FEAST OF BLESSED JOHN MAZZUCCONI
PNG Missionary and Martyr (1855)
25 (23) September 2012
“DO NOT BE AFRAID of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Mt 10:28). Jesus teaching indeed applies to the celebration of the martyrs. When we read about their lives and observe their attitude, we come to know that this lack of fear was there for them not only at the moment they suffered violent death, but already when they replied God’s call by saying: Yes! It was true for Jesus. He knew that he would probably shed his blood for the salvation of mankind. He didn’t run away from his future and his destiny.
Blessed John Mazzucconi and his companions didn’t either.All of them were ready for martyrdom and clearly anticipated that, at that time, in the Pacific islands it was very much a possibility.
The Church has declared five persons from the Pacific islands as blessed or saints. Three of them are martyrs: St. Peter Channel, martyred at Wallis & Futuna in 1841, Blessed John Mazzucconi, martyred at Woodlark, Milne Bay province, Papua New Guinea in 1855, and Blessed Peter ToRot, martyred at Rabaul, East New Britain province, Papua New Guinea in 1945. Then we have St. Fr. Damien of Molokai (1889), Hawai Islands, and St. Mary MacKillop (1909) of Australia. Many more, however, offered their lives for the Gospel in the Pacific in different circumstances and all of them we remember today.
WHO WAS JOHN MAZZUCCONI? He was a young priest aged only 29, born in 1816 and killed in 1855. He had left his native Italy for Melanesia in 1852. In a group of seven missionaries they travelled for about 110 days by ship from England to Sydney. From there they reached the Solomon Islands and then sailed west towards what is now Papua New Guinea. In October 1855 they landed at Guasopa Bay, Woodlark Is. There they divided into two groups. Some stayed at Guasopa. Others, including John Mazzucconi, proceeded to Rook Is., now called Umboy in the Siassi group, Morobe province.
They were not the first Catholic missionaries to reach Woodlark and Siassi. In fact they went there to help and possibly replace the French Marists, who had arrived a few years earlier (1847). It is meaningful for us to realize that the first attempts to announce the Good News to people and lands of what was to become modern Papua New Guinea was the work of French and Italian missionaries in mid nineteenth century; and this took place in Milne Bay and Morobe provinces.
We know, however, that by human standards those pioneers were not successful. They met with isolation, malaria, starvation, misunderstanding and opposition by the natives... They were also very young and inexperienced. Their determination to sail for Melanesia was not really supported by their Superiors in Europe, who could anticipate the difficulties and possibly the failure in a so distant, difficult and isolated land.
It was on this struggle to hang on to Woodlark and Siassi that John Mazzucconi met his death. In March 1855 he travelled from Siassi to Sydney on a small boat that happened to come around to load copra and other goods in order to recuperate from severe malaria. Later on all his companions from Siassi and Woodlark decided to do the same and possibly leave for good. They reached Sydney in late August 1855, five days after Mazzucconi had decided to return to Woodlark and from there to his mission in Siassi. They could not meet and they would never meet again.
The natives of Guasopa Bay had decided to get rid of any missionary that would try to set foot on their island again. Most of them hated the preaching of the missionaries and opposed them teaching catechism to their children.
Mazzucconi’s boat, therefore, was attacked and all the crew killed along with the priest on board as it approached Guasopa Bay and accidentally hit the reefs presumably on one day of September 1855. That’s why we now celebrate his Feast on the 25th of this month.
In 1981 the Catholic Church declared that John Mazzucconi was killed “in hatred of the faith” (in odium fidei) and therefore he was martyr. On 19 February 1984 Pope John Paul II declared him a Blessed in Rome. Eleven years later Peter ToRot also was to be declared a blessed in Port Moresby. No other country in the Pacific enjoys the blessing and the protection of two officially declared martyrs, one a priest, Blessed John, the other a lay man, Blessed Peter, both slain “in hatred of the faith” in Jesus Christ, the first by native people, the second by Japanese forces of occupation.
It is said that “THE BLOOD OF MARTYRS IS THE SEED OF NEW CHRISTIANS”. The question is: what does this concretely mean for PNG today? What does it mean for us students, young people, leaders of the future in this country, which claims to be “Christian” by Constitution (Mama Lo)? I would like you to give the answer, not me! You are the young, you are the students, you are the leaders of the near future, you are Papuanewguineans.
On my part I would just like to stress and remind each one of us of what moved the early missionaries from the relatively comfortable life and Church ministry of mid nineteenth century Europe to the totally unknown of Melanesia. It was not adventure. It was not colonial ambition. It was not curiosity for new places. No! We don’t find those things in their writings and records. We only find that it was LOVE. It was an immense love for Christ, his Gospel and the people. They really believed that people could not have eternal happiness without the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
We are free to share or to reject the same belief. We are free to give whatever definition we wish of Christian and Catholic, or as we sometime say of “staunch Catholic”. We are free to give our own interpretation, but never forget what Jesus says. In his words the one who “staunchly” follows him is the one who forgives seventy times seven, the one who never neglects the orphan and the widow, the one who takes up his cross as He did to the point of giving up his /her life...
Do we normally forgive or do we normally bash up people? Do we take care of the poor in the settlements, who want to improve themselves or do we keep them as much as possible at bay? Do we reserve all our intellectual, financial and physical energies for the good of our own person, our family and our community or do we waste our natural talents with alcohol, marijuana addiction or neglect of self?
We know that there is a long way to go for us and for any person or country to be a truly Christian country, not only on paper in the Constitution, but in facts and life. Knowing about Blessed Peter and Blessed John’ life may help. May their dedication, selfishness, love of God, love of the people (especially the poor), readiness to forgive become common attitude of people of modern Papua New Guinea. May it become our own personal common attitude!
Fr Giorgio Licini PIME
22 September 2012