Other ‘and companions’ memorials have grown in our collective consciousness over the years. For some reason, it seems to take time for us to start celebrating them with gusto. To now not celebrate St Charles Llwanga and companions, St Paul Miki and companions, St Andrew Kim Taegon and companions, St Andrew Dun Lac and companions would be unthinkable. St Lawrence Ruiz and companions and St Christopher Magallanes and companions are still finding their place in our hearts, but have made recognizable in-roads.
St Augustine Zhao Rong and companions were canonized on 1 Oct 2000 by St John Paul II. Most of our missals and lives of the saints books were published prior to that date, which means that there is little printed information around, and all that we have are internet stories that don’t reference primary source documents.
Unlike some of the other ‘and companions’ lists, the 119 who died as martyrs in China didn’t die on the same day, nor during the same persecution. However they are representative of many more who died as martyrs in China between 1648 and 1930.
This comes from the Roman Martyrology
“In China, in Sichuan province, remembrance of St. Augustine Zhao Rong, priest and martyr, who, infuriating the persecution, because of his faith in Christ was thrown into prison, where he found a glorious death during winter.”
We can take that as fact.
It doesn’t help that there are several dates of remembrance for St Augustine Zhao Rong (27 January, 21 March, 9 July, 28 September) nor that he is also known as St Augustine Tchao, St Augustin Rong Zhao and St Augustinus Zhao.
He heads the list of martyr companions because he is the first native Chinese priest with a provable record of martyrdom.
There are two stories circulating about the internet concerning St Augustine Zhao Rong. One of them just doesn’t add up, or doesn’t add up yet, and the other is more plausible.
The first one goes something like this:
Augustine Zhao Rong was a Chinese soldier who accompanied Bishop John Gabriel Taurin Dufresse of the Paris Foreign Mission Society to his martyrdom in Beijing. Not long after his baptism, Augustine was ordained as a diocesan priest. He was martyred in 1815.
St Augustine Zhao Rong was martyred very early in 1815, the actual date is unknown, only that it was in the coldest part of the year before spring began.
St John Gabriel Taurin Dufresse was martyred 14 September 1815 in Sichuan province. This province is in south western China, but closer to the middle of China than to the Chinese border. Sichuan is a long way from Beijing.
The bishop had been arrested (prior to becoming a bishop in 1798) way back in 1784/85, and imprisoned for six months, and sent to Beijing. But this is well after 1781, the year when St Augustine Zhao Rong was ordained.
So the story doesn’t add up, unless Fr Dufresse had another, earlier imprisonment that hasn’t yet made it into the history books.
In all likelihood there is another of the 119 companions for whom this account is true, and it just got copied/translated down in the wrong place under the wrong name.
The second story is far more plausible, and it goes like this:
St Augustine Zhao Rong was born in 1746 in Wuchuan, China, into a pagan family. When he was 20 years old, he got a job serving in a country prison. When a religious persecution began in 1772, many Christians were arrested and Zhao Rong was appointed to guard them. Among the Catholic prisoners was their missionary, Martinus Moye, (or Mei), who preached the gospel to all his fellow prisoners. Many were converted. Zhao Rong also listened and was intrigued.
Later Mei was released from prison and Zhao Rong left to visit him and continue their discussions of Christianity. In 1776 he received his baptism and confirmation on August 28 and the name Augustine. He continued to grow in faith and became a good helper to both Mei and Matthew Lou. Mei noticed his firm belief and decided to teach him Latin, and he also explained the Bible to him. In 1779, there was a famine and plague in Sichuan. Augustine was sent there to help, and he baptized many dying infants.
Having completed the necessary theological studies, he was ordained a priest on 10 May 1781.
He distinguished himself as a preacher, since his words moved tears to listeners with the story of the passion of Jesus. It is said that when he visited a Christian community he spent three days with them, emphasizing the basics of the faith, viz the 10 commandments, the 7 cardinal sins, the sacrament of penance, the holy Eucharist and the sufferings of Jesus and sharing the scriptures with them. Father Augustine was sent to the western part of Sichuan, to assist in the conversion of the native peoples of that mountainous region.
Augustine would have had a working relationship with Bishop Dufresse, since he was the bishop of Sichuan province from around 1800 until his 1815 martyrdom, which is why Augustine formed part of the 12 companions beatified by Pope Leo XIII with Bishop Dufresse in 1900.
When the fresh persecution broke out, Augustine was arrested and had to endure terrible torture. He was returned to prison, but by then he was in his late 60s and already ill, he died in prison. By the time the death sentence issued by the mandarin was confirmed by the emperor, Augustine was already dead.
Hopefully in the years to come, the primary documents relating to the life and martyrdom of St Augustine Zhao Rong will come to light, and be correctly translated. In the meantime, this feast day of his and the other martyrs of China is an encouragement to us and a reminder to pray for the peoples of China and to give thanks for all those who have sacrificed their lives spreading the Gospel to them.
St Augustine Zhao Rong and companions, pray for us.