China’s Last Jesuit: Charles H. McCarthy and the End of the Mission in Catholic Shanghai

by Amanda C.R .Clark

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.

This book is a treasure chest of scholarship with lively footnotes, an extensive Chronology, well documented pictures, a bibliography, and index. All of these aspects add to the scholarship of the book. The content is fluidly written with a notion of wanting to read more. The chapters were articles written for scholarly journals and having a sense of making sure the reader understands the content. Both Dr. Clark and her husband had a deep investment as scholars. Dr. Clark’s husband was her editor.

One of the important historical aspects of this book on Father Charles McCarthy is that it provides an account of someone who experienced firsthand the evolution of Chinese Christianity as it moved through the post-imperial transition into modernization and Westernization, and then into the even more forceful upheavals precipitated by the Communist victory of 1949. By 1949 the transitional phase of Chinese society, and the Christian population within that era, entered what Charbonnier refers to as “The Great Ordeal”. China’s new political leaders viewed religions “as the most evident expression of humanity’s alienation when it is subjected to exploitation”; they are the “illusory dreams of suffering humanity and an instrument of domination for those who exploit their fellow human beings.” The intellectual landscape surrounding Charles McCarthy, then, was complex; for he was witness to three distinct eras of cultural expressions. He had first encountered the final remnants of a traditional dynastic culture, followed by a Republican era of heightened patriotism and desired independence, and a final period of revolution and cathartic transformation, Throughout these stages of development Father McCarthy remained dedicated to his missionary goals to convert persons to Christianity and improve the status of their lives within a context of disruption, even if he spent some of his time enclosed in his Shanghai bureau managing the affairs of the Jesuit mission at Xujiahui.

One of the most important aspects of this book that emphasizes McCarthy’s personality is its sustained mention of his concern for, and interactions with, his family back in the United States. Rarely do scholars receive such unlimited access to family materials and rarely do we see in biographies of important people such an assortment of telling exchanges between close family members. Letters between Charles McCarthy and his brother Walter were particularly important in the writing of this book, and appear more often than any other correspondence. The unique access to family materials and the wide sweep of archival documents consulted to prepare this book has resulted in an exceptional portrait of one of the mot historically significant Jesuits who lived in China and the Philippines, and the accompanying images help to visually represent the vivid narrative provided by the author. During his years in China, he was not in a “little bush mission,” but the bustling complex of Zikawei where he was occupied as the spiritual director for Jesuit scholastics, with increasing promotions and leadership duties, teaching classes, and ultimately, years of confinement and maltreatment in Shanghai prisons. One of the traits one discerns about McCarthy’s personality through all of his experiences as a Jesuit in Asia is his ability to change when plans and ambitions are altered. Father McCarthy was able to transform disappointments and anguish into more constructive results. Charles McCarthy lived within one of Asia’s most intense eras of change, and he was able to transform the turbulence of transition into new fruits of progress, precisely because he was able to change himself into what was most needed in order to survive unforeseen trials, give to others, and convert oppression and suffering into freedom and charity. This book is a must read in understanding Jesuits and how they live their mission.