This Addict Is a Saint

A friend of mine recently sent me a unusual holy card.  It honors St. Mark Ji Tianxiang, a Chinese layman who was murdered in 1900, along with dozens of other Catholics in his village, in the vicious persecution of Christians during the Boxer rebellion.  That’s not the unusual thing.  The Church has canonized many martyrs, including many Chinese martyrs.  What’s unusual about St. Mark is that he was an opium addict who was barred from receiving the sacraments for the last 30 years of his life.

Mark couldn’t receive communion because his addiction was regarded as gravely sinful and scandalous.  He prayed for deliverance from his addiction, but deliverance never came.  Nevertheless he remained a believing Catholic.  At his trial he was given a chance to renounce his faith, but he refused. It is said that he sang the litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary as he was led to his execution.

Saints are exemplary people.  The Church creates them so we can learn from them.  So what can we learn from St. Mark Ji Tianxiang?

For starters, he shows that anybody can become a saint—even a man who was kicked out of the church for giving public scandal.  By canonizing him, the Church also signals a different attitude toward addiction than the one St. Mark’s pastors had a century ago.  Drug abuse is sinful, but addiction is also a disease of the mind and body.  Addicts today are not excluded from the sacraments because they are addicts.

I also marvel at St. Mark’s confidence in the mercy of God. He probably shared the village’s opinion of him—that he was serious sinner who was behaving terribly.  He must have felt despair in his futile struggles and perhaps some bitterness too. But he persevered in his faith.  I suspect that in his brokenness he met the suffering Christ.  In the end, he went to his death confidently, trusting that love would receive him.  May we all imitate St. Mark.

16 COMMENTS

  1. The story of the prodigal son is one story which I go back time and time again esp the book The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henry J.M. Nouwen. I often find myself as the “righteous brother”, seething with envy. Only to realize that I am no less a sinner than my “brother”, perhaps in more ways than one.
    Thank God, the father is there to welcome me with open arms even before I can articulate my sins.

  2. I fought an opioid addiction for over 15 years after being prescribed pain killers by doctors. I’d been thrown from a horse, broke a vertebra, and then had a spinal fusion. The addiction ultimately led to the end of my career as a professor of Spanish literature and a poor relationship with my 5 children. Frankly, I was pretty fed up with teaching anyway —for reasons I won’t enumerate at present; that’s another whole essay in my repertoire— but my children and grandchildren are my treasures. I knew I needed to get straight with them.
    Our Blessed Mother drew me closer to Her Son at that time also. I was around 55 years old and had been teaching in a series of high schools, colleges, and universities for 24 years. I’d raised 5 children and earned a Ph.D. And most importantly I’d been a Catholic, more or less lukewarm in my practice, all along, but at this time I experienced a strong reversion, a new commitment to my faith.
    This new commitment in addition to the shock of not being re-hired at the university and the estrangement from some of my children, finally led me to methadone therapy. There were many ups and downs, but ultimately it has been a great benefit for me. I am still on methadone maintenance and will be on it the rest of my life.
    Methadone is for me as insulin or cholesterol-lowering drugs may be for others. It does not give me a high but prevents the horror of withdrawal. I fully partake in the Sacraments, visit the Lord in the Eucharist, and do not consider using methadone as medication sinful. I do not abuse any drugs, am enjoying retirement, and am once again on good terms with my children —mostly.
    Thanks for reading this long comment.

  3. I’m very late to the party. I can’t find a holy card, icon, or statue of this saint anywhere! I’m desperate, for prayers for loved ones with addiction. I believe you will get my email address when I submit this; would you mind looking at your holy card to see which company published it? Thank you!

  4. I also struggle w/ADDICTION I have pray to the Lord.the blessed mothers n Saints to intercede for healing I’m also Bi-polar. I’ve been trying to get clean n sober since I was 18 now I’m 56. This disease is no joke it ruins life’s relationships. Those who don’t have this disease CANNOT understand it.

  5. I take great comfort and inspiration from this story and thank you for posting it.
    I know absolutely no Chinese, can you tell me how his name is correctly pronounced?

  6. In no way does this Saint’s canonization “signals a different attitude toward addiction than the one St. Mark’s pastors had a century ago. Drug abuse is sinful, but addiction is also a disease of the mind and body.”
    [PLEASE NOTE: I am NOT contesting this statement at all.]
    Simply canonizing him does not indicate EITHER an affirmation or a rejection of a different attitude.
    By it’s very nature, martyrdom purifies and the canonization recognizes PRECISELY that, nothing more, nothing less.
    We should not use his death and sainthood as an argument to advance a particular view of his sins, weaknesses, or disease.

    • Roman,
      I see your point, but the Church canonizes some of the saints in heaven to teach the saints on earth, and the canonization of St. Mark certainly causes us to reflect on how we think about addicts. At least it can. I think it should. For the most part we despise and fear them–as Mark Ji Tianxiang was. It’s also an occasion to reflect on a weak man’s great strength in the face of trial. And we can note–and rejoice–that the Church’s pastoral attitude toward addicts IS different today. That’s why the Church canonizes people–to inspire reflections like these.

  7. Thanks for a wonderful article. St. Mark Ji Tianxiang was not “kicked out of the church for giving public scandal.” He was barred from receiving communion. That’s not quite the same thing as excommunication, which bars the guilty from reception of all the sacraments. And it’s inspiring to note that he knew who and what he was, who and what the Church is, who and what the Lord is, and he abided by the discipline imposed upon him. His fidelity to the whole Truth made him a martyr and earned him a martyr’s crown. What a wonderful example!

    • Dave, you are correct. Being barred from the Eucharist isn’t being “kicked out of the church.” I wrote carelessly.

  8. This is a very inspiring story for me as in the past, when I sin too much I feel so guilty that it has stopped me going to Mass and has stopped me following Jesus because I think I’m undeserving. Before last Saturday I had missed mass for 2 weeks, was on holiday drinking too much and committing other sins I wont mention. I decided to try and get back on track and went to confession but had planned to sneak out before mass started and go back on Sunday but I stayed and the priest spoke about Saint Mark Ji Tianxiang and it taught me that I shouldn’t let sins I struggle not to commit make me commit other sins and turn my back on God but I realise I shouldn’t be complacent and and think it’s ok to sin but try harder to avoid the guilt that sin makes me feel.

  9. This also reminds me of St. Andrew Wouters, one of the martyrs of Gorkum (who’s feast is also celebrated on July 9 together with the Martyrs of China). St. Andrew was a diocesan priest who led a scandalous life. He was a womanizer and fathered several children. When he was offered freedom in exchange of his faith, he made the famous reply, “Fornicator I always was; heretic I never was.”

  10. This is rather a unique and inspiring story especially for ordinary Catholics like us. I find that in each person, no matter how dark their life seems or how often they make the worst decisions, we can discover the goodness of the Lord. We can come to know their finest moment in faith and in life at the most difficult times.

  11. It is unique opinion – addict has make it’s word definition being bias – but I agree with your sentences: “Saints are exemplary people. The Church creates them so we can learn from them. “

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