Feast Day: April 28th
This week, we turn to the saints to find a final attribute or characteristic of the priest: as preacher of the Gospel.
First a step back: every Christian is united to Christ’s priesthood, and is called to poverty, perseverance, prayer, and preaching within his or her own circumstances. Every one of us is called into priestly service, acting as intermediaries between God and His creation. However, there is a special way that a ministerial, ordained, priest is further stamped with these particular characteristics (and mission).
Poverty: because it is only by “the Spirit of holiness … which comes from you, O God”, that he “possess[es] this office”. Perseverance: because the priest’s life is consecrated to be a lasting witness of fidelity, being “faithful stewards of your mysteries”. Prayer: because he uniquely is entrusted to intercede for the Church “that your people may be renewed in the waters of rebirth and nourished from your altar; so that sinners may be reconciled and the sick raised up.” Finally, preaching because the priest is ordained so that “through the grace of the Holy Spirit the words of the Gospel may bear fruit in human hearts and reach even to the ends of the earth.” (Above quotations from the Prayer of Ordination of Priests.)
And that brings us to the island of Futuna in the year 1837. We are 2000 miles east of Brisbane and 2800 miles south west of Hawaii (so, not too far from Fiji, or the American Samoa). As a small schooner, the Raiatea, approached the coast of the volcanic island in November, it had already transversed some 2000 miles since departing Tahiti, and had aboard Bishop Pompallier and a few remaining Marianist missionaries on their way to Rotuma having left Father Bataillon and Brother Joseph Xavier on the nearby island of Wallis.
They were there to drop off an English trader, Thomas Boog, and twelve natives of Futuna who needed passage from Willis. But things took longer than expected (it seems they did not want to repeat the near capsize they had at Willis) … and then the crew of a beached English whaleboat came hollering up … and then the natives of Futuna swarmed over the little Raiatea … and then the good bishop turned to Fr. Chanel and asked if the intrepid young priest would be willing to stay there in Futuna. The future of the small island (its land-mass is smaller than that of Springfield), and all the souls upon it hung in the balance as the young priest considered his response. “My Lord, I am quite willing and ready.”
Fr. Peter Chanel did not know the king, Niuliki, who accepted him and Br. Michael into his abode after one of courageous chiefs, Maile, argued for their reception.
He did not know that cannibalism had been practiced on the island until the beginning of Niuliki’s reign.
He had no idea that Niuliki was the leader of the Alo tribe, in bitter conflict with the Sigave population.
He had probably never tasted the kava that was shared with them to welcome them to the island, nor seen the kind of tree on the beach upon which he affixed a Miraculous Medal, entrusting his life and efforts to the patroness of his order.
He would not be fluent in their language for three long years.
And yet he preached the Gospel: By his patience as the locals pillaged his garden. By his simplicity as the king shuttled him from one (inadequate) shelter to another. By his hunger, subsisting off the single daily meal of bananas and yams that the inhabitants enjoyed. By his tending the wounded on both sides as the Alo and Sigave battled for control of the island. And, by his constant efforts to tell the people of a God who loved them, and wanted them for His own, rather than the dismal spirit-world they assumed controlled their destinies and were embodied in their leaders.
Yet few accepted the Father’s love.
Maile did accept baptism, but it was slow work driving the demons from the minds and hearts of any others. After a month, for their first Christmas, Fr. Chanel celebrated his 7th Mass on the island with 15 locals attending. After three hard years, he had still only baptized a few children and dying adults, whereas on Willis the entire island was converting.
Finally, several locals, and the king’s son, Meitala, became catechumens, but hope would quickly fade. On April 28, 1841, when preparing medicine for Musumusu, the (angered, un-injured) warrior attacked Fr. Chanel. He spoke in his assailant’s language: “Malie fuai”, “it is well for me”, and yielded his life to his murderer, and into the hands of God.
But, within 2 years, every soul on the island would be baptized and in 2021, 99% of the island remains Catholic! He was willing and ready enough for God!
– Fr. Dominic Rankin is currently working on a series of talks on the “Tough Topics” related to our faith. Science, sin, shame, sex … he could not think of any other parts of the Gospel more misunderstood or rejected. Yet that is nothing compared to proclaiming that Gospel to a culture that has no concept of God’s love, and of whom you do not know the first word of their language!