By WILMON MENARD
MY first impression of Fr. Ambrose Poletti was of an onrushing hunched figure with fan-shaped beard, leather-jacket and beret—and a flash of large white teeth and laughing, bright eyes. Then, crouched low upon his motorcycle, he was past, with an accelerated roar, disappearing suddenly around a turn of the road in the direction of Lo Wu, the famous Bridge of Freedom between the New Territories of Hong Kong and Red China.
When I drove up later to the whistle-stop of Lo Wu, Fr. Poletti, born on the lake of Como in northern Italy, was carrying gently his arms a frail man, who had half-fainted through realization of actual liberation.
The missionaries and others whom Fr. Poletti has been greeting since February of 1951 with the e exciting words " Welcome to Freedom ! " have until the past few years come directly to the Lo Wu border-control station from the cell of a Communist prison in a lonely region of North China. Many arrived at the Border in a state of complete mental and physical collapse; others were covered with lice, sores, fungus, or were on the brink of death from malnutrition.
A large number of American and foreign missionaries and business men came across the bridge are
to freedom. but there still
others rotting in Red China prisons and hospitals. Bishop James Walsh, tried and sentenced in Shanghai by a "People's Court", was found guilty of heading a spy ring which the Red Chinese said he and Cardinal Spellman of New York had set up under Vatican orders. The imprisonment of Bishop Walsh, which. at his age, is tantamount to a death sentence, followed the announcement that the Catholic Bishop of Shanghai, Bishop Kung, long after his arrest, had been sentenced to life imprisonment, and that 13 other Catholics were jailed for alleged crimes against the Communist Chinese regime. " One bridge connects the two territories," Fr. Poletti said in an earnest Italian-accented voice. A few metres of barbed-wire separate two worlds and two civilizations. The physical distance can be measured in a few metres. The moral distance, however, cannot be measured. On one side there is liberty, over there the negation of every religious liberty."
Hetold me about some of the many missionaries he has greeted been banished who have bnished from Red China: they who hobbled across on swollen, gangrenous feet, in the beggars; ags of some weeping uncontrollably, others beyond tears who merely stared blankly into space There was Bishop Alphonse Ferroni, 0.F.M., of the diocese of Laohokow, who had shrunk from 180 pounds to 70; the American Bishop O'Shea and the Canadian Bishop O'Hara, who were the worst example of inhuman Cornmunist brutality and persecution; the 76-year-old French priest, who, although he could walk very spritely, made the Communists carry him across the barricade. Fr.. Poletti invited me to his church of St. Joseph in Fanling,
m the Red m the Red ten minutes' drive from
Chinese frontier. The grey-andwhite church and parish stand in an open field that is under cultivation, pure and beautiful in the bright sunshine. " When I escaped the Cornmunists from my Tam Tong district of Kwangtung Province, between Canton and Swatow, I had no churcn," he told me. " Will you believe that a Chinese Taoist gave me 75,000 square feet of land for this church—free? Everything else was donated, too." I learned that be was ordained a priest of the Pontifical Foreign Missions Institute in 1929, and arrived in Hong Kong. at the age of 24, at the end of 1930. After
a study of the Chine language, he was put in charge of the Tam Tong district; a year later he had 12 churches under his supervision.
When the Japanese occupied China they sent Fr. Poletti to on
Cant. finally to Hong Kong. In 1946 he tried unsuccessfully to return to his old district of Tam Tong, but in the following year the he managed to slip through Communist guerilla lines. Early m and called for in 1948, the Communists surrounded his church,
him to come out. Instead, Fr. Poletti climbed out a window and escaped.
He suffered at the hands of the Nationalists and the Communists alike as the tide of sporadic fighting flowed back and forth across his area. He recalled: " One day a Nationalist officer told me that I was wanted in a village ten miles a p a hillside away, to be questioned by military committee. While I was push ing my bicycle up road overlooking my district, some mo strange premonition caused me to look back. A black pillar of smoke was rising into the sky from my church. The Nationalist officer had given his men orders to put my church to the torch."
Soon Fr. Poletti was running for his life, pursued by the Chinese Communists, now hiding briefly among beggars, Christians and pagans, but still saying Mass. Eventually a final message came
through from the Bishop of Hong Kong, " If you are alive. come back by any means that you can." He finally reached the New Territories of Hong Kong. Here his health was found to be so impaired that he was sent back to Italy for a time to recuperate. He showed me the gold cross around his neck. "This was sent to me in 1953, five years after my enforced departure from Tam Tong, and was paid for by the
Chinese Catholics and Taoists in Tong, hiding in' Tam T, to let me know that they still waited, believed. hoped. They paid for this heavy gold cross with money they hart hoarded, almost starving themselves, I know, to contribute." Fr. Poletti dropped the cross back into his shirt front, stared thoughtfully across the plain to the rolling hills that separate a free land from Red China. Speaking slowly, he said:
" We all hope that in a not far
Chinese off day the Chin Communist Government will regain their sanity, tolerance, human kindness and a spiritual awareness, and grant us the right to return once again to our beloved missions, to our orphanages, to our hospitals, so that we may close our eyes in final rest in the midst of those whom we have loved so much for whom we have suffered so much."