John stood on the deck of the small merchant ship and looked out across the waters. From this vantage point, he had a clear view of the coast of the tiny island. He squinted, shielding his eyes from the bright September sun. He strained to see some sign of the friends he had left behind here, for this was not his first visit.
He was only 29, but he had traveled extensively throughout the Pacific Seas. He had spent months here on this remote island, living and working, praying and suffering. He was so anxious to return, saying that his very heart had been left behind there.
That morning in 1855 John thought he had nothing – yet everything -to lose by returning to Woodlark. When he saw the grass roofs of the natives’ huts, he prayed for a glimpse of his brother priests. Instead he saw only a group of men paddling toward the Gazelle in canoes.
In moments they were onboard. Avicoar, their leader, pushed aside the crew, moving swiftly toward John. He looked intently into the young priest’s eyes, and for a moment John hoped for the grace of reconcilation.
Instead, he was met with a blow. The sharp blade of Avicoar’s ax split open John’s head, and he was dead.
It was over. Fr. John Mazzucconi, PIME’s first martyr, had come to the islands with hope – hope that he could offer the gift of the Gospel, and that that gift would be received. Instead, he was met with sickness, suffering, and violence. He died at the hands of those he had given his life to serve.
Stories like this are hard to take – even for people of faith. Blessed John Mazzucconi died for his faith. He died for his missionary calling. And how many souls were saved as a direct result of his sacrifice?
At first glance, we’d have to say none.
That’s right, none. Zero. According to Fr. Nicholas Maestrini’s biography of Mazzucconi (Mazzucconi of Woodlark: Priest and Martyr) Fr. John and his companions saw no real change in the people of the island. The did not seem to even hear the message that he was willing to die for.
So was his life a failure? Was his mission work a waste of time?
This morning I came across a book about the islands of Papua New Guinea, where the island of Woodlark is located. As I glanced at the vivid photographs, snug in my safe midwestern office, far from the wild lands of mission fields, I was shocked. The images showed a land and people who looked nothing like my own. I know they are God’s children, as I am, but in my ignorance of their culture and customs I felt frightened by them.
I imagined the courage it took for young John to travel to those islands so many years ago. He couldn’t imagine the culture he was about to confront. He had no idea how strange their customs would be, how bizarre their beliefs compared to his own.
He had no book of photographs to prepare him like I did. He couldn’t just google “remote island in the Pacific” and find out what was in store for him.
When I saw these photographs this morning, I thought about the absolutely amazing qualities missionaries – in John’s day and today – must possess.
Today’s missionaries might know more about the lands they’ll visit and the people they serve. (In fact, the PIME Missionaries spend a great deal of time preparing their missionaries to adapt to the places they’ll visit.) However, they still need courage, and passion, and a sense of adventure to set out for those lands.
They also need a tremendous sense of trust. They must trust that God is the one at work in the hearts of all people. They must trust that even if they don’t see the results of their labors immediately, or even in their lifetime, God is using them powerfully.
John knew that. He knew his life had meaning and purpose.
He trusted God for the success of his mission. And God is in the business of providing for those who trust in him.
The PIME Missionaries left Woodlark, with no visible success, in 1855. They did not return until 1981; they maintain a presence there today. On the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea, there are about 40.000 people. The majority of them are Christians.