February 11, 1998

[This letter in English]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Esta carta en español]


February 11, 1998
Our Lady of Lourdes

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

"Missionary evangelization constitutes the first service which the Church can render to each man and to all of humanity at the present hour  The number of those who do not know Christ and who are not part of the Church increases continually  With regard to the immense number of men whom the Father loves and for whom He has sent His Son, the urgency of the missions is obvious" (John Paul II, May 18, 1997).

"Nevertheless, some people wonder: Is missionary work among non-Christians still relevant? Has it not been replaced by interreligious dialogue? Is not human development an adequate goal of the Church's mission? Does not respect for conscience and for freedom exclude all efforts at conversion? Is it not possible to attain salvation in any religion?  The call to conversion which missionaries address to non-Christians is called into question or passed over in silence; it is seen as an act of `proselytizing'; it is claimed that it is enough to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion, that it is enough to build communities capable of working for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity" (John Paul II, Encyclical Redemptoris missio, RM, December 7, 1990, no. 4 and 46).

The door of baptism

These objections against the missions find favorable ground in "a widespread indifferentism, which, sad to say, is found also among Christians." This mentality is often "based on incorrect theological perspectives and is characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that `one religion is as good as another'" (RM, 36). In opposition to such a mentality, Vatican Council II declared: "God Himself has made known to the human race how men by serving Him can be saved and reach happiness in Christ. We believe that this one true religion continues to exist in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus entrusted the task of speading it among all men when He said to the apostles: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Mt 28: 19-20). All men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace it and hold on to it as they come to know it" (Dignitatis humanæ, 1).

That is why the Council added elsewhere: "The reason for missionary activity lies in the will of God, who wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, Himself a man, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for all (I Tim 2: 4-5), neither is their salvation in any other (Acts 4: 12). Everyone, therefore, ought to be converted to Christ, who is known through the preaching of the Church, and they ought, by Baptism, to become incorporated into Him, and into the Church which is His Body. Christ Himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism (cf. Mk 16: 16; Jn 3: 5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door" (Ad gentes, 7).

Man proposes, but God disposes

By canonizing Bishop Siméon Berneux, along with 102 Korean martyrs, on May 6, 1984, Pope John Paul II presented the Church with the heroic example of a missionary bishop martyred for the faith.

Born in Château-du-Loir (Sarthe, France), on May 14, 1814, ordained a diocesan priest in 1837, he entered the Foreign Mission Society in Paris in 1839. On January 13, 1840, Father Berneux left for the Far East. At Manilla, he met Bishop Retord, apostolic vicar of Tonkin (Vietnam). The two missionaries became friends immediately. Both men were afire with zeal for the salvation of souls!

On January 17, 1841, Bishop Retord along with Fathers Berneux, Galy and Taillandier, went over to Tonkin. After a few adventures, the missionaries dispersed. Father Berneux settled at Yen-Moï, close to a small convent of nuns, the "Lovers of the Cross" (Amantes de la Croix); there, he studied the Annamite language. "Even though I can take no more than six steps, receive sunlight just through a small opening 15 centimeters from the ground, and need to lie flat down on my mat in order to write, I am the happiest of men," he wrote. However, threats weigh heavy on the young missionary; he is obliged to go from one hiding place to another. Bishop Retord was affected and asked Fathers Berneux and Galy to join Father Masson in the province of Nghe-An.

It was prudent for the bishop to move his young missionaries to a relatively secure place; but it was too late, for their presence had already been revealed at Nam-Dinh, the mandarin's residence. During the night of Holy Saturday, a troop of five hundred soldiers came to surround the hiding places of the two missionaries. That evening, Father Berneux had heard a few confessions: "These were the firstfruits of my apostolate on Annamite soil; they were also the last. The designs of God are impenetrable, but always worthy of adoration."

At dawn on Easter Sunday, he celebrated Mass as usual. He had hardly finished when the soldiers invaded the cabin and seized him. "I felt great joy," he would write later, "when I found myself being dragged along just like our Saviour was from the garden of Olives to Jerusalem." He and Father Galy, who was also captured, were immediately taken prisoners. Locked inside cages, and laden with the traditional chains, they left for Nam-Dinh, joyfully expressing their faith in Jesus Christ: "Here," the pagans say, "when someone carries the chain, he is sad; but you, why do you seem to be so happy?" - "It is because we who follow the true religion, which is that of Jesus, we possess a secret that you do not know of," answered Father Berneux. "That secret changes sorrow into joy. It is because we love you that we have come to teach it to you." The "secret" referred to by the missionary is the light of faith, source of hope and joy. "The characteristic of every authentic missionary life is the inner joy that comes from faith. In a world tormented and oppressed by so many problems, a world tempted to pessimism, the one who proclaims the `Good News' must be a person who has found true hope in Christ" (RM, 91).

What joy!

Soon began the interrogations. The mandarin was hoping to obtain some information, but Father Berneux betrayed none of those who helped him to hide. Three young Annamite Christians who had been imprisoned and beaten were brought in: "These men are going to die. Advise them to abandon your religion for a month. Afterwards they will be allowed to practice it freely, and their lives will be saved." - "Mandarin," answered Father Berneux, "one does not urge a father to immolate his children; and you are asking a priest of the Religion of Jesus to advise Christians to apostasize?" Then, turning towards his beloved neophytes: "Friends, just one advice: think that your sufferings are coming to an end, whereas the happiness awaiting you in Heaven is eternal. Prove worthy of it by your constancy." - "Yes, Father," they promised. - "What then is this other life of which you speak to them?" asked the mandarin with a sneer. "Do all Christians then have a soul?" - "Without a doubt, and so do pagans. You have one, Mandarin."

In fact, Vatican II teaches: "All men are endowed with a rational soul and are created in God's image; they have the same nature and origin and, being redeemed by Christ, they enjoy the same divine calling and destiny  When man recognizes in himself a spiritual and immortal soul , he grasps what is profoundly true in reality" (Gaudium et spes, 29 and 14). This soul is called to contemplate "in full light, God Himself triune and one, exactly as He is" (Vat. II, Lumen gentium, 49), as long as it merited it here below. For, as Saint Benedict teaches, in order to dwell in the kingdom of Heaven, "unless we run thither with good deeds, we shall not arrive  Therefore our hearts and bodies must be made ready to fight under the holy obedience to God's commands  if we would escape the pains of Hell and reach eternal life while there is still time" (Rule, Prologue).

On May 9, 1841, Father Berneux was transferred to the prison of Hue, capital of Annam. With his legs squeezed together by vines, he had to live stretched out on the bare ground. Again he was interrogated. "Trample this cross!" he was commanded. - "When it's time to die," he cried, "I will present my head to the executioner. But when you command me to deny my God, I will always resist." - "I will have you beaten to death," threatened the mandarin. - "Strike if you will!" retorted the saint. Father Berneux would later declare: "What a joy to suffer for our great God!"

On October 8, Fathers Berneux and Galy were informed of their death penalty. On December 3, 1842, the royal signature sanctioned the verdict. Suddenly, a dramatic turn of events: on March 7, 1843, a French corvette commander, having heard that five of his fellow countrymen had been wallowing for two years in the Hue prisons, demanded their liberation. On March 12, their chains were broken and they were handed over to the commander. This liberation deprived them of the martyrdom which they were so close to obtaining, and also of the hope of going back to Annam, in order to respect the word given by the French officer.

But Father Berneux would not stop. He prepared for other horizons. The missionary vocation is a "special vocation," patterned on that of the Apostles. "It is manifested in a total commitment to evangelization, a commitment which involves the missionary's whole person and life, and demands a self-giving without limits of energy or time" (RM, 65).

In October 1843, Father Berneux was sent to Manchuria, a province of North China. He was to work there for ten years, in spite of bad health (typhoid fever, cholera). On August 5, 1854, Pius IX named him Bishop of Korea. "Korea," wrote the new bishop, "that land of martyrs, how could I refuse to go!" In company of two missionary priests, Bishop Berneux embarked on a Chinese junk for Shanghai, on January 4, 1856. Until March 4, they had to live hidden in the narrow hold. Having arrived at the small island, they waited six days for the Christians' bark. Then they once again took to sea and, a week later, they arrived by night in a secret residence, just a few kilometers from the capital, satisfied with having deceived the surveillance of the coast guards. Indeed, Korea was forbidden to all foreigners under pain of death.

The driving force of mission

The bishop went immediately to work: first of all, he learned the Korean language. He then undertook to visit the Christians, not only in Seoul but also in the surrounding countryside and mountains; then he started a seminary, opened a school for boys, installed a printing press, etc. "The Church has always been able to generate among the peoples she evangelizes a drive toward progress  The missionaries, by their loving presence and humble service to peoples, work for the integral development of individuals and of society through schools, health-care centers, leprosaria, homes for the handicapped and elderly, projects for the promotion of women and other similar apostolates  It is these `works of charity' that reveal the soul of all missionary activity: love, which has been and remains the driving force of mission" (RM, 58 and 60).

Bishop Berneux saw also to the mission's future by choosing a successor, with the Holy See's agreement, in the person of Father Daveluy, who was consecrated bishop on March 25, 1857 in Seoul. In spite of the hardest conditions for the apostolate (clandestinity, extreme poverty, periodic local persecutions ), under the government of Bishop Berneux, the number of baptized Christians went up from 16,700 in 1859 to 25,000 in 1862. The Bishop's preaching bore its fruit. In fact, "the proclamation of the word of God has Christian conversion as its aim: a complete and sincere adherence to Christ and His Gospel through faith. Conversion is a gift of God, a work of the Blessed Trinity. It is the Spirit who opens people's hearts so that they can believe in Christ and `confess Him' (cf. 1 Cor 12: 3)  From the outset, conversion is expressed in faith which is total and radical, and which neither limits nor hinders God's gift  Conversion means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming His disciple. The Church calls all people to this conversion " (RM, 46).

Conversion to Christ and to His Church leads to Baptism. Through this sacrament, "the salvation which Jesus brought us penetrates into the deepest part of the person, by freeing it from the domination of the Evil One, from sin and eternal death" (John Paul II, May 18, 1997). Baptism is the door to the other sacraments and gives men a particularly efficacious, even necessary, supernatural help to get to Heaven.

In 1864, a palace revolution and the threat of a Russian attack on Korea (January 1866), interrupted the apostolic labor of the missionaries and excited anti-Christian hatred. On February 23, 1866, a troop surrounded the bishop's house: five men entered. The bishop received them: "You are European?" asked the leader. - "Yes, but why have you come here?" - "By order of the King, we have come to arrest the European." - "So be it!" They then bound him and led him away. On the 27th, Bishop Berneux appeared before the Minister of the Kingdom and two Grand Judges. They asked him how, where and with whom he had come into Korea. "Do not ask the bishop that," answered Bishop Berneux. - "If you do not answer, according to the law, we can inflict many torments upon you." - "As much as you like, I am not afraid."

From the 3rd to the 7th of March, Bishop Berneux each day underwent interrogation in the courtyard of the Noblemen's Prison. In the midst of this courtyard, he was attached to a high wooden chair. The "Journal of the Court" mentions that "question torture" was inflicted on the bishop at each interrogation; for him, "the torture was interrupted either at the tenth or the eleventh round," which means that ten or eleven times, he received heavy blows on the legs with a large, triangular stick. The bishop remained silent; he just uttered a long sigh at each blow. Unable to move, he was transported to his cell, where the only care he received was an oily paper placed over his bare, fleshless legs.

Meanwhile, Fathers Just de Bretenières, Doric and Beaulieu were arrested: all three were interrogated and tortured. On March 7, the "Journal of the Court" published the following conviction: "As for the four European individuals, let them be delivered over to the military authority to be beheaded; their heads are to be hung up as a lesson for the crowds."

Heaven within handreach

The execution took place on March 8. As he left the prison, the bishop cried out: "So, we die in Korea: that's good!" At the sight of the assembled crowd, he sighed: "My God, how these poor people are to be pitied!" Pope John Paul II wrote: "The missionary is urged on by `zeal for souls,' a zeal inspired by Christ's own charity, which takes the form of concern, tenderness, compassion, openness, availability and interest in people's problems  Jesus loved everyone by offering them redemption and suffered when it was rejected" (RM, 89).

The bishop took advantage of each halt to speak of Heaven to the priests condemned with him. The place chosen for the martyrdom was a large sandy beach, on the banks of the Han River. The four hundred soldiers formed a circle and set up a mast in the center. The mandarin ordered the prisoners to be brought before him for condemnation. Then the prisoners were prepared. Their clothes were torn off; their ears, folded in two, were pierced with an arrow; their faces were sprinkled with water, then with quicklime which blinded them. After that, long sticks, held by the soldiers, were slid under the victims' shoulders, between their bound arms and backs. Then the march called "Hpal-Pang" proceeded around the arena: the bishop first, followed by the three missionaries. They did not utter a single word. At the signal, six executioners rushed towards the condemned prisoners and cried: "Let's go, let's kill these miserable fellows, let's slaughter them!" They then attached a strong rope to the bishop's hair, in order to bend his head forward. The executioner struck the bishop, but his head fell only at the second blow of the saber. All Heaven was festive to receive the martyr's soul into the infinite happiness of God. According to witnesses, the bishop was smiling at the moment of execution and even in death retained his smile.

All Christians are not called to give this supreme witness of martyrdom, nor are they all called to the missions. But "we can be authentic apostles and in a most fruitful manner, even inside the walls of our home, at our work, in a hospital bed, in the cloister of a monastery : what counts, is that the heart burn with divine charity which alone can transform into light, into fire and into new life for the entire Mystical Body, even to the utter ends of the earth, not only physical and moral sufferings, but also the pains of daily routine" (John Paul II, May 18, 1997).

Addressing herself to Our Lady of Victory, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus sang:

To the missionary's deeds

You have bound me for good,

Through prayer do we cleave,

Through suffering and love 

Ah! to bring souls up on high

A victim in Carmel will I be

To spread the sacred fire

Which Jesus lights for me!

May we imitate her zeal and burn with desire to save souls amidst our daily duties of state. Such is the grace we beseech the Queen of the Apostles and our glorious patron, Saint Joseph, to grant you. We also pray for all your beloved departed.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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