Learning from a Martyred Missionary Disciple
Today we continue our regular series called “Learning from the Saints.” Our guide is expert Bert Ghezzi, a dear friend of mine and the author of numerous books including Voices of the Saints, Saints at Heart, and Discover Christ: Developing a Personal Relationship with Jesus.
Today, Bert profiles St. John Gabriel Perboyre, a French priest who served as a missionary in China, whose feast day is today.
“O my Divine Savior,
transform me into yourself,
May my hands be the hands of Jesus.
May my tongue be the tongue of Jesus.
Grant that every faculty of my body
may serve only to glorify you.
Above all transform my soul and all its powers
that my memory, my will and my affections
may be the memory, the will and the affections of Jesus.
I pray you to destroy in me all that is not of you.
Grant that I may live
but in you
and by you
and for you
that I may truly say with Saint Paul:
“I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.”
— John Gabriel Perboyre
“I mean to be a missioner!” announced 15-year-old John Gabriel Perboyre after hearing a sermon on foreign missions. From that time his determination grew firm and specific. John Gabriel believed God was calling him to take the gospel to China. One year later, in 1818, he joined the Congregation of the Mission, the Lazarists, and entered their seminary at Montauban, France.
John Gabriel was ordained a priest in 1826, chomping at the bits to be sent on mission. However, because he was an excellent teacher, the Lazarists deployed him as a seminary professor at Saint-Flour and trainer of novices in Paris. Finally after nine years of pleading, in 1835 John Gabriel was sent to the China mission.
The saint was a quick study. After four months of training in China, he could speak enough of the language to be sent to the mission station at Honan. “If you could see me now in my Chinese ‘get up,’ he wrote to his brothers at Paris,
“you would see a very curious sight: my head shaved, a long pig-tail and moustaches, stammering my new language, eating with chopsticks. They tell me that I don’t make a bad Chinese. That is the only way to begin making oneself all things to all men: may we be able thus to win all men to Jesus Christ!”
For two years at Honan, John Gabriel rescued street children and taught them the faith with engaging stories in his colloquial Chinese. In 1839, he was sent to teach catechumens at Hupeh, where a persecution unexpectedly erupted. John Gabriel hid in a nearby forest, but was betrayed by a new convert and was captured.
For the next year John Gabriel Perboyre patiently endured the unendurable. He was dragged in chains before judges who demanded that he inform on his associates and stomp on the crucifix. Twenty times he was confronted. Twenty times he refused. And twenty times he was brutally tortured. Once he was branded on his face with four characters that proclaimed he was “a teacher of false religion.” Near the end his body was a mass of open wounds with bones exposed.
John Gabriel wrote his prayer for Christlikeness, quoted above, when he was twenty-three years old, and prayed it often.. The answer seems to have been yes both in his life and in his death. At last on September 11, 1840, John Gabriel was strangled along with five criminals, a martyrdom fitting for a saint who wanted so much to be like Jesus.
“Many people have difficulty in finding a meditation book. But I have found nothing so good as my own heart and the heart of Jesus. Why is it that we so often change the subject of our meditation? Only one thing is necessary: Jesus Christ. Think unceasingly of him.”
—St. John Gabriel Perboyre