Blessed John Mazzucconi and the New Guinea Battlefield

A few weeks ago I was browsing in the biography section of our monastery library, when a book with an attractive blue cover caught my eye. On the cover was a color photograph of a beach in the Pacific islands with coconut trees and grass shacks. It must have looked idyllic to anyone who had never been there. I suspected correctly that it was New Guinea, where I had spent some time with the Fifth Air Corps during World War II. The book was Mazzucconi of Woodlark, Priest and Martyr by Fr. Nicholas Maestrini, PIME. I had never heard of Blessed John Mazzucconi, and Woodlark didn’t ring a bell, but looking at the photographs, I noticed one that read, “Guazup Bay, the scene of Blessed John’s martyrdom.” Suddenly a bell rang: “Goosap!” (evidently the best the GIs could do with Guazup). A song popped into my head which I hadn’t heard for over fifty years, from 1943 and 1944, to be exact. Sung to the tune of “The Blues in the Night” it was something like:

From Nadzab to Wewak, from Wewak to Goosap,
Wherever the Ramu flows…
A worrisome thing that leads me to sing
The New Guinea blues.

This is a typical G.I. song with the usual doggerel lyrics, but which a little bit catches the mood of a place. But I had better back up a little…

New Guinea is a huge island over a thousand miles long shaped something like a bird. The Western end is called the Vogelkopf, “bird’s head” in Dutch, and the Eastern end, like a swallowtail, is Milne Bay. In early 1943, Milne Bay was the first place the Japanese suffered a defeat, being turned back in their drive to Australia by a handful of Americans and Australians. Just north of the top tail feathers is Woodlark Island, where on Guazup Bay the Americans built an airstrip, known to the GIs as Goosap. From Goosap, for the first time, American fighter planes could reach Rabaul on the northern tip of New Britain, the main Japanese airbase in the region. My outfit moved into Milne Bay in late 1943, when it was just being used as a staging area. From there we moved a few hundred miles down the coast to Finchafen, the scene of another American and Australian victory some months earlier. Part of our outfit moved across the narrow Vitiaz Strait to an airfield on the southern tip of New Britain, Cape Gloucester, which had been captured by the Marines a few weeks previously, and from this and other fields the big Japanese airbase at Rabaul was effectively neutralized. But in the narrow strait between Finchafen and Cape Gloucester there is a tiny island called Rook, where Blessed John and his companions had labored unsuccessfully for three years. Of course, I had no idea that in those days we were following, at least for our first two stops, in the footsteps of a saint and martyr, and I devoured the book in a few hours.

Blessed John was a member of the newly founded “Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions,” popularly known as “P.I.M.E.,” from the initials of the title of the Society in Latin,[1] an association of diocesan priests dedicated to the foreign missions, similar to the Paris Foreign Mission Society. It was founded in 1850 at the suggestion of Blessed Pope Pius IX by Bishop Angelo Ramazzotti, who later became Bishop of Pavia and Patriarch of Venice. Seven PIME missionaries, five priests and two brothers, arrived at Woodlark in 1852. Two priests and one brother remained at Woodlark, and the other three priests, including John, and one brother, went on to Rook.

Blessed John Mazzucconi

Unfortunately, John contracted malaria his very first night on Rook, and the other missionaries succumbed shortly thereafter. Soon the bodies of the men became covered with sores and they were reduced to walking skeletons. This recalled to me my own experience as a G.I. The men in my outfit knew that malaria was spread by the anopheles mosquito, which only operated from dusk to dawn, so we tried to take extra precautions during that time. Just in case, though, we had an effective anti-malarial drug, Atabrine. We also knew that what we called “jungle rot” was aggravated primarily by the loss of body salt due to continual perspiration, so we took salt tablets to counteract this. Still, with all these safeguards, in the two years we spent in the tropics, my outfit suffered eighty percent casualties from sickness. In the Philippines I had jungle rot so badly on my hands, that I had to be pulled off the “line” and placed on “quarters” for a few weeks. My hands didn’t completely heal till after the war, when I had been home for about six months.

“ ‘Mazzucconi on mate, mate’ means ‘Mazzucconi, you are very, very, very sick.’ This is what the children were shouting to John through the holes in the walls of the hut. Inside in the dim light of the hut, John was lying on a mat in a raging fever, a victim of malaria, with his mouth wide open breathing heavily, eyes swollen.

“The voices persisted. ‘Mazzucconi on mate, mate.’ The children repeated these words while the mind of the poor missionary strayed far away into a dangerous and frightening world. All of a sudden he turned his head toward the wall from which the voices came and with a sweet smile, in a faint voice, he murmured, ‘No, no. On the contrary, I am well and I am happy.’

“Brother Joseph, sitting nearby, lovingly attended the sick patient who kept on repeating, ‘I am well and happy.’ “[2]

On March 17, 1855, Brother Joseph Corti died of fever on Rook. He was the first PIME missionary to die at his mission post in a mission land. They buried him beside their elder missionary brothers who preceded them in this inhospitable land, Bishop Collomb and Father Villien of the Marists, who had also succumbed to fever.

“From the religious point of view, the Woodlark area already had a painful history. The first Bishop of Melanesia was the Marist Bishop Epalle who, on December 1, 1845, landed on San Cristobal in the Solomons with seven Marist priests and six lay brothers. From there, on December 16th, he proceeded to Isabel Island, where he planned to establish his headquarters. However, as soon as he landed he was surrounded by a group of natives who, shouting and screaming wildly, attacked him with an axe, wounding him on the head… After three days of intense suffering, Bishop Epalle died, offering his young life for the conversion of the island. He was buried there, and the surviving missionaries returned to San Cristobal.

“Early in 1847 young Father Crey died of malaria; later, on April 20th, Fathers Paget and Jacquet and Brother Hyacinth were attacked by the Toro tribe on the Eastern coast of San Cristobal and were killed and eaten at a grand banquet.

“The new Bishop Collumb returned in August from Australia and New Zealand where he had been consecrated Bishop. He decided to move the mission headquarters from San Cristobal to Woodlark, where he arrived on September 15, 1847, hoping that the Woodlark natives might be more responsive to the faith. Much to his disappointment, he soon found out that the natives were as antagonistic to the missionaries as those on San Cristobal. Undaunted by this setback, he decided to expand his missionary work and, as soon as he received more missionaries from France, he went to open a new mission on Rook Island, about 600 miles to the North of Woodlark, between the Island of New Britain and New Guinea.

“Only two months later his efforts came to an abrupt end when he died from malaria and intestinal complications. Another young priest [Father Villiers] also died four months later. The surviving priests then decided to abandon Rook and return to Woodlark.”[3]

I was not surprised to read that Brother Luigi Tacchini, PIME, who labored on Woodlark became mentally ill and died later in a mental hospital. The mental strain the missionaries were under must have been very similar to that of combat. They were hated by the natives who blamed them for every sickness and natural disaster, and they lived under constant threat of massacre. In my own outfit, out of the hundred, we had nine break down mentally, including our former C.O. As a matter of fact, it was because of such a breakdown that I happened to join my outfit. They had trained together for two years in the States, and in 1943 were stationed on an airfield at Townsville in northern Australia. I went overseas as a replacement, the worst way to go, and was in a huge replacement depot in Brisbane. When my outfit was alerted to “go north,” — a euphemism for moving up to New Guinea (even the words “New Guinea” were scary) — one soldier suffered a complete mental collapse. Feeling very apprehensive, I came up all alone as his replacement, but Our Lady was good. I was assigned to a tent in which everybody’s last name began with an S, and it turned out that they were the nicest guys in the outfit.

But what endeared Blessed John to me was not just the fact that I was a little familiar with the area where he labored, and could sympathize with his extreme physical sufferings, but because he believed that the natives (“his children” as he called them) would go to hell unless they became Catholic before they died. Father Maestrini writes disapprovingly:

“What motivated a young man in those days to dedicate his life to the foreign missions in spite of incredible hardships and probable death at the hands of persecutors? Like his contemporaries John was deeply convinced that all non-Christians would go to hell for all eternity. The thought that millions of souls would suffer eternal fire (as he believed) was enough to prompt him to make the hardest sacrifices. John related that when, out of obedience to his spiritual director, he discontinued thinking about his missions and concentrated his thoughts on his future priesthood, the question persistently recurring in his mind was: ‘But what type of priest should I be? A priest at home or in the foreign missions?’ When he was thinking about saving souls, it seemed to him that thousands of voices were begging him in despair: ‘Cross the oceans, come and save us!’[4]

Blessed John was born on March 1, 1826, in Lecco, a suburb of Milan, the ninth of twelve children of Giacomo Mazzucconi and Anna-Maria Scuri, and baptized the following day, Giovanni Battista. Three of John’s brothers and sisters died in early childhood, seven entered religious life, and only two remained in the world, where they had led exemplary Catholic lives. But even with such wonderful parents, John’s father wondered why should he go far away to work among “savages”; couldn’t he do good even at home?

“This was the voice of nature speaking, and it was not difficult for John to win over his father. With enthusiasm and passion he described to him the miserable state of infidels who were condemned to go to hell because nobody cared to preach Christ to them. Giacomo, who was profoundly Christian, was so moved by his son’s eloquence and convincing arguments that, bowing his head to the will of God, he said: ‘If it is really as you say, son, then go quickly. Don’t waste any time.’ “[5]

Father Maestrini attempts to rebut the doctrinal basis of Blessed John’s zeal for the missions:

“One may remark that, after all, John’s motive to devote his life to work in the foreign missions was based on the common belief prevailing in those days that all the “infidels” were condemned to hell and that only those persons who would come to know Christ and would become members of the Catholic Church would have a chance to attain eternal salvation. This doctrine, of course, was never defined by the Church in those terms, but it certainly was the current belief in Mazzucconi’s time. Today we know differently because Vatican II has officially clarified this point of doctrine and has affirmed that non-Christians also can be saved without becoming Christians if they follow the dictates of their conscience.”[6]

Father Maestrini, whose beliefs on this point are utterly irreconcilable with Catholic teachings, has yet another complaint about Blessed John’s view of the Church:

Guazup Bay, where Blessed John was martyred

“According to the belief of those days, John liked to consider the Church as a great kingdom at war. He saw the necessity for some of the officers to remain behind the front lines to watch the flock, to keep peace and order and to prepare and train new soldiers, but he could not understand the incredible indifference of so many Christians toward the front line fighters. In his mind the only true heroes in the world were those who brought the Gospel to the remotest areas of the world in spite of savage people and all kinds of difficulties and hardships. This war was fought on the side of Jesus, the great captain and King. John considered the divine command, ‘Go and teach all nations and preach the Gospel to all creatures’ (Mark 16:16), as a personal directive given to him by Christ Himself. In these days, after Vatican II, no longer is the Church considered as a fighting army in the battle of good against evil, but rather as a sign of salvation for all men. The difference between these two concepts is mainly a matter of emphasis. The fact remains that the message of Christ, ‘salvation for all,’ must be communicated to all, and men must ‘fight the good fight of faith’ (I Tim 6:12) to achieve salvation.”[7]

What upset John most about “his children” in New Guinea was their practice of infanticide, a practice which would probably endear them to today’s abortionists and the campaigners for “Zero Population Growth.”

“In order to persuade the savages to give up the monstrous practice of killing babies, the missionaries offered generous gifts to those who would entrust the children to them rather than kill them. Needless to say, the natives, with their inborn spirit of cheating, exploited the missionaries to the best of their ability. In spite of promises, assurances, oaths, etc., after they received the gifts they wanted they never turned over a single child with the exception of a newborn baby girl who was finally delivered to them for a very high price. The Superior, Father Reina, baptized her, but she died a few days later. That was the first and, unfortunately, the only baptism performed on that inhospitable land.”[8]

Father John became so sick that when a ship by chance arrived at Rook, the Superior, Father Reina, ordered him back to Sydney, Australia to recuperate. While John was gone, Father Salerio, the superior on Woodlark arrived with letters from the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. The Roman officials urged them to consider other fields where the people might be less reluctant to accept the faith. Reluctantly they left Rook, and the first group of PIME missionaries was reunited after three long years of separation at Woodlark. The missionaries decided to rejoin John in Sydney and await further orders from Rome and Milan. Since several deaths among the natives, especially in the chiefs’ families had just taken place, which the natives attributed to John and his companions, the various chiefs resolved independently of one another to kill them. It was just a question of who got to them first. But they left unexpectedly on a chance ship, narrowly escaping a general massacre. Meanwhile John, having partially recovered his health, and having purchased an enormous load of supplies, impatiently set sail for Woodlark on a ship called the Gazelle. The ship from Woodlark and the ship from Sydney must have passed each other at night on the Coral Sea.

“[A] stream of canoes from nearby villages around the bay moved toward the ‘Gazelle’ [which had run aground on a coral reef at the entrance of Guazup Bay] …Their leader was a man by the name of Avicoar, well known to the missionaries for his antagonistic attitude. In order not to arouse any suspicion in the crew, the savages decided to leave their arrows and shields at home and took along only the hatchets, which they could hide among the leaves in their grass skirts. Three crewmen from the ‘Gazelle’, working from the sloop, were trying in vain to free the ship from the coral reef. The natives reaching the schooner pretended to sympathize with the white men and promised them help. None of the savages touched or threatened the three crewmen. Even Avicoar who, in spite of the protests of the captain, had succeeded in climbing on the deck, gave no thought to the crew. The murderers had something else in their hearts. The hatred of the missionaries and of their religion which had accumulated for so long in their minds demanded blood. First it was necessary to destroy that man whose very life personified the principles and righteousness which for three years had been a constant condemnation of their wayward ways.

“When Avicoar reached the bridge he did not even look at the Captain. In spite of the fact that he knew that the crew had guns (those terrible weapons which frightened the natives), he went directly toward Father Mazzucconi, who was easily distinguishable in his black cassock. He was the victim to be destroyed. Avicoar, feigning friendship, smiled and greeted the missionary, shaking his hand. Murderer and victim looked into each other’s eyes. Then Avicoar, thrusting his hand into his grass skirt, extracted the hatchet from his left side with frightening speed. The shiny metal glittered in the sun for a second and then with all the strength the sturdy native had, he hit Father John on the head. Under the impact of the blade, the priest stumbled for a moment looking for support, then collapsed on the deck with a split skull. His soul had already flown to that Heaven for which he had longed since his childhood.”[9]

In 1855 the PIME missionaries, and before them the Marists, had retreated from the New Guinea battlefield in apparent defeat, but when John Mazzucconi fell dead on the floor of the Gazelle, paradoxically the real battle for a New Guinea, the battle for souls, was won. Even when I was there in 1943 and 1944, I could see that many of the natives were Catholic because they were wearing Mary medals. But today there are one million Catholics in Papua, New Guinea (which became an independent country in 1975), one third of the total population!

When the PIME missionaries arrived in Sydney, Australia, they were cordially welcomed by the Marist Fathers, who assigned them Woodlark and Rook Islands as their territory. They sent veteran missionaries with them to train them, who remained with them for a year. In the Marist house in Sydney, John made good friends with the young “King of the Fiji Islands,” who had been brought there by the Marists to be educated. In one of his letters John relates:

“ ‘Yesterday, August 7th, this odd King came to my room all by himself to pay me a visit. I was deeply touched and, as I asked him to sit down, one of the holy pictures which I keep in my prayer book fell to the ground. He picked it up and looked at it with open admiration. I explained that it was a picture of Pope St. Gregory the Great in his pontifical robes wearing a tiara, a Gospel book in front of him and his eyes raised to Heaven. The picture was in red and green, and the King was greatly impressed by it. As we started to talk in English, I said:

“ ‘This is the great motuatapu (chief) whom we call Pope.’

“ ‘Ah, Popi, Popi!’ he exclaimed, and then he asked, ‘How many Popes are there?’

“ ‘In Heaven there is only one God, and on earth there is only one Pope,’ I answered.

“He started to clap his hands and shouted, ‘This is good. This is good.’

“ ‘Bye n’ bye Fiji all Pope!,’ meaning that one day all his people would become Catholics.”

On January 13, 1983, Pope John II beatified John Baptist Mazzucconi. By this solemn act our Holy Father infallibly taught, not in the ambiguous language that seems to have become the accepted literary form in this ecumenical age, but simply and clearly, that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church.

[1] Pontificum Institutum Missionum Exterarum.

[2] Nicholas Maestrini, PIME, Mazzucconi of Woodlark, Priest and Martyr, Catholic Truth Society, Hong Kong and PIME Missionaries, Detroit, 1983, p.149.

[3] Maestrini, pp.123, 124.

[4] Maestrini, op.cit. pp. 38, 39.

[5] Maestrini, p. 84.

[6] Maestrini, p. 186.

[7] Maestrini, p. 42

[8] Maestrini, p. 153.

[9] Maestrini, pp. 114-115.