On Tuesday at our 2pm service, we remembered Peter Chanel who was martyred on the South Pacific island of Futuna in 1841. His death led to the whole island converting to Christianity. The readings were Psalm 31:1-5, 16, Acts 7:51-8.1, John 6:35-40.
Peter Chanel was the first martyr of the South Pacific. The reading from Acts tells of the very first Christian martyr, Stephen. Read on to learn more.
George Santayana famously said that “those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it”. This saying is quoted in many different forms, each of which could lead you to different conclusions. I would say that for Christians this saying is not really true. We remember our spiritual past, we have it written down in the Bible, but that remembrance does not prevent us repeating what happened there. In fact, as we recalled once more just before Easter, Jesus commanded us to remember his sacrifice and to repeatedly celebrate it in what we now call the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist or the Mass. We repeat the past with joy because it strengthens us for our present lives. There is no sense of doom in this at all.
Something else that gets repeated is the martyrdom of believers. The history of the Christian faith is full of stories of those who died for that faith. Though we may think of the time of persecution as being worst when the Romans were in charge of much of the world, there were actually more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in all the preceding centuries put together.
In the reading from Acts we are told of Stephen, the very first Christian martyr, who was stoned to death shortly after Jesus died, in the very early part of the life of the Christian church. Today we remember another Christian martyr, Peter Chanel, who died on this day in 1841. He became the first Christian martyr of the Pacific Islands and Australasia.
Peter Chanel was born in France in 1803. He was noticed by his parish priest as being particularly intelligent and pious. This has echoes of what was said about Stephen who was described as a man ‘full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’. The church paid for Peter’s education and in 1827 he was ordained priest. His first parish was very run down, so quite a challenge, but he brought it back to life in just three years. In 1831 Peter decided to join the new Society of Mary. The aim of this society was missionary work but Peter’s intelligence caused him to be employed by the society as a professor at the Seminary of Belley.
Finally, in 1836 Peter was sent to the islands of the South Pacific as the head of a group of missionaries. Bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier went with them. He became the first bishop of New Zealand. Peter and two lay brothers went to the island of Futuna where only a short time before their arrival the chief of the island, Niuliki, had forbidden cannibalism. The group carried medicines with them as well as the Gospel and were well received at first.
In time the group learnt the local language and it then became possible to talk to the people about the Gospel message. At this point Niuliki became concerned that if the people embraced Christianity, his position as leader and high priest would be undermined. Even worse was to come, as the chief’s son, Meitala asked to be baptised along with some other young men.
The chief then sent his best warrior Musumusu to sort the situation out. Musumusu fought with Meitala first and was injured. He went to Peter asking for medical attention. While receiving this, a group of the chief’s men went to Peter’s home and ransacked it. They then attacked Peter with clubs and axes and killed him.
The death of Stephen in the early days of the church had a profound effect. The very fact that it is mentioned in Acts that Saul approved of his murder, suggests that this was a significant incident which St Paul gave to Luke for inclusion in the history of the early church. Seeing a man die with such faith in Jesus is sure to have stayed with Paul for a long time. We know of course that Paul later embraced the Christian faith and was instrumental in taking it all over the Mediterranean area. You could say that the fact that we are meeting here to worship God is the result of Stephen’s death.
In the same way, Peter Chanel left a wonderful legacy as the result of his short time on the island of Futuna. He died young, only 37 years old, and some might say it was the waste of the life of an extremely talented young man. However, within a year of his death the whole of the island had converted to Christianity. That might never have happened had he lived.
Peter was revered throughout the Pacific Island area as its first martyr. He was beatified in 1889 and canonised in 1954. He is the patron saint of Oceania.
One of the young men who first accepted Christ said of him: ‘He loves us; he does what he teaches; he forgives his enemies. His teaching is good.’
Wouldn’t it be good if people could say the same about each of us?