Monsignor Matthew Koo recounted being detained in a Chinese labor camp for thirty years due to his Marian devotion, noting that although the experience was painful there were also many blessings.
“Oh, I thought that sacrifice is God's gift. People say that 'you suffered a lot,' I said if not to suffer, how could I be here?” the priest said in a March 17 interview with CNA.
Msgr. Koo is originally from Shanghai in mainland China. After entering the seminary in 1953, he was arrested two years later for being an active member of the Legion of Mary – a lay Catholic organization whose voluntary members serve the global Church – and sentenced to serve five years in a labor camp.
Often referred to as “re-education camps,” the labor camps are a system of administrative detentions in the People's Republic of China which are generally used to detain persons for minor crimes, with punishments being administered through the police rather than the judicial system.
Used first by China's communist party in 1955 to punish counter-revolutionaries, the law allowed for police to sentence those deemed as “counter-revolutionaries” or as someone who fostered “anti-socialist” ideas, and was also used as a means of persecuting Christians in the country, who still face great difficulties there today.
When first initiated, prisoners were sentenced without a hearing or trial, and with no judicial review in place until after the punishment was already being enforced.
Recalling the night he was arrested, Msgr. Koo revealed that in 1955, “on the feast of Our Lady's Birthday,” officials came to the seminary “and arrested priests, teachers and seminarians.”
“My crime was the Legion of Mary. I joined the Legion of Mary when I was in high school. So this was my crime and they arrested me. First time, they sent me in for five years,” he explained, highlighting how he was sentenced “without a judge” and “without a lawyer.”
A few years later when a new Chinese president had been elected, the priest recounted that there was a change in the court policy, so he returned to court and was accused of crimes such as “Koo denies himself as a counter revolutionary,” and “Koo denies that the Legion of Mary as a counter revolutionary organization,” and was sentenced for another three years.
“So, I stayed in a labor camp in China” doing physical tasks such as making bricks and digging in the ground, he continued, noting that there was another seminarian “in the same team” as his.
Following the day’s labor, Msgr. Koo recalled how they “would pray the rosary together,” however after officials found a note the other seminarian had written to him telling him to pray for the Pope so that he would “be loyal to God and never compromising our faith,” he was sentenced for an additional 7 years in the camp.
Having a total sentence of 10 years at this point, the priest observed that eventually he was transferred to a camp in the Qinghai province, which is next to Tibet, where it was “very cold.”
“Unfortunately, during these years there was a great famine in China, for three years. So we had nothing to eat. And my health decreased and decreased until I was only 81 pounds and I could not walk” and could not to do labor, he went on to say.
Msgr. Koo explained that he was in that state for over a year and a half, and that after watching the sun rise and set for so long, he “found a way to recover” himself.
“I took care of the sick people and I had more food to eat. And after my health was better and I could labor again. I would grind wheat. From morning to evening…And I would do that for a year.”
“Ten years passed,” the priest stated, explaining that although his sentence was over, he was still forced to remain in the labor camps, where they had “the same labor, the same residence, the same food, but we got a little pay.”
“We could buy cigarettes. But in three days you would spend all your money,” he noted, adding that he stayed in that place for the next 19 years.
During his 30 years working in the camp, Msgr. Koo highlighted how he spent two of those years working alongside his bishop, Joseph Fan, who was also imprisoned, but later ordained him secretly in a small chapel when they had both been released.
Bishop Fan passed away last month at the age of 97 while still under house arrest by the Chinese government.
Looking back, Msgr. Koo expressed that although painful, his time in the camp “is God’s gift,” and that because of his experience he has been able to travel to Rome and has had an audience with two Popes.
“So a bad thing became a good thing. So we thank to God everything. And we are very happy in the heart…We have peace in the heart. Jesus promised us life after Earth, so we are very happy.”
Msgr. Koo also spoke of a special celebration which is slated to take place on Sept. 8 of next year commemorating the 60th anniversary of the opening of the first labor camps, adding that former detainees are expected to come from all over the world to participate.
When asked if the situation for Christians in China is improving, the priest expressed that the government is a “little more lenient” than before, and that last year when a priest celebrated Mass in a factory, because it is illegal to do so in a church, the police merely “came there to disperse…but did not arrest anyone.”
“If it happened thirty years ago of forty years ago, maybe somebody could be imprisoned. So we are happy. We can negotiate with the officials.”
Observing that at the moment “it’s not possible” and that “it’s very difficult, for many, many reasons” to develop diplomatic relations between China and the Vatican, Msgr. Koo expressed that “the Vatican has always reached out to China.”
Alan Holdren contributed to this piece.