The Catholic Defender: Saint Gregory Grassi and Companions
Christian missionaries have often gotten caught in the crossfire of wars against their own countries. When the governments of Britain, Germany, Russia, and France forced substantial territorial concessions from the Chinese in 1898, anti-foreign sentiment grew very strong among many Chinese people.
Gregory Grassi was born in Italy in 1823, ordained in 1856, and sent to China five years later. Gregory was later ordained bishop of North Shanxi. With 14 other European missionaries and 14 Chinese religious, he was martyred during the short but bloody Boxer Uprising of 1900.
Twenty-six of these martyrs were arrested on the orders of Yu Hsien, the governor of Shanxi province. They were hacked to death on July 9, 1900. Five of them were Friars Minor; seven were Franciscan Missionaries of Mary—the first martyrs of their congregation.
On 17 June 1891, he assumed authority over the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Shanxi.
He also dealt with the suffering of the local population brought on by plague and famine, which led him to enlarge the orphanage in the city and establish several others, in order to cope with the orphans left behind by these catastrophes.
Seven were Chinese seminarians and Secular Franciscans; four martyrs were Chinese laymen and Secular Franciscans. The other three Chinese laymen killed in Shanxi simply worked for the Franciscans and were rounded up with all the others. Three Italian Franciscans were martyred that same week in the province of Hunan. All these martyrs were beatified in 1946 and were among the 120 martyrs canonized in 2000.
When the short but bloody Boxer Rebellion broke out in Peking in June 1900 and the Empress Dowager Cixi issued the Imperial Decree of declaration of war against foreign powers, Grassi was urged to flee. He responded, "Ever since I was twelve, I have desired and also asked God for martyrdom. Now that this longed-for hour has come, must I run away?"
On 9 July 1900, Grassi, along with the rest, was escorted from prison with his hands bound behind his back to public trial presided by Yuxian. After a false trial, the group was sentenced to death. Grassi was stripped naked before a crowd of onlookers and Yuxian himself cut Grassi to pieces with a sword. His heart was removed from his body and delivered to Chinese Buddhist monks so that they could study its alleged occult powers. By custom, Grassi's head was severed from his corpse so that it could be put on display in a small cage at the city entrance. What remained of his corpse, along with the corpses of all the others killed that day, was tossed over the city wall and left unburied so that dogs would eat the remains.
Martyrdom is the occupational hazard of missionaries. Throughout China during the Boxer Uprising, five bishops, 50 priests, two brothers, 15 sisters and 40,000 Chinese Christians were killed. The 146,575 Catholics served by the Franciscans in China in 1906 had grown to 303,760 by 1924 and were served by 282 Franciscans and 174 local priests. Great sacrifices often bring great results.