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Catholic Heroes… St. John Gabriel Perboyre

September 5, 2017 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

At the dawn of the 19th century, France was emerging from the devastation of the French Revolution. The Catholic Church suffered many tragic losses as priests and religious bore the crown of martyrdom. Churches, monasteries, and schools were confiscated by the anticlerical forces.
Anyone who remained true to the Catholic Church and her teachings must have had a deep love and commitment to following Christ. The Perboyre family was among those who did have that love. John Gabriel Perboyre was born into that family on January 6, 1802.
Among John’s siblings, three became missionaries of St. Vincent de Paul while two others became Daughters of Charity, another order founded by de Paul. To have six of their eight children enter religious life, the parents must have been extraordinary Catholics, possessing great humility, charity, and service to God’s people.
Surprisingly, John’s younger brother, Louis, answered God’s call to the priesthood before John. John’s entry into the seminary came about when he accompanied Louis there. John was to stay with him as Louis adapted to his new environs. As John wandered around the grounds, observing the orientation to prayer and the seminary’s facilities, he became certain that he, too, was called to enter the seminary.
John’s parents recognized the need for more priests since so many Catholics were left without a shepherd. They readily gave John their blessing to enter the seminary with Louis, which took much courage at that time. It was no easy lifestyle, but one filled with significant risks requiring men fortified with heroic virtue to withstand the secular persecution of Catholics.
In addition, John benefited from the example of his uncle Jacques who also was a missionary of St. Vincent. Thus, in 1818 John embraced the ideal of ministering to God’s people in France.
While service in foreign lands was a possibility, China was virtually the only land where missionaries were sent at that time. John did not favor the prospect of forever leaving his family and the comforts of 19th-century France. He envisioned his service with St. Vincent’s Congregation of the Mission to be local, where he would evangelize the poor, help form the clergy, and nurture a life of holiness in the Vincentian missionaries. This holiness where missionaries mortified themselves, led a deep prayer life, and exercised extra charity toward the poor would also serve as an example for others to follow.
From 1818 to 1835, John served the people of France. After his Ordination in 1826 he was responsible for the formation of seminarians. This easy and rather comfortable position satisfied John until his brother Louis, once again, led him in a very different direction.
Some years previously, Blessed Francis Regis Chet — a fellow Vincentian — had been martyred in China. Inspired by the heroism of the Chinese martyrs, Fr. Louis asked to be sent to China. Before he reached that distant land, the 24-year-old young man died. Fr. John, hoping to continue the quest of his younger brother, made the great sacrifice of leaving his native land to go to China, arriving in August 1835.
Although Catholic missionaries had been reaching out to the Chinese for many years, most Chinese had no knowledge of the Kingdom of God. They honored their ancestors and felt the natural call for peace and harmony, but their knowledge was virtually nonexistent in regard to eternal life.
The adjustment to the Chinese culture — so very, very different from life in Europe — was difficult for Fr. Perboyre.
Some Europeans thought the Chinese were superstitious pagans, while the Chinese thought the Europeans were crude and unrefined. Nevertheless, these strangers felt a strange attraction to one another.
At first Fr. Perboyre stayed in Macau to adjust to both the climate and the culture. Then he set off for the 1,000-mile trek to Nanyang in Henan. After traveling north by Chinese junk, riding horseback, and walking for eight months, he finally arrived in Nanyang.
Now the French missionary set about the task of learning the challenging language of China. It took five months of studying before Fr. John possessed a rudimentary grasp of the local dialect. With great zeal he immediately began visiting the small Christian communities.
Soon he was transferred to the region in Hubei near the lakes region of the Yangtze River. This period brought him great suffering both spiritually and temporally. He wrote to his friends in France, “I ask of Him first of all for my conversion and sanctification and then the grace that I do not spoil His work too much.”
Fr. John suffered these times of darkness and abject poverty as had so many saints before him and after him. God was preparing him for the ultimate sacrifice.
The hiatus in Chinese persecution came to an end in 1839 and the war between Great Britain and China broke out, further endangering the foreign missionaries. The Vincentians kept vigil during this precarious time. They were in a risky place and kept guard, but too many false alarms led them to become complacent, and they let down their guard.
On September 15, 1839 Fr. Perboyre sat conversing with some fellow Christians in Cha-yuen-ken: two European missionaries, a fellow Vincentian named Baldus and a Franciscan named Rizzolati. Fr. Wang, a Chinese missionary, also joined the men as Chinese soldiers approached the village. The men did not heed the first alarm since there had been so many false ones.
Too late the religious fled for their lives. While Baldus and Rizzolati fled far away, Fr. Perboyre hid in a nearby bamboo forest. After undergoing considerable torture, a catechumen revealed the location of Fr. John. Arrest meant he was guilty and guilt did not go unpunished. Fr. Perboyre was taken to Kou-Ching-Hien where he boldly admitted his priesthood and refused to renounce his faith. He also refused to reveal those who were Christians.
His second round of suffering happened in Siang-Yang where they forced him to kneel on chains, hung him by his thumbs and hair, and beat him with canes. Even worse, they mocked his faith, the sacraments, and his hope in eternal life.
Finally, they sent him to Wuchang where they repeatedly interrogated him. Other Christians were forced to spit on him and mock him in efforts to break the priest’s morale. When he refused to stomp on the crucifix, he received another cruel beating of 110 strokes. He also was falsely accused of immoral acts with a consecrated virgin. He felt more sorrow for the others named in such accusations, for the shame brought on them, than he did for himself.
When they dressed him in his priestly vestments, rather than being humiliated, he stood with dignity, inspiring some to come forward and ask him to hear their Confessions. After more than a year of persecution and torture little was left of Fr. Perboyre but skin and bones. However, in this misery, his spirit grew strong. The closer he came to Heaven the greater became his resolve to remain faithful.
When the judge pronounced a sentence of death, Fr. Perboyre replied, “I would sooner die than deny my faith.”
Since Fr. John Gabriel Perboyre died on September 11, 1840, the Catholic Church remembers him on that day.

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