It was twenty years ago in June that Pope John Paul II canonized 117 Vietnamese Martyrs. My interest in the Vietnamese Martyrs started about that time when I read a book on St. Theophane Venard (left), a French missionary executed in Vietnam in 1861. I still remember one of the lines I read in that book. Just before his execution, writing to his father back in France, St. Theophane wrote:
A slight sabre-cut will separate my head from my body, like the spring flower which the Master of the garden gathers for His pleasure. We are all flowers planted on this earth, which God plucks in His own good time: some a little sooner, some a little later . . . Father and son may we meet in Paradise. I, poor little moth, go first. Adieu.
This is flowery language, to be sure, but we shouldn’t dismiss it so easily. In our cynical age, we find it hard to believe in glory, heroism, and the value of witness even unto death. But they did (at least some did), and we can’t assume that people of the past thought the same way we do today. We need to take them at their word. Maybe that’s why reading the lives of saints can be a challenge at times; they shake us out of our complacency.
St. Theophane was a big influence on another 19th century French saint. Therese of Lisieux, the “Little Flower,” read his biography. She said of him, “My soul is like his. He is the one who has best lived my way of spiritual childhood.” She kept a holy card of him by her side during her last illness. One of her great hopes was to live in the Carmel at Saigon. She never got there, but she did become Patroness of the Missions in 1927.