Dominic Tang, S.J.: A Bishop in Mao’s China

A Man of Exceptional Character and Stature

Today the name of Monsignor Dominic Tang does not say very much, but at the time, he held one of the most delicate positions in the Chinese church, and he distinguished himself as one of the most significant ecclesial personalities. It is worth citing here a brief summary of the concluding pages of the book, where Bishop Tang speaks of his liberation and his encounter with the Holy See:

The journalists from all the important Hong Kong dailies arrived at the college of Wah Yan. Cardinal Casaroli [Vatican Secretary of State] and I each read a communique, after which, for more than an hour, we responded to the numerous questions put to us by the journalists. Most touched on the possibility of establishing a relationship with Peking. Cardinal Casaroli responded that from the Vatican’s point of view, without a doubt, there were many diplomatic means available to resolve the problem of Taiwan. As for the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, under certain conditions, their present status could change, from illegal to acceptability by the Church. They asked me if I would be able to function as a bridge. I said that I would do everything that was in my power to do. The following morning the cardinal asked me to stay in contact with the government of Peking and to act as an intermediary. Before leaving, he invited me to go to Rome. The Holy Father wished to see me.

The Jesuit Temperament

Listening to the voice of Monsignor Tang we hear a protagonist of the events speaking; no less interesting is the exquisite personal aspect of the pages that follow. But what strikes one the most in this account is his stubbornness, his capacity to resist outrages with a mixture of convinced faith and extraordinary human solidity: a combination he credits — and he does not ever make a mystery of it — to his membership in the Society of Jesus and the severe and rigorous training he received as a young man.

The Jesuit temperament, which is disposed to obedience, perinde ac cadaver (submission of a disciple to a spiritual leader in “the manner of a corpse”), emerges very limpidly in Tang, beginning with his tortured nomination as bishop of Canton. “I was reluctant to accept the nomination, because we Jesuits usually do not become bishops; but on the other hand,” he observed, “I recalled the fact that many foreign bishops had been sent out of the country by the ‘government of the people,’ and as a result there was no Chinese bishop in southern China. If I also had refused to become bishop, there probably would not be a bishop in the entire region, and this would not have been a good thing for the Church.”

This article is from Diaries of the Chinese Martyrs. Click image to preview or order.

Martyrdom: A Serene Vocation

We read in Monsignor Tang’s diary: “From the moment [1951] I became the apostolic administrator in Canton, I bore the responsibility of the entire diocese. I had also foreseen, for some time, the possibility of being imprisoned. Sister Maria Lau Suet-fan always said to me: ‘Your vocation as bishop is the vocation of incarceration.’ And I have always prayed to God to obtain the grace of this vocation.”

The willingness of Bishop Tang to make this extreme sacrifice moved and impressed the people. “During the three years of the natural calami­ties [1959–1962], for six months of the year we ate only spinach and for the remaining six months we ate only cabbage. The greens had already flowered; the stems were hard, and everything was cooked without oil. As a result, my head was always spinning. I would think: ‘If the Lord makes me die, I shall be very content because it will mean that I shall die for the Church.’ When I felt wretched, I tried to think of what martyrdom means: to sacrifice oneself for God.”

The Secret Weapon: Interior Discipline

Jesuit spirituality has already been mentioned as one of Dominic Tang’s personal traits. Some brief passages cited here will verify how this interior discipline, so dear to the sons of Ignatius (founder of the Jesuits), became the secret weapon that helped Monsignor Tang to bear the pressures of the hunger and cold and of all the various tortures and discomforts. . . . Monsignor Tang notes:

Alongside the prison regulations and schedules, I followed my own program. Each morning, after getting up, I would recite the Apostles’ Creed, offering the day to God. Then I would say the Veni Creator [Come, Holy Spirit], because each day so many things happened that gave me need of the light of the Holy Spirit to descend upon me. Then I would meditate for half an hour. . . . It pleased me, above all, to meditate on the Passion of Christ. . . . When I prayed I put my hands under the newspaper and pretended to read it. . . . I prayed before and after every meal. But before and after every meal the guards would come to spy on me. If they suspected that I was pray­ing, they would reproach me. . . . Once a year I prayed the eight-day Spiritual Exercises [of St. Ignatius Loyola], with two meditations each day. Further, I interrogated myself on my relationship with God, with others, and with myself and on the three vows [chastity, poverty, and obedience]. I did the Spiritual Exercises faithfully, even during difficult times. They were a central point in my life, and the source of my renewal and correction.

The Mysterious (yet Real) Closeness of God

The habit of discernment and the capacity to see God’s will in events — even those totally adverse — make up part of the Jesuit DNA. Yet, Monsi­gnor Tang’s isolation was such that not even his relatives knew whether he was living. In 1969 his Jesuit confreres, not having received news of him for a long time, even listed him among the dead. Despite this enormously difficult situation, his awareness of being persecuted for his fidelity to the pope, and as a disciple of Christ, inspired the bishop to say astonishing things:

God gave me the grace to be optimistic, which continuously encouraged me to look at the good side of things and only rarely the ugly side. I was incarcerated for God and for the Church; my conscience was at peace, because I had done my duty regarding God and the Church. If one day I died, I would die in peace. If one day I was released, I would have continued to serve God and the Church. These thoughts and happy sentiments, this peace that I had in the depth of my soul sustained me during those twenty-two long winters and summers that I lived in prison.

In spite of all the terrible sufferings, Monsignor Tang never felt abandoned by God. To the contrary, he felt a mysterious friendly presence in the most difficult moments, beginning with the interminable interrogations to which he was subjected. “When, in prison, everything became exhausting and difficult to bear, I thought of the sufferings that Jesus experienced, and then I was able to bear the weight of my situation. I am weak, and so I asked the Lord to help me, to teach me how to act, and then I felt reinvigorated.”

Persons Reduced to a Number

Like the other texts in this volume — besides its exquisitely spiritual aspect — the diary of Monsignor Tang proves interesting for its documentary value. We learn, for example, that — on a par with what happened in the Nazi lagers — the Chinese prisoners were reduced to numbers. Tang relates: “I was transferred to section 3 of the principal prison of Canton. There all the prisoners were called by numbers. Names were not permitted. My number was 2202.”

Monsignor Tang’s experience was unique in many ways. The bishop lived a very long period in total solitude: a condition that would have caused many, even the strongest, to capitulate. Yet he miraculously, resisted:

During the twenty-two years I was imprisoned, I never received a letter from anyone in my family or from among my friends. Nor did I receive a single visitor, not even a few months before my release — with the exception of Chan Nai-choh [the caretaker at the episcopal residence]. . . . For seventeen years I did not receive a piece of toilet paper or a bar of soap. I slept on a wooden bench, with a blanket I brought with me to the prison. . . . I did not receive letters from my relatives, nor did the prison authorities allow me to write. I did not know anything about the situation of the Church beyond the prison or about the condition of my relatives.

The Faith — a Duel of Ideologies

Some of the most interesting pages in his diary regard the duel between the Catholic bishop and his atheistic jailers and those indoctrinated with the communist and positivist ideologies. The latter tried in vain to eliminate the pastor’s trust in God, which, although supported by faith, they believed, was being profoundly challenged by the Marxist system and by the scientific and technological successes that purported to prove the uselessness of the God of Jesus Christ. But the bishop’s faith was, as usual, indestructible: “When I was attacked by materialism, by atheism, or by false scientific arguments, I immediately turned to God and asked him for the necessary grace to keep me firm in my faith.”

Editor’s note: This article is adapter from a chapter in Diaries of the Chinese Martyrs: Stories of Heroic Catholics Living in Mao’s Chinawhich is available from Sophia Institute Press.

image: By 猫猫的日记本 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons


Gerolamo Fazzini is an international religious journalist and author of several books.

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