The trials of a missionary martyr

To me, the very least of all the holy ones,
this grace was given,
to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ…
Ephesians 3: 8

Noël Chabanel was among the seven French Jesuits missionaries who are remembered today as the North American martyrs. St. Noël was killed in what is now Canada on December 8, 1649.

I didn’t know much about him before I came across this remark on his life in Franciscan Father Leonard Foley’s Saint of the Day:

Fr. Noel Chabanel was killed before he could answer his recall to France. He had found it exceedingly hard to adapt to mission life. He could not learn the language, the food and life of the Native Americans revolted him, plus he suffered spiritual dryness during his whole stay in Canada. Yet he made a vow to remain until death in his mission.

St. Noël wasn’t dumb; he had been a teacher of rhetoric in his native France but for some reason he could not master the native languages – and was mocked for this, even by children. His fastidious tastes found the food revolting. He experienced dryness in his spiritual life.

But he persevered, even making a vow to remain in mission in 1947:

“My Lord, Jesus Christ, who, by the admirable dispositions of Divine Providence, hast willed that I should be a helper of the holy apostles of this Huron vineyard, entirely unworthy though I be, drawn by the desire to cooperate with the de-signs which the Holy Ghost has upon me for the conversion of these Hurons to the faith; I, Noel Chabanel, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament of your Sacred Body and Most Precious Blood, which is the Testament of God with man; I vow perpetual stability in this Huron Mission; it being understood that all this is subject to the dictates of the Superiors of the Society of Jesus, who may dispose of me as they wish. I pray, then, 0 Lord, that You will deign to accept me as a permanent servant in this mission and that You will render me worthy of so sublime a ministry. Amen.”

He like many of his fellow Jesuits had a desire to give his life for the native peoples, even to the point of martyrdom. He endured the difficulties, until death.

In the face of difficulties in mission, I find it encouraging to know of a saint who suffered while on mission – and a suffering that in part came from within himself. All is not joy and roses and the presence of God, even in mission. There is tasteless or salty food; there are customs of the people that drive one crazy (especially the way people drive); and there is dryness of spirit. God sometimes seems so far away, so silent.

But St. Noël offers an example of perseverance, presence, and openness to the will of God.

Shortly before his death, before being sent to another mission site, he told one of the other Jesuits:

“I am going where obedience calls me, but whether I stay there or receive permission from my superior to return to the mission where I belong, I must serve God faithfully until death.”

When I was asked how long I’d be here in mission in Honduras, I responded (when asked in English), “Until God calls me somewhere else.” In Spanish it’s “Hasta que Dios quiere”.

St. Noël, help me be faithful in my mission.

An interesting account of St. Noël Chabanel can be found here.

Real missionaries

Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals….
Into whatever house you enter, first say,
‘Peace to this household.’
If a peaceful person lives there,
your peace will rest on him….
Stay in the same house
and eat and drink what is offered to you,…
Luke 10: 1-9

I am humbled before the witness of seventy-four members of our parish here in Honduras.


They left home for a week, without cellphone, without money, to be missionaries in fifty-five sites in the parish. They went door to door, visiting the people respectfully – not haranguing them with a Gospel that is used as a weapon, but listening to them and sharing prayer and scripture.

They were received in the villages and towns where they were given food and lodging – and a guide each day to lead them to the various homes in the villages.

We had trained them to be welcoming guests, listening to the people, praying with them – and, when needed, responding to the needs of the people.

I have spoken with a number of them since their return.

Generally, the experience was very good. They were received by the people in their homes, often offered a drink and something to eat in each house: so much so that in one case they put off eating lunch until three in the afternoon.

In some places when they visited the homes of evangelicals, the reception was very welcoming. They talked and prayed with them, a stance so very different from the usual animosity here between Catholics and evangelicals.

In a few places they responded to the needs of very poor families. In one village, they had a collection of goods which they shared with needy households.


There were difficulties and problems. But that was expected.

But these missionaries were signs of the Reign of God for many people.

This mission, above all, exemplifies the culture of encounter that Pope Francis has urged us to live and promote.


Never lose heart


The importance of praying always and never losing heart came alive for me this week.

This past week my prayers were dominated by concern for two friends and their newborn premature twins. One twin died soon after birth; the other struggled on for life for six days, finally falling asleep in the Lord last night.

I found myself astounded at the deep faith of Luisa and Jarrett whose prayer for their children left open the possibility of their passing on to the Lord. They had found the strength to pray, “Thy will be done.” I pray that God may continue to give them the comfort and courage they need.

But what also impressed me was the community of prayer and concern that arose. People were praying for them; people expressed their concern, their solidarity, their love. These are signs of the Reign of God.

I have been troubled by the bitter and abusive conversations in this election season. No, they are not conversations; they are accusations. They only provoke anger and fear and tear apart the fabric of a civil society.

But, in the midst of this, some of us experienced the presence of the God who brings people together – in love, in concern for the most vulnerable, in prayer.

Yes, the two newborns, Joseph and Matthew, have died, but a community of love was created around them and their parents and family.

May these types of communities grow and flourish – in the midst of times of fear and mistrust. May God be shown in our mutual love and support.

For this I pray – and, because of what I’ve witnessed in Luisa and Jarrett and the community that arose around them and their sons, now with the Lord, I have another sign of God’s presence to help me never lose heart.


The poor Christ of St. Teresa


A critical moment in the life of Saint Teresa of Avila was her contemplation of Christ Crucified. She later wrote on this encounter with the suffering, poor Christ:

“When I fell to prayer again and looked at Christ hanging poor and naked upon the Cross, I felt I could not bear to be rich. So I besought him with tears to bring it to pass that I might be as poor as he.”

In her reform of the Carmelites, poverty and begging were important. They were called “Dsicalced” because they wore hemp sandals, not fancy shoes.

She wanted to be poor like the poor Christ.

But this was not only a message for her sisters – and for her fellow Carmelite reformer, St. John of the Cross. It was a message that she saw as important for all believers, for the whole Body of Christ. As she wrote in  Conceptions of the Love of God,

 “Some people have all they need and a good sum of money shut up in their safe as well. Because they avoid serious sins, they think they have done their duty, They enjoy their riches and give an occasional alms, yet never consider that their property is not their own, but that God has entrusted it to them to share with the poor. . . . We have no concern with this except to ask God to enlighten such people. . . and to thank him for making us poor, which we should hold as a special favor on his part.”

This is quite a challenge for most of us, but reminds me of the call of Pope Francis to be a poor church, a church for the poor – or, as Pope Saint John XXIII hoped, a church of the poor.


Ordinary holiness

“We, the ordinary people of the streets,
believe that this street, this world, where God has placed us,
is our place of holiness.”
Madeleine Delbrêl

When I was working in campus ministry in Ames, Iowa, and even now serving in rural Honduras, I often heard people lamenting that they weren’t involved in church as much as they wanted.

I would often ask them what they mean. “I don’t have time (or interest) in being active in any of the ministries in the church.”

My reaction has been the same, in the US and here in Honduras. “We live our faith not only in church, but more importantly in the world. If you cannot do something ‘in church’ live your faith in your ordinary life. Be the sign of the Church, of the Reign of God, in the world.”

In the US, in a talk during the Antioch retreat, I would tell students that God doesn’t want church mice. Lay people need to be the presence of Christ where they are, “whether in the bedroom or the boardroom” – in our daily work as well as in the church.

Here in Honduras I tell people that we need to live our faith in our daily life, making tortilla, weeding the corn field, studying in school.

Madeleine Delbrêl was a French Catholic lay women who died on October 13, 1964. In her life, in her foundation of small core groups of women living simply in community, wrote about the importance of immersion in the world.

Christ does not provide his followers with a set of wings to flee into heaven, but with a weight to drag them into the deepest corners of the earth. What may seem to be the specifically missionary vocation is in fact simply what it means to be embraced by Christ.

Despite any apparent contradiction, we diminish and falsify our love for Christ and the Church wherever we diminish that which draws us to the world and enables us to plunge ourselves into it. This is what the love of the world means, a love that is not an identification with the world, but a gift to it.

Most of us live our holiness in the world, not apart. We do not identify with the world, but we offer the world the gift of revealing Christ’s presence in our midst. This can be done, I believe, best where we find ourselves, in the ordinary work of our daily life.

The quotation is from an important book of Madeleine Delbrel, We, The Ordinary People of the Street. 

“Brother” Jacoba and Saint Francis

“Bring me the delicious almond cookies
that you prepared for me when I was ill in Rome.”
Saint Francis to “Brother” Jacoba, as he lay dying


There is one story about Saint Francis that deserves more attention – his beloved Roman friend, Giacoma Frangipane de Settesoli, also known as Lady or Brother Jacoba.

Francis seems to have met this wealthy woman who provided him with a place to stay while in Rome. She provided some land that the friars used as a hospice lepers. She later helped the Franciscans obtain the property that his now the church of San Francesco a Ripa Grande.

She was a great friend of Francis and arrived at the Porziuncula as Francis was dying. As Augusting Thompson writes in Francis of Assisi: a new biography:

“No outside visitors were permitted to see Francis, with one exception, a woman whose importance to him is known only from the stories told about the days immediately before his death. She was Jacoba de’ Settesoli, a matron of means from a prominent Roman family. Perhaps this woman belonged to the circle of pious Roman women that included the recluse Sister Pressede, of whom Francis was also very fond. Jacoba had provided Francis with lodging during his visits to Rome, and he remembered her with great fondness. She was probably the only woman with whom Francis ever developed a close friendship, one so close that he even called her a “brother” and excepted her from the rules excluding women from the cloister. He asked the brothers to send her a message, informing her of his impending death. He asked that she prepare him a gray shroud for burial, modeled on the burial robe used for monks of the Cistercian Order. In a moment of nostalgia, Francis also asked her to send him some of the confection of almonds and honey that the Romans called mostacciolo that she used to make for him during his visits.
“In fact, word of Francis’s decline had already reached Jacoba. Before his message could even be sent, she arrived at the friary. Asked what to do about the arrival of a woman, Francis, as in the past, told them that the rule of cloister did not apply to her, especially since she had traveled so far to see him. As it turned out, she had already bought gray cloth for the shroud, incense and wax for the funeral rites, and all the ingredients needed to make the mostacciolo. The brothers took her offerings to make the shroud and funeral candles. She prepared the confection, but Francis was now so sick that he could hardly eat any of it.”

Francis, ascetic though he was, did not hesitate to be close friends with a rich Roman woman, nor was he loathe to ask her to bring a special almond treat that she had prepared for him when he was sick in Rome. This was the man who would spread ashes on his food so that he would not enjoy it too much!

frate-jacopaFrancis, welcoming sister death, also welcomed “Brother” Jacoba and recognized the right of a righteousness woman to be present in the cloister where he was dying.

Brother Jacoba is an example of a woman who lived in the world but as a member of the Order of Penance (the lay Franciscans) did not hesitate to serve the poor and God’s people.

She is buried in the crypt of the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, close to the tomb of the saint who inspired her and who loved her almond treats.


The photo of Giotto’s Death of St. Francis in the church of Santa Croce in Florence was taken in February 2013.

The image of Frate Jacopa is from the website of the church of San Francesco a Ripa Grande

Father of the poor

Vanity of Vanities
All is Vanity.
Ecclesiastes 1:2

Saint Thomas of Villanova, whose feast is celebrated today, had all the reasons in the world to boast – a good family, a good education, a professorship in philosophy at twenty-six, prior and provincial of the Augustinians, archbishop. But I think he would more likely glory in being called “father of the poor” and “the almsgiver.”

When he was named archbishop of Valencia in 1544, he walked to his new archdiocese on foot, in his well-worn Augustinian habit with an old hat. The canons of the cathedral raised money to buy furniture for his dwelling, but he donated it to a local hospital. All that he accepted was a new hat.

He proceeded to reform his diocese, but he was most known for his generosity to the poor. Hundreds were fed every day. When someone complained that there were “unworthy poor,” taking advantage of his largesse, he noted that this is a concern for the police; he was called “to assist and relieve those who come to my door.”

He was, like many bishop saints, concerned for the poor – not only fed them but caring for foundling and poor brides. As he approached death he gave all his goods to the poor. He donated his bed to the prison but borrowed it until his death on September 8, 1555.

All is vanity – unless it is given to God and the poor.


Statue on the grounds of Villanova University, Villanova, Pennsylvania