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Extracts from Fr Michael Healy’s moving memoir about his missionary life in China, Burma and Britain.
Examination of Conscience
"Those who have been through repeated Communist interrogation all agree that the most critical time was when you were sent to reflect on your alleged crimes, and not during the actual interrogation, which had its fair share of shouting, banging on the tables and brandishing of revolvers. It was a caricature of the sacrament of reconciliation where you were expected on your return to humbly confess your crime and ask forgiveness, assured that the People's Government would be lenient with you. There would be no mercy for those who did not confess. It was important to switch off. I was fortunate that in school and college I had committed so much to memory. I would recite all the prayers I knew, the words of Christ in the Bible and hymns. Then, for mental recreation, songs and poems and parodies that I had composed about the Communists..."
Fr Michael signing his book in Cork.
Fr Michael with sister Jane and brother Joe.
"Everyone had a different method of surviving interrogations. Fr Aedan McGrath, who spent 32 months in solitary confinement in Ward Road Jail, Shanghai, studied the Chinese characters in the Communist propaganda papers. Fr Paddy Ronan from Kilkenny had been one of the best and most stylish hurlers in college. When he was sent to reflect after interrogation, he would imagine he was playing in Croke Park. He heard the whistle and the roar of the crowd as he scored. He said he really looked forward to his daily match sitting upright on the floor of a Communist jail."
"All help was cut off. I had to support myself. I had to till the unused part of the cemetery by hand and grow wheat, cut it with a hook, thresh, winnow and grind it on a grinding stone to make wholemeal porridge. I would sieve enough flour to make altar breads. I had two bottles of altar wine sealed and buried in each Catholic village. One evening after a lengthy interrogation session by the secret police and constant visiting during the day by Korean Volunteers, I stood in the kitchen. I did not have time to prepare anything to eat. The cupboard was bare. I prayed, "Lord its up to you, I can't do the impossible". A large fish came through the air, grazed my nose, hit the wall and dropped to the floor. I looked out through the open window and saw a youngster, about seven years old, in rags racing down the mulberry grove to avoid being caught. I don't know who sent the fish. All I knew was that the family who supplied it would have to sell their daily catch to buy rice. They probably did not have enough to eat themselves..."
Rosary Sunday 1951
"It was Rosary Sunday, 1951, the feast of the church, when all the Catholics would be present, including those from outlying villages who normally attended the Sunday prayer meeting in their villages. Just before the Mass I was told that the secret police had come and were sitting in the back seats observing everything and making entries in their notebooks. I decided not to preach, but after the gospel I left the sanctuary and holding a large rosary beads I went to the statue of Our Lady on the side altar and placed the rosary in her outstretched hands. I felt that this gesture and the silence would be more effective than anything I could say... but then I felt I had to say something. "As I have often told you I come from a small country one third the size of this province. Catholics were persecuted for 200 years. They baptised their children but they had no priest, no Mass, and no sacraments. They were very poor and had nothing in their pockets but their rosaries. They clung to it more than they clung to life. They kept the faith. If anyone tries to force another to say that a Church organisation is subversive, or if anyone tries to force another to make a false accusation, such a person is doing the work of the devil." This resulted in searches for rosary beads; I overheard Catholics describe how they hid their beads and counted with knots on twine, with pebbles or with their fingers...
In my subsequent interrogations the secret police never referred to what I said that morning, but about a year later I suffered for it. At repeated interrogations they accused me of calling the Communists the devil. I said, "I never even mentioned Communists. I did say that anyone who forces another to make false accusations is doing the work of the devil. I don't believe in Communism but I love everyone including Communists and I pray for Communists every day. They were really annoyed. We had a saying among ourselves, 'If you really want to make a real Communist really angry, tell him you'll pray for him'".
A Courageous Bishop
"Fr Ignatius Gung Bing Mi was our neighbouring pastor in the adjoining diocese. He was parish priest of Soochow. He was a kindly hospitable Chinese priest and I visited him regularly. He was appointed Bishop of Shanghai at a time when to be a bishop was to be a martyr. Eventually he was arrested and brought before a gathering of 5,000 to confess his alleged crimes. Everyone thought he was brainwashed and that they were to endure another Communist propaganda show. He was pushed roughly to the microphone to confess his crimes. He shouted three times in Chinese into the microphone, "Long live Christ the King". There was a stunned silence before the crowd shouted "Long live our bishop". The microphone was switched off. He lived a long life, surviving thirty years in solitary confinement."
"About two weeks after the denunciation meeting, I was escorted through the town to the river steamer that would take me to the county police headquarters at Linghu. Nanzun's population was 21,000. I couldn't even guess how many came to see me off, or whether they were ordered out, but all the streets and the open spaces and vantage points were crowded. In some parishes the people had to shout slogans denouncing the missionary being expelled. I think I'd have preferred some noise, the silence was weird.
As we stood there waiting for the steamer, I saw a group of Catholics about fifty yards away in the midst of the thousands. It was the president of the Legion of Mary who attracted my attention as he was taller than those around him. He had been repeatedly called by the secret police and held for hours of interrogation. He looked straight ahead, his face impassive and standing beside him was his wife breastfeeding a baby. She was wiping away tears...To get their attention I looked up to heaven and forced what I hoped was a reassuring smile. Then I raised my hand high and blessed them. I expected the police to reprimand me. They didn't; they pretended not to notice and possibly didn't notice the group of Catholics huddled together, making the sign of the cross in the midst of thousands.
As the river steamer arrived, James, my lay helper managed to get through the police and their armed escort. He approached me and with a smile shook hands in Western fashion. To thousands watching, it spoke volumes. In effect it said "I was the closest to the priest. This is what I think of all those accusations"... I had told James to distance himself from me in the event of my being expelled. He must have suffered afterwards for his honesty and loyalty. I shall remember it to my dying day. Years later I felt it very deeply when I heard that he and his wife, like so many others, had died in poverty."
Fr Michael Healy now lives in retirement at St Columban's, Navan.
A moving memoir by a Columban missionary priest who was expelled from both China and Burma and
lived to revisit both places. Copies 15Euro including post and packaging from Fr Michael Healy,St Columban’s, Navan, Co. Meath. Telephone: +353 4690 21525 or from website: www.onstream.ie
[Far East Magazine]