Was St Peter Chanel Successful?
This challenging question and other themes were reflected upon by Fr Trevor Tindall SM in his homily at the National Shrine of St Peter Chanel in Russell, Bay of Islands on Thursday April 28th. The mass was concelebrated with Fr Barry Malone SM and Fr Kerry Prendeville SM, marking 175th anniversary of Saint’s martyrdom on Futuna Island.
The usually small local congregation was strengthened for the occasion by the parishioners from Moerewa, Paihia, Waitaruke, Kerikeri and Kaikohe amongst a few visitors. They all gathered for the Eucharistic celebration to recall, pray and give thanks to God for St. Peter Chanel; a patron saint of the Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Oceania.
Fr Trevor first highlighted three qualities that he had found significant in St Peter Chanel:
- Courage: Having Tthe strength, fortitude and conviction to take on the task of leaving his home, family and friends. St Peter Chanel left behind all that he knew and all he was accustomed to in order travel to the ‘unknown’ side of the world and proclaim the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- Perseverance: Having brought God to Futuna, he discovered the difficulties and challenges of a new language and customs. St Peter’s determination to keep going and working on the task at hand in order to continue his ministry is inspiring.
- Self-sacrifice: Peter was inspired by the letters sent by missionaries from India. He had longed to do the same thing, and so he did. He gave up his family and the familiarity of his world, taking on a whole new culture, foreign language and ultimately offering his own life in order to spread the Gospel.
That had lead Fr Trevor to some questions with which he challenged the congregation: Was Peter successful? How does one measure a success? An achievement?
“In three years Peter spent on Futuna” – said Fr Trevor – “he made maybe 20 converts: 4 were adults, the rest probably children – most of them sick and dying anyhow… and so, one could say that he virtually achieved nothing… and yet…” – continued Fr Trevor – “he has achieved something, because we are here tonight.“
Fr Trevor in his concluding words invited us to ‘revisit’ the yardsticks we use to measure success in life. He suggested that Peter Chanel and our Lord have a different measuring stick, and that the challenge for us may be to move away from what we might consider a success to what they consider success. In fact, success or failure is often not completely in our hands, and sometimes we have to face what seems almost a certain failure. But success is not required of us, only fidelity. St. Peter Chanel’s work ended in his own death in the face of what seemed total failure. Out of that failure however, God brought about the success Peter was seeking. Peter’s violent death brought about the conversion of the island shortly afterwards, and the people of Futuna remain Catholic to this day.
Icon painted in 1991 by a woman of the Bourg Diocese, France to celebrate 150th anniversary of St Peter Chanel’s death.
St Peter Chanel- Patron Saint of New Zealand and Oceania
Peter was born in 1803 in the diocese of Belley, France. Once a shepherd boy, later he entered a seminary, where it was said of him: “He had a heart of gold with the simple faith of a child, and he led the life of an angel.”
He was ordained priest in 1827 and assigned to a parish at Crozet. In three years he had transformed the parish. His underlying approach was interweaved with his personal motto “Aimer Marie et faire l’aimer” – to love Mary and bring others to love her.
In 1831, he joined the newly founded Society of Mary, as he had long dreamed of being a missionary, where for the following five years he was assigned to teach at the seminary in Belley. Finally, in 1836, his dream was realised, and, led by Bishop J B Pompallier, he left France with six other Marists (three priests and three catechist brothers) for the islands of the Pacific. Fr Peter Chanel, together with Br Marie-Nizier Delorme, had started their mission on Futuna Island in November 1837.
For three and a half years on Futuna Peter and Marie-Nizier battled with language difficulties, strange customs and food, sickness, malnutrition and loneliness. Hardest to bear was the seeming lack of success in adult conversions. Despite the lack of progress they persevered, living and preaching the Gospel despite the king’s patience wearing thin.
Peter Chanel’s selflessness and love for this new flock began to have an effect on the natives. They gave him the name ‘the man with the good heart’.
However, the eventual conversion of the king’s son proved to be Peter’s death warrant. The king kept control of his people, largely through their worship of evil spirits. His son’s becoming a Christian undermined his power, so Peter had to be stopped. With the king’s approval, a small group of his tribal leaders clubbed Peter to death while Marie-Nizier was absent visiting elsewhere. His death occurred on 28th April 1841.
Hearing the news of Peter’s brutal death, Pompallier sailed to Wallis. He was accompanied by Fr Philippe Viard, who would later be named the first bishop of Wellington. Viard went ashore on Futuna, refusing any armed escort, and gathered Peter’s remains which were then brought to New Zealand. These were kept reverently at Kororareka (Russell) for eight years, till 1849, when they were returned to France. They were in Russell again on March 30th, 1977 when -at the request of the Bishop of Wallis and Futuna- they were travelling back to Futuna.
Peter Chanel was beatified in 1889 and canonised in 1954. St Peter Chanel is recognised as the first martyr of Oceania and the Patron Saint of this region.
St Peter Chanel you left your homeland to proclaim Jesus, Saviour of the world, to the peoples of Oceania. Guided by the spirit of God, who is the strength of the gentle, you bore witness to love, even laying down your life. Grant that like you we may live our daily life in peace, joy, and in love. May your prayer and example call forth from our midst many workers for the Gospel so that God’s kingdom may reach to the ends of the earth.
Relics of St Peter Chanel at St Peter Chanel National Shrine, Russell 28 April 2016