April 27, 2017

Saint Peter Chanel, Priest and Martyr

Saint Peter Chanel

April 28th, is the optional memorial of Saint Peter Chanel (1802 – 1841), the 19th century priest, missionary and martyr. Sometimes, we are called to be the planters of seeds that someone else will harvest. That was precisely the vocation entrusted to St. Peter Chanel, whose tireless work in the region of Oceania in the mid-19th century would end up bearing the most fruit after his martyrdom.

Peter Chanel was born near Cuet in the area of Belley, France, in 1802. Ordained in 1827, he was first sent to work in a parish which had the reputation of being a challenging place in a “bad” district. Despite the difficulties he faced, the young priest won over his new parishioners by his devotion to caring for their sick.

But what Peter Chanel really wanted to be was a missionary, and to that end he joined a new religious society in 1831—the Society of Mary, which would later come to be known as the Marists. Although eager to depart for mission territory, Chanel was at first assigned to teach in the society’s seminary, a post that he filled with great competence. When the Society of Mary was finally granted formal approval by Pope Gregory XVI in April 1836, Chanel was appointed superior of a band of missionaries sent to the South Pacific, and the region known as Oceania.

After a grueling 10-month voyage, Chanel and the others arrived at the island that the natives called Futuna, the first Christian missionaries ever to do so. The conditions that they encountered there bordered on the savage: tribal wars and cannibalism had severely reduced the numbers of inhabitants and, although the eating of human flesh had recently been done away with, the people were still dominated by a religion of terror centered on the worship of evil deities.

Chanel persevered under very harsh conditions, struggling to learn the language of the people and winning them over the same way he had done as a younger priest in his first parish. His devotion to and care of the sick soon earned him the name “the man with the kind heart.” The king, Niuliki, treated the missionary well, at first, even declaring his person “taboo,” meaning sacred and inviolable.

But as Chanel’s influence with the people increased, Niuliki’s jealousy of him did as well. Chanel now knew enough of the language to preach to the people directly, and as more natives gravitated to the white man’s religion, Niuliki felt his own power as high priest of the old religion slipping away. When his own son, Meitala, announced that he was also joining Chanel, it was the last straw for the chief. In a move reminiscent of Thomas Becket and King Henry II in England, King Niuliki approached his brother-in-law, Musumusu, and instructed him to “do whatever is necessary” to stop the ministry of the Catholic priest.

Musumusu, who harbored no love for this new religion, went to Chanel under the pretense that he needed medical help. Once in his hut, Musumusu clubbed Chanel to death, splitting his skull with an axe. Chanel was martyred on April 28, 1841. O God, who for the spreading of your Church crowned Saint Peter Chanel with martyrdom, grant that, in these days of paschal joy, we may so celebrate the mysteries of Christ's Death and Resurrection as to bear worthy witness to newness of life. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

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