Undeterred by fear, China’s ‘Little Li’ offers an important lesson in religious liberty

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religious liberty

The following essay was selected as the winner of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ religious liberty essay contest on the theme “Witnesses to Freedom.”

Tongue pressed stealthily to the floor, the Littlest Witness consumed her Lord. In that brief moment, the darkness of Communist occupation recoiled from her tiny 11-year-old soul. Freedom poured over her as the night breezes did into the drafty church she was kneeling in. She exhaled, noiselessly, and rose, noiselessly, and exited, noiselessly. She would return again the following night.

She was the smallest of the seeds in God’s heavenly garden. A little mustard seed lost in the prickly haystack of Communist China. A soul so small that we are not even sure of her real name. Most call her, simply, “Little Li.” Nevertheless, her witness to religious freedom sprung up just like her Lord promised: as tall as a mustard tree. Her story, retold over and over with the purpose of inspiring those living under oppressive governments like herself, eventually inspired the dearly loved Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and he shared her story with his faithful 30 million weekly viewers. He claimed she was the inspiration behind his daily Holy Hours. Imagine, such a little witness to freedom inspiring so many!

A dangerous mission

This is something Little Li could never have foreseen on that fateful day when her parish priest was arrested. It was the day Mao Zedong completed his Communist takeover of China, in the middle of the 20th century. It was the day her church was “marked for obliteration.” Little Li watched, resolute, as her priest was locked up, a prisoner in his own church. She watched as the Communist soldiers tore her Lord from His most sacred home in the tabernacle and scattered His Body across the floor. She watched as they mocked His Real Presence. The majority of her fellow villagers fled to the safety of secularism. How her little soul, so inflamed with God’s grace, must have shuddered at the sight of her religious liberty being stripped away from her in only a day! Thirty-two hosts lay desecrated on the sanctuary floor, and she was only a little girl who could do nothing grand or monumental.


Beginning June 22, the feast of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, the USCCB invites Catholics to pray, reflect, and act to promote religious freedom during its 2023 Religious Freedom Week. The theme of this year’s celebration is “Embracing the Divine Gift of Freedom.” For more resources on Religious Freedom Week, visit USCCB.org.

“Your Father who sees in secret will reward you,” the Evangelist Matthew reminds us. Little Li, under the stifling hand of her Communist oppressors, had no choice but to act in secrecy, and her Father did reward her. Each night, the imprisoned priest watched as Li’s little silhouette crept through a church window unnoticed. Each night, she observed a Holy Hour alongside her scattered Lord. Each night, for 32 nights unbroken, she consumed one of the desecrated Hosts. “Every single night,” Fulton Sheen relates in his 1982 autobiography, “she came at the same time until there was only one Host left. As she pressed her tongue to receive the Body of Christ, a shot rang out. A Communist soldier had seen her. It proved to be her Viaticum.”

A model of love

Just so, the Littlest Witness won her crown of martyrdom, and just so, she became a symbol of the fight for religious freedom. In one version of the story, the soldier who shot her, upon realizing what she was doing, was shocked by his horrific deed and released the imprisoned priest, saying: “Sir, if in every town there was such a little girl, no soldier would ever fight for the Communists!” Her actions, though small and carried out in the stealth of darkness, had proven to be a worthy opponent to the iron grip of communism.

Li’s little way of standing up for religious freedom, while demanding heroic bravery, is a more attainable method than the ordinary Catholic layperson might think. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that preserving our religious freedom is something to be left to the great minds of our country and our Church. Figures like St. Thomas More and St. Anselm, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison immediately come to mind. These great men had positions and opportunities that the ordinary Catholic laity often never come into contact with. Little Li, however, reminds us of the power of prayer and devotion to the Holy Eucharist. In her little way of simply keeping watch with Our Lord and receiving His Precious Body, she teaches us that the body of the Church can be just as influential as its leading members by being devoted to prayer and being willing, like the Littlest Witness, to give the ultimate sacrifice of our lives.

Sofia Cornicelli

Sofia Cornicelli is a recent graduate of St. Thomas More Academy in Raleigh, North Carolina.