Saint of the Month: St. Just de Bretenieres

St. Just de Bretenières was a missionary priest and a martyr for the Faith in Korea. Just was born in 1838 at Chalons-sur-Saone in eastern France. His father was the Baron of the nearby town of Bretenières. Just had a younger brother named Christian. The family was well-to-do, and the boys had a nurse and a governess. They were well educated and studied under a German priest during their teen years.


The family spent summers touring around Europe, gaining inspiration from the natural beauty and the resplendent works of art that reflected the beauty of Christendom that had existed there for many centuries. Just obtained his Bachelor degree at Lyons. When he was eighteen, he knew German well enough to translate a book on Christian art from German to French. When he was twenty, he began studying philosophy and theology for the priesthood with the Sulpician priests in Paris. Their special charism was education for the diocesan priesthood. His classmates there remembered him as modest and very devoted to his studies.


In 1859, Just transferred to the Seminary for Foreign Missions, also in Paris, after deciding that he was called to serve as a missionary. His parents were saddened, knowing that such a vocation would likely cost him his life. They did not oppose his decision, however, and gave him their support. He studied there for five years, greatly impressing his classmates with his self-discipline and detachment from material things. He especially studied in depth the writings from the great sixteenth century Carmelite Doctors, Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. After graduating with ten others and being ordained, Just was informed of his assignment to go to Korea with three others. Before he left, he and Christian both recalled a long-forgotten childhood memory, when Just had a deeply moving vision of Chinese people beckoning him to come to them.
In the summer of 1864, the group of four priests traveled by boat, arriving at Hong Kong after forty days. Korea was a dangerous place for missionaries, and entering the country took careful planning. The four finally reached their mission near Seoul, and Just was secretly housed in the cramped back room of a local Christian, with the mission’s Bishop Berneux nearby. The space was so small that the very tall priest could not even stand up straight. He endeavored to learn the language and wrote letters to his family back home. He had learned enough of the language to hear confessions and do some teaching. Masses were held there frequently, and the faithful traveled as far as one hundred miles to visit the mission.


During the winter of 1865, a traitorous Christian betrayed them, resulting in the arrest of Bishop Berneux on February 23, and Father Just four days later. Father was tried and interrogated but only made one reply, “I came to Korea to save souls, and I will joyfully die for God.” He endured four more interrogations and trials, each including the punishment of the bastinade, where the victim was beaten about the legs and feet with rods or sticks. Between these ordeals, he was returned to prison with his severe injuries unattended. Finally, he was sentenced to death and sent to a jail cell where he was tortured with round-the-clock bell ringing. Fortunately, he was kept there with Bishop Berneux and the three other priests, and they could at least console and encourage each other. On March 8, the five prisoners were subjected to humiliating tortures. Bishop Berneux was the first to be decapitated. Twenty-eight year old Just was next, and he had his face burned, was suspended from a pole and finally beheaded, followed by the three other priests. The remains of the group were thrown into a mass grave and recovered several months later and given a proper burial.
St. Just de Bretenières’s family in France only learned of his death many months after the fact. When their bishop brought the sad news, the family gathered with him to pray the ancient Te Deum. They also received the happy news that a dramatic conversion of a hardened heart had been obtained due to their son’s intercession. His self-sacrificing decision to commit himself to the salvation of souls in a dangerous faraway land demonstrates heroic virtue. He was canonized in Seoul, South Korea in 1984 with his four companions: Siméon-François Berneux, Henri Dorie, Jacque Chastan, and Louis Beaulieu, as well as ninety-eight other Korean martyrs. His remains are kept in a reliquary in the church in Bretenières. His feast day is September 20.