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St. Jean-Gabriel Perboyre (1802-1840)
Welcome to INSPIRING LIVES, a series on the lives of Saints in the catholic church from around the world. In this series we bring you those saints who are canonized by Pope John Paul II. Saints are holy people who lived ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. Each saint the Church honors responded to God's invitation to use his or her unique gifts. These saints are examples of great holiness and virtue, and they invite us to follow their paths to holiness. Their unique stories inspire us to be rooted in our faith. God calls each one of us to be a saint. As Pope Francis þ wrote on 21 November 2013, ‘to be saints is not a privilege of the few, but a vocation for everyone’. God calls each one of us to be a saint.
Today we shall listen to the heroic life Saint Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, priest, martyr of the Congregation of the Mission. He was canonized on 2nd June 1996 at St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. His feast is celebrated on 11 September.
Nothing happens by chance. Neither life, nor death, nor vocation. John Gabriel Perboyre was born in Montgesty, in southern France, on 6 January 1802 into a family which gave three missionaries of St. Vincent and two Daughters of Charity to the Church. Such an environment exuded faith, simple and healthy values, and the sense of life as gift.
The one who ‘calls by name’ seemed to ignore him as a teenager. The call came to his younger brother Louis for entrance into the seminary. John Gabriel was asked to accompany his younger brother for a time, while waiting for him to get adjusted to the surroundings. John Gabriel's presence at the seminary, then, happened by chance and he should have left quickly. But chance revealed to the astonished eyes of the young man unexpected horizons: that in the seminary he had found his path.
The Church of France had at that time just emerged from the throes of the French Revolution with the red-colored garments of martyrdom for some, and with the pain of the apostasy of many. The panorama at the beginning of the 1800's was desolate: buildings destroyed, convents sacked, people without pastors. Thus, it was no accident that the ideal of the priesthood appeared to the young man not as a feeble arrangement for life, but as the destiny of heroes.
His parents, surprised, accepted the choice of their son and accompanied him with their encouragement. Not by chance, his paternal uncle Jacques was a missionary of St. Vincent. This explains why in 1818 the missionary ideal matured in the young John Gabriel. At that time, the missions meant principally China. But China was a faraway mirage. To leave meant never to find again the home milieu, taste its flavors, enjoy its affections.
It was natural for him to choose the Congregation of the Mission founded by St. Vincent de Paul in 1625 for the evangelization of the poor, the formation of the clergy, but above all to push those very missionaries toward holiness. The mission is not propaganda. The Church has always demanded that the proclaimers of the Word be spiritual persons, mortified, full of God and charity. In order to illuminate the darkness in people, a lamp is not sufficient if there is no oil.
John Gabriel did not think in half-measures. If he was a martyr it is because he was a saint. From 1818 to 1835 he was a missionary in his own country. First, in his formation period, he was a model novice and student. After his priestly ordination in 1826, he was charged with the formation of seminarians.
A new factor, certainly not haphazard, modified John Gabriel's life. The protagonist was once again his brother Louis. He also had entered the Congregation of the Mission and had asked to be sent to China where the sons of St. Vincent had had a new martyr in the person of Blessed Francis Regis Clet on 18 February 1820. During the voyage, however, the young Louis, only 24 years of age, was called to the mission in heaven.
All that the young man had hoped for and done would have been useless if John Gabriel had not made the request to replace his brother in the breach. John Gabriel reached China in August 1835. At that time the Occident knew almost nothing about the Celestial Empire, and the ignorance was reciprocal. The two worlds felt a mutual attraction, but dialogue was difficult. In the countries of Europe one did not speak of a Chinese civilization, but only of superstitions, of ‘ridiculous’ ceremonies and customs. The judgments were thus prejudices. China's appreciation of Europe and Christianity was not any better.
There was a dark gap between the two civilizations. Someone had to cross it in order to take on himself the evil of many, and to consume it with the fires of charity. After getting acclimated in Macau, John Gabriel began the long trip in a Chinese junk, on foot, and on horseback, which brought him after eight months to Nanyang in Henan, where the obligation to learn the language imposed itself.
After five months, he was able to express himself in good Chinese, and at once threw himself into the ministry, visiting the small Christian communities. Then he was transferred to Hubei, which is part of the region of lakes formed by the blue river. Even though he maintained an intense apostolate, he suffered much in body and spirit. In a letter he wrote: "No, I am no more of a wonder man here in China than I was in France ... ask of him first of all for my conversion and my sanctification and then the grace that I do not spoil his work too much". For one who looks at things from the outside, it was inconceivable that such a missionary should find himself in a dark night of the soul. But the Holy Spirit was preparing him for the supreme testimony.
Unexpectedly in 1839 two events, apparently unrelated, clouded the horizon. The first was the renewed outbreak of persecution which flowed from the decree of the Manchurian emperor, Quinlong, which had proscribed the Christian religion in 1794.
The second was the outbreak of the Chinese-British War, better known as the "Opium War" in 1839. The closure of the Chinese frontier and the pretense of the Chinese government to require an act of dependence from the foreign ambassadors had created an explosive situation. The spark came from the confiscation of loads of opium stowed in the port of Canton; this action harmed the merchants, most of whom were English. The British flotilla intervened, and the war began.
The missionaries, obviously interested only in the first event dealing with the persecution of Christians, were always on their guard. As often happens, too many alarms diminished the vigilance. And that is what happened on 15 September 1839 at Cha-yuen-ken, where Perboyre lived. On that day he was with two other European missionaries, his confrere, Baldus, and a Franciscan, Rizzolati, and a Chinese missionary, Fr. Wang. They were informed of the approach of a column of about one hundred soldiers.
But missionaries underestimated the information. Perhaps the soldiers were going elsewhere. Instead of being wary, the missionaries continued enjoying a fraternal conversation. When there was no longer any doubt about the direction of the soldiers, it was late. Baldus and Rizzolati decided to flee far away. Perboyre hid himself in the surroundings because the nearby mountains were rich with bamboo forests and hidden caves. However, the soldiers used threats to force a catechumen to reveal the place where the missionary was hiding. Thus began the Calvary of John Gabriel.
That was the first part of the story of St. John Gabriel. Tune in to listen to the second part next week.
You have been listening to INSPIRING LIVES, a weekly series based on the lives of Catholic Saints from around the world, brought to you by Vatican Radio’s English Service for South Asia.
By P.J. Joseph SJ
FRIDAY, 24 JANUARY 2014