On July 29 the American Catholic Church lost one of its great heroes for this century. At the Maryknoll general headquarters near Ossining, N.Y., Bishop James E. Walsh died at the age of 90. He had been the second superior general of Maryknoll, elected to a 10-year term in 1936. But he was probably best known to the American public at large for the 12 years he had spent in Chinese Communist prisons. In 1958, at the age of 67, he had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for counterrevolutionary activities. In 1970, he was released because of ill health and returned to this country where he was greeted by the President of the United States.
Bishop Walsh was one of the original group of four Maryknoll priests who had been assigned to China in 1918. He had been in the first class (six men in all) to enter the Maryknoll seminary and prepare for a life in the foreign missions. Since his life spanned 90 years. Bishop Walsh lived through the great sea changes of this century that have affected the world and the church, the United States and his beloved China. He had no illusions about the Chinese Communist regime that had been his jailor. As recently as 1977, he said that while the Communist revolution had improved the physical condition of the Chinese people, it had done so "at the cost of complete slavery for every man, woman and child in the country." Yet he welcomed the increased flow of communication with China that followed on the initiatives of the Nixon Administration in the early 1970s. China's isolation from the West had to be broken if there was to be any hope of greater freedom.
Now that travel to China is becoming more common, the memory o f Bishop Walsh offers a healthy corrective to any overly sanguine hopes about future liberalization within China and, in particular, the process of reconciliation with China's divided Catholics. The angry reaction of the National Association of Patriotic Catholics to the nomination by Pope John Paul II of Dominic Tang as Archbishop of Canton surprised both Archbishop Tang and the Vatican. The Archbishop, after his release from prison, had been nominated by the Patriotic Association itself as bishop for the Canton Catholics, but the Pope's appointment of Archbishop Tang was described by the Patriotic Association as an insulting violation of the sovereignty of the Chinese Catholic Church. More recently, in a gesture that underlined their resistance to Rome, all 32 bishops belonging to the Patriotic Association participated in the ordination liturgy of five new bishops, nominated and ordained without the approval of the Vatican.
To the end of his long life Bishop James Walsh remained faithful to his Maryknoll vocation to be a missionary of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, even in the face of persecution by an unjust government. His Maryknoll brothers and sisters show that same dedication today in the face of similar risk. Maryknoll priests working in El Salvador, for example, have been told that they should not return to that country where any work on behalf of the poor and the powerless can be called subversion. Today's Maryknollers are exposed to a risk Bishop Walsh did not have to face: the one-sided sniping by certain American Catholics who seize on any indiscretion, personal or ideological, connected with Maryknoll and ignore in silence the courageous witness of Maryknoll's identification with Christ's poor. As it was for Bishop Walsh, so for today's Maryknollers, the most subversive document around is the Gospel.