By Denise Trull
I would never have known about St. Theophane if it hadn’t been for St. Therese of Lisieux. She spoke of him often, calling him her dear brother and soul mate in her letters and writings. I find it quite a beautiful thing that saints have favorite saints. And I find it even more charming to imagine saints sitting by a window reading the Lives of Saints as we do.
Theophane was one of six children born to the local schoolmaster and his devout wife in the small town of Saint Loup, France in 1829. Theophane was a young man very much attached to his family like Therese was attached to hers. He was a lively, joyful and sincere little boy who delighted in reading the lives and adventures of many different martyrs with great enthusiasm, especially the story of his great hero Jean-Charles Cornay, who had faced martyrdom in the mission fields of Vietnam. Theophane longed to be one of Jean-Charles’s company, and so made the decision to become a missionary.
He was sent to the parish priest to study the rudiments of the Latin he was to need at the seminary, and in 1841 he completed his education at a local school. At eighteen he began his seminary training and was raised to the sub-diaconate before being transferred to the Paris Seminary of Foreign Missions where he was ordained to the priesthood in 1852 at the young age of 23. Almost immediately he was sent to the eastern missions, arriving in Singapore on New Years Day, 1853. He was not to leave his home without a heavy heart, made more so by the sorrow of his little sister who would miss him terribly. In a poignant letter he poured out his tender heart to her:
“Yes, I well know the sorrow I was to bring upon on my family. I think there will be a special sorrow for you, my dear little sister. But don’t you think it cost me bloody tears, too? By taking such a step I knew that I would give all of you great pain. Whoever loved his home more than I do? All my happiness on this earth was centered there. But God, who has united us all in bonds of most tender affection, wanted to draw me from it.”
Theophane’s greatest sacrifice was leaving this beautiful, serene, joyful home created for him by two loving parents and shared by his sisters and brothers. Therese was to know that pain as well. Perhaps reading Theophane’s letter gave on her the courage at fifteen to leave her father and sisters at home, and be more certain that she was doing the right thing by flying to Carmel.
Theophane traveled to Hong-Kong, where he remained fifteen months studying the Chinese language. In a providential change of plans, he was sent to assist Bishop Pierre-André Retord, at his mission in West Tonkin, which now is modern day Northern Vietnam. Shortly after his arrival a new royal edict was issued against Christians, and all the bishops and priests scrambled to seek refuge in caves and the woods surrounding the area. Theophane headed to the mountains, and bravely continued to minister to his people there, mostly under cover of night. He was eventually captured in 1860 and was sent to Hanoi. He was asked to deny Christ in order to save his life and he cheerfully but flatly refused. His sentence: to be beheaded. This was not to happen for several months, however, and during this time he lived in a small cage. From this cramped prison, Theophane was to write the most beautiful letters to his family. One particular letter to his father was to be the inspiration for Therese naming herself the Little Flower of Jesus.
“We are all little 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.”
Theophane was such a lovely, gentle, merry soul that his captors could not bring themselves to hurt him the way they would have done to other Catholics caught by the authorities. He spoke with his guards often about their families and their sorrows and shared memories of his own family life with them. They grew to love him in those few, short months. Often they would let him out of the cage to walk about the camp and pray the rosary. He was often allowed to go hear the confessions of his fellow prisoners. But in the end, Theophane was to face a martyr’s death on February 2, 1861 at the age of 32. He had at last shed his blood for Jesus, the great dream of his heart.
Therese always wanted to be a martyr like her soul mate Theophane. Her calling to be the ‘heart of the Church’ in Carmel was to be different, but no less heroic in its sacrifice. I think Therese, who was not naturally outgoing and cheerful, being quite shy and melancholic by nature, took Theophane as a model for her life in the monastery. She became joyful, serene, and quiet perhaps because Theophane helped her to be. How lovely to think that it was his influence that made us love what she became. Their bond shows us how important it is for us to read the lives of saints to our children. There they will find their own friends and helpers and soul mates just as Theophane found Jean-Charles Cornay and Therese, in turn, found Theophane.
Pope St. John Paul II declared this merry young martyr a saint on June 19, 1988. I can’t help but think that Therese laughed out loud in joy on that day and rejoiced with her brother in Christ as only one saint can delight in another; these two little flowers forever entwined and growing up in the house of the Lord.
St. Theophane Venard, pray for us!