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March 9, 2003|
First Sunday of Lent
Théophane was born on November 21, 1829, on the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in Saint-Loup-sur-Thouet, in the diocese of Poitiers, France. Baptized the same day, he received the first names Jean-Théophane, but kept only the latter, which means «manifestation of God.» His parents were fervent Catholics. Two years before Théophane, a little Mélanie had come to gladden the household. Two other boys, Henri and Eusèbe, would complete the family.
Théophane became an altar boy, and looked with secret envy upon the priest who had baptized him, officiating at the altar. His mother had explained to him what the Mass and the priesthood were. But Jesus Christ's call, «Follow me!» would echo more strongly when he was 9, in the solitude of the hillside in Bel-Air, where the boy led his father's goat to graze while he read The Propagation of the Faith Review, a magazine that recounted the deeds of missionaries. One day, he finished the life of Father Cornay, a native of the diocese of Poitiers who was decapitated for the faith in Tonkin (present-day Vietnam) in 1837. Théophane exclaimed, «I want to go to Tonkin, too! I want to die a martyr, too!» He had made his decision.
Théophane kept his secret to himself and asked his father if he could continue on to secondary school. In 1841, he entered the school in Doué, 50 kilometers from Saint-Loup. Though this separation from the family he loved dearly was heartbreaking for him, he was soon among the best in his class. When he was with his friends, he was sometimes given to mockery, irascible and quick-tempered, losing his temper at the slightest provocation. Like every boy his age, Théophane experienced highs and lows, but at this time, reprimands were more common than praise. Enlightened by the grace of God, he guessed that nothing was obtained without suffering or prayer. He also wrote to his sister Mélanie: «I have made a resolution that I want to tell you about. It is to say my Rosary every week.» Thanks to the help of this Marian prayer within the means of all, he gradually succeeded in mending his ways.
He made his First Communion on April 28, 1842, a heavenly day for him. The truths of the faith strengthened his soul and helped him to endure a very difficult trial without failingthat of his mother's death on January 11, 1849. He could find comfort only by throwing himself into the arms of the Blessed Virgin.
«May nothing hold you back!»
In March 1851, Théophane entered the Seminary for Foreign Missions in Paris. On April 26, a short letter went out to his family. «Such news could not suffer a day's delayI will be a priest on Trinity Sunday!» But he soon fell ill with a paratyphoid fever. After a novena to the Most Blessed Virgin, danger was quickly averted. Nevertheless, his entire life would be marked by periods of poor health.
On June 5, 1851, he was ordained a priest at the age of 22. He celebrated his first Mass at Our Lady of Victories, but no one came from Saint-Loup. The sacrifice had been made once and for all. From then on, his most ardent desires were for Tonkin. «The mission in Tonkin is the envied mission, since it offers the shortest means to go to Heaven... Oh! If only one day I, too, were called to offer my blood as a witness to the faith!» In September 1852, Théophane celebrated his last Mass in France, and left on mission for China, in accordance with the will of his superiors.
«Let's not waste our time!»
Théophane expressed this great concern to his friend, Father Dallet: «Mother China and her daughters Korea, Japan and Cochin-China [modern Vietnam] must bend the knee before Christ.» However, he was not deluded. «The burden of the missions seems heavy to me, now that I am seeing it up close... I hope that at the moment that I must go, God's strength will help my weakness, and the light of His grace will help my inexperience.»
While he was getting ready to leave for China, a letter arrived for him from Paris, announcing, «You have been given Tonkin.» This was for him an inexpressible joy. «I have received my travel order for Tonkin... I am going to a part they call West Tonkin. It is there that Venerable Charles Cornay was martyred... In this Annamese land, where the persecution is the most active, a price has been put on every missionary's head, and when someone can seize one, he is decapitated without further ado.»
On May 26, 1854, Théophane left Hong Kong and arrived on July 13 in Vinh-Tri, the center of the vicariate of West Tonkin. He threw himself into the arms of the Apostolic Vicar, Bishop Retord. Approximately twenty-two months after having left Paris, his missionary apostolate began. Vinh-Tri was a village that had been entirely Christian for a century. Missionaries were openly received there, thanks to the benevolence of Viceroy Hung. This governor, father-in-law of the emperor Tu-Duc, had been cured of an eye disease by a Tonkinese seminarian, and consequently protected the Christians in his province. A seminary and various institutions lived and developed without being disturbed.
«Three cheers for joy anyway!»
The bishop soon determined how valuable «Little Father Vénard» was. The liveliness of this newcomer, who most gladly laughed and sang, corresponded to his own mentality. Théophane, who had to learn the local language, worked with such a tenacious will that he could soon preach in Vietnamese. He liked everything in Tonkin, which made it easier for him to adapt. However, the food did not sit well with his stomach, and caused him a great deal of suffering. What did it matter? He was the first to laugh about it. Nevertheless, his health was again a cause of concern. He became weaker, in spite of the care lavished on him, and soon he had to be given Extreme Unction. They began a novena to obtain a cure for him; from the first invocations, the sick man felt well again. Without delay, he got down to businessbaptisms, preaching, confessions.
«The missionary is a person of the Beatitudes,» Pope John Paul II reminds us. «Before sending out the Twelve to evangelize, Jesus, in his 'missionary discourse' (cf. Mt. 10), teaches them the paths of mission: poverty, meekness, acceptance of suffering and persecution, the desire for justice and peace, charityin other words, the Beatitudes, lived out in the apostolic life (cf. Mt 5:1-12). By living the Beatitudes, the missionary experiences and shows concretely that the kingdom of God has already come, and that he has accepted it. The characteristic of every authentic missionary life is the inner joy that comes from faith» (Encyclical Redemptoris missio, December 7, 1990, no. 91).
The relative peace of the Tonkin mission did not last. The central government badgered mandarins (local functionaries) to track down priests. Fathers Castex and Vénard hid in the village of But-Dong, where they were received by a small community of Vietnamese nuns, the «Lovers of the Cross,» who until that time had never been worried. There, he could at least celebrate Mass and continue his missionary activity through prayer.
The nuns in But-Dong, who did not wear distinctive dress, worked in the fields or went from village to village selling remedies, which allowed them a way into pagan homes. They were trustworthy messengers among the various Christians, but their life was difficult and dangerous. To escape the mandarins' searches, the two Fathers hid between two partitions, waiting for the danger to pass. After several days, they left But-Dong. In a matter of weeks, they would change hiding places six times. In these travels on foot, Théophane fell ill again. He dragged himself along with great difficulty. Terrible asthma attacks weakened him so that his companion feared seeing him die of asphyxiation in an airless nook. But Bishop Retord was in Vinh-Trithere, Théophane could be cared for. They stretched him out, almost dead, in the bottom of a boat where, panting and trying to breathe, he never lost his smile. He received last rites again, but did not delude himself. «I am holding on to life by just a thread. Three cheers for joy anyway!» Nevertheless, the cool of autumn revived him to some degree.
Only suffering gives birth to souls
With the winter months, his strength returned enough that Bishop Retord decided to take Théophane with him on his pastoral rounds. They visited one parish after another. The missionaries preached, heard confessions, administered the sacraments, reconciled with God those who had fallen, and encouraged all the faithful to improve. «He was never more fervent or more eloquent than when he was talking about the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom he loved, it was plain to see, with filial love,» attested Father Thinh during the process of beatification.
But the rainy season of 1856 was the occasion of a new illnessthis time it was consumption, or tuberculosis, that made him consider imminent death. The bishop, upset, no longer knowing what to do, allowed Théophane to undergo a very painful Chinese medical intervention in which various well-determined parts of the patient's body were burned with little balls of an herbal medicine. During this painful procedure, Théophane held his crucifix with both hands, and did not let out a single groan. Before long, the illness lost ground. His immediate prayer, «to have enough strength to preach the Gospel,» was heard. He was going to be able to return to the active missionary life that he would lead for about three years until his arrest. His bishop testified to this: «I said that he had tremendous zeal. Even though he had the poorest health of all the missionaries in the vicariate, he did as much as all the others, often spending half the night in the confessional, sometimes even whole nights. His confidence in God was limitless and made him bold in his endeavors.»
A year of graces
Thus was he armed for the final battles. He took refuge in the home of the widow Can, but a cousin of hers informed the police, and he was arrested on November 30, 1860. His vestments were taken away, and he was led away, tied up, while he continued to pray and prepare himself for martyrdom. Locked in a narrow wooden cage, he was transferred to the citadel in Hanoi. There, the viceroy himself came to interrogate him. Then, he gave ordersto build a more spacious bamboo cage, put a mosquito net around it, place a mat on the floor, forge as light a chain as possible for the priest, and see to it that the prisoner was decently fed. During the interrogation, Father Théophane had, in fact, made the best impression, and it was because of this that these relative comforts were granted him.
The catechist Kang who had been captured with the Father was not separated from his teacher. Thanks to a soldier's complicity, Théophane obtained some paper, ink and a brush. He wrote to his confreres and his family: «If I obtain the grace of martyrdom, I will remember you especially. Let us meet in Heaven! We will see each other above!» He did not know that his father had passed away fifteen months before.
His final judgment took place in Hanoi. He entered the courtroom and was given the honor of not being whipped. In their questionings, the various judges, mixing religion and politics, tried to make the missionary responsible for the bombing of Annamese coasts by a French-Spanish squadron, or even for riots generated by the emperor Tu-Duc's actions. Théophane calmly refuted these slanders to bring the debate back to its real basishe had come to Tonkin only to preach Jesus' religion. They placed a crucifix in his hands. «Trample the Cross underfoot,» the viceroy told him, «and you will not be put to death!» At that, the missionary raised the crucifix in his hands with respect, placed his lips upon it for a long time, then exclaimed in a loud voice, «What! I have preached the faith of the Cross till this day, and now you want me to renounce it? I do not value life in this world so much that I wish to preserve it at the cost of an apostasy!» The viceroy uttered the following sentence: «The European priest Vin, whose real name is «Véna,» is condemned, on account of his blindness of heart and obstinacy of spirit, all other cause being dismissed, to having his head severed, then displayed for three days, and then thrown into the river.»
The execution of the verdict required Tu-Duc's signature. On Monday, December 17, 1860, a courier set out for Huê to carry a copy of the decision there. But the condemned did not officially know his fate until a few hours before the execution of the sentence, on February 2. Théophane's new cage, two meters long and a meter high, was beautiful and ornate. But what torment to stay in this narrow space! The guards themselves, won over by the captive's affability, allowed him to go out of it from time to time. He had other friends as wellPaul Muïn, a fearless Christian who had slipped into the police, could see Father Théophane four or five times a day.
A calm lake
The morning of February 2, Father Théophane learned that he was going to be executed that very day. He thanked God, asked the Blessed Virgin to help him until the end, then, dressed in a feast day habit, walked joyfully to be executed, singing the Magnificat. The executioner, who had had a drink to give himself courage, had to make five attempts to detach the martyr's head with a saber. It seemed that with the third blow, Théophane was already in Heaven, in a joy without end... This was what he wanted with all his soul. He was happy beyond all measure.
Théophane Vénard's example, particularly his way of accepting his martyrdom, was a valuable aid to Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus. The future Doctor of the Church drew light and strength from it.
The day after Théophane Vénard's canonization (June 19, 1988), Pope John Paul II, speaking to French pilgrims, said, «Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus was on intimate terms with Saint Théophane Vénard, whose picture never left her as she suffered the pangs of death. She had recognized her own spiritual experience in a farewell letter by Théophane: 'I do not rely on my own strength, but on the strength of Him who defeated the power of Hell and of the world through the Cross.'»
We entrust to these two great figures of recent Church history all your intentions, including your deceased.