Defending Fr. Gilligan’s Courage

Rebuttal to claims made by Bibiani Yee-Wing Wong -- Part 4


Faith History

Fr. Gilligan was a wily American priest who served in the Vatican Diplomatic Corps and saved many lives during the Communist takeover in China. As mentioned previously in this blog series, I must here reply to claims made by Ms. Bibiani Yee-Wing Wong in a past issue of U.S. Catholic Historian (see Part 1 here for details). Below I reply to each of Ms. Wong’s three assertions.

First, Wong asserted that Msgr. Breslin got his facts wrong, that he must have meant that Fr. Gilligan created emergency travel documents, not passports, for Chinese priests and religious. She said that there was simply no need to have “falsified” documents since legitimate, authentic emergency travel documents were obtainable, presumably from Gilligan, just as he had issued them for over 500 Eastern European missionaries.

Several points in rebuttal:

(1) Msgr. Breslin did not describe the documents at issue as “travel documents” but as “passports.” When he cited the testimony of the Chinese seminarian in Rome, he again specifically referred to “passports.” The Chinese seminarian assured him “that the only way he came out of China alive was because an American priest had manufactured his own passports.” Breslin was savvy enough, and sufficiently knowledgeable about Vatican things, to be precisely correct. If there had been any ambiguity in the accounts he had heard from a “stream” of visitors over a number of years, he could have and would have referenced it.

(2) If Father Gilligan had created legitimate travel documents for the native Chinese, he would have said so in his draft obituary of 1990, just as he stated in the draft obituary that he had signed “over five hundred” “travel documents” for Eastern European missionaries.

(3) The documents needed to be made of expensive leather and vellum as appropriate for passports, not anything cheaper for travel documents.

(4) The documents Gilligan manufactured allowed their bearers to travel anywhere in the world, unlike travel documents that specified the countries to which they were traveling. (The sample one above cited Germany and the Philippines.)

(5) Msgr. Breslin said the documents needed to “look official,” implying of course that they were not official. Indeed, while a travel document issued for someone on ecclesiastical business was signed by the Papal Internuncio to China, a passport would have to appear to have been issued by a Vatican official headquartered at the Vatican.

(6) Since Msgr. Breslin’s first story was corroborated, as described above, this adds to the credibility of Msgr. Breslin’s second story.

NOR’s social media contain images of two bona fide Vatican passports from the relevant time period (neither shown in original size). There are three images of the passport issued to Paolo Good, who was sworn in as a member of the Swiss Guard on May 6, 1950, now retired. It is dated November 14, 1949.[1] Presumably it was issued to him before he was formally admitted in 1950, perhaps during his training. It was issued by the Governatorato Stato della Città del Vaticano or the Governate of Vatican City State. The second passport is some of the document issued to Father Gilligan, showing 1946 dates.[2]

The second assertion by Wong was that only a “small percentage” of Chinese clergy and religious left the mainland for Hong Kong and only some of them fled. She wrote: “[O]nly a small percentage left the mainland, most often because they were already assigned by superiors overseas either for ministerial duties or because their lives were endangered.”[3] She implicitly argued that even if Father Gilligan created false documents to aid the exit of Chinese priests and religious, they would hardly number the thousand Msgr. Breslin cited.

In rebuttal: First, Wong admits that some number fled the mainland because their lives were in danger. Presumably, they wanted to leave Hong Kong as well for the same reason. There are many sources on the imprisonment and execution of Chinese bishops, priests and religious.[4] Nonetheless, Wong provided no source for any part of her statement — the number of those who left the mainland; of these, the number of those assigned to overseas duties, and the number of those who felt their lives threatened.

Second, would the number of a “thousand” given by Msgr. Breslin constitute a “small percentage”? Our assessment would require knowing how many Chinese priests, religious, and seminarians were on the mainland and how many of these took refuge in Hong Kong. Wong provided statistics for their number before the 1949 takeover: Chinese priests (2,840), Chinese religious men and women (4,832), and Chinese seminarians (3,563), for a total of 11,235 Chinese personnel.[5] If one thousand took refuge in Hong Kong, this would constitute 8.9% of 11,235. If this were the case, then Wong and Msgr. Breslin both could be correct.

One statement by Wong is not very helpful in ascertaining how many took refuge in Hong Kong. At one point, she refers to 250 refugees but unfortunately includes both Chinese and foreign personnel among them. She wrote that, as of October 1949, when Father Gilligan was posted to Hong Kong, there were “250 refugees, including Chinese priests, sisters, and seminarians, as well as foreign missionaries” at a time when 20,000 Chinese were arriving in Hong Kong each day.[6] The 250 figure is a snapshot from October 1949. It was not a static number but continued to grow. And of course, another part of the picture is that not all refugees left the mainland through Hong Kong.

In another place, Wong reports that, by 1952, there were 35,000 Catholics in Hong Kong. This number is not helpful because it included residents prior to 1949 and did not distinguish between lay and religious and clergy.[7]

In a third place, Ms. Wong lets us know anecdotally that there were 61 Chinese priests from the mainland housed in 1951 in the renovated House of Bethany in Hong Kong.[8]

One category is easy to deal with. We know that Chinese seminarians and religious sisters in formation did not “flee” from the mainland but were relocated by their superiors (whereas ordained priests and vowed religious were encouraged to remain despite threats to their lives). As Wong attests, Father Gilligan assisted in the relocation of some portion of the 3,563 Chinese seminarians and some number of the religious sisters in formation (some portion of the 4,832 religious men and women) from mainland China — at least to Hong Kong if not out of the country.[9] This work of Father Gilligan’s started before he was posted to Hong Kong, that is, when he was posted in Guangzhou (formerly Canton)[10] from April to October, 1949.[11] At least some of these came through Hong Kong[12] but others departed China without coming through Hong Kong.

Wong’s third assertion is that Father Gilligan wanted Chinese priests and religious to stay at their posts in mainland China. An implication might be drawn that Gilligan would not have wanted to help, and did not help, Chinese priests and religious escape Hong Kong but would encourage them to return. She cited a man who used a pseudonym and identified himself as a Chinese priest.[13] She also reported that Gilligan “forced” some to return by denying them priestly faculties if they remained.[14] If that was Gilligan’s view, it was a view shared, as Wong stated, with Pius XII and Archbishop Riberi as of November, 1948,[15] a year before the takeover and the persecution that followed, and that view changed about March, 1949.[16] Furthermore, if that was Gilligan’s view at some time, the pseudonymous Chinese priest states that Gilligan later changed his mind.[17]


These two stories are evidence of moral courage because, with respect to the first story about Gilligan’s communication with the Vatican, if exposed, Father Gilligan could have faced harsh repercussions from Vatican and British authorities for lying, and the Hong Kong authorities may have responded with harsh treatment of missionaries. With respect to the second story concerning the fake passports, Gilligan and his colleagues who manufactured them, and the Chinese clergy and religious who presented them to the Hong Kong authorities, could have been subject to punitive action not only by Hong Kong authorities but also by the Communist Chinese even if the Communists did not invade Hong Kong. The Communist Chinese could have imposed sanctions on family and friends. Furthermore, if the manufacturing of fake documents had been discovered, authorities may not have been able to distinguish between real and fake papers and could have suspended all departures, putting those with real documents — either passports or travel documents — at risk.


[Links to the first three posts in this series: Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here]


[1] Father Richard Kunst, “Paul Good: A Swiss Guard’s Gift to Papal Artifacts,”

[2] AAC.

[3] Wong, 79.

[4] Note 1 to Part 3.

[5] Wong, 78, n. 69 (citing Annuaire de l’Eglise Catholique en Chine 1950, XIV, for 1948-1949).

[6] Wong, 75.

[7] Wong, 75.

[8] Wong, 71-72.

[9] In February 1949, 28 seminarians from Beijing arrived in Hong Kong at its regional seminary. By May 1949, there were a total of 95 at the regional seminary from 33 dioceses, another hundred were at the diocesan minor seminary at Sai Kung or the Dominican seminary at Rosary Hill, and there were still more in Macau and Manila. Wong, p. 70.

[10] Wong, 70, n. 32 (citing Letter from Gilligan to McNicholas, April 6, 1949, AAC).

[11] Wong, 69 (identifying some groups, their numbers, and their destinations).

[12] See Albert R. O’Hara, S.J., “China Mission in Exile,” Woodstock Letters, Nov. 1, 1951, 327-40 (Feb. 15, 1949 evacuation of 190 Jesuits and Chinese seminarians to Hong Kong and then the Philippines),——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-

[13] Wong, 85, n. 102.

[14] Wong, 71

[15] Wong, 69 (Pius XII regarding all clergy; Riberi regarding foreign missionaries).

[16] Wong, 70, n. 33.

[17] Wong, 70, n. 33.


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

From The Narthex

A Final Howler, on Torture

Frank Sheed, of Sheed & Ward, was a publisher, theologian, and Hyde Park Catholic apologist.…

A Plumb Line

Twenty years of clerical sex abuse scandals have rocked the Church. I heard that in…

Blessings of Our Faith

I once wrote an article claiming that the Incarnation of Christ had been the central…