The seventieth anniversary of the arrival of the Camillians in China: some protagonists. Part one

In the photograph: the first five missionaries who left in 1946. From left to right: Fr. Angelo Pastro, Br. Umberto Amici, Fr. Antonio Crotti (Superior), Br. Marcello Caon, Fr. Ernesto Valdesolo.

Br. Marcello Caon (1916-1984)

By Fr. Mario Bizzotto


Crotti chose him for the team of the first missionaries in China. In him was seen what was needed and what was suitable for a foundation that was starting from scratch. Robust arms were needed, constitutions that could resist onerous work and were capable of dealing with major problems and challenging obstacles, and generous and strong souls. Br. Marcello was really the right man for the job. He was flanked by other Camillian religious – Fr. Crotti, the head of the expedition, Fr. Valdesolo, Fr. Pastro, and Br. Amici. After arriving in Chaotung in Yunnan their first task was the construction of a dwelling equipped with walls. Nobody was more suited to this task than Br. Marcello. After a year, on 11 February 1947, in record time, the new house was inaugurated. Around it a garden was cultivated which in a generous way produced all kinds of green vegetables that were more than sufficient for the new community. The hard work was great but the joys were even greater. Br. Marcello emphasised this in his correspondence with his family relatives and his fellow religious. ‘I will leave it to you to think about our joy at being together’ and ‘we are all in good spirits and happy’. ‘After so much hard work and sweat – joy’. To the clerics he wrote: ‘develop practical talents, here there is a way of implementing them. Here very great joys are experienced. The Lord will give you in this life, as well, a hundred for one, and we hope joy in the other life’.

After the home had been organised in Chaotung, the same task presented itself in Huitze, to which Br. Marcello had been called. The distance from Chaotung to Huitze required a journey lasting a number of days. He travelled through villages and met sick people, to whom he provided urgent forms of care. The project envisaged the building of a hospital and thus he set to work with his usual enthusiasm. He also found some time to cultivate a garden and to build an oven. But his objective was the hospital and after a number of difficulties it was finally completed on 14 April 1948, the date of its inauguration. The hospital was followed by a church. After the work that had been planned had been completed, Br. Maarcello moved to Lupu, and then again to Chaotung where the building of a leper colony awaited him. But not everything finished there, given that he was called to Huitze. The journey took place during a season that was difficult because of the bad weather. Br. Marcello had to struggle for four days under cold driving rain. The countryside was flooded, the rivers had broken their banks, and the roads had become torrents. In this desolate situation it is easy to imagine the hard going that was involved: having to cross a river in flood and managing to reach the other side with great difficulty. Only an individual with great ideals could have had the courage to challenge such sizeable dangers in this way. There comes to mind the crossings of the apostle Paul, the protagonist of similar harsh adventures. In looking at Br. Marcello amidst bricks, shovels and wheelbarrows, or with a hoe in his hand, one does not discover anything that is grandiose or solemn. Only prose, humble activities, simple activities without prophetic gestures. But his prophetic soul was not absent even in these modest jobs. Faith and joy guided him and supported him. In him could be perceived more the creative force of faith than physical force; this was attested to even where everything seemed to disappear in the most banal levelling. His faith did not know fractures. His faith was a complete trust that did not allow him to be affected by oscillations or doubts. ‘The pure of heart see God’. It is the limpidity of their souls that makes their faith crystalline. To them is given what is not granted to scholars or to the learned. His was a faith that knew only one language and it was extremely laconic: yes, yes, and no, no.

The period in Yunnan ended with the expulsion of the missionaries in 1952 after six years of activity. The suffering that they experienced in seeing themselves distanced from the centres of care they had created at the cost of notable privations was unimaginable. In those constructions was all of their missionary soul. Br. Marcello wrote to Fr. Balbinot and gave vent his bitterness: ‘The immense pain that was caused to us by our leaving China is something that you cannot imagine. Only now, with the great grace that has been granted to us to remain amongst the Chinese people, is the pain a little mitigated’. For him, Yunnan meant the sick and the lepers that he had had to abandon. He thought of ‘the poor Christians with so much affection for us; of the people who despite the vexations have remained always faithful to us…Br. Pavvan…in handing over the keys of the hospital to the police also handed over a part of our hearts…resettled, we are still ready for other battles…wishing, however, for the grace to be able to die at the side of our heroes’. After being expelled our missionaries felt struck down but they did not surrender. Their ideal was stronger than the humiliations and the failures that they had endured. They did not give up. They went towards new beaches. Br. Marcello went to Taiwan, There his activity was no longer in the main dedicated to building. Finally he could dedicate himself entirely to the exercise of Camillian ministry and express his vocation of providing care to sick people.  From 1952 until 1984, the year of his death, he worked in a hospital at the side of Dr. Janez. In addition to dealing with the requirements of the operating theatre, he was entrusted with following the patients after their operations. Manual labour gave way to labour that involved the provision of care. Whereas in S. Giuliano and Yunnan Br. Marcello stood out as a man of manual tasks, now he became known as a sensitive, caring, patient and kindly nurse who was above all else, in professional terms, very much up-to-date and competent. After standing out for his ability as a building worker, his love for the sick was now even more surprising. His hands reminded people of those of the strong women to which the Bible refers. It is said that those hands were expert in organising and attending to things of the home. They knew how to arrange those things, conserve them, clean them and defend them against being damaged; those hands thereby made a home pleasant and inhabitable; a dwelling worthy of man. And just as a strong woman applies herself to looking after objects, so Br. Marcello committed himself to taking care of people. His hands were industrious and benevolent towards the destitute and the poor – strong hands but also delicate hands (cf. Proverbs 31:10ss). In Taiwan, Br. Caon displayed the best of his soul and once again his resistance to tiredness. His timetable was very severe. From the early morning to the evening he worked in the hospital and during the night he was ready to respond to urgent calls. Despite the quantity of the work, he never complained and he never said that he was tired.

    Once we have described one of his days we have described an entire pathway that lasted over thirty years. Every day he was ready for his appointments with the patients. These were happy encounters. Repetition was not marked by boredom or by dissatisfaction. For him there was always something new. No patient was the same as another. Each patient arrived at the hospital with his or her own story and he listened to it with emotion. He had a sensitive heart that was moved by suffering, above all if it was that of a parent or a child. Apparently, every day seemed to offer a flat reality – the same timetable, the same work, the same places – and yet every day he felt increasingly attracted by his work. When speaking about Br. Marcello’s love for the sick, many people evoked the figure of St. Camillus. Like Camillus, he was transported in providing care to the sick, he did not feel the burden of monotony; like Camillus he went to a hospital with joy and like Camillus he evoked the image of a mother. The words of praise about him can provoke the suspicion of rhetorical emphasis, an abuse of language. In his case the suspicion is not justified. The words that are used about him must be simple. They always refer to facts; they are true words. The first commandment says that we must love with all of our hearts and where the heart enters there should not be habit or tiredness.

To say that he had a ‘good’ heart is to say a great deal. It is to say everything; it is to assign the best gospel definition. There is nothing that is more defining than this for a man or a Christian of goodness. Words in relation to Br. Marcelli should be taken for what they are. When the Gospel speaks about a shepherd who dies for his sheep, or of a Samaritan who helps in a disinterested way, or of a servant who does his duty, it uses just one definition. They are defined as good people. Here everything is included: gestures, forms of attention, concerns, joys, free giving and sharing. After finding the word ‘good’, one is no longer surprised about the generosity and exuberance in giving that follows.

In his message of farewell, his Chinese confrere Gabriel M. de Silva addressed Br. Marcello with simple words and specifically for this reason they leave no room for doubt; they are more than persuasive: ‘Those who tasted your wine said: how good you are Caon. You were as good as your wine’ (cf. Vita nostra, 4, 1984, 171). His goodness transpires from all of his actions; they bear the impress of his heart. What Rilke said to St. Francis comes to mind: ‘he ensured that everything he touched became joy’. Francis had the soul of a poet. The same cannot be said of Br. Marcello who although he might not have had a poetic soul had a good soul. He did not write poems but he did engage in evangelical works. There was nothing showy about his work: only beds, wards, operating theatres, taking care of sick people. Saint-Exupèry exclaimed: ‘how little noise is made by real miracles. How simple essential events are! (Letter to a Hostage, 196). It was in this bare context that the figure of Br. Marcello advanced.  It was not he who presented himself: he had to be found in his hiding place and once he was found people admired him. Br. Marcello was a man of the earth; he bore within him the authentic things of the earth where no mystifications, commonplaces, artifices of poses were allowed. What he wrote was history, personal events and experiences, without forms of padding. One need only read some letters of his. He never sought to stand out as the protagonist of unusual events. He was a humble person who rejected every form of self-celebration. If he spoke about himself, he did this in a humorous way, almost exposing himself to ridicule. Everybody said that he was a saint. But he did not see himself in great terms. His view of the saints was that of the popular imagination. They were people who performed miracles. Marcello is not remembered as having performed miracles. However, he performed one miracle which is the greatest of them all: he cared for the sick, seeing in them the face of Christ.

We are led to exhume memories of our fellow religious for a clear reason. We want to understand the gospel meaning of our charism. The Founder and his faithful disciples were able to provide teachings. These enable us to understand their spirit and at the same time our limitations. One observes a distance between us and them. Our time is a time of decadence and depression that does not have enthusiasms. It has many opportunities at the level of religious practices – meetings, conferences, study days – but it lacks impetus. There is no redemption from a climate of tiredness and boredom. The same ideal to which vows were taken is not experienced with the joy that we find in Caon and the religious of his epoch. In following, for example, the history of our missionaries, we encounter numerous obstacles and difficulties, and yet their enthusiasm never went away. They repeated the scene described by the Acts of the Apostles: the apostles, after being beaten and punished by the Sanhedrin, came back happy.

Bernanos himself speaks about our time with the diagnosis of it being a time corroded by the cancer of boredom, a malady that generates metastasis and even reaches those who take vows for the cause of the gospel. One realises that our culture is a culture of doubt and the impoverishment of ideals. Such was not the case with these figures of our Order who lived in a context that burned with apostolic zeal. The missionary cause had an unstoppable force. One almost has the impression of a contagious fever. They made other people feel what it is to be young. The gospel spoke through them with its most authentic message; it spoke the language of joy, to which they added in a collateral way many similar feelings: strength, courage, hope, trust.

     We are polluted by a pessimism that confines us to a climate of swamps where everything becomes stagnant in negative feelings: diffidence, indifference, disengagement and an inability to take initiatives. Challenges are often talked about, but these are desires. Many of today’s prophets are bad teachers. They halt at denunciations and protests. The password that breaks through is: break the rules! In it not sufficient to think about the gospel solely in terms of contestation. One realises how partial and narrow this kind of message is. The example of a missionary of the stature of Br. Caon does not embrace contestation – it is only constructive. The same should be said about other religious who were contemporaries of Br. Marcello, or, to remain in our context, it should be said about Br. Ettore, whose guiding dynamic had its foundation in gospel hope.