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St. Jean-Gabriel Perboyre (1802-1840) His final days and after

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. 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.
Last week we listened to the heroic life of Saint Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, until his arrest. Today we shall listen to the rest of his life, martyrdom, and canonization. This Catholic priest, martyr of the Congregation of the Mission, was canonized on 2nd June 1996 at St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. His feast is celebrated on 11 September.
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St. 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 a gift.
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. 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, though surprised, accepted the choice of their son and accompanied him with their encouragement. 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.
John Gabriel chose 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. He was ordained a priest in 1826. Two years later, his brother Louis, also belonged to the same congregation, was on his way to China as a missionary; but died during the voyage, just at the age of 24. So John Gabriel made a request to replace his brother in the mission. He reached China in August 1835.
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. Unexpectedly in 1839 two events 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. On 15 September 1839 he was arrested. Thus began the sad Calvary of John Gabriel. The prisoner had no rights, he was not protected by laws, but was at the mercy of the jailers and judges. Given that he was arrested it was presumed that he was guilty, and if guilty, he would be punished.
Then a series of trials began. The first was held at Kou-Ching-Hien. The replies of the martyr were heroic. Are you a Christian priest?, they asked him. He replied: Yes, I am a priest and I preach this religion. They further asked him: Do you wish to renounce your faith? His answer was an emphatic ‘No’. I will never renounce the faith of Christ, he affirmed.
They again asked him to reveal his companions in the faith and the reasons for which he had transgressed the laws of China. They wanted, in short, to make the victim the culprit. But a witness to Christ is not an informer. Therefore, he remained silent.
The prisoner was then transferred to Siang-Yang. The cross examinations were made close together. He was held for a number of hours kneeling on rusty iron chains, was hung by his thumbs and hair from a rafter, was beaten several times with bamboo canes. But much beyond the physical violence, he was wounded by the fact that his cherished values were put to ridicule: the hope in eternal life, the sacraments, and the faith.
The third trial was held in Wuchang. He was brought before four different tribunals and subjected to 20 interrogations. They prosecuted the missionary and abused the man. They obliged Christians to renounce, and one of them even to spit on and strike the missionary who had brought him to the faith. For not trampling on the crucifix, John Gabriel received 110 strokes.
Among the various accusations, the most terrible one was that he had had immoral relations with a Chinese girl, Anna Kao, who had made a vow of virginity. The martyr defended himself. She was neither his lover nor his servant. The woman is respected not scorned in Christianity, was John Gabriel's reply.
During one interrogation he was obliged to put on Mass vestments. They wanted to accuse him of using the privilege of the priesthood for private interests. But the missionary, clothed in the priestly garments, impressed the bystanders, and two Christians drew near to him to ask for absolution.
The cruelest judge was the Viceroy. The missionary was by this time a shadow. The rage of this unscrupulous magistrate was vented on a ghost of a man. Blinded by his omnipotence the Viceroy wanted confessions, admissions, and accusations against others. But if John Gabriel’s body was weak, his soul was not. His hope by now rested in his meeting God, which he felt nearer each day. When John Gabriel told him for the last time: "I would sooner die than deny my faith", the judge pronounced his sentence. he was to die by strangulation.
Then began a period of waiting for the imperial confirmation. Perhaps John Gabriel could hope in the clemency of the sovereign. But the war with the English erased any possible gesture of good-will. Thus, on 11 September 1840, an imperial envoy arrived at full speed, bearing the decree confirming the condemnation.
With seven criminals the missionary was led up a height called the ‘Red Mountain’. The criminals were killed first, and when his turn came, the executioners stripped him of the purple tunic and tied him to a post in the form of a cross. They passed a rope around his neck and strangled him. It was the sixth hour. Following Jesus, John Gabriel became a grain of wheat. He died in order to make fall on the earth the dew of God's blessing.
John Gabriel was declared Venerable by Pope Gregory XVI in July 1843, beatified by Pope Leo XIII on 9 November 1889, and canonized by John Paul II on 2 June 1996. His feast is celebrated on 11 September.
Many circumstances surrounding his last year of life - the betrayal, the arrest, the death on a cross, its day and hour - resemble to that of the Passion of Christ. In reality, all his life he was a witness and a faithful disciple of Christ. His body was brought back to France, but his heart remained in his adopted homeland, China, where he gave his witness to the sons and daughters of St. Vincent.
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

Joseph Paimpallikunnal


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