Fr. Keith Harting strolled down the dirt road that left the town of Wuxi. He headed east towards Shanghai, though that was not his destination. With no goal or end in sight, he wandered towards the rising sun accompanied by his own thoughts and prayers. Flanked by fields of tall grass, the road shot straight for about 60 yards before turning left and heading towards the bank of the river Tai-Hu. He paused to watch the grass sway with the wind like the rhythmic current of the ocean’s waves. In the distance stood a solitary dogwood in full bloom, covering its branches with an intricate lace of white and pink petals. After so many months of snow and rain, it seemed like the earth was accompanying Our Lord in his resurrection from the dead. Life flourished on this Easter Sunday, and it was a living metaphor to Fr. Keith’s present situation.
Just two years ago he arrived in China with a group of 7 Maryknoll priests to begin their work of evangelization among the natives. It was 1949 and China was in political upheaval. Little did these priests know then that the new ruler of the eastern empire, Mao Zedong, planned to take his country down the destructive path of Communism at the cost of millions of Chinese lives. They could not have come at a worse moment. Not only did they struggle with the foreign language, they also had to preach to a pagan congregation that was becoming more atheistic by the day.
One failure wrought another as they tried to reach out to the locals. Yet they never gave up hope in Christ and knew that he would bless them if they only believed. “Winter always bears a Spring!” Fr. Keith used to say to his fellow priests. Sure enough, after one year of being in China, a seed begin to sprout. Chen, the town elder, became interested in the new religion and wanted to learn more about this “Jesus” that Fr. Keith always mentioned. He came regularly to talks offered by the priests and soon he was attending mass as a curious by-standard. His eyes would light up in childish wonder when he observed the reverence of the sacred rite. Chen became more convinced of Christianity each day and after a few weeks he brought his whole family to mass with him. And then something miraculous happened. After one Sunday mass in February Chen asked Fr. Keith if he and his whole family could be baptized.
Fr. Keith thought back to that day. He was overjoyed to be able to bring someone closer to God. “To think that God used me as an instrument to baptize these people!” he thought as he wandered off the path and into the tall grass. The baptism was scheduled for the Easter Vigil. Chen and his family went through the proper preparations and were ready to be welcomed into the Church. Holy Mass began at midnight and ended at 2:30 in the morning. Several members of the town came to see their friend accept this new western religion out of respect for their natural leader. Fr. Keith moved his hands over the large stalks while he recalling Chen’s face the moment he received baptism just a few hours ago. There was a mixture of joy and peace in the old man’s smiling eyes and face. “Spring has finally come!” he shouted out while leaving the dirt road and heading towards the dogwood.
Just then a strange sound broke his wandering thoughts. A muzzled cry to his left rose up from the underbrush. He froze in his tracks, not wanting to make any movement. “It could be a tiger or some other wild beast on the prowl” his imagination told him. Another cry broke the nerve-wrecking silence. It was certainly no vicious beast preparing to pounce. “That sounds like a hurt dog” he thought as he slowly approached the source of the feeble cry.
He walked about five yards and saw a tiny bundle hidden beneath the grass like a large egg in a giant nest. Bending down, he opened the grass to get a better look. Staring back at him was a baby girl, only a few months old and covered in dirt and grime. Abandoned by her mother, she was left to die in a field like a savage animal, unwanted and unloved. At seeing Fr. Keith, the baby girl reached out to him with her small weak arms. Tears welled up in her dark brown eyes as she let out another faint cry, begging for help.
Fr. Keith quickly picked her up and cradled her tenderly in his arms. Holding her tight he ran through the field, back to the dirt road, and back to his quaint house. He ran hard, all the while holding her head close to his and whispering to the little girl, “It’s all right. You’re going to be alright”. He rushed into his home and went straight towards the kitchen. He removed the wretched smelling cloth from the girl and carried her over to the sink to cleanse her. She looked weak and her movements were slow, like a dying man. Fr. Keith ran water over her angelic face and reached for a rag from the cupboard to remove all the dirt that coated her. When he looked back at the little child he realized that she was in critical condition. He quickly scooped up water with his right hand and poured it over her forehead, saying, “I baptize you, Mary, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The small child looked at Fr. Keith with her olive black eyes. She gasped for breath twice and then her body fell limp. Those eyes remained fixed on Fr. Keith while her soul was raised up to heaven. Father picked up the little girl and held her tightly in his arms. Tears flowed down his face like rivulets as he stood alone in his kitchen, wondering how someone could have left this child to die.
After several moments of mourning, he places the little body on his bed and went outside to dig a small grave; for no cemetery existed in Wuxi. Mary was given a proper Christian burial that day. As Fr. Keith knelt next to her grave he thought about how providential it was that he had taken a walk that morning. It was Easter Sunday, and Fr. Keith was consoled with the thought that little Mary was now being held by the risen Lord. Spring did come to Wuxi and its first flower bloomed in a little girl.
Thomas A. Flynn, LC studies for the priesthood in Rome. He can be reached at [email protected].
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