The Martyrs of Paris III: St Théophane Vénard
St Théophane Vénard (1829-61) was one of the best known martyrs of the nineteenth century - even the 'Little Flower' found in him a kindred spirit and wrote 'my soul is like his. He is the one who has best lived my way of spiritual childhood.'
Born near Poitiers, he began studies for the Priesthood in 1848 and entered the Seminary for Foreign Missions in Paris in 1851, being ordained the following year. Shortly afterwards he set sail to Hong Kong with four companions and, from 1854, concentrated his missionary activity in western Tonkin (Vietnam). Despite a new wave of persecution, the mission was well organised. Vénard suffered from much ill health but he mastered the local language and was able to spend six years preaching the Gospel.
He was betrayed and arrested at the end of November 1860 and carried to Hanoi for interrogation in a wooden cage. After refusing to deny Christ and trample on the cross, he was condemned to death. He spent his last remaining weeks in a cage (two metres long), where he was able to recite the Divine Office and write letters to his family. To his father (who had in fact just died) he 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.'
He was beheaded on 2 February 1861 and canonised in 1988. St Thérèse of Lisieux wrote a poem in his honour, which includes the lines:
Thy brief bright sojourn here was like a psalm
Of heavenly melody, all hearts upraising;
Thy poet nature sang sweet songs like balm,
Through all thy life thy dearest Saviour praising.
Writing thy farewell thy last earthly night,
That farewell was a song of Spring and love,
“I, little butterfly, the first take flight,
Of all our loved ones, to our home above.”
Thou, happy martyr! in the hour of death
Didst taste the deep delight of suffering:
Thou didst declare, e’en with thy dying breath,
That it is sweet to suffer for the King.
When the stern headsman made thee offer fair
Thy torture to abridge, how swift thy word:
“Oh, blest am I my Master’s cup to share!
Long let my suffering last with Christ my Lord!”