Today, 28 April 2012, is the feast day of St Peter Chanel, St Peter Chanel (April 28), priest, missionary, martyr and religious of the Society of Mary (Marist Fathers). To him belongs the title of first martyr of Oceania and first martyr of the Marist Order. As with many martyrs, his life was so holy that he would have been canonised even if he had died peacefully in his sleep at advanced old age.
The good Lord, obviously, wished instead that he be honoured with these titles and with the patronage of all the peoples of Oceania. He, our Redeemer, knows best how to richly reward his servants.
Of all the many amazing Saints that the Church recalls to memory today, St Peter Chanel has a special place in my heart. Living in Australia is not like living in most other Western nations because we do not yet have a rich heritage of sanctity. It was 1995 before St Mary of the Cross McKillop was beatified, and still she is the only Australian so far raised to honour throughout the universal Church. Because of this relics are something that we but rarely come across. Thus it was around 1977-1979 before I ever laid eyes on a relic, and when I did it was a relic of St Peter Chanel. As a teenager it was deeply moving to be in the actual presence of a part of someone who had died for the sake of the spread of the Gospel. In those moments, Saints were no longer stories, but living, breathing, real people of ardent faith. I remain ever grateful to him.
St Peter Louis-Marie Chanel was born in the diocese of Belley in eastern France in 1803 into a rural farming family. When he was young Peter took care of his father’s sheep. As the gift of reason developd in him, Peter became conscious that where the family lived had once been a church – something that must have happened around the time of the French Revolution – and desired to make reparation by dedicating his life to God. A local priest noticed his intelligence and helped to educate him.
Following studies at Meximieux, Belley and Brou, Peter was ordained a diocesan priest in 1827. In the three years that he was in his first parish of Crozet, he completely revitalised it largely by his sincere desire for the welfare of his flock and the special care he lavished upon those who were sick. His desire grew to become a missionary, and in 1831 he received permission to join the newly formed Society of Mary (the Marist order). He hoped to be sent off to mission lands, but was appointed to teach at the junior seminary at Belly. At this seminary he served for 5 years.
In 1836 Peter was at last able to join a group of eight Marists being sent to the Pacific Islands. He was assigned to the island of Futuna (part of the Hoorn island group) together with a young Marist brother and an interpreter. Peter kept a diary to record his slow progress in learning the local language and his activities. He said, ‘On so difficult a mission we must be saints’. Truly his patience was tested, because his one desire was to preach about Jesus to the islanders and until he attained some fluency in the local dialect he was unable to preach with words. Nevertheless he preached with actions, with kindness, generosity and forgiveness.
Bit by little bit their Christian witness and preaching began to bear fruit in 1840, with the baptisms of some dying children and elderly adults. It was said of Peter ‘This man loves us, and he himself practices what he teaches us to do.’ Peaceful relations with the islanders began to break down when the king of the island’s son asked to be baptised. The king’s family were outraged. For them this was a major threat to their traditional way of life. Peter was aware of the danger and said, ‘It does not matter whether or not I am killed; the religion has taken root on the island; it will not be destroyed by my death, since it comes not from men but from God.’
Following an attack on some catechumens, Peter was clubbed to death on April 28, 1841. Within a year of his death almost the whole island had accepted Christianity and been baptised. Pope Pius XII canonized him in 1954. In Peter the promise of Jesus was fulfilled in a particular way, ‘Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but it if dies, it yields a rich harvest’ (John 12:24). The good Lord permitted what could not be accomplished by Peter by preaching to be accomplished through the savage attack which shed his blood and the intercessory power of his prayers before the throne of God in heaven.
St Peter Chanel, you left your homeland to proclaim Jesus, Saviour of the world, to the peoples of Oceania. Guided by the Spirit of God, Who is the strength of the gentle, you bore witness to love, even laying down your life. Grant that, like you, we may live our daily lives in peace, in joy, and in fraternal love. May your prayer and example call forth from our midst many workers for the Gospel so that God’s kingdom may reach to the ends of the earth. Amen.
St Peter Chanel, pray for us.