The Last Jesuit in China

Dr. Amanda C. R. Clark’s book China’s Last Jesuit tells the little known story of Fr. Charles J. McCarthy, S.J., and the end of the mission in Catholic Shanghai.

Fr. Charles J. McCarthy, S.J., is the subject of a new book on his life and missionary work in China (Photo: Dr. Amanda Clark)

Dr. Amanda C. R. Clark is Associate Dean of Special Programs and Library Director at Whitworth University. She holds a Ph.D. in Communication & Information Sciences from the University of Alabama. Her academic work focuses on the history of architecture and art; she teaches courses on Western architecture, Chinese art, and artists books in China and the West.

Dr. Amanda C. R. Clark, author of “China’s Last Jesuit” (Photo: Dr. Clark)

Dr. Clark recently corresponded with Catholic World Report to discuss her new book, China’s Last Jesuit: Charles J. McCarthy and the End of the Mission in Catholic Shanghai (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)which tells the moving story of an American Jesuit missionary who was imprisoned by the Communist government for being an “ideological saboteur” in the 1950s.

CWR: There have been several books written about earlier Jesuit missionaries in China, such as Vincent Cronin’s biography Fr. Matteo Ricci, The Wise Man from the West: Matteo Ricci and His Mission to China, published by Ignatius Press. How does your book serve to tell us about Jesuits in the more recent past?

Dr. Amanda Clark: Matteo Ricci captures our imagination—he was a great linguist, a cultural ambassador, and a staunch Jesuit committed to bringing the Catholic faith to the world. Ricci seems to eclipse all other missionaries to China, but part of his great legacy includes all those missionaries who came after him, both Chinese and foreign, like Fr. Charles McCarthy.

Part of Ricci’s unique interaction with Chinese persons was his attention to cultural dialogue, becoming versed in their language, their literature and philosophy—in short, he learned to impress the socks off of people.  Jesuits like McCarthy followed in Ricci’s footsteps, taking seriously the task of getting to know their mission landscape and falling in love with a foreign culture. Also, while writing this book I had access to the private collection of materials held by the McCarthy family, and so I was able to include rare insights into the interpersonal dimension of Jesuit missions in the more recent past.

CWR: Why did you choose to entitle your book China’s Last Jesuit and how does the story of Fr. Charles McCarthy tell us more about the Jesuit mission in the twentieth century during China’s transition into a Communist country?

Clark: While Charles McCarthy was not the last Jesuit ever to enter and work in China, he was the last of the two American Jesuits to depart from the robust Shanghai mission, Zikawei. He was at the tail end of a mission enterprise that we saw growing under Matteo Ricci, so McCarthy’s placement in Jesuit history is astounding.   

McCarthy’s location in Chinese history is also fascinating—he found himself in war-torn, twentieth-century China, first caught up in the Sino-Japanese war, then entangled in the crossfire of civil war and then the emergence of the People’s Republic of China. During these fraught political years his missionary work continued, even when under house arrest and imprisonment. McCarthy’s story provides readers with a first-hand account of what life was like in China during one of its most turbulent eras, and his story is especially informative regarding the state of Christianity during that time.

CWR: One key theme in your book is Fr. McCarthy’s enduring love for China’s culture and people. What inspired China’s authorities to arrest and detain someone known as a “friend of China”? You also discuss Chinese Catholics who were arrested in the 1950s; why were they arrested? And what was prison life like for the Chinese Catholics who were not, as Fr. McCarthy was, identified as “foreign imperialists” and “ideological saboteurs”?

Clark: The decade of the 1950s in China was a tumultuous time, full of ambition for China’s economic growth, and rife with political fluctuation and instability. McCarthy was in China to witness the Communist victory in 1949, so he understood well what was happening once Chairman Mao took leadership over the country. An era of suspicion fed on itself, and many Christians—foreign and native—were caught in the changing political winds often fueled by fear. China as a country had in the previous decades suffered under unequal treaties and colonial insertions, but now the tables were turned and foreign persons and foreign influences were being expelled. Being a foreigner or practicing a foreign religion—and one, like Catholicism, so closely tied to a powerful foreign leader, namely, the Pope—could put you in the light of suspicion.

In the 1950s the stakes were high. Protestants were able to embrace the Chinese Three Self movement, which centralized religious power, money, and influence safely at home within China, but for Catholics, like McCarthy, his confreres, and parishioners, their ties and allegiance to foreign magisterial control was not taken lightly by those in positions of power in China at that time. Chinese Catholics, too, were arrested for their affiliation with the Pope, who was viewed as a foreign imperialist.    

CWR: In your chapter entitled, “China in an Era of Change,” you describe Fr. McCarthy’s studies at Marquette University in journalism. How did his studies there influence his life as a missionary in China during the Japanese occupation and civil war between the Nationalists and Communists?

Clark: You’ve brought up the two sides of the coin. One the one side, Jesuits are the masters of being both an expert in a field or profession (we often think of higher education, but in this case it was journalism and reporting), and also of being an active missionary, as St. Ignatius envisioned his flock of soldier-heroes.

McCarthy’s skills as a journalist were put to work immediately in China, where he wrote a multitude of articles for journals both back home in America and within China itself. He produced a radio show in Shanghai that broadcast widely and was modeled on the then-popular American program, “The Catholic Hour,” with Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen. Like radio listeners in America, Shanghai’s Christians and non-Christians both tuned in to hear the sermons, news, and music that McCarthy broadcast across China’s airwaves.

When times turned to their most unstable, McCarthy published a small-run newsletter of information, written in Latin (which would be understood by missionaries, but not political authorities), which provided some of the last lines of widely-disseminated communication between Catholic leaders in China.  You can see why something like that might look like espionage to outside eyes, but from within that circle it makes perfect sense to wish to share news during a chaotic era.

CWR: The concluding chapter of the book discusses Fr. McCarthy’s life in the Philippines after he had been expelled from China. Why do you dedicate so much of your book to McCarthy’s work there, and what legacy did he leave in Shanghai, China, and Baguio, Philippines, after his life?

Clark: Ah, this is like the ancient story of the wise man, Solon, telling Croesus that happiness can only be understood when we look at the whole life of a person, not only at a fleeting instant. Similarly, Charles McCarthy’s life must be considered as a whole, not by merely looking at the exciting prison years. McCarthy was a friend of China and remained impassioned by this devotion even when expelled from the Chinese Mainland. In the Philippines he remained focused on the Chinese Catholic diaspora and their spiritual and temporal needs.

I can never get through that last chapter without shedding tears. McCarthy’s witness to the faith, his actions and his relationships are examples for all of us on how better to live a saintly life. As this final chapter points out, Fr. McCarthy’s efforts as a Catholic missionary in China and the Philippines helped to change the lives of countless people. His work in the Philippine’s to gain citizenship rights for Chinese there, for example, inspired the government to change the constitution to allow Chinese to become citizens. While in Shanghai, he strengthened the faith of many Chinese clergy and lay faithful who suffered during the anti-Christian campaigns of the 1950s.

CWR: Finally, what inspired you to write this book about a largely unknown American Jesuit who served as a missionary in China? How can his story serve to edify Catholic Christians who live in the twenty-first century?

Clark: There are eternal truths in Charles McCarthy’s story: perseverance in times of trouble, thanksgiving even in adversity, praise, hope, love, and friendship. In modern parlance he was a global citizen, a hard worker, and lover of mankind. So we have a lot we can learn from his powerful story in the 21st century. His is also part of the moving story of Chinese Christians, about whom we currently hear so much about in the news. 

The telling of his story is also a great reminder that without original sources and documents no historian can do the important work of bringing the past to light. I am grateful to the McCarthy family for saving thousands of pages of letters and photographs from Fr. Charles’s life in Asia.

I remain fascinated by the powerful expression of faith that we see in Chinese Christians both today and in the past, and the role that the Jesuits played in China’s Catholic life. I hope that in the telling of his story, his adventures, his friendships, perseverance, persecution, suffering and triumphs, that readers will grow in their own faith and their own love of China, just as Charles McCarthy did himself.

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