From an interview with Father Eleutherius, conducted by Christopher Zehnder,
reprinted from the Valyermo Chronicle, no. 182, Summer 1998.
A NATIVE of Belgium, Father Eleutherius entered the monastery of St. André in Belgium in 1927. "When I went there I was just 17 years old," said Father Eleutherius, "and when I went into the novitiate I was just 18. I made my profession on January 15, 1929, my solemn profession three years later in 1932." When in 1925 Rome consecrated the first Chinese Catholic bishop, Abbot Theodore Neve of St André promised to help the fledgling church with missionaries. "In 1927," Father Eleutherius said, "when I went to the monastery, he [the abbot] sent two priests to China. They went to China and started a monastery in 1929 in Szechuan near the city called Nanchong."
"In 1933, Father Abbot called me [and told me],'My dear son, I send you to China.' I said, 'Yes.' On the fourth of September 1936, I left Belgium for Russia on my way to China."
The monks in China followed the routine of Benedictine monastic life. "We had the whole office every day," said Father, "chanted in Latin." Besides this monastic work, the priest-monks were commissioned to start a seminary for the Diocese of Nanchong in 1937. Besides working in the seminary, Father Eleutherius said he used to help the Chinese parish priests. "Twice a year, for three weeks, I would go from family to family, walking twenty miles, ten miles, thirty miles, blessing marriages, giving First Communion to the children. It was sometimes very difficult for the people to go to Mass in the city, because of the walk; therefore, twice a year the priests were visiting the families. It was a diocese as big as Belgium! And there were only 25 priests. For me, it was absolutely exciting!"
But were there converts?" In the school," says Father, "I converted at least three students and baptized two. One of them went to Louvain and became a great teacher [there]." Father Eleutherius relates that interest in the Catholic Church was growing in China. "You know, when we left China, it was going up. We said, 'I don't understand the Providence of God. So many converts, and so many at the time of the persecution!' But that is only a question. I think we must say that God knows what He is doing."
ST. ANDREW'S PRIORY
in Si'shan, China.
Founded in 1929 by
Fr. Jehan Joliet, O.S.B.
as a daughter-house of
St. André in Brugge, Belgium
WOVEN into the inexplicable design of Divine Providence was the escalation of long-standing hostilities between Japan and China in July 1937. From 1937 to 1944, China was cut off from the rest of the world, her larger cities devastated by aerial bombing. The hostilities were one reason why the monks were forced in 1947 to relocate their monastery from the relatively remote provincial community of Si' Shan to urban Chengdu.
However, peace did not come to China with the end of World War II. Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek and communist forces under Mao Tse-tung raced to occupy the major cities of China. Soon civil war broke out. In 1949, the Communists were victorious and the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek moved their government to Taipei, on the island of Taiwan.
"Communist forces occupied Chengdu, a major city of Szechuan," said Father Eleutherius, "on the night of Christmas, at three o'clock in the morning, in 1949. They took over Beijing in January of 1949. I was in China under the communists for two years and two months."
"The communists," continued Father, "attracted the young by what I call stoicism. Virtue, virtue! It is interesting, the doctrine was spiritual, but the metaphysics was materialist. Communism could tempt Christians," said Father, "because it would appear to be the love of Jesus Christ, the love of the poor. Finally you discover that the communists don't like the people, they love the system."
"The Chinese Catholics," relates Father Eleutherius, "were courageous in the face of imprisonment and death." One of his students, Brother Peter, spent 27 years in prison. Since 1984 he has resided with his community in Valyermo. Father tells of a young man who voluntarily went to the police. "I was preaching maybe twice or three times a week at the chapel belonging to the Redemptorists. I said Mass there twice for the housekeeper and for a young man of twenty-three. This young man, during confession, told me, 'I have been called to go to the police station.' And he went. Later I saw the Bishop, who told me that this man who went to the police station was in jail for one year. Afterwards he came back with injuries."
IN 1952, the communists wanted to expel all foreigners. The remaining foreign religious were expelled as enemies of the people. After spending one day in jail, Father Eleutherius was expelled from Szechuan with six priests and five sisters. For 17 days, guarded by six policemen, they traveled to Hong Kong. On the train they were subjected to ridicule. "There were many children on the train," Father remembers. "The police said to the children that the sisters were bad women. I remember I was angry, and I shouted 'No!' The sisters were accused of carrying weapons under their habits. You know, if it was true, they would have been shot. Nobody believed it." Arriving in Hong Kong, Father Eleutherius wrote a letter to his mother: "I come from hell," he told her.
Since 1952, Father Eleutherius has not remained stationary. Three months after his return from China, the Abbot of St. André in Belgium sent him to the college of Sant' Anselmo in Rome to teach philosophy; he spent four years there. In 1956, Father Eleutherius was sent to teach philosophy at St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota for five years.
Meanwhile Prior Raphael and other monks who had been in China obtained permission for canonical transfer of the monastery from China to Valyermo, California. Father Eleutherius came to Valyermo in 1961 where he served as novice master until 1965· He taught at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles and for the Sisters of Social Service. In 1963 he was asked by the Claremont Graduate School to teach philosophy for one year; today thirty-five years later, he still teaches there every Tuesday. In 1974 Father went to Bangalore, India to teach and preach retreats to the monks and seminarians. In 1980, and again in 1984., he went to Zaire to teach philosophy at St. Paul's Pontifical Seminary.
Today, at the age of 89, Father Eleutherius remains active. Besides teaching, he goes every Saturday to the Challenger Juvenile Camp in Antelope Valley. "I hear many confessions," he says, "and perform many baptisms." For the past two years, Father has gone, as well, on Wednesdays to the State Prison in Lancaster to "hear confessions, say Mass, and preach." "Meanwhile," says Father Eleutherius, "my job is to preach. I preach sometimes five times a week." Those who attend the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass in the St. Andrew's Abbey chapel speak of the doctrinal content of Father's homilies. Father himself spoke of it. As I left his cell, he pulled out a book from his bookshelf, saying, "before I prepare sermons, I read this." It was the Denzinger Enchiridion Symbolorum, Definitionum et Declarationum, an exhaustive compendium of the creeds and doctrinal teachings of the Catholic Church. Father Eleutherius continues to inspire many people with the witness of his faithfulness to Christ and His teachings.