By Msgr. John E. Vesey
When he was an eighth-grader, Francis Xavier Ford heard a missionary, Father Louis Conrardy, who had worked with St. Damian of Molokai, preach at St. Joseph’s Church. Father Conrardy founded a leprosorium near Canton, China. Young Francis remembered the last line of Father Conrardy’s sermon: “My one ambition is to die a martyr as a missionary for Christ.”
Years later when asked by another missionary where he got his missionary vocation, Father Ford told him about the sermon by Father Conrardy and the last line of the sermon, “My one ambition is to die a martyr as a missionary for Christ.”
One day in November 1911, Father James Anthony Walsh, the co-founder of Maryknoll, spoke at Cathedral College and told the seminarians of his plans to start a seminary for foreign missions here in the United States. After the talk, Francis approached Father Walsh and asked if he could join his society. He thus became the first seminarian in Maryknoll. A few years later on September 8, 1919, he would leave Maryknoll in the first group of Maryknoll to go to the foreign missions.
In May 1924, Father Ford attended the first Synod of the Catholic Church in China held in Shanghai and convoked by Archbishop Celso Costantini who was pushing for the implementation of the directives outlined by Pope Benedict XV in his missionary encyclical Maximum Illud (1919). Archbishop Costantini convened all the foreign heads of Catholic missions in China, delegates of various missionary institutes, and representatives of the Chinese clergy to plan a general reform of the Catholic Church in China.
In 1925, Father Ford was transferred to mission territory in northeastern Guangdong Province called Kaying (Meixian today). It was the home of the Hakka speaking Chinese. He would remain there for the rest of his missionary career. (The Communist government which came to power in China on October 1, 1949, would arrest him as a spy in April 1951, and he would die in a Canton prison in February 1952.)
As he began his pastoral ministry in Kaying, Father John Donovan MM, his biographer and secretary, noted that “Father Ford outlined a plan of action covering four main areas: (1) He would train as many lay helpers as possible to participate directly in the apostolate; (2) Immediately start a seminary to train Chinese young men for the priesthood, and a novitiate to train young women for the religious life; (3) Invite the Maryknoll Sisters to go out to the women of China to preach the Gospel directly to them; and (4) Have his missioners directly engage in evangelization through the written word and through personal contact.”
Influenced by the first Catholic Synod, Father Ford immediately opened a seminary for candidates to the priesthood. When he arrived in Kaying, he found 8 boys ready to study for the priesthood and he invited them to live in the rectory with him. The next year there were 21 students but the rectory was too small to house them so he decided to build a seminary. This was the first step to build up a native clergy.
As he was building the seminary, Msgr. Ford realized that in the countryside, mostly men participated in the catechism classes while the women stayed at home and practiced their traditional Buddhist religion. He realized that if women did not have the opportunity to participate in the catechetical formation, there would be no chance of forming Catholic families in the Church. He invited the Maryknoll Sisters to go to the countryside two by two to evangelize the women.
This is the first time in the mission experience where Sisters would leave their convent and go out and live among the people as their method of evangelization. Bishop Ford trained the Sisters, organizing a five-year language program and giving them frequent spiritual conferences. From 1934 to 1951, a period of 17 years, the Sisters work of direct evangelization took place in 17 communities.
Their work included visiting the homes of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, holding catechumen classes in preparation for Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation, giving marriage preparation classes, training catechists, giving retreats, administering Baptism to dying children or adults, rectifying marriages, and bringing lay Catholics back to the sacraments. The work of the Sisters would become so successful that the Kaying Method of Evangelization would be used as a model of evangelization by the Congregation of Propaganda Fide (today it is called the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) for many countries throughout the world.
The challenges that the Chinese Church faces today provide the Christian community with opportunities similar to those that the late Bishop Ford faced and lived through. The pastoral work that must be done will depend mainly on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and will require a great deal of physical effort, “good walkers will be needed.” Nothing will come easily and if physical effort is not expended by all, the Gospel will not be lived or shared with all our brothers and sisters. The direct evangelization of the Maryknoll Sisters in Kaying provides an example to the Church today on how it is possible to build up the domestic Church as the source of the new evangelization.
Under current law in China, no one under the age of 18 is allowed to go to Church (a very similar condition exists in the United States today with the limitation on attendance at Sunday Mass) so the formation of lay leaders and catechists from the communities becomes of prime importance and the basis of a strong lay apostolate.
This spirit-filled plan of action of Bishop Ford can be realized today if bishops, priests, sisters, and lay leaders are filled with the desire to share in the needs and sufferings of their communities. Bishop Ford’s Episcopal motto was “Condolere” — “To Have Compassion.” It is a daily challenge to walk as faithful instruments of God’s mercy.
Without believing in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, this will not be accomplished. To his final days, Bishop Francis Xavier Ford MM was a faithful witness of the presence of God in his humble servant and the Lord continues to offer that grace to all who are willing to confide in the Spirit’s presence in their lives. As the Church in China finds itself living on Calvary, the Cross is always a present reality, but so is God’s abundant grace. “The saints were able to make the great journey of human existence in the way that Christ had done before them because they were brimming with great hope (Benedict XVI).”
Msgr. Vesey is the pastor of St. Michael Church in Flushing. He has worked as a missionary in Guatemala, Paraguay and China.