November/December 2016
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November/December 2016
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Lost Grave, Living Memory
Maryknoll Bishop Francis X. Ford left a legacy of faith in China and a model for mission
By Edward Killackey, M.M.

Maryknoll Bishop Francis X. Ford left legacy of faith in China and model for mission

Sadly, the final resting place of Francis X. Ford, the pioneer missioner who nurtured the Catholic faith in south China, is no longer discernible.

After dying in a communist prison in Canton, China, in 1952, Ford, who was ordained a bishop in 1935, was buried in a potter's field with a simple marker. Later, the field reverted to a rice paddy, all grave markers long removed or destroyed. Today, an apartment complex occupies the land that held his earthly remains. What happened to the holy relics of that site is unknown, though some Maryknollers familiar with the area still consider it holy ground.

The unknown grave of a Ford in China or the honored grave of a Ford in El Salvador speaks of the cost of being a missionary. (Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford, a cousin of Francis X. Ford, was one of the four churchwomen martyred in El Salvador in 1980.) Unlike his grave, Bishop Ford's place in Catholic mission history is solid and ineradicable.

Born on Jan. 11, 1892, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Francis Xavier Ford was Maryknoll's first seminarian and one of the first four Maryknollers sent to China in 1918. His apostolic gifts still speak to the tasks of the Church in proclaiming the Reign of God in our world today.

Fu Er Tet (Ford's Chinese name) recognized the importance of expressing Gospel truths in the symbols of the local culture. He listened to the culture and shaped his message and actions to its nuances, reframing the content of catechesis. In turn, the people and culture evangelized him. His writings—several hundred essays by Ford have pride of place in the Society's archives—emphasize his love and respect for the local church. He balanced the Church's universality with needed particularity.

Ford no doubt inherited his writing talent from his parents, who were both journalists in New York. Elizabeth and Austin Ford were visionary Catholics to name their newborn son after the patron saint of missioners, who brought Catholicism to Japan in 1549, and the name seemed provident to the future missioner.  Ford was 16 years old when the Vatican removed the United States from its roster of "missionary countries." Shortly thereafter, Fathers Thomas Frederick Price and James Anthony Walsh drafted a proposal for the Catholic Church in the United States to send out its own missioners to other countries.

Word of that endeavor came to the Ford household in Brooklyn, N.Y., through the pages of The Field Afar (now MARYKNOLL). Ford's teachers at Saint Francis Prep also brought the news to their students. When Ford was a student at Cathedral College in New York City, Father Walsh came to speak with the rector. Ford, who was editor of the school newspaper, sought out Walsh to discuss the priest's plans for a foreign mission society and the rest is, indeed, history.

Ford's desire to enter the seminary taught him an early lesson in the cost of following Jesus. His decision angered his stern father and the rift between father and son lasted seven years. At seminary he had to exorcise his initial shyness to participate in the communal life of Maryknoll. Later in mission, he found that rugged overseas mission took a steady toll on his health.

During his formative years at the Maryknoll seminary, Ford grew to appreciate the complementary roles men and women would have to play in overseas mission if Maryknoll's efforts were to succeed. His friendship with Mollie Rogers, who became Mother Mary Joseph, foundress of the Maryknoll Sisters, convinced Ford of the need for these dynamic American women in mission work. Overseas, he welcomed religious women in helping form communities of faith.

He also recognized the essential role of the laity in proclaiming the Word and giving witness. Ford's model of lay involvement in pastoral work in Kaying—site of one of Maryknoll's very first missions and where Ford served—prefigured the structure in many parishes today. During decades of persecution, the Church in Kaying survived—albeit in secret—despite the expulsion of expatriate clergy and religious women. Ford's progressive theology made it possible for the interior life of faith to endure and sustain the people long after the visible hierarchical structure of the Church had been suppressed.

Ford loved the Chinese people, in no small measure because their temperament seemed to match his own. "The average Chinese," he wrote in his diary, "is more often happy than otherwise, and a laugh is half his conversation. Class distinction here is based on age and education rather than wealth. A scholar's robe, no matter how patched and weatherbeaten, commands respect, and in the councils of the village a white beard denotes the arbiter of disputes."

His homilies and meditations drew inspiration not only from the liturgical year but also from the rhythms and seasons of life. Chinese holidays provided a vast quarry he richly mined for his reflections and writing.

A local clergy was a cherished dream of Ford's—so, too, was the formation of a native Sisterhood. He realized an expatriate had no permanent place in overseas mission. This insight assured the Chinese Catholics in Kaying that a soon-to-be-shackled Church would nonetheless survive. When foreign missioners were abruptly expulsed or imprisoned, dedicated, young Chinese men and women continued to live their lives in service and witness to Christ.

In April 1951, Ford and his secretary, Maryknoll Sister Joan Marie Ryan, were arrested by the communist Chinese government on charges of espionage. At their trial, which allowed for no defense, Ford simply declared their innocence and love of the Chinese people. They were sentenced to indefinite imprisonment.

The finale was a journey of a haggard, rope-bound and ridiculed Francis X. Ford on the road from Kaying to Canton (now Guangzhou). Life-as-pilgrimage, a theme that guided him throughout his discipleship, was fulfilled in Ford's personal exodus and passover to glory. He died in prison less than a year later, reportedly on Feb. 21, 1952. Sister Ryan was released and expelled from China in August 1952.

"In time of persecution, the first to be wiped out or driven out is the foreigner," Ford wrote long before his imprisonment. A "country without native clergy is always in danger of being stranded for lack of a pilot," he said. He did not leave his fledgling diocese unprepared. When that actually happened, the Kaying Diocese had 19 Chinese priests and 26 Chinese Sisters to serve the 23,000 Catholics. Many of those Christians, like their shepherd, also suffered imprisonment and death. But the Church of Kaying and the Church of China survived.

Father Edward Killackey, from Yonkers, N.Y., is an expert on the life of Francis X. Ford, and served as a missioner in Tanzania, as well as in administration and development for the Society in the United States. He is now retired and lives at Maryknoll, New York.

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