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St. Mark Ji Tianxiang
Holiness and addiction
Today, July 9th, is St. Mark Ji Tianxiang’s feast day.
For the past year or so St. Mark’s story has captivated me and given illustration to the Church’s teaching about sin and grace.
St. Mark was born in China in 1834. He was a physician who served the poor but who himself became seriously sick in his 30s and treated himself with one of the common medicines of that time, opium.
That begin an addiction that lasted for decades. He would frequently go to Confession, but eventually his priest confessor told him that he wasn't serious enough about quitting so he denied Mark absolution and access to Communion.
Mark lived the rest of his life without access to the sacraments. He died a martyr in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, still an addict, still unable to receive the Sacraments.
There are two specific things I want to highlight from St. Mark’s story.
The first is that even though he lived for decades in the state of “public sin,” the Lord still gave him grace and made him holy.
His drug use, while grave matter, was not mortally sinful. His actions were not separating him from God. On the contrary, he was living so much in union with God that grace transformed him to the point that he was able to freely die a martyr.
Second, I was struck by the pastoral failure of his confessor who denied St. Mark absolution and the Eucharist because he didn’t think that Mark had “firm purpose of amendment.” Now, the priest, didn’t have the advantage of modern psychology and the knowledge that drug addiction is a disease—not a moral failure—that physically binds human freedom.
However, while the priest can’t be held culpable for his lack of knowledge, his decision to withhold the sacraments from St. Mark was still objectively unjust and caused real harm.
But God was still able to work. While St. Mark was denied the source and summit of God's grace, God himself was not bound by His sacraments. Perhaps it was through his obedience to these truly unjust restrictions that God flooded St. Mark with His grace and power.
I think that St. Mark's story is a source of hope for those caught in addictions, habits, and relationships that bind their freedom, who feel like their grave actions are preventing them from a life of real holiness.
He is also a source of hope for those faithful being unjustly governed by their pastors. His story is a reminder that even when religious leaders utterly fail as pastors and leaders that God’s grace can, and does, continue to heal and transform the Church.
You can buy this beautiful icon, and check out more great Catholic artwork from Cecilia Lawrence, here:
Read more about St. Mark's story here: