In 1976, 14-year-old Artemis Joukowsky was in 9th grade. A teacher required members of the class to interview someone who had shown moral courage. Artemis asked his mother for suggestions and she encouraged him to talk to her mother. The account the young Artemis obtained from his grandmother, Martha Sharp, became public and resulted in Martha and her husband Waitsill being honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” at Yad Vashem in 2006. Moreover, on September 20, 2016, PBS broadcast Ken Burns’ Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War.

Msgr. Martin T. Gilligan,
as he appeared when the author knew him (1964-1967)
as first pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Kettering, Ohio,
Archdiocese of Cincinnati 

This example of making public a story of moral courage known only to a few prompts me to write today. The following is what I know - - from a eulogy delivered by Monsignor Lawrence K. Breslin at Monsignor Martin T. Gilligan’s 1993 funeral and which I obtained a couple of years ago.

Story No. 1:

After the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949, Catholic missionaries were being expelled as criminals. Although Hong Kong was British territory, Hong Kong officials were fearful of invasion by the Communists. They decided it was prudent to do nothing to aggravate the Communists, as for example by helping any of these missionaries who had made it to Hong Kong. The wily Msgr. Gilligan, then working in Hong Kong for the Vatican, sent a telegram to one of his bosses, a Monsignor Montini at the Vatican Secretariat of State, asking Montini to contact the London Home Office (the British office in charge of Hong Kong) and thank the Home Office for the fine treatment the missionaries were receiving in Hong Kong. After the Home Office conveyed these thanks from the Vatican to the Hong Kong authorities, the Hong Kong authorities decided to live up to its reputation and ensured that its police were hospitable to the missionaries.

Story No. 2:

Catholic foreign missionaries expelled from the mainland to Hong Kong had passports, but Chinese nationals did not. There were a thousand Chinese priests and religious in Hong Kong who expected to be forcibly returned to the mainland, persecuted and executed. (Msgr. Breslin said “thousand” in his eulogy, but a 1953 report quoted in full below says “thousands.”) Msgr.  Gilligan, with the help of unidentified co-conspirators, manufactured official-looking Vatican passports, using expensive leather and vellum, and issued these documents to these people. With these false papers, they were able to depart Hong Kong.

Msgr. Breslin said in his eulogy that, when he was in Rome (without specifying whether this was before his 1957 ordination in Rome, or during his 1968-74 term as vice rector of the North American College), he met one of the Chinese nationals who assured him he was alive because of Msgr. Gilligan. To help demonstrate Msgr. Gilligan’s daring, I report to you the following: Today, there are about 600 citizens of Vatican City. About half of them (300 or so) are members of the Vatican diplomatic corps and reside abroad in the 190 or so countries. In 1949, when the Communists took over mainland China, there were only a few dozen countries in the entire world and even fewer than the current 300 members of the Vatican diplomatic corps. Yet Msgr. Gilligan made at least triple that number of people of Chinese ethnicity appear to be Vatican citizens. Moreover, he did so between October 15, 1949, and December, 1952—at the rate of more than eight per week!

I believe these stories are evidence of moral courage because, with respect to the first, Msgr. Gilligan could have faced harsh repercussions from Vatican and British authorities for lying. With respect to the second, he and his associates, could have been subject to punitive action by the Communist Chinese even if the Communists did not invade Hong Kong.

In 1952, the Vatican asked Msgr. Gilligan to relocate to Taiwan to help establish diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the Nationalist Government on Taiwan. Msgr. Gilligan decided instead to leave the Vatican diplomatic corps to become a parish priest in America. He submitted his resignation to Msgr. Montini who refused it, telling him that no one just up and leaves the corps. When Msgr. Gilligan insisted, Msgr. Montini accepted it.

Msgr. Breslin added that, at a time when they were both living in the same rectory (St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Kettering, Ohio), Msgr. Gilligan received a card in the mail with a Vatican stamp on it. It read:

Dear Marty, someone mentioned your name in an audience the other day. I just wondered how you are?

 Pope Paul VI

Pope Paul VI (1897-1978, pope 1963-1978) was the Monsignor Giovanni Montini whom Msgr. Gilligan knew before and during his China days. Montini himself would leave the Vatican diplomatic corps for pastoral service, at Pope Pius XII’s behest, by becoming archbishop of Milan in January 1955.

*  *  *  *  *

With this background, actually with this “foreground,” we can turn to Msgr. Gilligan’s life before, during, and after his time in China, but first a word about my connection to Msgr. Gilligan.

Click here to see the entire article in pdf.

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