October 15, 1998

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


October 15, 1998
Saint Teresa of Avila

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

"Ever since the Christian faith was first preached in the Southeastern part of Asia (in the sixteenth century), the Church in Vietnam has suffered successive persecutions like those which affected the Western Church during the first three centuries. Thousands of Christians were martyred  The Gospel reminds us of the words with which Jesus Christ announced the persecutions His disciples would have to suffer  Jesus spoke quite openly to His Apostles: You shall be hated by all nations for My name's sake  but he that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved (Mt 24: 9, 13)" (John Paul II, Homily for the canonization of the 117 martyrs of Vietnam, on June 19, 1988). Saint Jean-Louis Bonnard, martyred in Nam-Dinh (Vietnam), on May 1, 1852, is one of the witnesses to the faith in the Far East.

"I want to be a priest"

Jean-Louis, the fifth of Gabriel Bonnard and Anne Bonnier's six children, was born on March 18, 1824. He was baptized that very day, in the Church of Saint Christot-en-Jarez (Loire, France). The family was very Christian. Evenings were spent reading and chatting; plans were also made: "I will become a mason," said the eldest; "I will be a miller," said the second. "I want to be a priest," declared Jean-Louis at five years of age. Early vocation! However, years went by, and Jean-Louis' plan did not change. The family rejoiced at the perspective of having one of the children become a priest, "but, what about studies?" asked the father, realistically. "And what about tuition?" The brothers gave this beautiful response: "We will do what we can, and we will all tighten our belts!"

Jean-Louis made his First Communion in 1836. In spite of his assiduousness, he had a hard time following catechism lessons. One of his schoolmates at that time describes him thus: "Pious, cheerful, calm character, peaceful, never angry; mediocre talent, maybe even less than mediocre." He was even unable to serve Mass, for he could not pronounce correctly the Latin responses. However, he obstinately repeated that he wanted to become a priest. At first, work in the boarding school was difficult. Often, losing patience with him, his teachers spoke hard words to him about his lack of aptitude and his feeble progress! Jean-Louis never lost heart.

Dreams of being a missionary

By dint of hard work, he made it to the minor seminary of Saint-Jodard. There, he was unanimously judged to be a good seminarian, almost too perfect, but a mediocre student. His extreme meekness drew him the rough jokes of scoffers. He never showed any impatience but sometimes he would show sadness. The following year, this young man with an angelic countenance began to be enthusiastic about the "Annals of the Propagation of the Faith," a periodical dedicated to making known the work of Catholic missionaries: he imagined the open fields, the great adventure, often dangerous, often dramatic. A visit from a former student of Saint-Jodard, Father Charrier, who had escaped from persecution in Vietnam where he had borne chains for several years, did but reinforce the young man's unusual plans. Until then, he would work assiduously, and he made progress: in rhetoric, he was average, and sometimes among the first!

By steps, Jean-Louis prepared his family to accept the will of God "wherever He would call him to serve." People noticed how, after his year of philosophy, he became bound with his fellow student, Jean-Baptiste Goutelle. At the end of vacation, both went to the major seminary in Lyon. Goutelle got ahead and went directly to the Foreign Missions Seminary in Paris. Jean-Louis hoped to be reunited with him soon. He first won the confidence of the priest who had prepared him for First Communion and who at the time was in the ministry in Lyon. This priest made a few objections in order to try his vocation. But nothing could shake his resolution.

Then, authorization had to be obtained from the Archbishop. A friend priest took care of it and succeeded. Jean-Louis thanked him and added: "You have been a good advocate, but the case was not hard: the diocese loses nothing from my departure; rather, it gains!"-"Hey! what are you going to do then in the missions," retorted the priest, "if you are good for nothing in your own diocese?"-"I want to be a martyr," answered the seminarian, "and I will do all that is allowed to get it. That is my ambition: seize the first palm of martyrdom that presents itself!" For many, only the earth counts: Eternity, Heaven, Hell, are of no importance. Jean-Louis, on the contrary, staked everything on Heaven and he saw things right. He did not desire death for itself, but he saw the sacrifice of his life as the most beautiful act of love towards God, by the supreme witness borne to Truth. He would write to his parents, shortly before his death: "When you receive this letter, you can be certain that my head will have fallen under the blade of the sword. I will be dead because of my Faith in Jesus Christ."

Witnesses to truth

Martyrs are witnesses to the truth. Jesus, King of martyrs, affirmed before Pilate: For this was I born, and for this came I into the world: that I should give testimony to the truth. Every one that is of the truth, heareth My voice (Jn 18: 37).-What is truth? retorted the Roman governor, doubting the existence of truth or the possibility of knowing it. Today still, many people, under the influence of ambient relativism, think that everything is a question of opinion, all of which are a priori of equal value, until efficiency or a decision of the majority sorts things out for a time.

If everything is of equal value and worth, if we cannot say that there is such a thing as truth and error, good and evil, if truth only lasts for a day, it is vain to let oneself be killed like the martyrs or even to accept constraint because of it. On the contrary, if there is a truth, if the harmony and the happiness of human order as well as the eternal salvation of souls depend upon a hierarchy of goods to be promoted and defended whatever happens, then this truth deserves disinterested, intelligent and tenacious self-sacrifice.

Each day we have experience of the existence of truth in the physical order. We are in the truth when our thought is in conformity with the reality of things; if not, we are in error. The role of sciences is precisely to describe the part of truth which concerns them. Ignorance of the laws it exposes gives rise to catastrophes. For example: a badly constructed bridge will soon fall. In the moral and religious order, too, truth exists. All men know this first truth: we must do good and avoid evil. Along with the other moral truths inscribed in the human conscience (honor thy father and thy mother, do not kill, do not steal ), it bears witness to the existence of a supreme and transcendent Truth: God. "When he listens to the voice of conscience, man can arrive at certainty about the existence of God, the cause and the end of everything," teaches the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, 46). In fact, the source of every truth and every good is found in God, the infinitely perfect Being and the Creator of all things. "The moral order-universal, absolute, and immutable in its principles-has its objective foundation in the true, transcendent and personal God, the first Truth and Sovereign Good, deepest source of vitality for an ordered and fruitful society, in conformity with the dignity of the persons which compose it" (John XXIII, Pacem in terris).

The only true good of man

However, the search for truth and adherence to it are left to man's freedom. God, indeed, created man free: "God willed that man should be left in the hand of his own counsel (Eccl 15: 14) so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to Him" (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 17). But man's freedom does not mean that he can create for himself the truth and moral norms and values, since he receives them from His Creator. According to the Christian faith, "only the freedom which submits to the truth leads the human person to his true good. The good of the person is to be in the truth and to do the truth" (John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis splendor, 84). Contemporary culture has, in large part, lost from view the essential bond between truth, good and freedom. "As a result," teaches Pope John Paul II, "helping man to rediscover it represents nowadays one of the specific requirements of the Church's mission for the salvation of the world. Pilate's question: What is truth? reflects the distressing perplexity of a man who often no longer knows who he is, whence he comes and where he is going. Hence we not infrequently witness the fearful plunging of the human person into situations of gradual self-destruction. According to some, it appears that one no longer need acknowledge the enduring absoluteness of any moral value  Indeed, something more serious has happened: man is no longer convinced that only in the truth can he find salvation. The saving power of the truth is contested, and freedom alone, uprooted from any objectivity, is left to decide by itself what is good and what is evil  It is no longer maintained that, when all is said and done, the law of God is always the one true good of man" (ibid.).

Out of consideration for human weakness, our Father in Heaven was good enough to provide us with supernatural help in order to bring us more surely and more rapidly to the knowledge of the truth. Indeed, God wished to reveal "those religious and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error" (CCC, 38). But there is another order of knowledge, which man cannot possibly arrive at by his own powers: the order of the truths of faith: "Through an utterly free decision, God has revealed Himself and given Himself to man. This He does by revealing the mystery, His plan of loving goodness, formed from all eternity in Christ, for the benefit of all men. God has fully revealed this plan by sending us His beloved Son Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit" (CCC, 50). That is why Our Lord said: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn 14: 6). He has called all men to Himself so that they might obtain eternal salvation: I am the door. By Me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved (Jn 10: 9). The martyrs have borne witness to the truth of Christ even unto death.

"Angelic soul"

At the end of summer vacation 1846, Jean-Louis Bonnard made ready to leave his family definitively: this was the first act of his martyrdom, for at the time, the departure of a missionary for the Far East was most often for good. After evening prayer, he asked his parents for their blessing. "But why?"-"It's because this year I must receive First Orders," he ventured, not yet wanting to announce his departure for the Foreign Missions Seminary. The next day, while leaving, he seemed much more moved than usual. He arrived in Paris on November 4.

In his new house, Jean-Louis was radiant with joy. An angel of peace, humble, modest, gifted with great charity towards all: that is what people said of him; undoubtedly, he owed these amiable virtues to his perfectly preserved baptismal innocence. Angel? His parents, hurt by his departure, did not agree. He tried to reassure them: "Don't imagine that as soon as I get to the infidels, I will be put to death  Alas! I am not worthy of an honor so great as that of dying for the Faith, a martyr of Jesus Christ! You should truly ask God this grace for me. But if the idea tires you, drive it away, for nowadays there are hardly any persecutions in the countries to which we are destined. To be convinced, just read, in the "Annals of the Propagation of the Faith," what concerns India, Malaysia, Manchuria and China." Why did he forget Vietnam? That is where he would be sent.

Ordained a priest on December 28, 1848, Jean-Louis left in February 1849 for Hong Kong. From there, he was sent to Tonkin (northern Vietnam) where, in April 1851, he was charged with two parishes. He wrote to his parents: "The inhabitants of this country are excellent people. The Christians love us very much and are wholeheartedly devoted to us  Let's talk about persecution, for you are not ignorant of the fact that here we are not perfectly at peace  What afflicts us the most is seeing our poor Christians persecuted and obliged to make the greatest sacrifices in order to maintain their Faith. Oh! If you but knew the hardships they must endure in order to become and remain Christian!"

Everyday martyrdom

Few are called to shed their blood; but each day, Christians are called to bear a consistent witness to their faith, even at the price of deep sufferings. Whenever the moral order willed by God is called into question or rejected by public opinion, fidelity to this order may give birth to numerous difficulties in the most ordinary circumstances. The Christian, sustained by the virtue of fortitude, is then called to a heroic commitment to remain faithful to God. He even comes "to love the difficulties of this world because of the eternal recompense" (St. Gregory the Great).

"Part of this daily heroism is the silent but effective and eloquent witness of all those brave mothers who devote themselves to their own family without reserve, who suffer in giving birth to their children and who are ready to make any effort, to face any sacrifice, in order to pass on to them the best of themselves. In living out their mission these heroic women do not always find support in the world around them. On the contrary, the cultural models frequently promoted and broadcast by the media do not encourage motherhood. In the name of progress and modernity the values of fidelity, chastity and sacrifice, to which a host of Christian wives and mothers have borne and continue to bear outstanding witness, are presented as obsolete " (John Paul II, Encyclical Evangelium vitæ, 86).

But if Christians have at heart to honor God and neighbor at the cost of real but often obscure daily crosses, they are absolutely determined to avoid breaking in any case God's law. "The Church proposes the example of numerous saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin. In raising them to the honor of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect His commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and refusal to betray those commandments, even for the sake of saving one's own life" (Encyclical Veritatis splendor, 91). Saint Ignatius of Loyola writes in his Spiritual Exercises: "The first kind of humility is necessary for salvation. It consists in this, that as far as possible I so subject and humble myself as to obey the law of God our Lord in all things, so that not even were I made lord of all creation, or to save my life here on earth, would I consent to violate a commandment, whether divine or human, that binds me under pain of mortal sin" (no. 165). The commandment of love of God and neighbor does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit beneath which the commandment is broken. There are kinds of behavior which can never, in any situation, be a proper response, a response which is in conformity with the dignity of the person. The limit beneath which the love of God and neighbor is violated, is what is forbidden by the negative commandments (for example: Thou shalt not commit adultery): these commandments oblige each and every individual semper et pro semper, always and in every circumstance (cf. Veritatis splendor, 52).

Hope confoundeth not!

In certain situations, fulfillment of God's law may be difficult; however, it is never impossible. "God does not command the impossible, but in commanding He admonishes you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot, and He gives His aid to enable you. His commandments are not burdensome (1 Jn 5: 3), His yoke is easy and His burden light" (Council of Trent, Session VI, ch. 11). "It is in the saving Cross of Jesus, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the sacraments which flow forth from the pierced side of the Redeemer, that believers find the grace and the strength always to keep God's holy law, even amid the gravest of hardships" (Veritatis splendor, 103).

So the spiritual horizon of hope is always before us; and hope confoundeth not (Rm 5: 5). Therefore, "it would be a very serious error to conclude that the Church's teaching is essentially only an `ideal' which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man  Of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ? This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ's Redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means that He has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; He has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence  God's command is of course proportioned to man's capabilities; but to the capabilities of the man to whom the Holy Spirit has been given; of the man who, though he has fallen into sin, can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit" (ibid.). In practice, it is above all in prayer that the strength of the Holy Spirit is given to us. That is why the Catechism teaches: "Prayer is a vital necessity  Nothing is equal to prayer; for what is impossible it makes possible, what is difficult, easy" (CCC, 2744).

"Prisoner for Christ!"

On March 1st, 1851, the emperor Tu Duc published an edict of persecution. While visiting the Christian community at Bôi-Xuyen in March 1852, Father Bonnard was arrested, having been denounced by a pagan mandarin, and was led to Nam-Dinh. He wrote to his Bishop, Mgr Retord, "Here I am in prison with the iron collar and chains during the night  I rejoice, thinking that Jesus' cross was much heavier than my iron collar, that the bonds which held Jesus were much more painful than my chain, and I am happy to say with Saint Paul: I am a prisoner for Christ  I am still quite young; I would have liked to help you and care for these dear Christians whom I love so much  Flesh and blood are sad, but does not Jesus in the Garden of Olives teach me to suffer, with patience and for love of Him, all the evils He sends me?"

Next came the interrogations. The missionary was asked where he lived: "Strike me at your ease, but do not hope to extract a word from me which might bring harm to Christians." They proposed that he trample under foot a Cross, otherwise he would be struck with a rattan cane and condemned to death: "I fear neither your cane nor death. To be such a coward, never! I have not come to deny my religion, nor will I give bad example to the Christians."

On April 8, Holy Thursday, Father Tinh, sent by Bishop Retord, brought Holy Communion to Father Bonnard: "Truly," he said, "one must be in prison with the iron collar over one's neck, in order to understand how sweet it is to receive one's God!" And he wrote to his parents: "Do not weep, I am glad to die thus. Our meeting place is on high. I await you there. Don't miss it." Beheaded on May 1, 1852, he gained entrance into infinite joy, and was welcomed forever by the Heavenly Court.

Let us follow in his footsteps, with immense confidence in the Most Blessed Virgin and Saint Joseph, by peaceful acceptance of the many little crosses of our ordinary existence. "Saint Jean-Louis Bonnard, we entrust to your care all those who are dear to us, living and departed!"

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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