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Retracing My Great-Uncle's Footsteps in China

A Day in Timelessness

I have never known life without him. My great-uncle, Bishop Henry Ambrose Pinger, O.F.M., returned to the United States the year I was born, having served as a missionary in China for 30 years. His humble, gentle spirit enveloped my entire Pinger clan – true to his Chinese name Guang Bei (which I’m told is translated as “Vast Comforter”). I have letters from him expressing his desire to baptize me; and a couple years later, his letter encourages my parents to seek medical tests for me with a willingness to cover the expenses. While a saintly, prayerful man, he knew how to laugh, play cards, and enjoy a whiskey sour whenever he returned to his roots in Nebraska to be with his family. All along he instructed us about the grand people of China, encouraging us to keep them in prayer – not because they were seen as lost, but rather seeking a spiritual communion with a culturally-rich people who had faith in Christ. Consequently when I was invited in spring of 2016 to tour China with Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha archdiocese, through the generosity of the Columban missionaries, I was so excited. This was a privileged, unique opportunity to retrace some of the steps of my great-uncle; it also became an opportunity to experience first-hand the people of China with whom my great-uncle fell in love.

The retracing of my great-uncle’s life occurred primarily in two exchanges. The first was the accidental (or providential) meeting of a 95-year-old priest who had personally known my great-uncle. This priest had been a young man in the seminary when my great-uncle was the first bishop of Zhoucun diocese. After several exchanges and translations I believe he realized my relationship to Yang Guang Bei (my great-uncle’s Chinese name) whom he described as very tall with a booming voice! I responded that we always knew my great-uncle as soft-spoken. Without hesitation the old man responded with a smile, “He might have been soft-spoken in English, but in Chinese he had a booming voice!” While the opportunity did not permit us to visit long, my meeting with him, and the ability to embrace and hold him gave me a unique opportunity to hold again a part of my great-uncle.

The second exchange was a planned day trip to Zibo. There we were greeted at the train station by the bishop of Zhoucun diocese where we processed to the cathedral and met 20-30 pilgrims celebrating Pope Francis’ “Year of Mercy.” After the bishop was informed as to my relationship to his diocese through my late great-uncle, we publicly shared words of hospitality, appreciation of “our ancestors in faith,” and memories about my great-uncle’s love for the people of his diocese. Since my family knew that it was the hope of my great-uncle to be buried in China, I brought a gift along, an episcopal pectoral cross, as way of “returning” a part of my great-uncle to Zhoucun diocese. It was a tearful, joyful and beautiful experience.

To be honest I anticipated this encounter with the local bishop to be the extent of my return to my great-uncle’s diocese; however I was to learn that he was the consummate person of hospitality. After a 45-minute road trip we were taken to a quaint, rural village. My fellow companion, Archbishop George Lucas, described the scene as similar to Assisi (a place I have never visited) – timeless in architecture and terraced farmland. Lunch was served to us under a blossomed tree on a perfect spring day. The bishop ordered seven to eight entrees that we shared family style; these entrees were indigenous to the region so I could taste exactly what my own great-uncle would have eaten when he lived there. In addition the bishop provided a bottle of Chinese wine. Not surprising the Chinese men watched with amusement at our initial samplings of it. Suffice it to say, it is much stronger than anything from Napa Valley! We had toasts to honor my great-uncle, to celebrate the good people from Zhoucun diocese and my own diocese, and to cheer good health and long life for each other. It was completely delightful! Three hours passed, and it seemed as if time stood still.

Throughout seventeen days in China I retraced some of my great-uncle’s very steps – Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, and most notably, Zibo in Zhoucun diocese. The indigenous lunch under the blossom tree, however, was a timeless moment where I touched again my great-uncle along with the China he loved.

Fr. Thomas A. Greisen is a priest of Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska.

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