In a 2010 interview with Catholic World Report, Cardinal Joseph Zen, S.D.B., the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, wondered aloud about the Catholic Church’s reticence to acknowledge those who had been martyred by Chinese communists during the Maoists’ rise to power, and thereafter. “Why should we not publicize … those martyrs?” Cardinal Zen asked. The truth demands it. Self-respect requires it. Today’s Chinese Catholics, especially those who are persecuted for the fidelity to the Bishop of Rome, would be strengthened by the example of brave witnesses who held firm until the end, Zen suggested.
I think Cardinal Zen is entirely right. One way to start filling in the blanks of China’s modern Catholic history would be to remember, and beatify, a martyred American missionary in China, Bishop Francis X. Ford, M.M.
Francis Ford, the first student to come to the new Maryknoll seminary when the order was founded in 1911, was one of the first four Maryknoll missioners to go to China. Ordained a bishop in 1935, he made a point of training a native clergy to whom he could eventually entrust his diocese. Before that could happen, Ford was arrested by the Chinese communist authorities and died in prison in 1952. Seven months after his death, Time described the drama of his last days, and elements of his heroic life, relying on the testimony of Ford’s secretary, Sister Joan Marie Ryan, M.M., who had been placed under house arrest after Bishop Ford had been arrested on false charges of espionage:
“(Bishop Ford) … though never tried, was … publicly paraded, beaten and degraded in some of the cities in which he had done mission work since 1918. In one town the mob which had gathered to beat him with sticks and stones became so fierce that Bishop Ford’s Communist guards fled in terror. Though knocked to the ground again and again, Bishop Ford did his best to walk calmly through the streets till the guards returned. In another town his neck was bound with a wet rope which almost choked him as it dried and shrank. Another rope was made to trail from under his gown like a tail. To humiliate them both, the (Communists) once forced him to undress before Sister Joan Marie. She caught a glimpse of Bishop Ford for the last time in February of this year (i.e., 1952), the month the (Communists) now say he died. His once dark hair was completely white, his body so emaciated that another prisoner was carrying him ‘like a sack of potatoes.’
“Bishop Ford had neither courted martyrdom nor shirked it. In first arriving in China, he uttered this prayer: ‘Lord, make us the doorstep by which the multitudes may come to worship Thee, and if … we are ground underfoot and spat upon and worn out, at least we … shall become the King’s Highway in pathless China.’ In 20 years, Francis Ford increased his flock from 9,000 to 20,000, built schools, hostels and churches. When World War II came, he stuck by his post, aiding Chinese guerillas, helping downed American airmen escape, relieving war refugees in distress.”
Several years ago, I inquired of the relevant authorities why there was no public beatification cause for this brave man, who should certainly be Blessed Francis Ford. It turned out that the cause had indeed been introduced, but that Roman concerns about offending the Chinese government—which, it will be remembered, pitched a fit when John Paul II canonized over 120 Chinese martyrs (all of whom had died before China’s communist period) during the Great Jubilee of 2000—had led to the process being put on hold.
Such reticence strikes me as a demeaning, self-inflicted wound to the Church’s mission. The evangelical future of the Catholic Church in China depends in no small part on the heroic resistance of today’s Chinese Catholics to governmental attempts to turn their local Church into a subsidiary of the Chinese communist state. Those Catholics need the encouragement of a witness like that given by Francis Xavier Ford, whose blood may yet prove to have paved the King’s Highway in the Middle Kingdom.
COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people
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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.
Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.
However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.
Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.
Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.
“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”
He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation.
While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path.
And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.
Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.
“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”
On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling.
“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”
God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for.
This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”
“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.
In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.
“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”
A bribe for Heaven
For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.
While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.
“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”
So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.
“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”
To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference.
As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.
“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”
Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.
“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”
Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.
“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.
The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God.
One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.
“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”
“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.
“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”