If you’ve ever given up a lot, worked really hard, and seen almost no fruit from all your efforts, then you’re in good company with St. Peter Chanel.
Born and raised in 1803 in France, St. Peter was one of eight children. He spent his early years as a shepherd, caring for the family flock, before his intelligence and serious manner were noticed by the parish priest. After spending a few years in the local school, St. Peter eventually made his way into the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1827.
Although he deeply desired to be sent abroad to the foreign lands as a missionary, his first assignment was very close to home. Chanel was given the post of parish priest at the church in Crozet, a small town in eastern France. Even though this assignment was not the opportunity he had been hoping for, it was what he needed to prepare him for his eventual missionary work in Oceania.
In the small parish of Crozet, Chanel discovered an empty church and an indifferent populace. Leaning into his natural kindness and simplicity, St. Peter approached the situation by giving special attention to the sick of the village. His care of and concern for the ill won over his parishioners, who noticed his zeal and sincerity, and this three-year assignment was considered a success. During this mission, Chanel learned that truly caring for the needs of the people and being concerned with the same things that concerned them was a very effective method of evangelization. His actions spoke much more loudly than any words.
During his time in Crozet, St. Peter heard about a new order being formed by a group of priests. This order would be devoted to Mary, Mother of God, and in time would come to be known as the Marists, an order that is still at work in the world today. Chanel joined the Marists, who were later assigned to carry out missionary work in western Oceania, an area that includes Micronesia, Melanesia, Fiji, New Zealand, Samoa and Tonga. On December 24, 1836, Chanel set out on a nine month sea voyage with seven other Marists, headed for the other side of the world.
After making some short stops at the Canary Islands, Tahiti and Tonga, Chanel settled into the island of Futuna. He would remain on this island until his martyrdom, a little more than three years later.
On Futuna, the Marists were initially welcomed and so they began to learn the language and acclimate themselves to a very different culture and climate than what they had known. In fact, King Niuliki, the leader of Futuna Island, had only recently outlawed cannibalism. During these three years Chanel suffered from isolation and deprivation, but he chose to respond to his trying circumstances by exhibiting the same care and concern for the people of Futuna that he had shown in Cozet. Eventually, this began to succeed and some of the people were baptized.
Unfortunately, as more people listened to Chanel and came to trust him and his message, the tribal king grew increasingly jealous. When the king’s son, Meitala, asked for baptism, King Niuliki responded with hostility and violence. Replying to the king with his characteristic charity, Chantel wrote “It does not matter whether or not I am killed. The religion has taken root on the island. It will not be destroyed by my death, since it comes not from men but from God.” Nevertheless, the king ordered his son-in-law, Musumusu, to stop the baptism using any means necessary. Musumusu visited Chanel with some other island warriors and killed him. St. Peter died on April 28, 1841.
At first glance, it does not seem that all the effort and sacrifice St. Peter had undergone amounted to much at all. Yet within two years of his death, almost the entire island had converted and remains Catholic today. Even though St. Peter did not experience the fruit of his labor when he was alive, we have faith that he did see it after his death and that he continues to pray and intercede for the people of the South Pacific today.
Chanel was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1954 and is the patron saint of Oceania. The Church celebrates his feast day with an Optional Memorial on April 28.
O God, who for the spreading of your Church crowned Saint Peter Chanel with martyrdom, grant that, in these days of Paschal joy, we may so celebrate the mysteries of Christ’s Death and Resurrection as to bear worthy witness to newness of life. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen (the Collect for April 28, Optional Memorial of St. Peter Chanel)