Some of those called to martyrdom for preaching the cross of Christ have been privileged to suffer a passion similar to that of Jesus himself. This was especially true of St. Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, a Vincentian missionary to China in the nineteenth century.
Jean-Gabriel, the son of Pierre and Marie Rigal Perboyre, was born on January 6, 1802, at Puech, a small town in southern France.
One of eight children, John gave early signs of religious devotion. When he was 15, he heard a sermon that made him want to become a missionary. Shortly afterwards, with the permission of his parents, he entered the Congregation of the Mission, the missionary order founded by St. Vincent de Paul. In due time he took the Vincentian vows, and in 1825 he was ordained to the priesthood.
When he opted to become a missionary, John Gabriel had had in mind the foreign missions. But his superiors first assigned him to a succession of positions in his homeland. Since he was an able student, he was sent initially to teach theology in their preparatory seminary. Two years later he was made superior of the seminary. Eventually, because of his holiness as well as his educational and executive ability, he was named subdirector of the Vincentian novitiate in Paris.
Perboyre meanwhile kept begging to be posted to the mission field. After14 years he finally got his wish. In 1825 he was ordered to go to the Vincentian missions in the province of Honan, in east-central China.
It took him six months to reach China, but joy made the hard journey a happy one. Father Perboyre first set foot in China at the international port of Macao, near Hong Kong. There he stayed for some time while being “processed” to approach the inland Chinese. First, he had to gain some knowledge of the difficult Chinese language. Next, the Vincentians required that he learn how to dress and behave like the Chinese. In a cheery letter written home from Macao, he said his confreres would scarcely recognize him: “You would see a very curious sight: my head shaved, a long pigtail and moustaches, stammering my new language, eating with chopsticks!” But it was for a good cause, he added. This acculturation would help him to become “all things to all men.”
Finally he was sent off to his mission station in Honan. After two years there, he was transferred to another mission center, in Hupeh Province. At each place his fellow missioners made a specialty of rescuing and raising as Catholics the many children that the Chinese were accustomed to abandon. Father Jean-Gabriel, a born teacher, worked very effectively at this task.
China, however, remained intolerant of Christianity and anything else from outside its boundaries. For two hundred years it had intermittently persecuted missionaries and converts, and tens of thousands had fallen victims. Perboyre had arrived in a period of peace, but none knew how long it would last. This he fully realized. Indeed, he had prayed for the privilege of not only preaching but dying for the Faith in China.
As early as September 1839 a new persecution broke out in Hupeh. The Vincentians wisely went into hiding, but Father John was discovered and arrested. Like Christ, he had been fingered by a Judas, a Christain convert, prompted to betray him for 30 pieces of silver! Like Jesus, he was manacled and dragged from tribunal to tribunal. Asked by each court to disclose the hiding places of his associates, and to tread a crucifix underfoot, he refused, whereupon he was beaten again and again until his very bones were defleshed. Finally, on September 11, 1840, he was hung on a cross and killed by strangulation.
This valiant missionary who had drunk fully of the same chalice as our Lord, was beatified on November 10, 1889, the first martyr of China to be so honored. Pope John Paul II canonized him on June 2, 1996.
At the canonization, the Pope reminded his audience that many more Chinese would be raised to the altars in the future. He prayed that their blood might finally produce a rich harvest of Christians in that tragically troubled land.
–Father Robert F. McNamara