Bishop Tegusbilig, the persecuted Chinese face of Mongolian Catholicism
The small Church of Mongolia that is currently meeting Pope Francis is closely connected to the Diocese of Ningxia in China, home until three years ago of the only Mongolian (underground) bishop in the history of the Catholic Church. Known in Chinese as Ma Zhongmu, he was jailed for 11 years for refusing to join the Patriotic Association. After the Cultural Revolution, he sought out each one of his scattered flocks. He translated the Bible and the Roman Missal into Mongolian.
Milan (AsiaNews) – The words addressed today by Pope Francis in Ulaanbaatar to Chinese Catholics, together with the memory of the presence of Fr Teilhard de Chardin in the desert of Ordos, are not just a signal to today's China. They are also a reminder of an important link that binds Mongolia’s small Catholic community, reborn just 30 years ago, to the Catholic missions in China, kept apart under the country’s long communist rule.
The Belgium-based Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM), more widely known as Scheut missionaries (from the site where they were founded), begun evangelising among Mongolians in the Ordos region in the mid-19th century.
After closely studying the local culture in China’s Inner Mongolia region, they experienced martyrdom at the start of the 20th century during the Boxer revolt. Yet the seed sowed continued to sprout even after their expulsion from mainland China in the 1950s, which is home to more Mongolians than in independent Mongolia.
It was therefore no accident that the Holy See, in the early 1990s, entrusted the mission sui iuris in Mongolia to the Scheut missionaries, who picked up where they had left off.
But there is more and it involves the only ethnic Mongolian bishop that the Church has ever had. Born on 1 November 1919 in Borobalgasu (Chengchuan), a town south of Ordos City, Inner Mongolia, his Mongolian name was Agtaqin Tegusbilig but he was also known in Chinese as Ma Zhongmu.
He died just three years ago after serving as an underground bishop. In the troubled 20th century, he was an extraordinary example of fidelity to the Gospel in China’s Ningxia region and a great promoter of the encounter between Mongolian culture and the Catholic faith.
This background is important. In their mission in Borobalgasu, Scheut missionaries had succeeded in the small miracle of converting Mongolians and Han Chinese.
Tegusbilig’s story was reported in detail two years ago in a publication by the Verbiest Institute KU Leuven, the CICM centre for studies on China.
He was given the Christian name of Joseph when he was baptised. As a child, he helped the family graze cattle, part of which belonged to the Catholic mission, until he was 12.
In 1935 he entered San Sheng Gong minor seminary before moving to the Hohhot and Datong major seminaries, respectively in Inner Mongolia and Shanxi, to complete his theological studies. He was ordained a priest on 31 July 1947 by Bishop Charles van Melckebeke of Ningxia, a Belgian member of the Scheut missionaries, who was expelled like all foreign missionaries in 1952.
When the communists seized power in 1949, Fr Joseph Tegusbilig was enrolled at Fu Jen Catholic University (then in Beijing), but soon, the campaign to "suppress counter-revolutionary elements" launched across China, convinced him to return to Ningxia without completing his studies.
For some years he carried out his ministry until he was sentenced to eight years of forced labour in 1958 as "leader of a clique of counter-revolutionaries" after he refused to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. He was given three more for a "homily" addressed to the prison director.
He was released on 20 April 1969 and went back to his hometown where he worked as a labourer in an agricultural irrigation program. Only in 1979 was he able to resume his priestly ministry. At that point, he literally went looking for all the Catholics in the Ordos region, bringing them back to the Church.
His pastoral work was aimed at both Han Chinese and Mongolian Catholics. “Although the Cultural Revolution was already over,” wrote Fr Paul Urnud of the Verbiest Institute KU Leuven two years ago, “people were like birds, easily startled by the mere twang of a bowstring; lay people were very eager to receive the sacraments, but no one dared to come forward and express their wish load and clear because they were still afraid that the Cultural Revolution may come back again.”
“Bishop Ma knew people’s worries and looked for them one by one, a family at a time. Then, he had no horse or other vehicles, so he just went on foot; sometimes he had to walk the whole day just to meet an old Catholic in a faraway area.”
“The bishop’s visit would comfort and encourage them, telling them, ‘Do not worry, God never forgets us! We are free now!’” He “was a living image of the Good Shepherd in the Gospel (John 10). The non-Catholic local people considered him a living god, and the Catholic faithful called him a saint.”
He was secretly consecrated bishop of Ningxia on 8 November 1983, but was never recognised by the authorities. In his outreach, he not only took care of the spiritual life of the faithful, but also worked to improve their living conditions.
Experimenting with all kinds of cultivars on the church farm, he taught people how to plant, and which plants grow easily and are most valuable.
He also took care of orphans and offered support to some 50 students until they completed their basic education.
But his most important work was the construction of a church “at Chagantologai in 1987. It became the only Mongol church until 2014 [. . .] a sign of hope for the Mongol Catholics, a safe sheepfold on the desert.”
Another of his very important activities was the translation of religious texts into the Mongolian language. In addition to liturgical hymns that he also set to music, he translated the readings of the daily Mass, the Bible, the Roman Missal as well as the history of Marian apparitions throughout the world.
He retired from his episcopal ministry in 2005, but continued as a priest among his people until a stroke forced him to stop in 2016. He died on 25 March 2020 at the age of 101.
For Fr Urnud, “His faithfulness, his hard work, his whole legacy is remembered deep in the hearts of those who knew him.”