A Book Review... The Witness Of The Legion Of Mary In China
October 28, 2017
By DONAL ANTHONY FOLEY
Perseverance Through Faith: A Priest’s Prison Story, by Fr. W. Aedan McGrath, edited by Theresa Marie Moreau (Xlibris, 216 pages; $29.99 hardcover, $19.99, paperback. Available on Amazon.com).
The Legion of Mary was founded by Frank Duff in Dublin, Ireland, on September 7, 1921 and spread all over the world during the twentieth century. Duff died on November 7, 1980, 37 years ago this month, and his cause for canonization is proceeding.
Fr. W. Aedan McGrath, an Irish Missionary priest, was the person largely responsible for spreading the Legion throughout China in the late forties and early fifties, before the Communists unleashed an all-out attack on the Marian society, accusing it of wanting to overthrow Communist rule.
And so this is opportune moment to look at his fascinating autobiography, Perseverance Through Faith: A Priest’s Prison Story.
Fr. McGrath became a public enemy for his role in setting up more than 1,000 Legionary Presidia in most of China’s main cities in just three years. He was imprisoned in harsh conditions in a number of prisons for over two and a half years, including long periods in solitary confinement, before finally being expelled from China.
Much of this book has been compiled by the editor, Theresa Marie Moreau, from recorded speeches and interviews given by Fr McGrath. In his narratives, the priest wasn’t afraid to admit his own fears, doubts, and failings, as he endured seemingly endless interrogations at the hands of his captors, who were anxious to know as much about the Legion as possible so they could destroy it.
Right from the start of his imprisonment, though, he had a strong sense that he was being protected by our Lady, despite the fact that prison life was harsh — sleeping on concrete floors on thin mats, having little food to eat, and being forbidden to talk to other prisoners.
During his numerous nighttime 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 describes how after he originally arrived in China he was sent to a remote parish, in 1933, by Bishop Edward Galvin, even though he knew virtually no Chinese — he had to learn 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 Handbook of the Legion of Mary and told him to start it in his parish.
Very reluctantly, Fr. McGrath agreed to do this, and was subsequently astonished at how, starting with six uneducated local men, he was able to set them to do an extraordinary amount of apostolic work. Just over six months later, he had five Presidia (groups) of Legionaries 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 Antonio Riberi, the papal nuncio to China, who had had very positive experiences of the Legion in Africa, where he had seen the work that Edel Quinn did in spreading the Legion over a big part of the continent, decided that, given the advance of the Communists, he must promote the Legion in China.
The archbishop heard that Fr. Aedan 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. The priest was apprehensive, feeling it was too late, but he obeyed, and again was astonished at how quickly Chinese Catholics took the Legion to heart, such that by January 1951 there were over 1,000 Presidia in 90 Chinese dioceses.
Fr. Aedan worked with many students who joined the Legion in those days, and was humbled at the courage they showed, knowing that if they were imprisoned they would face no mercy, and quite probably torture or death.
For him, 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. What kept him going was his faith and his strong Marian devotion, based on the principles of the True Devotion to Mary of St. Louis de Montfort, which he had taught to the Chinese Legionaries.
If he did fall asleep during the day, he was awakened and made to stand in up handcuffs. He befriended a little bird, a sparrow, however, who appeared outside the bars of his cell door. He fed it, and then noticed that on occasion the bird would whistle and then fly up to the upper window — and always, ten seconds later the guard would appear to check that Fr. Aedan hadn’t fallen asleep.
The little bird could hear him coming before the priest, and so that became a sign for him. From that point on he was never caught sleeping, and he looked upon the sparrow as a sort of guardian angel.
Informers were the backbone of the Communist system of complete control — and not just in the prison, but throughout the country. 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 — men, women, and children — 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. There were also hundreds of thousands of people dressed in blue uniforms whose job it was to go around spying on people.
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. Aedan 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 little Christmas cards in secret.
He had one rather ironic encounter with one of his interrogators, who accused him of being an imperialist. He said in reply, “Do you not realize that I am Irish and Ireland has suffered for hundreds of years under England. We have barely lifted our heads up, yet you turn around and call us imperialists.”
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 memorized.
The process of Fr. Aedan being released was finally, and fittingly, commenced on April 28, 1954, the feast day of St. Louis de Montfort. He notes 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 traveled widely promoting the Legion of Mary. He died on Christmas Day 2000, at the age of 94.
Perseverance Through Faith: A Priest’s Prison Story is an inspiring tribute to how one man — and many ordinary Chinese Catholics — stood up to the Communist system, using the power and 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.
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Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related website at www.theotokos.org.uk. He has also a written two time-travel/adventure books for young people — details can be found at: http://glaston-chronicles.co.uk/.