On February 2, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Jean-Théophane Vénard, a French missionary to Vietnam who was martyred for the faith.
Even as a youngster this holy French priest dreamed of witnessing to the Gospel of Christ. He went to study for the priesthood. Then he entered a college for missionaries in Paris, France. His family, whom he dearly loved, was greatly saddened to think that after he became a priest he would leave them. Theophane realized that the long ocean voyage to the Far East would most probably separate him from his family for the rest of his life.
“My darling sister,” he wrote in a letter, “how I cried when I read your letter. Yes, I well knew the sorrow I was going to bring on my family. I think there will be a special sorrow for you, my dear little sister. But don’t you think it cost me bloody tears, too? By taking such a step, I knew that I would give all of you great pain. Whoever loved his home more than I do? All my happiness on this earth was centered there. But God, who has united us all in bonds of most tender affection, wanted to draw me from it.”
After being ordained a priest, Theophane set out for Hong Kong. He sailed in September 1852. He studied languages for over a year there. Then he went on to Tonkin, present-day Vietnam. Two obstacles were in the way of this zealous missionary: his poor health and a terrible persecution. Yet he struggled bravely on. Often he wrote to tell his beloved sister in France all his adventures and narrow escapes from his persecutors.
Famous for having inspired St. Therese of Lisieux, who said of St. Jean-Théophane that he was someone who had lived her own image of a martyr and missionary, St. Jean was born in France, became a priest in the Society of Foreign Missions, and was sent to Vietnam.
Due to the persecutions of the anti-Christian Vietnamese Emperor Minh-Menh, priests were forced to hide in the forest and live in caves. They were able to sneak out at night and minster to the people. Eventually someone betrayed St. Jean, and he was arrested. During his trial, he refused to renounce his faith in order to save his life. He was condemned to death, and spent the last few weeks of his life locked in a cage.
His gentle ways won even his jailers. He managed to write a letter home in which he said: “All those who surround me are civil and respectful. A good many of them love me. From the great mandarin down to the humblest private soldier, everyone regrets that the laws of the country condemn one to death. I have not been put to the torture like my brethren.” But their sympathy did not save his life. After he had been beheaded, crowds rushed to soak handkerchiefs in his blood. Bishop Retord, the local bishop, wrote of him, “Though in chains, he is happy as a bird!”
It was during his incarceration that he wrote many letters, some to his family. His most famous line is from a letter to his father in which he said, “A slight sabre-cut will separate my head from my body, like the spring flower which the Master of the garden gathers for His pleasure. We are all flowers planted on this earth, which God plucks in His own good time: some a little sooner, some a little later . . . Father and son may we meet in Paradise. I, poor little moth, go first. Adieu.”
In reading these letters, St. Therese the Little Flower came to understand and use the image of being a little flower, whom God nevertheless cared for and cultivated, despite her minute size.
On the way to martyrdom Father Vénard chanted psalms and hymns. To his executioner, who coveted his clothing and asked what he would give to be killed promptly, he answered: “The longer it lasts the better it will be”.
St. Jean-Théophane Vénard was beheaded Feb. 2, 1861.
His severed head was later recovered and is preserved as a relic in Vietnam. The rest of his body rests in the crypt of the Missions Etrangères in Paris.