The sad story of Oceania’s patron saint

Tomorrow the Church celebrates the memory of St Peter Chanel, who was the first martyr of Oceania, and an early member of the Marist Order. There is a detailed account of his life to be found here. 

Peter was one of those saints who did not, humanly speaking, have an easy life, being born poor, and having struggled to fulfil his vocation, which was to be a missionary. When he finally did manage to get to the South Seas, and the island of Futuna, he ministered there for just under four years, before finding a martyr’s death. As must be the case with so many, the fruits of his life’s work only became apparent after he was dead. It is said that Futuna is now a very Catholic place; but when Peter was alive, the progress must have been slow, and his murder at the hands of agents of the local king cannot count as a success from a worldly point of view.

The South Seas have always had a romantic aura about them, though the reality is rather different, and must have been very much so in the time of Saint Peter Chanel. But authors have woven their spell. The greatest to do so, in my humble opinion, is Somerset Maugham. His very famous short story “Rain” is set in the Pacific and features a moralistic Protestant missionary who persecutes Sadie Thompson, a prostitute. It is one of the greatest short stories ever written, and its atmosphere is wonderfully oppressive, but hardly a great advertisement for Pacific tourism. Also of note is The Narrow Corner, another sea-going tale of the Pacific.

But the most famous book about the Pacific must be The Coral Island by RM Ballantyne. Even people who have never read this book will find themselves more or less familiar with the tale of three boys cast ashore on an uninhabited atoll in the South Seas, and discovering the place to be a veritable Paradise. This was the story that was the template for The Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

Ballantyne’s book was once immensely popular, and I read it as a child, and I re-read it as an adult. I enjoyed it in my youth, but have found it since to be an extraordinary work. It is imperialist in tone, as well as being highly evangelical, and the didacticism grates on the reader. I am not sure I would give an unexpurgated copy to a modern twelve year old. But, and it is a huge but, the South Seas, thanks to Ballantyne, really do seem paradisiacal. Ballantyne was writing a mere fifteen years after the death of St Peter Chanel. He supposedly drew on his personal experiences of the South Seas, but the fictional story and the story of the Saint are so very different!

I will never go to the Pacific, I fear, but what prompts these thoughts is the fact that Saint Peter Chanel is my holy patron, as I was ordained priest on his feast day. May he intercede for us from Heaven; may he continue to bless the people of Futuna; and may be bless both the writer of this, and all who read it!