The Incredible Martyrdom of St. Peter Mary Chanel

by Matthew Leonard
by Matthew Leonard
The Incredible Martyrdom of St. Peter Mary Chanel

Exactly 8 years ago today I was sitting nervously in a chapel in Wellington, New Zealand. Why the nerves? Because I was at the tail-end of 10 day speaking tour that was to culminate that day with five full talks (i.e. one hour each)…and my voice was gone…absolutely toast.

My throat hurt like the dickens and I sounded like Froggy from the Little Rascals.

But as soon as the celebrating priest announced it was the feast of St. Peter Mary Chanel, a peace flooded my soul and I knew all would be okay.

Why? Because this guy was incredible. And given what he endured for this region of the world, I figured he had my back (and my throat).

St. Peter Chanel is the patron of Oceania (of which New Zealand is a part). And in the initial draft of my first book (Louder Than Words: The Art of Living as a Catholic), his story was my opening chapter.

That said, the original publisher asked me to change it because his story is – shall we say – a bit hard core. St. Peter was a missionary who went to Futuna, a beautiful little Pacific island full of palm trees, sandy beaches…and barbarous cannibals.

His was not a peaceful death. 

It seems that while he met with very limited success overall, St. Peter had managed to convert the local king’s son. And in retribution the island monarch sent an assassin to “deal” with the French missionary priest.

Led by the appointed murderer, a group of thugs beat Fr. Peter ferociously.

And even for Catholics whose sensitivities are probably (and regrettably) a bit dulled by numerous stories of martyrdom, this one can’t help but move you. 

They essentially smashed him to bits.

And yet, as the savage beating of his assassins brought him to the brink of death, all Fr. Peter whispered was “Tis well, tis well.” 

His life was finally ended by a hatchet.

Of course, his enemies thought they had won, figuring that if you kill the priest, you kill the religion. They were wrong. 

Within three years this warring island of cannibals was one hundred percent Catholic – completely converted. How? After all, no churches had been built, only a few people on their deathbeds had been baptized, and the few catechumens that existed were now without a shepherd. 

Yet when the Bishop came to collect the fallen priest’s body, the natives unexpectedly begged for more missionaries to be sent. 

Eight months later, two churches had been built and the entire island converted (and remains overwhelmingly Catholic to this day).

So what caused the turnaround? 

How did a martyred priest who had so little to show for three grueling years of labor affect the conversion of so many? 

The answer lies in the fact that while Futuna was the final battlefield, Fr. Peter had been fighting this war for many years. 

In the midst of the common duties of seminary and parish life in France, he had developed a deep interior life totally devoted to our Lord and His Mother. 

Well known for his humility and simplicity, he loved those with whom he lived and worked, and they loved him back. In fact, the eulogist at his funeral mass invited Christian educators and evangelists to look to the example of Fr. Peter Chanel so as to “learn how much of self-abnegation and meekness, vigilance and steadfastness, of the spirit of prayer and interior virtues, is required…to beget Jesus Christ in souls.”

At home or abroad, the weapon Fr Peter wielded in his battle for souls was simple, but powerful – holiness. The natives of Futuna had never met anyone like him. 

The well of his love and patience was so deep that all referred to him as “the kind hearted man.” His prayer, virtue, and complete abandonment to Our Lord provided the fertile soil for the seeds sown by his preaching. 

His very life was a witness to the Gospel in a way that buildings and programs can never be.

In the end, the very man who had buried the final axe in his head reportedly desired that visitors would walk over his own grave on their way into St. Peter Chanel’s island shrine. 

Yes, even the assassin had been converted. 

Such is the power of a life lived for Christ. Such is the power of a saint…which is exactly what we’re all called to be.

Ours might not be the gruesome martyrdom of St. Peter Chanel, but every one of us is called to a bloodless, “white martyrdom.” We’re called to a daily dying to self that conforms us to the contours of the Cross of Christ.

Put simply, we’re called to holiness. 

Never forget that every moment of this life is ultimately preparation for our moment of death. It’s preparation for eternity. Lord willing, it’s preparation to join the patron saint of Oceania and all the saints of all time in the family of God in heaven.

So, please…St. Peter Mary Chanel, pray for us! (And thanks for healing my throat!)

God bless!


P.S. The FREE streaming of Catholic Mysticism & the Beautiful Life of Grace ends soon! And so do the discounts for the entire Science of Sainthood experience. CHECK IT OUT HERE!

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