At church this past Sunday, the recessional hymn was Lift High The Cross, one of my favorites. Since we don’t hear it so often, I’m assuming it was played in anticipation of today’s feast of the Triumph of the Cross. This feast is linked to one of my favorite memories. The event took place at St. Mary’s Seminary and University, where I was once a student. It involved the man in the photo to the left, Archbishop Dominic Tang Yee-Ming, SJ (1908-1995).
When he was named the apostolic administrator of Canton, China in 1950, it didn’t sit well with the Communist leadership, and it was even more so when he was consecrated a titular bishop in 1951. The government indicted him as “the most faithful running-dog of the reactionary Vatican” and imprisoned him without a trial or conviction on February 5, 1958. He spent the next 22 years in prison, seven of which were in solitary confinement.
He was released unexpectedly for cancer surgery in Hong Kong, but was never allowed to return to China. He spent the rest of his life traveling the world, telling his story. He came to Baltimore in 1991, and that is how I first learned of this great man.
Our first glimpse of him was when he stood at the beginning of the long aisle of the seminary chapel. Standing between two deacons, it seemed like he was about five feet tall. As the procession moved forward, he shuffled along, seeming very frail. When he got to the base of the sanctuary, I remember him having to be lifted up by the deacons because he couldn’t get up the steps. The years of prison had clearly taken their toll on his body, and his voice was whispery. His mind, however, appeared sharp and he had something to say.
Sadly I don’t remember all that he said that day, but I do recall him speaking about knowing when spring had come by listening to the birds through his very small window. He told his story of confinement, and at one point, with voice crystal clear, he cried out, “No pope, no Catholic Church!” The Archbishop was referring to the puppet church set up by the Chinese government, a church with no link to the Holy See. He ended his homily with a challenge to his listeners. “Never give up on Christ, and He will never give up on you.”
At the conclusion of Mass, the choir began the recessional, “Lift High The Cross.” As the Archbishop walked past me, I felt something I’d never experienced before. I caught the glimpse of a living saint, a man who had been physically broken for his faith, but who had never given up. I realized that people were still accepting Christ’s call to pick up their cross if they wanted to be His disciple. My (and maybe yours?) little crosses I was called to bear were nothing compared to the experience of a man like Archbishop Tang.
Although I never saw him or heard about him again, being with him that day gave me a deep appreciation of today’s feast. Each year, I pray for the Archbishop on September 14th, and thank God for his unbelievable witness to the truth that the Cross of Christ will always triumph. After his funeral, his body was taken to the Mission of Santa Clara, California for temporary burial. There his body rests today, along with the body of his longtime friend, Cardinal Ignatius Kung. Both bodies face East, with the expectation that one day, their remains will be buried their cathedrals of Canton and Shanghai. May they both rest in the peace of Christ.