One day, nine-year-old Jean-Théophane Vénard read about a priest who had been beheaded in Tonkin, Indochina, which is in present-day Vietnam. Perhaps because the martyr was from Poitiers, his hometown in France, the story affected him profoundly.
“Me, too! I want to go to Tonkin!” he shouted. “Me, too! I want to be a martyr!” By coincidence or by grace, his wish would come true 22 years later.
St. Théophane Vénard completed his seminary education in 1850 and a year later joined the Society of Foreign Missions in Paris. His decision caused his family great pain, as the society was a factory for martyrs. Originally he was to serve in China. However, circumstances changed and he was sent to Indochina in 1854. Thus the stage was set for the realization of his childhood wish.
A general persecution of Christians was under way in Indochina, but for five years the saint worked secretly with other priests to care for tens of thousands of converts. In 1859, when the persecution intensified, he was forced to hide in the home of an elderly woman. He wrote a friend:
Three missionaries, one of whom is a bishop, lying side by side, day and night, in a space a yard-and-a-half square, getting a dim light from three holes the size of a little finger, made in the mud wall, which a poor old woman conceals with some sticks thrown down outside. Under our feet is a brick cellar, constructed with great skill by one of my catechists.
Betrayed by a visitor, the priest was arrested on November 30, 1859. While awaiting execution, he was imprisoned for two months in a small cage. He wrote these words in a farewell to his father:
All those around me are civil and respectful, and a good number love me. From the great mandarin down to the last soldier, they all regret that the laws of the country condemn me to death. I have not had to endure any torture, like so many of my brothers. One light saber blow will separate my head from my body, like a spring flower that the master of the garden picks for his pleasure. Let us all try to please our sovereign Lord and Master by the gift and the fragrance he has given us.
However, Théophane’s decapitation at the hands of an executioner was a gruesome event. He died, a martyr of Indochina, on February 2, 1861. The best word to describe Théophane Vénard is “happy.” He was happy at home, happy at school and seminary, happy when he was sick, happy to be sent to Vietnam. And he was happy in his hiding hole, happy in his cage, and happy to bend his neck for the executioner’s saber. We may not wish for martyrdom, but undoubtedly we would like to be infected with a joy like Théophane Vénard.