Fr Francis Tan Tiande, a joyful witness after 30 years in a labour camp, dies
Born in 1916 in Shunde (Guangdong) into a family that was Catholic for generations, he entered the seminary as a boy. He studied theology at the regional seminary of southern China in Hong Kong, now called ‘Holy Spirit’ seminary.
For three years he was best the athlete in track and field and swimming. His sportsmanlike spirit, combining physical strength and will power, helped him later when he was spent time “in prison and labour camps in north-eastern China.”
He was ordained priest in 1941 in Guangzhou Cathedral, ‘Shishi’ or ‘House of Stone’, which is dedicated to the Sacred Heart.
After a pastoral stay in the regional capital, he was sent to Hainan Island, and then Hong Kong, returning to Guangzhou in 1951.
Jailed in 1953 because of his faith, he was shipped to a forced labour camp in north-eastern China (Heilongjiang) where he spent the next 30 years.
Sentenced to life in prison without a trial, he gradually saw his sentence reduced because for good behaviour in prison, where he always helped others lovingly.
In 1983 he was allowed to return to Guangzhou, where he lived the rest of his life as an assistant priest, loved by Christians and non-Christians alike.
In order to understand the depth of his faith and witness all we need to do is read his dairy (published by AsiaNews in 1990 in Cina oggi, n. 10, pp 191-206) to see how he thought about his time in prison. In it he describes the injustices he saw, the trials by people’s courts against him for being a Catholic and a priest; the destitution and hunger all the prisoners had to endure. But he also describes his charity towards other prisoners and the guards, how he helped them rediscover their human dignity through faith in God. In one excerpt he wrote:
“In the 30 years I spent in the north-east, farming was my main occupation. Each year, when spring came we had to fertilise a field that was as hard as steel [because of the extreme cold]. We used pickaxes to break the ground. Once the ground was loose, we would water it and plant the seeds. Today, when I describe all this, it does not all seem so bad. In reality we were underfed. All that work was beyond our capacity and each minute was an agony . . .”
“People might wonder how I could survive such terrible conditions. For those who do not believe, it is an enigma with no solution. For those who believe it is God’s will. Life is man’s most precious gift. I must take care of this gift so as not be ungrateful. Hence I ate wild herbs to survive, and tree bark . . . Such were the conditions I lived in that I experienced my fellow inmates’ brutal actions . . . That pain was even worse than hunger. I wanted to run in the fields, shouting ‘Where are you God?’ . . . I cannot remember how many times I wanted to end it all, but at the crucial moment I saw Jesus on the cross looking at me with those merciful eyes . . . and telling me ‘Man of little faith! Do you doubt perhaps that I love you?”
“Even during the years when showing a religious symbol was severely punished, I did not stop doing the sign of the cross among the prisoners. I was afraid that I might forget that everything came from His hands, that everything was a token of love, that everything was given to me so that I might be someone who could love. I was afraid that I might end up thinking that there was something I might not thank the Lord for, that I might end up being ashamed of Him, that I might think someone or something was stronger than Him. That ‘sign’ cost me several punishments . . . but I had to preserve my dignity as a believer in order not to find myself without strength.”