On Blessed John Gabriel Perboyre by Bishop John Edward Cuthbert Hedley

detail of an engraving of the martyrdom of Saint Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, date and artist unknown; uploaded on 3 January 2019 by GrandBout; swiped from Wikimedia Commons“To me is given this grace to enlighten all men, that they may see what is the dispensation of the mystery which hath been hidden from eternity in God.” – Ephesians 3:8,9

Every Saint is light to the world. And every Saint helps the world to understand one and the same Mystery the Mystery of the Cross. It is the grand and only Mystery. From all eternity it was hidden in God; that is, it was God’s everlasting secret, to be revealed in His own time, to be insisted upon from generation to generation. It was to be the burthen of all preaching, the fount and spring of all saving grace, the light of the human race, the salvation of the spirit and of the flesh. To “enlighten all men that they may see,” this is the work of Jesus, and His only work. For this He has commissioned teachers, breathed on ministers, illuminated doctors, and strengthened martyrs.

On this solemn day, when we rejoice and bless God that the seal of recognition has been placed by the supreme See on a martyr of our own times, we cannot honour him more or do better for ourselves than study with devotion this Mystery of the Cross in his heart his spirit, and his flesh. For he, like the grand martyrs and confessors of other days, was sent to preach it; and we, at least, thanks to our faith and fellowship with the holy Roman Church, can use the holy light which in him is given to the world, and “comprehend with all the saints” and servants of God in every age “what is the length and breadth and height and depth” (Ephesians 3:18) what is the profound meaning of a life and a martyrdom like that of the Blessed John Gabriel Perboyre, of the Congregation of the Mission of Saint Vincent de Paul, Martyr of Jesus Christ.

It is not quite ninety years since the Blessed John Gabriel was born; it is nearly fifty years since he was strangled on a cross in the chief town of a Chinese province. He received his crown at the early age of thirty-eight. There are persons still living who are as old as he would have been had he lived till now. One of his brothers, a member of the Congregation of the Mission. One of his sisters is still living, in that holy Institute of Sisters of Charity, founded by his own father, Saint Vincent de Paul. The Holy See is always slow to raise a mortal man to the altars of the Church. But we may truly call this martyr a martyr of our own times. It was only some twenty years after his native land had sent him to preach to the heathen that she received back his precious remains. The friends, the students, the fellow-labourers of his early days, who had admired his holy life, lived to see him on the road to canonisation. The venerable Superior of the Mission and of the Sisters, M. Etienne, who had really decided the doubt as to his being sent on the China mission, had the happiness, on 6 January 1860, of receiving into the Mother Home at Paris that precious body, crowned with the double aureola of apostle and martyr. He was born in France. France lent him to the apostolate he lies now again in France, the honoured object of veneration; and whilst his soul is with the white-robed army above, his relics are the centre of prayer, the fountain of apostolic desire, the source of heroic aspiration, in a land which has produced so many heroes and so many saints.

It would be impossible, today, to give you an adequate biography of the blessed martyr who was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in December last.

But no one can read his life and martyrdom without seeing that we have in this French priest who was put to death for the faith in China fifty years ago, at the age of thirty-eight, a most impressive instance of the power of the work of the Cross of Christ. We see it in his preparation, in his vocation, in his work, and most conspicuously in his passion.

Let us first of all consider how he took up this blessed Cross which was to glorify him what we may call his preparation. This is the first step in a Saint’s history, to take up Christ’s Cross. A Saint learns very quickly the grand truth that the only master worth serving is Jesus Christ, and that Jesus Christ carries a Cross and travels along a painful road, which leads to Calvary. He learns to recognise two enemies, selfishness and voluptuousness the spirit of hard pride and the spirit of self-indulgence. He understands that life eternal can only be won by violence, but by a violence which is made sweet and tranquil by the example of Jesus. Every Christian has to learn this. The Saints learned it thoroughly. Look at this Saint of ours.

He was a poor boy, born of people very moderately furnished with this world’s goods. From his infancy he seemed, in the phrase of Holy Scripture, to “walk before God”. Some men live and die, and never recognise that God is close to them. Too many of us are far too much taken up with the passing day, the fleeting moment, to be impressed with the nearness of Him Who is our Friend, our Father, our Lord and Master, our only end and sovereign good. This child seemed to have come into the world as from some sweet and solemn presence, which haunted him even before the reign of reason began. It made him serious among his companions. It made him thirst for the word of God, and the refreshment of religious truth. It filled him with an instinctive horror of sin. It drew him to the Church and the blessed Sacrament. It moulded his spirit and his very look and gesture, so that people said he was a Saint. His first communion was to him a kind of realisation of the happiness of the blessed. At school, in the seminary, in the noviceship, he drew nearer to God as his years increased. Thus, it is no wonder that those who knew him during the years of his childhood are so emphatic in drawing attention to his singular piety.

Piety! A word that is much misunderstood and even much abused. Counterfeit piety is detestable. True piety is the realisation of our being’s purpose. Piety is a tender and sensitive love of God, of our blessed Lord, of the mother of Jesus, of the saints, and of holy things. It springs from faith, and it leads to self-denial It lives deep down in the heart, but it animates the body, shines in the eyes, moves the hands, and is felt in the voice. In a child it is sweet and lovely to see, although a child’s piety may have many imperfections. It may be shallow, easily disturbed, subject to human respect, given to the service of the eye, and sometimes uninstructed and foolish. Yet it is sweet to see, just as the buds and blossoms of the spring are sweet to see, and great is the responsibility of those whose duty it is to watch it and to cultivate it, But in this child, whom the blessings of sweetness prevented that is, in whom the drawings of Divine grace were beforehand even with nature and temper piety was the true and matured effect of the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are told that he breathed around him the perfume of Divine grace. Genuine piety has three qualities; it is self-denying, charitable, and courageous. It is self-denying, because self-indulgence or softness kills the true love of God. It is kind and charitable, because it sees Jesus Christ in every creature. And it is courageous, because human respect and the custom of the world soon extinguish the piety of a soul that is a coward. Those who lived with this blessed martyr in to early days, used to see a quiet youth, with eyes modestly cast down and joined hands, kneeling in chapel, or with equal modesty following the lectures of his professors, or with tranquil voice and retiring manners taking his part in the recreation. But what self-mastery! what courage! what tender kindness to others! They said he was pious, and a Saint. They did not know how true it was! Already had he taken up the Cross; already had he chosen to follow Christ; already was he crucifying nature, zealously applying himself to the practice of the crucifying virtues of patience, poverty, and obedience, and wearying his confessors to let him crucify his very flesh. The great mystery was beginning to work in him, as in every Saint who has ever lived. He knew now and under stood that safety and peace and strength are in the Cross, and in the Cross alone. Thus as child, as seminarist, as novice, as religious, as teacher, as priest, he lived till he was thirty.

The hour came when the preparation had gone far enough. The altar of the holocaust was built up, the victim was laid thereon yes, and the torch was already applied to the wood; and now the flame was to leap up to heaven. Moments come in the lives of God’s servants which can only be described as “conversions”. Sometimes the circumstances are even miraculous, as with Saint Augustine, or with Saint Catherine of Siena when she was espoused by Christ. Some times the conversion is from a life of sin; more frequently it is from a lower state of supernatural life to a higher. Sometimes in a lifetime there are many moments of conversion. The character of them all is the same; there is the swift light and strong impulse to live for God and God alone. But they may and do differ in numberless ways. The sinner may become an heroic penitent, the lukewarm religious a fervent ascetic, the laborious preacher an interior man, the busy man of the world a model of constant prayer. The thoughtless child may grow suddenly earnest, or the young man may find his vocation. Or again, the Saint, with all his intimate knowledge of God’s ways and experience of His light, may find himself in the presence of a new world of spiritual reality, the exist ence of which he had never even suspected during all the time he had served the Lord of all things; as perhaps happened to Saint Vincent de Paul when, eighteen years before his death, he began to make that daily special preparation for his last hour. It seems to me that we can perfectly trace in the Blessed Martyr of this day’s solemnity the moment of his decisive call to the heroic life of the Apostle. His brother Louis had died at sea, in the Indian Ocean, on his way to China as a missionary. In a letter written soon after hearing of this, he exclaims, “His life was that of an Angel, and he sought the martyr’s death. Oh that I might be found worthy to fill his place! That I could expiate my sins by martyrdom such as his innocent soul sighed for! Alas! I am already thirty years old, and I have not yet learnt how to live! When shall I learn how to die? Time is moving on like a swift shadow, and without knowing it we are approaching eternity!”

Here is the true accent of the heroic soul. To know what life is; to know how to die to die for Jesus! It was with this new revelation of ancient truth in his heart that he went on a short visit to his parents, to console them on the brother’s death. Here he told them definitely that God was urging him to devote himself to the China Mission, and that he was resolved to do all that depended on himself in order to carry out the Divine will. He told them this, and then he said the same thing to his uncle, that holy and venerable priest of his own Congregation who had been so much to him all his life. They all tried to dissuade him. “You are not strong enough; you will die like your brother. If you do reach China, you will certainly be martyred.” “Ah! if it were only my happy lot! Since God has died for us, we should never fear to die for Him.”

Slowly, Almighty God showed him the way to his heart’s desire. For three years from the time of his brother’s death (1832) he waited in obedience and prayer. He was made novice master during that time in the Mother House at Paris. We are told that he seemed to breathe out sanctifying grace. He was most exact, most sympathetic, most devoted. His lessons on the Epistles of Saint Paul are spoken of as marvellous outpourings of spiritual insight. Like Saint Paul, his grand teaching always was, “Live yourselves no longer, but let Christ live in you.” (Galatians 2:20) Every morning when he said his saintly and edifying Mass he prayed at the Consecration for the grace of one day shedding his blood for Jesus Christ. No wonder that he transformed the Seminary, and that many or the young men whom he had brought up afterwards died with joy for their Lord on the foreign missions. He used to love to speak of the Venerable Father Clet of his own Congregation, who died for the faith in China a few years ago. “What a lovely death! Pray that my end may be like his!” He showed the novices one day the bloodstained habit of his martyred con frere, and the rope which had strangled him. “What happiness for us if we had the same good fortune!” And he used to handle those precious relics of martyred priests, studying the stains of blood, his countenance all on fire, and his whole being drinking in the martyr’s inspiration. At last, as the years and months went on, he felt himself urged to try again. Mission aries were on the point of departing for China. He went and threw himself at the feet of the Superior, and begged him with tears no longer to oppose his vocation. Superior, doctor, and council at length gave in, and, chiefly through the influence of Pere Etienne, he obtained permission to start for China.

There are two dark abysses of heathenism yet on this earth; one is Central Africa, the other is China. The zealous servants of our Lord Jesus Christ are surrounding and penetrating Africa. As for China, conceive a population of more than 400 millions, an empire as large as all Europe put together; an un changing, rigid, ironbound civilisation. The Chinese discovered printing and gunpowder ages before Europe discovered them; they had banking and postal systems and competitive examinations when this country was barbarous. But the narrowness of their hearts has killed the acuteness of their minds. No nation can be large-hearted or progressive without certain moral qualities without God and the Incarnation. From very early times the messengers of light have penetrated into China. Speaking generally, it has been at all times death for a foreigner to teach religion to the Chinese. Yet the Jesuit Fathers, 300 years ago, were honoured as men of science at Pekin; the cathedral which stood till the other was built with money contributed by Louis XIV. Such great French names as Bouvet, Gerbillon, Gau-bil, Parennin, and Amyot made Christianity illustrious, even at the court of the emperor. But the dark spirit of barbarous intolerance put an end to this short period of light and hope. Churches were destroyed and Christians expelled. Up to a few years ago, a missionary to China knew that if it were known that he was a foreigner, he would probably be tortured, and certainly put to death. Yet the supply of soldiers of Christ has never ceased.

It was from the east side that the forces of the Cross made their assault on this great stronghold of Satan. The Corea, Annam, Siam these names recall hundreds of pages in the Annales de la Propagation de la Foi and the Missions Etrangeres, and bring to mind scores of devoted priests and many martyred confessors, both European and native. Our Saint, however, was not destined for the Corea, or Tonkin, or Annam, or Siam, but for the interior the land of the great delta of the Yellow River, the province of Honan. There, on the steps of the mountains which rise from the vast plain which the dark-coloured river too often lays waste in its impetuous course from the Great Wall to the Yellow Sea, he was to find a Christian colony.

We cannot follow his voyage from Havre to Macao, from Macao inland for a thousand miles. He bade adieu to his dear France with tears, but with a happy heart. On the ocean, when the loneliness was intense, or when the storms came on, he felt how sweet a thing it was to be with God, and to belong altogether to God. In the intervals of delay, when he was studying Chinese and preparing himself by fervent retreats for his work, his thought was always Jesus Christ. “Oh, that we had more missionaries! real missionaries! missionaries filled with that one science of Saint Paul the science of Christ crucified!” Once on his painful journey, when he came on the graves of his predeces sors, priests and bishops who had laid down their lives in the midst of their flock, he tells us how their spirit seemed to take hold upon him.

When he left the great river and toiled up the mountain sides, he would make the Way of the Cross! no missionary ever makes progress along any other way. As he realised more and more the immense distances and the teeming population of the great empire, he would exclaim, “May God multiply missionaries! The conversion of China depends on the prayers of the Christians of Europe. . . . Oh, that all would enrol themselves in the Association for the Propagation of the Faith! Your brethren cry to you!” “Send us Francis Xaviers,” he exclaims, “in order that this vast empire may become the heritage of the Lord!”

I wish I had time to show you the Apostle at work. Imagine to yourselves a kind of mountain-parish, eight or ten miles long and not quite so broad. The number of Christians (in Hou-peh, where he laboured last) would be about 2000; the Pagans very few. In the middle of the district stood the mission-house. Night and day the priest had to be ready; Chinese converts are very fearful of dying without the sacraments. On the festivals of the Church there would be crowds for confession and communion; three priests would be kept hard at work. Every day there would be many fathers of families and pious women at Mass. On Sundays the whole district would crowd in. There would be morning prayers, catechism, holy Mass, sermon, and catechism for the children. Then some would go away, but many would remain all day, and the Rosary would go on till afternoon, and there would then be the Way of the Cross, confraternities, and a renewal of that perpetual catechism. Or there would be that kind of conference which is peculiar to the missions in a land of few books; that is to say, the subject would have been given out the week before, ten or twelve native catechists or young scholars would take part as best they could, and the whole would be wound up by the priest. Like the crowds in the desert, these gatherings would seem to forget the requirements of the body, and the worn-out priest would go on giving the sacraments, interviewing this one and that one, and even performing the functions of a magistrate, till far on into the night. The church was only four mud walls, with a straw roof and bare flags; the altar a common table with a canopy over it. But the living stones of the Church were there the souls of men; and the strong foundations and walls of the world-wide Church of Christ and Christ Himself in the midst of His flock.

Thus the Blessed Gabriel laboured. His toilsome journeys never ceased. From home to home he went, from family to family, devoting himself to these poor people whose poverty and wretchedness were extreme, and who had no hope or comfort except in religion. He had a peculiar feeling that God watched over the dying hours of these poor Chinese who gave themselves up to him. He used to feel as if he would like to die himself, abandoned by all, in some obscure corner of the hills; and he said that no one could be really desolate or alone who placed himself in the hearts of Jesus and Mary.

And all this time his personal austerities never ceased. He had to endure heat, fatigue, and dirt; but besides that he wore an iron girdle round his waist! Think of that, you who seek consolation after every little act of God’s service! And God sent him now one of those supreme trials which finally cleanse the soul, and prepare it for union. He was already purified and detached from sensible things; now his whole mind and will were to be purged from the last relics of self. He experienced the torment of despair that awful darkness of the soul, which in one moment seems to shut out God even from the saints of God; that participation of the Agony in the Garden, which is the hardest of all things to bear. But he clung the faster to Christ. It was not an Angel who came, but Jesus Christ Himself. “Why are you fearful? Have I not died for you? Place your hand in My side and cease to fear you will be lost.” Then comfort came back, and he was himself again.

How the persecution broke out in Hou-peh is not easy to say. The viceroys of the provinces in this enormous empire have much power; so have the superior mandarins. Where everything is done by corruption and bribery, local persecutions (considering the state of the standing laws) are naturally to be expected. It was on Sunday the Octave of the Nativity of our Lady, the feast of her Holy Name, 1839, just as the last Mass was ending, that the Chinese soldiers burst in on the humble church. The blessed confessor escaped for the moment, but a day or two afterwards, like his Divine Master, he was betrayed. He was dragged before a mandarin.

He is now at the beginning of his conflict. Behold him kneeling before the Chinese magistrate, kneeling on a chain, with no other clothing but a few filthy rags, a chain round his neck, his hands tied behind him, and the soldiers from time to time tugging at his ears and hair to make him look up at his judge. This was the hour he had thought of; the hour he had dimly foreseen, when in his youth he had prayed to Saint Francis Xavier to obtain for him the grace of being a missionary; the hour he had shrinkingly longed for in those moments of quiet prayer in the early mornings in the Rue de Sevres before Paris was awake; the hour that had beckoned to him on the lonely ocean. It had come at last!

The grace of martyrdom is, in itself, the greatest of graces. But this is true rather because the heart is willing than because the flesh is racked. Jesus died amid sufferings more intense than those of the martyrs. But it was because they intensified the love and the sacrifice of His Sacred Heart, and not by any virtue of mere pain that His sufferings saved the world, and formed the deep ocean of all merit, from whose abundance man obtains merit. Martyrdom is first an act of the will. The martyr has generally been prepared for his holocaust by a long course of fervent acceptance. The aspirations of childhood, the discipline of youth, the mature prayer of manhood, the practice of humility, the love of self-denial, above all, personal devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus these have been the elements of his apprenticeship. When the moment comes, it finds him already a martyr in heart. The sudden appearance of the Cross is no sickening disappointment, no hideous change, no despairing crisis. To him the presence of the judge and of the executioner is the natural end of his path. It is where his steps have been leading him. The flesh may shrink. Our martyr used to read to his neophytes in the Hou-peh mountains the Acts of the Early Martyrs. He also read in the Annales de la Propagation de la Foi the story of the frightful tortures of certain missionaries in Cochin-China. It was observed that this made a deep impression on him, and that he shuddered, as if he could imagine what it would be to suffer thus. “Those refinements of barbarity,” he said, “made nature tremble, but when the moment came, God was sure to give the grace to bear them!”

The time was come when the truth of those words would have to be proved. The Cross was before him; the Cross, not in the form in which it comes to most of us; not in the shape of mere trouble, annoyance, or bearable pain, but in all its genuine and real character, with all its violence, its physical torture and its blood.

There is a letter of the Blessed Martyr’s, a letter stained with his own blood, written from his last prison. In that letter he mentions that he was questioned before judges and magistrates no less than twenty-six times in five months. These interrogatories meant torture, and torture so ingenious, so fiendish, so relentless, that nothing we read of in the acts of the early martyrs can surpass it. The confessor was asked why he came, or was commanded to name all his fellow Christians, or to trample on the crucifix. And then came the torture. It is well to recall these things, though our flesh may shrink. I could not indeed go through one-fourth part of what he endured; it would be too dreadful. But let us remember that in every one of these questionings there were such horrors as the beating of his face, the being hung up for hours by the hands, the being tied and jerked for hours till the bones were dislocated, the being compelled to kneel for four hours at a time on iron chains, and flagellation often repeated by one of the most barbarous instruments of punishment that fiendish ingenuity has ever invented. Then, when it was over for a time, there was the fetid prison, the long hours of burning pain, the company of the worst of men. Add to this, again, the moral torture when he saw his dear Christians apostatise, when he had to listen to calumnies, blasphemies, and filth. I have gone through it; it is all written down now; I do not invent or imagine. It ought, indeed, to stir our hearts, to shame our tepidity, to rebuke our self-indulgence, to think that a man whom we might ourselves have known, has stood firm through such a trial of his constancy. Here indeed was the Cross, and the power of the Cross.

And it was fitting that it should be that beloved Cross of his Master itself that was to be the very test and touchstone of his faith and love. The usual demand that was addressed to him at the interrogatories was to trample on the Crucifix. He would reply, “To my death will I never deny my Faith or dishonour the Cross”. They would bring in the Crucifix, these cold, clever, relentless heathens, and put it before him: “If you will tread under foot the God Whom you adore, you shall go free”. Then the eyes of the heroic confessor would fill with tears, and he would say with the deepest feeling, “How could I? How could I? Dishonour my God, my Saviour, my Creator!” And stooping with great difficulty, for his body was all bruised, he would take hold of the sacred image, press it to his heart and to his lips, kissing it in the tenderest way, and watering it with his tears.

And once one of the gaolers took it from him and spat upon it. Then the holy priest cried out loud with pain and horror, “Anything but that! Anything but that!” And when they thereupon seized him and beat him unmercifully, the blows were sweet in comparison with what he suffered when his Saviour was insulted. One mandarin, in pity to him, had a cross traced upon the floor, and then made them drag him over it. But he kept crying out, “It is not I, it is not I! It is you who profane the holy sign, not I!”

Some of you have seen the striking representation of his martyrdom. His arms were tied over a cross; his legs were bent and his feet tied behind the upright of the cross, so that he seems to be fastened up in a kneeling attitude. Thus he was strangled. Then, at the very time of his martyrdom, as we are told on the authority of eye-witnesses, a great luminous cross appeared in the heavens; it was seen at the same moment by numbers of Christians and Pagans, in many different places. It was a faint shadow of that triumph which the Cross had won in the death of Jean Gabriel Perboyre.

One more soul had ascended to the feet of Jesus Christ in the power of the Cross. But the mystery of the Cross, if it is the secret of the triumph of a soul, is also the secret of the salvation of the world. Look at the multitude of the heathen, in darkness yet in the shades of death; fighting, poor ignorant beings, against the hand that would heal them, raging against the charitable bands that would save them. When God will gather them in wa know not. It sometimes takes much blood, much suffering, to win a nation. There have been nations, like Ireland, converted with out blood-shedding. But the martyrdom had been gone through before; in the Roman amphitheatres, in the mines and quarries of the Crimea, had been shed the blood and uttered the prayers which won success for the preaching of Saint Patrick. So will the blood which has fallen on the soil of China plead for mercy for her. Do not think that a martyr perishes and is forgotten. No! Not a drop of his blood! not a hair of his head! not a grain of his dust! It is all counted, and it is part of the royal ransom, made royal and precious by the Blood of Jesus, which is to be the price of countless graces yet to come. May God hasten the day! And for us, my brethren, this martyrdom is light, and encouragement, and strength. Who is worth serving but only Jesus! Surely this career makes us feel the secret of God’s mystery! Neither money, nor genius, nor strength can move the universe, but only the Cross. Neither kings, nor parliaments, nor demonstrations but only the Cross. Neither words, nor the press, nor art, nor science but only the Cross. Live for the Cross!

And work and pray for the missionaries. There are many priests, many religious orders, engaged in preaching the Gospel to the heathen. In China itself there are now some twenty-four vicariates. Of all the bodies of men who have laboured and laid down their lives for China, there are none who have been braver or more persistent than the children of Saint Vincent of Paul, to whom Blessed John Gabriel belonged, and in one of whose churches we are celebrating his beatification. Do you think that this glorious career has not given them new inspirations and renewed spirit of sacrifice? It is indeed a splendid grace that one of themselves one who but lately knelt on the benches of their novitiate and trod the corridors of their house in Paris one who lived like they live, and prepared himself by the prayer, and regularity, and labour, and modesty which they practise should have been placed among God’s blessed Martyrs! May his spirit animate them, and his prayers sustain them. And may those venerated Sisters of Charity, Saint Vincent’s other army of apostles in a different sense, themselves be filled with all the joy of this day. He used to send word home for the prayers of the Sisters. Ah! how many prayers, and how fervent prayers, and how much labour, and how many acts of self-denial, were offered for him; and who can say how much of the victory of those long months of torture was owing to the prayers of the Sisters of Charity!

May God be praised for the triumph of the Cross in this day’s solemnity. Let us join in the Mass and the Te Deum; let us invoke the prayers of the Blessed Martyr; and let us resolve, with God’s help, both to take up the Cross of Jesus Christ and to do our best, by prayer and sacrifice, that that Cross may be carried to the uttermost bounds of the earth.

– this sermon was preached in the Church of Saint Vincent, Sheffield, England during the Triduo in honour of the beatification of Saint John Gabriel Perboyre, 1 June 1890, by Bishop John Edward Cuthbert Hedley