Cloud of Witnesses: Ignatius Cardinal Kung Pin-Mei

As my Cantonese is not what it would have been had I been present at Pentecost, in 1999 I led the intercessory prayers in French and Latin at a Solemn Mass on the 70th priestly ordination anniversary, 50th episcopal anniversary, 20th cardinalatial anniversary, and 98th birth anniversary of Ignatius Kung (Gong) Pin-Mei in his home of exile in Stamford, Connecticut. Never fear: St. Peter was very alive in the serene cardinal who had been bound in his old age and taken where he would not.

Born in 1901, his family had been Catholic for at least five generations. An aunt, who was a nun, tutored him in Chinese classics and religion as preparation for a Jesuit high school founded by French missionaries. After ordination as a diocesan priest at the age of 29, he taught in Jesuit schools; when Shanghai was seized by the Communists in 1949, he was consecrated bishop of Soochow, becoming bishop of Shanghai and apostolic administrator of Soochow and Nanking the following year. His family sensed that it was a prison sentence, although a photograph of the slight, young bishop shows no foreboding. He rallied the Legion of Mary to a holy militancy, and soon many were sentenced to decades of hard labor. Their message to him was Petrine: “Bishop, in darkness, you light up our path. You guide us on our treacherous journey. You uphold our faith and the traditions of the Church. You are the foundation rock of our Church in Shanghai.”

In 1953 he gathered 3,000 young men in the cathedral while a thousand women recited the rosary in the square. As police surrounded them, they processed with a large cross chanting: “Long live the Bishop. Long live the Holy Father. Long live the Church.” In 1955 the bishop was thrust before a microphone at a show trial in a stadium to recant his anti-social errors, but he shouted: “Long live Christ the King! Long live the Pope!” The sentence was life imprisonment. When frequently urged to denounce the pope, he ritually answered: “I am a Roman Catholic Bishop. If I denounce the Holy Father, not only would I not be a Bishop, I would not even be a Catholic. You can cut off my head, but you can never take away my duties.” For 30 years, much of it in solitary confinement, the Mass was forbidden, along with the Bible. His Communions were of the heart, all the time resisting the proselytizing of the collaborationist Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. When international pressure got him released on “house arrest,” the government choreographed a propaganda dinner with the visiting Cardinal Sin of Manila, but the bishops were not allowed to speak to each other. The canny cardinal proposed that the sullen gathering be enlivened with songs. When his turn came, Kung chanted the To es Petrus—Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.

With stomach cancer at the age of 86, he was sent to Hong Kong where he was amazed that Catholics no longer observed the Friday abstinence that he had kept for 30 meatless years. Eventually he settled in with his nephew Joseph in Connecticut, eager to return to the people of Shanghai as their bishop. Pope John Paul II told him that he had made him a cardinal secretly, in pectore, in 1979. They kept the secret until 1991, and on June 28 in St. Peter’s Square, Kung rose from his wheelchair, threw away his cane, and walked up the steps to kneel before the pontiff and receive the red hat, as the crowd applauded for an unprecedented seven minutes.

The Kung family invited my mother to sit with them at the cardinal’s funeral on March 18, 2000. It was the last Requiem she attended before her own death. All sang what Cardinal Kung taught millions: There is one thing against which the gates of hell shall not prevail.

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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