Saints' Special Page 4
Father John Fongemie, FSSP, formerly of Sydney, Australia, and now, Kansas city, Kansas, while visiting his family here in Maine gave an inspiring sermon about the underground Church [as opposed to the "Patriotic Church" of the government] in communist China on Sunday, November 19, 2006, which included the life and Martyrdom of St. John Gabriel Perboyre, a Vincentian missionary priest who was the first Chinese Saint, officially speaking. He is now known by this title, although there actually was another Martyr, twenty years before, the Vincentian Fr. Francis Regis Clet, but he is still a Blessed and not officially canonized at this writing.
Your web master was so taken with the life of this heroic Saint that I immediately took time to learn as much about him as possible. Here is a summary of his short but exemplary life:
Our Martyr-Saint was born into a fervent Catholic family in Le Puech, France just outside of his ancestral home in Montgesty on January 5 and Baptized the next day. The year was 1802, the same year that the Church was given some freedom by the anti-Catholic government of the French Republic because of the Concordat with the Holy See. John Gabriel's uncle, Jacques, was also a priest and had to say Mass and minister to his flock "underground" before 1802. In all Pierre and Marie [Rigal] Perboyre had eight children, six of whom entered religious life, three of them Vincentian priests, John Gabriel, John Louis and Jacques John, all members of the Congregation of the Mission. Three daughters were nuns, one a Carmelite and two became Daughters of Charity. Pierre had hoped that John Gabriel would follow him in working the land as the oldest son, but God had something else in mind. Pierre sent him to further his primary education under his brother and John Gabriel's uncle, Father Jacques Perboyre, who would open a minor seminary in Montauban in 1807 with the approval of the bishop, now that the persecution had begun to wane. Gabriel was supposed to come back, when his French studies were over, but his younger brother Louis, would not stay on unless his older brother did likewise. Uncle Jacques saw right away how gifted his nephew was and implored Pierre to let him study for the priesthood. The year was now 1817. A mission appeal so impressed Gabriel that he asked to join the Vincentian Congregation of the Mission. He was one of but two novices following the cessation of the persecution of the Church. Even as a novice he was asked to tutor younger students.
In 1820, while still at Montauban Gabriel learned of the Martyrdom of Father Clet and desired to go to China as a missionary also, which was amenable to Father Jacques, although the assignment would have to be delayed. It was not until December of that year when his novitiate was over could Gabriel take is vows, after which he left for Paris to study theology. Napoleon had suppressed the Vincentians, founded by St. Vincent de Paul, but King Louis XVIII decreed the re-establishment of the community in 1816. His advanced studies were centered on St. Thomas Aquinas, a blessing, because unless a priest is grounded in St. Thomas, he can become susceptible to modern ideas that are imbued with heresy. St. Thomas inspired the young Saint with a clarity that he would later transmit to those he preached to. Being a remarkable student he completed his course work before he was old enough for ordination. The canonical age at the time was 24 and he was yet to reach the age of 23. Meanwhile he taught young boys in the diocese of Amiens; for them he founded a pious association named the Congregation of the Holy Angels. He already had the reputation of a Saint. On september 23, 1826 he was ordained in the chapel of the Daughters of Charity in the Rue du Bac by Bishop Dubourg who had once served as a bishop in the Louisiana, the United States. Gabriel's superiors assigned him to teach at Saint Flour major seminary in Auvergne as his health was not strong enough for foreign travel. Again he was known as a Saint:
"For his first year of teaching at Saint Flour, he was assigned the courses on Grace and the Incarnation. One of his students said of his teaching: 'His words flowed from his soul with the sweetness of honey.' His radiant holiness was evident there too, moving one of his confreres to say of him: 'You see, Father Perboyre is a saint and a privileged one at that. I have no doubt that he has kept his baptismal innocence.' On the second floor of the major seminary, in the simple room where he lived, a marble plaque recalls his memory.
"Toward the end of the school year, the bishop realized the uncommon value of his young professor. He asked the superior general to assign him to direct his minor seminary. In the autumn of 1827, the minor seminary building was not yet finished, and there were no more than thirty students. The new superior quickly acquired such a reputation that at the end of that school year, in the summer of 1828, there were more than 100. One of his diocesan colleagues said of him: 'He only wanted to be the first among equals . . . he directed us as the apple of his eye.'
"He had the gift to be a teacher, and knew how, with a single word or a glance, to break someone's pride, to arouse a salutary sorrow, to unlock a closed heart. He prayed for his students and their families.
"As previously, when his superiors called him after five years to return to Paris, his students and colleagues at Saint Flour wept openly. The superior of the major seminary testified: 'Father Perboyre is the most accomplished person I know.' " [John-Gabriel Perboyre, C.M., China's First Saint, Editions du Signe, p. 8.]
In 1831, Gabriel's younger brother, Louis a priest, sailed for the mission in China to fulfill Gabriel's dream, but Louis died on the voyage after catching a severe cold that worsened; the missionaries had no medical assistance. Before he died, Louis said, " I am dying before accomplishing my destiny. I leave behind a priest brother, and I hope that he will come one day to take my place." The death of his brother was a sign to Gabriel that one day he, too, would go to China.
The Director of Novices in Paris
At Saint Flour the future Martyr worked so hard that his health weakened further. So he was sent to Paris to assist and then succeed the director of the novitiate. Gabriel's ability and holy reputation impressed Father Dominic Salhorgne, the superior general. One of his novices said that Father Gabriel was a living example of the virtues that he was to teach. Another one, Father Girard, a priest already forty years old, confided to his friends:
"For many years I have wished to see a Saint. Nothing that I have seen up to now has ever convinced me that I have. He was so holy that I never saw in him any fault in speech or action during the six months that I spent with him. I do not know if someone could be more holy, and I have often said to his confreres that he will be a Martyr. You will see: Father Perboyre will be canonized." [John-Gabriel Perboyre, C.M., China's First Saint, Editions du Signe, p. 11.]
For his novices, his clearest and most convincing teaching was that which he gave by the daily example of his life. Some of the novices were privileged to see Father Perboyre in prayerful ecstasy and on occasion in levitation.
He gave an example of all the virtues, but that which especially touched the novices was his meekness. Father Etienne, later the superior general, said of him:
"It is impossible to push the practice of meekness farther than he has done. He was a serene as an Angel, and we could see this in him. It would not be possible to mention a single circumstance in his life in which he showed the least impatience. This virtue was the key which opened all hearts. The unchanging affection which everyone had for him was attributed to his charming meekness." [Ibid.]
The spiritual teaching which Father Perboyre gave to his students concerned mainly the Person of Jesus Christ. He would say: "Christ is the great teacher of the knowledge which gives true light. He is the light, the model, the ideal. The Saints in Heaven are nothing else than the portraits of Jesus Christ risen and glorious, while those on earth are the portraits of Jesus Christ suffering, humiliated, oppressed. Let us keep our eyes fixed continually on Jesus Christ. In all things, let us enter into His sentiments and make His virtues our own."
He composed a prayer to be recited before he celebrated Holy Mass:
Divine Savior, transform me into Thineself. May my hands be Thy hands. May my tongue be Thy tongue. Grant that every faculty of my body may serve only to glorify Thee. Above all, transform my soul and all its powers that my memory, my will and my affections may be the memory, the will and the affections of Thee. I pray Thee to destroy in me all that is not of Thee. Grant that I may live but in Thee and by Thee and for Thee, that I may truly say with Saint Paul, "I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me."
China still beckoned to him. When the personal effects of Father Francis Regis Clet, Martyred in 1820 at Wuchang in China, began to arrive at the Mother House, Gabriel showed them to the novices, saying: "Here are the garments of a Martyr; here is the cord they strangled him with. How happy for us if we could someday have the same death!"
To another one of them he said: "Pray that my health improves so that I might go to China to preach Jesus Christ and die for Him!"
In 1835, a new missioning for China was going to take place and his spiritual director at last gave his permission. The doctor finally relented as he thought that the effect of a long sea voyage, with fresh air might be better for Father Gabriel. He, flew to the chapel to thank the Virgin Mary. This was the morning of February 2. Eighteen novices volunteered to go to China with their director.
John Gabriel had little time to say good-bye to his family at Le Puech, since the ship was supposed to depart Le Havre in a few days. He wrote to Uncle Jacques at Montauban: "I am going to leave with two of our young confreres and with several priests of the Foreign Mission Society. . . . I cannot tell you how happy I am with this wonderful vocation. . . . I have just written to my family. Please console them and help them with your good advice."
The missionaries reached Java, arriving in Batavia in June, then on to Macao in August. Macao, the main port for entry into China, belonged to the Portuguese who had also established a Vincentian seminary for Chinese priests and the French had a mission house [procure] which numbered 2 priests, 2 Chinese priests and 15 Chinese seminarians. It was there that Gabriel Perboyre began to learn Chinese under the Vincentian, Fr. Li who had made his novitiate in Paris. He was there for only two months when he was asked to teach French classes. After but four months his superiors thought him ready for the mission itself. He was to go to Hunan on December 22. He and his fellow priest, Fr. Delamarre, had to adopt Chinese appearances, shaving part of their heads and adding queues, growing beards, eating with sticks, and Chinese garb. They left at night to avoid detection by the Chinese authorities. The trip took six months. The first part was a two-month boat ordeal to avoid detection, then the rest of the way by foot, at a pace of thirty kilometers per day, which is just under 19 miles.
At one point they traversed down the Gan river, a tributary of the Chang Jiang [the Yangtze]. The crew had disguised them as merchants from Fujian, a fortunate turn of events because that dialect is different from regular Chinese, and their French would not so easily arouse suspicion. From there they went to Hankou and Wuchang [present day Wuhan], a trek of eighteen days.
Arriving at Wuchang, the two priests parted company separated: Father Delamarre continued to go up the Chang Jiang toward the province of Sichuan. Father Perboyre had hoped to pray at the cemetery on Red Mountain, at the tomb of Father Clet, Martyred sixteen years before, but there was not enough time; so he resumed his journey up the Han river, which ran south into the Chang Jiang at Hankou.
John Gabriel was happy to arrive in the mission territory of Fathers John Henry Baldus and Francis Alexis Rameaux. He stayed two weeks with Father Baldus, sharing in his missionary work. Then he took another boat on the Han and then on foot for the last part of his trip into a very mountainous region. He was completely worn out by the long and difficult ascent. Finally, at the top of that treacherous mountain, on the back side, he found, hidden away in a bamboo grove, the community house. There, Father Rameaux and a Chinese confrere received him with open arms.
Father Perboyre had arrived at the heart of a Catholic cluster of 500 members living in primitive hovels. These poor people had just endured numerous clouds of grasshoppers which had stripped everything from them. For two weeks, Father Perboyre did what he could to regain his strength to prepare for the last part of his voyage, which would take him to Nanyang, the center of the Hunan mission; Father Rameaux insisted that he take the mission's mule to spare him as much as possible.
It was the middle of July when he reached that destination, six months from his commencement in Macao. By November he was well enough to resume his study of the Chinese language; he was helped by three priests, John Bai, Andrew Wang and Paul Song, who had been a companion of Father Clet. A month later he was proficient enough to hear Confessions and preach in Chinese. His mission territory was spread out so far that it took months to visit all his flock. He and Father Bai evangelized as far as the Yellow River:
"In one of my longest journeys, which took twelve days, we had no mishap except from the water, by which the road was changed into a stream from a heavy rain storm. We were drenched, as well as our luggage; and one of our guides had his eye blackened, but without grave consequences. Honan [or Hunan] having but few mountains in the north, nearly all our traveling was through plains. In many of the towns through which I have passed I have observed nothing remarkable; generally they have but two streets of considerable size. I have seen a celebrated market whose streets, crossed and laid out in squares, reminded me of those of Carcassonne, the lower town, This province is less commercial, perhaps, than many others; the roads, however, are full of men carrying merchandise from one town to another upon wheelbarrows, which they put on barks when the winds are favorable; long rows of camels, asses, and mules are often seen transporting merchandise from one province to another. Some of the rivers here are covered with barks. The Yellow river, which I have twice passed, is not navigable on account of the impetuosity of its waters. In crossing this river on a large ship, the traveler is exposed to the rapacity of a band of rogues who have charge of it. The largest rivers of China have no bridges; in Kiangsi only, I have seen some of a dozen arches.
"Voyages enter largely into the course of life of those engaged upon an apostolic career; this is, however, 'Only one' of the accessories, and I perhaps have spoken too much about it. I still demand, dear confrere, another moment of your unalterable patience to tell you some of our principal duties. Only one word about our special manner of conducting exercises. I must speak most highly of a Chinese confrere who has accompanied me on all the campaigns. Being born in China, and having already given missions, he was of great help in a land so new to me. As in reality I have given him the greater part of the work, I must, to be just, ascribe the merit to him in proportion. He fulfilled his task with a zeal that never varied, even upon difficult occasions; preaching twice a day, giving special instructions to those who needed them, making open war on ignorance and abuses; rising before four o'clock in the morning, and retiring after ten at night, hearing Confessions the whole night through in places where it was necessary, making long journeys in bad weather to bring to the sick the succors of religion, and going to visit the old apostates, or the Christians who are no better, to bring them back to their duties, getting them at first to Mass, then to instructions, and to Confession. Thus, by the grace of God, many sheep have re-entered the fold; prayer in common, the public worship of the Chinese Christians, is resumed with a new vigor in many families, where the mother used scarcely dare to recite them in a whisper. Several Christian districts which were almost destroyed have been re-established. Upon arriving in each mission, our first duty is to obtain an exact list of all the Christians, big and little; good and bad, so as to be able to fulfill our duties better to them all. Then both of us priests, forming a board of examiners, make every one recite the catechism publicly; first, the children of both sexes, from whom we judge beforehand the zeal of the parents in their regard. We have them prepared by capable persons to receive the Sacraments. The older people recite in their turn; the aged not blushing to give in this an example to the youngest, nor fathers or mothers, at being helped and corrected by their children. After this we have the Baptism of little children; then begins the hearing of Confessions, which generally requires but a short time for the people sufficiently instructed or disposed. Every day a certain number receive Holy Communion; the most pious souls have the opportunity of repeating it before the departure of the Missionaries.
Baptism of adults, Confirmation, Marriages, admission into some confraternity is the business of the last days. The Missionary cannot stay long in each Christian district, for he must visit all those under his charge. The mission lasts a week, ten days, or two weeks, according to the number and needs of the Christians. When one is finished, we go quickly to another, to do there what we have just done in the last one; that is, to fulfill the office of father, physician, and judge. The Chinese Christian loves to recognize these titles in a priest, who can here fulfill his Divine functions, with all the authority and liberty proper to his sacred character.
"In the course of our visits we generally have no other lodging or oratory than the houses of Christians in which they live the rest of the year. We have, however, a district in the north of the province where each of the Christian settlements has a fine chapel. There is one, very large, which would be a fine country church in Europe. It has a medium-sized bell, which calls the Christians to prayer, and, besides, a large plate of the same metal with a finer sound. This they use to announce the exercises of the mission. On the feasts of St. John the Baptist and of SS. Peter and Paul I sang Mass in this church . . . In the time of the emperor Kanghi the Christians had churches in many towns which today are in the hands of pagans. The Christians, especially in Honan, except the twenty people who are from Peking, employed in commerce and clock-making in the capital of the province, nearly all live in the country, dispersed in small, obscure places. You see, here, as in France, according to the expression of St. Vincent, we have the happiness of being missionaries to the poor country people.
"We are also, dear confrere, poor ourselves. In the two provinces we have three residences where we can pass our times of sickness and vacation. In them we are at home. The one from which I now write you is used this year as a stopping place by M. Rameaux on his return from the middle of Hupeh [or Hubei], and by me when I return from the north of Honan. We have divided between us almost equally a distance of more than two hundred leagues. As you may imagine, this meeting is very agreeable and useful to me; but, unhappily, too short; for the Christians of the mountains of Hukwang soon took away this good confrere, who hastened to bring them spiritual help during the epidemic, fearless of the dangers which threatened him. In this place the pagans now have a suit against the Christians before the mandarins. Three European missionaries and four Chinese have been denounced. I have not the honor to be of the number. It seems, however, that this affair will not end disastrously and will soon be settled." [The Life of Bl. John Gabriel Perboyre, Tr. by Mary Randolph, Mission Press, 1916 with Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, 1889, pp. 197-201.]
The Mission of Hubei
In January of 1838, Father Gabriel was asked to go to the province of Hubei [Hupeh], to the mountain village he had arrived at in 1836. It was at this time that he experienced "the dark night of the soul' and had visions of Jesus crucified.
September 12, 1838.
"My very dear Cousin,----The most recent news you have had of me has come from Honan. I stayed a year and a half in that province. I made one visit to all the Christian sections there and even two to several of them. In January I was called to Hupeh by. M. Rameaux, Superior of this mission. The district I have since served, and which I have left only to visit two small Christian sections a short distance away, is situated among mountains. It is two or three leagues in length and a little less in breadth. The Christians who compose it and among whom are very few pagans number about two thousand, distributed through fifteen Christian districts, which, however, are so scattered that there is not one which resembles a little village. When a section is visited, entire families go every day where the missionary has established himself for the time. In the centre of this district we have a residence which belongs to the mission. There the missionary is like a pastor in the midst of a large parish, and he is in continual communication with the Christians of the whole district. He is often called on, night and day, to administer the Sacraments to the sick, a consolation the Chinese Christians hasten to obtain upon the least appearance of danger. There is continually, especially before Sundays and feast days, so great a crowd of people coming to Confession that the three priests who live here have much difficulty in hearing them all. The principal Christians or catechists try, at least, to get their turn on great feast days; there are; perhaps, few parishes in France where the Holy Table is more frequented than here. Every day not only many girls and pious women but also many fathers of families assist regularly at Mass; and if they wish to obtain rain or good weather, the crowd continues and increases until they get what they desire. It is especially on Sundays and feast days that the flock presses around the pastor. From the beginning till the close of day our church is continually filled. At first they recite in common the morning prayers, the prayers of the feast, and a part of the catechism; then comes. Mass, the sermon, and catechism for the children; after which, those who wish retire; some remain, others return to recite the first part of the Rosary [he means the five decades], with which they end the afternoon. The evening is taken up with the exercises of the Way of the Cross, the prayers of the different confraternities, and a conference. A week before they choose the subject, some virtue or duty. When Sunday comes, there appear on the scene about a dozen orators, who preach, one after another, on the given subject; they are young scholars, catechists, or other intelligent Christians. The priest ends this interesting colloquy by some edifying words before numerous auditors, who resemble those who followed Our Lord in the desert, their relish for the nourishment of the soul making them forget the food of the body. To know how the Missionaries' days are taken up, add to the Confessions, Baptisms, Confirmations, Marriages, admissions into the Confraternity of the Holy Scapular or some other . . . I will tell you something about our church. Ah! God forgive me, if I dare assure you that our church bears no comparison to many a barn in your country. The bare ground is enclosed within four walls of earth, covered with a roof of straw; a table serves for an altar, back of which is a hanging that extends above it like the canopy of a bed. This is a complete description of it, if I do not mention the half partition, which separates the women from the men; according to the Chinese custom and the laws of propriety in all countries. If some dislike to recognize this as a church, let them come here and see it with a thousand pious faithful souls filling and surrounding, even in rain and snow, this humble enclosure, and their eyes will, discover precious stones destined to compose that church of ineffable beauty which must be eternally admirable and eternally happy in the bosom of God. I beg them to consider that He Who, by being born in a stable, made it a church worthy of God, descends, here every day for the happiness of those who adore Him. He deigns often to come to abodes still more vile. . . ." [Ibid, pp. 207-209.]
The short time the servant of God passed in Hupeh was crowned with great success. His virtues were admired not only by his confreres, but even by the heathen, who regarded him as a Saint.
He had come to China to seek for sufferings, he could now gratify his desire, for it is easy to understand how hard a missionary's life is in that country. The houses have no chimneys; daylight is seen only through very narrow windows. Generally the dwellings are dark and unhealthy; a fire cannot be lighted without causing a dense smoke, which injures the chest and eyes. A little rice, some herbs boiled in water, a nourishment without seasoning, and often disgusting, is what must sustain the strength of the missionary, weakened by labors and incessant travel. Often his bed is simply a covered plank. Add to these privations the inconveniences occasioned by the heat, hunger, and thirst, etc., and it is easy to understand, as Blessed Perboyre says in his letters, that the missionary in China leads an apostolic life. The servant of God had much to suffer, too, from the weakness of his constitution and his many infirmities. But as all this did not suffice, he treated his body with great severity; he wore around his waist an iron chain. There is one penance we must mention which, however, will not surprise us. Going to different places, living among poor Christians, often covered with vermin, he could have protected himself against them; but, in a spirit of penance, after the example of many of the Saints, he allowed himself to be devoured while living, and did nothing to relieve himself from the infliction.
His continual occupation was to travel through the villages where Christians were, to instruct the ignorant, to convert sinners and apostates, and to reanimate the fervor of the lukewarm. Though in very delicate health, he was always ready to brave the worst weather to bring, even in the night, the succors of religion to those who needed them.
As the Christians might at any time be called upon to confess Jesus Christ before the tribunal, he endeavored to strengthen their faith by frequent exhortations. He often read to them the Acts of the Martyrs, so as to put before their eyes the models they must imitate. At the recitation of these glorious combats they saw that he was exalted above himself and that he burned with desire to give his, life for his Divine Master. A short time before he was arrested, when he was with M. Baldus, he read in the "Annals of the Propagation of the Faith" an account of the frightful tortures that had been endured by some missionaries in Cochin China. He seemed greatly impressed by this reading and trembled as if he felt himself afflicted with all their torments. At last he said that these refinements of barbarity were horrible to nature, but when necessary, God gave the required strength to endure them. The question being asked what should be the conduct of a missionary before the mandarins, who often artfully question him about the number and names of the Christians so that they can legally try them, Blessed Perboyre replied that, in that case he would imitate the sublime silence which Our Lord opposed to the questions of Pilate and Herod.
The hour approached when the valiant champion was to descend into the arena; but before this fearful and glorious struggle, God wished to prepare him by a Martyrdom still more afflicting to his heart. It is well known that St. Francis de Sales was subjected in his youth to a great trial; it seemed to him that he was excluded from the kingdom of Heaven and destined to torments for all eternity. John Gabriel passed several months in this same overwhelming tribulation. God having withdrawn from him all His lights, left him plunged in desolation, it seemed that he had nothing to expect hereafter from the Divine mercy. He saw in God only a severe judge irritated against him; his innumerable sins, his constant abuse of grace, etc., terrified him. He prayed, wept, and groaned much; God repulsed him with anger. His crucifix had become mute to him, or, rather, he heard from the wounds of his Divine Savior only threats of condemnation. If he sought consolation before the Blessed Sacrament, he found there but greater bitterness. Each time he celebrated the Holy Sacrifice and received the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, he imagined himself another Judas who ate and drank his own damnation. A profound darkness filled his soul; neither his prayers nor sighs were heard; he could say with the Royal Prophet: "My tears have been my bread day and night, whilst it is said to me daily: Where is thy God?" (Ps. xli, 4.) Sleep fled from his eyelids; his food became insipid to him. It was in vain that he had endeavored to serve God from his earliest childhood; it was in vain that he had made great sacrifices to testify his love: all this was lost to him. This horrible agony caused him so much suffering that his health was considerably affected by it. Each day he grew more pale, and wasted like a plant burnt up by the heat of the sun; he would surely have succumbed if God had not set bounds to this trial. Jesus Christ, Whom he copied so faithfully, before making him suffer the torments of Calvary, wished him to share in His agony and dereliction in the Garden of Olives.
The Divine Savior appeared to him attached to the Cross; casting upon him a look of ineffable goodness, He said to him affectionately: "What dost thou fear? Have I not died for thee? Put thy finger into My side and cease to fear thy damnation." Then, the vision having disappeared, John Gabriel felt all his terrors dissipated, giving place to the most delightful peace. The next day there remained no trace of the extreme thinness which this trial occasioned. He no longer had any but consoling thoughts, for he had received an assurance of his salvation and a presentiment of his Martyrdom.
"It was he himself," said M. Baldus afterwards, "who related this last to me in a conversation which I had with him in our residence of Kuching, and I noticed that he related it in the third person. Not allowing him to believe that I was duped by this pious artifice, when he finished his account, I said to him suddenly: 'I know very well of whom you speak; it was to you that this happened.' His embarrassment and evasive responses were for me as great a proof as a complete avowal."
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