more about the struggles of the Church in China, and for how you can donate to help the underground Church, see the Cardinal Kung Foundation website.