Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,
«I have read the lives of many missionaries. One I've read is the life of Théophane Vénard, which interested me and touched me more than I can say.» This is how Saint Thérèse of Lisieux expressed herself on March 19, 1897. Shortly thereafter, she confided to her sisters the reason for this preference: «I like Théophane Vénard even more than Saint Louis de Gonzaga, because the life of Saint Louis de Gonzaga was extraordinary and Théophane Vénard's was quite ordinary.» She added, «My soul is like his. He is the one who has best lived my way of spiritual childhood.»
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 failing—that 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!»
At the beginning of August 1847, Théophane left Doué for the Minor Seminary in Montmorillon. After completing his philosophy studies there, he entered the Major Seminary in Poitiers, where he wrote to his sister, «You will be happy to learn that one of our confreres, a deacon, is leaving Thursday for the Seminary for Foreign Missions in Paris. May God deign to guide his steps, and may Venerable Cornay watch over him.» Thus did he begin to prepare his family for his own plan to leave on mission. Doing this took time, cleverness and tact. Mélanie understood first. For her father, the sacrifice was more difficult, but in the end, in a beautiful outburst of faith, he gave his full permission. «If you see that God is calling you, and I have no doubt that you do, don't hesitate to obey! May nothing hold you back, not even the thought of leaving a grieved father.» He was scheduled to leave on February 27, 1851, at 9 o'clock in the evening. After the last meal together as a family and the recitation of the Rosary, Théophane read a few passages from The Imitation of Christ that were related to the situation, then recited the evening prayer, which was interrupted by the family's tears. Lastly, he asked for his father's blessing. Slightly trembling, the father pronounced these words, one by one: «My dear son, receive this blessing from your father, who is sacrificing you to the Lord. Be blessed forever in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!» When it was time to leave, the future missionary, knowing that he would never see his family again, kissed his family one last time, walked out of the house and got into a carriage. The depth of his suffering showed through to some extent in a letter he wrote later to a priest friend: «God supported me in the last moments of my family life, and even made them pleasant and agreeable for me. However, it's good that they were short—my soul was brimming over with emotion...»
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 delay—I 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!»
After a voyage of several months, the Chinese coast appeared on the horizon and, on March 19, 1853, the missionaries landed on the island of Hong Kong. Théophane did not yet know his final destination but, since he had been sent to China, he began to learn Chinese. This difficult task, the climate, and the heat seriously weakened his health, and he needed to rest. «Little Father Vénard,» as he was called, was always very cheerful! He was loved by everyone in this home, where everyone was close, but evangelization remained the primary concern of these apostles of Christ. China was there before them, and souls were waiting for the light of the Catholic faith. Théophane was animated by the same apostolic flame for the salvation of souls as Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, who wrote to her sister Céline on July 14, 1889: «Céline, during the short moments that we have left, let's not waste our time... let's save souls—they are being lost like snowflakes, and Jesus is weeping.»
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!»
Bishop Retord had, by means of his eminent qualities and his virtue, gained the respect of many Mandarin subofficers. Having arrived in Tonkin during a period of violent persecution, he had lived in hiding places for months at a time, without losing his legendary good spirits. When he became a bishop, he communicated his apostolic zeal to his entire diocese. His official episcopal motto, «Intoxicate me with the Cross,» was balanced by another familiar motto that he used to boost his missionaries' morale in difficult times—«Three cheers for joy anyway!» He had seen many of his priests die of affliction or under torture, but had not been captured himself. «I am sad that I have not joined them,» he wrote.
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 business—baptisms, 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, charity—in 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-Tri—there, 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
Théophane offered his suffering and his seeming inactivity for the eternal salvation of souls, since this was God's will. «Only suffering can give birth to souls for Jesus,» wrote Saint Thérèse to her sister Céline on July 8, 1891. We can thus understand the saint of Lisieux's mysterious liking for the missionary of Tonkin.
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 illness—this 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
After a relative lull, the persecution was vigorously started again in 1859 by the emperor Tu-Duc, who was determined to put an end to «Jesus' religion.» The newly proclaimed edict gave the death penalty to priests, promised a reward to informants, and set out penalties for mandarins who were kind to Christians. Théophane was thoroughly convinced that the year 1860 that was beginning would be that of his arrest and that God would grant him the grace of martyrdom. His bishop gave him permission to offer himself to God as a victim for the Church of Tonkin. Out of filial love for the Blessed Virgin, he consecrated himself to her, using Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort's prayer, placing himself entirely in her hands.
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 orders—to 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 basis—he 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 well—Paul Muïn, a fearless Christian who had slipped into the police, could see Father Théophane four or five times a day.
A calm lake
«Although the majority are kind to me,» wrote Father Théophane in a letter to his family on January 2, 1861, «there are people who insult and mock me.» Fortunately, visitors became rare, and he could write to his bishop, «My heart is like a calm lake.» Up until the end, he prayed his breviary, the only book that remained in his possession. Théophane expressed his happiness by singing his desire for Heaven, and hoped to receive the Eucharist. The deacon Men succeeded in having Holy Communion brought to him by devout Christians who passed unnoticed. The priest Thinh, sent by the bishop, managed to hear Father Théophane's confession.
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.
Dom Antoine Marie osb.