When co-founders James A. Walsh and Thomas F. Price made China Maryknoll’s first mission in 1918, they were humbled by the fertile soil they discovered there for sowing seeds of the Gospel. Many Maryknoll missioners happily served there.
Those days came to a standstill in 1949 when Communist leader Mao Zedong launched the Communist Revolution, banning the practice of religion. Maryknoll, like other missionary groups, was forced out of China.
It was not until 1976, when Chairman Mao died, that moderate reforms occurred. The Church could again function in China but with no outside influences. Maryknoll priests could return but only as English teachers.
In 1987, the year I was ordained a Maryknoll priest, Maryknoll assigned me to teach English in China at Suzhou Teachers College in Jiangsu Province.
The students called me Dr. Lawrence, although everyone knew I was a Catholic priest. My students presented me with my Chinese name: Lin Cie-hua, explaining that Lin is similar to Flynn, and Cie-hua translates to “true friend of China.”
After two fruitful years at Suzhou, I transferred to Fudan University in Shanghai. One day the president of the school summoned me to her office. To my astonishment, she asked me to give a lecture on the historical and cultural aspects of the Bible, which, she noted, was generally unknown in China. I spoke for close to two hours to a standing-room only auditorium of students, fellow professors and the president. After 45 minutes of questions, students followed me out, asking to hear more.
The next year, the Shanghai authorities sent a car to pick me up for an audience with them. One of them said, “Dr. Lawrence, we have an unusual request for you …” Bishop Jin Lu-xian of Shanghai, recently released from detention, had asked that I be allowed to teach at the regional seminary, which would reopen after 45 years! I would be the first foreign priest allowed to teach there.
I had to ask permission from Maryknoll leadership and they, in turn, from the Vatican. The Vatican’s response was: “Whatever Maryknoll can do for the seminarians there, is the future of the Church in China.”
It was a joy to be among those faithful people from largely rural origins, whose families had miraculously preserved their Catholic faith amid repression.
After a few years, I was asked to teach at the national seminary in Beijing.
I then realized the dire need for quality education for Chinese seminarians. They were youthful and vibrant, but their teachers were very old priests unaccustomed to teaching.
With the blessing of Bishop Jin and Bishop Joseph Zong Huai-de, president of the Chinese Catholic Bishops Conference, I developed an overseas graduate training program for Chinese seminarians.
I contacted cardinals in U.S. cities affiliated with major seminaries. Each one committed to co-sponsoring this Maryknoll Society initiative, providing scholarships for the Chinese students.
That was 25 years ago. I rejoice in being an agent of the Holy Spirit in the start of the China Educators and Formators Project.