The Catholic Defender: Saint Peter Channel A missionary to Oceania
Chanel was the fifth of eight children born to a farming family in southern France in 1803. The country was ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte at the time and was suffering the terrible aftermath of the French Revolution.
Anyone who has worked in loneliness, with great adaptation required and with little apparent success, will find a kindred spirit in Peter Chanel.
Born in France, Peter’s interest in the missions began in school, when he read letters missionaries to America sent back home. As a young priest, Peter revived a parish in a “bad” district by the simple method of showing great devotion to the sick. Wanting to be a missionary, he joined the Society of Mary, the Marists, at 28. Obediently, he taught in the seminary for five years.
Then, as superior of seven Marists, he traveled to Western Oceania. The bishop accompanying the missionaries left Peter and a brother on Futuna Island northeast of Fiji, promising to return in six months. He was gone five years.
The one thing that marked his priestly vocation, though, was his desire to spread the Catholic faith to those who had never received it. From a very early age he wanted to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), as Christ commanded, and he would have his chance.
A desire to share the Gospel with those who never heard of Christ brought St. Peter to the French controlled island of Futuna. He and his companion, a French lay brother, were in store for a difficult and arduous task in the mission field there. Although St. Peter struggled to learn the language, he went on to master it. And there were the difficulties with a new culture and isolation on a remote island. St. Peter wrote how he believed the local religion was Satan’s work, but he was patient and willing to work slowly for their conversion.
This fact turned out to be Peter Chanel’s undoing. After three-and-a half years of his peaceful presence among them and his self-sacrificing charity, Fr. Chanel began to win over the sentiments of the community. It looked as if the people would eventually accept Baptism, threatening the entire religious-cultural system, which had the king at the center and pinnacle of power.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was very personal. When the king’s son announced that he was going to receive Baptism from the missionary, the king had a sort of “Thomas Becket moment” (Beckett was the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, 1172). Niuliki complained about Chanel’s evangelizing efforts in the presence of his chieftains, and, like King Edward II of England did with Beckett, insinuated that he would be glad to be rid of the meddlesome cleric.
The death blows were not long in coming. On April 28th, 1841 a small group of armed men broke into his shack and brutally clubbed Fr. Chanel to death out of hatred for the Christian faith he preached.
The priest’s lay brother companion escaped to safety and told the story to those who rescued him. It took another year for word of Chanel’s death to reach France.
The Pacific islands had been officially declared mission territory by Pope Gregory XVI in 1836. Peter, who was thirty-three years old by then, joined the newly formed missionary order, the Marists, and off to the Pacific he went. He was one of a group of seven men who departed on Christmas Eve that year after consecrating themselves to the Virgin Mary at a local shrine.
There is a fascinating follow-up story that comes from the oral traditions of the Futunan people. A French warship brought the new missionaries to the island, and the king expected the ship to make war on him in reprisal for the death of Fr. Chanel.
But the missionaries forbade any retaliation whatsoever. The king – the murderer of Peter Chanel – was so impressed by the example of Christian forgiveness that, in time, even he accepted Baptism.
Chanel was declared a martyr and beatified in 1889. He was canonized on 12 June 1954 by Pope Pius XII. Chanel is recognized as the protomartyr and patron saint of Oceania. His feast day is 28 April, which is a public holiday in Wallis and Futuna.
Meanwhile, Peter struggled with this new language and mastered it, making the difficult adjustment to life with whalers, traders, and warring natives. Despite little apparent success and severe want, he maintained a serene and gentle spirit, plus endless patience and courage. A few natives had been baptized, a few more were being instructed. When the chieftain’s son asked to be baptized, persecution by the chieftain reached a climax. Father Chanel was clubbed to death.
Within two years after his death, the whole island became Catholic and has remained so. He was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1954. Peter Chanel is the first martyr of Oceania and its patron.