They came to Canada not to take what they could at the expense of others, but to give the greatest gift they knew, at the expense of their lives.
One of my three favorite places in the world is the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York. It is dedicated to the 17th-century saints we celebrate on October 19 — St. Isaac Jogues, St. John de Brébeuf, and their missionary companions.
Some day I hope to be able to imitate their virtues. I have a long way to go.
First, I would have to consider Jesus a gift worth suffering for — not just to receive but to give.
Pope Francis has said, “Knowing Jesus is the best gift that any person can receive; that we have encountered him is the best thing that has ever happened in our lives, and making him known by our words and deeds is our joy.”
This is what the North American martyrs believed, so much so that they requested the work of going into the wilds of “New France” to share Jesus. Father Isaac Jogues was well aware what he faced. He had heard the stories of what certain tribes would do to outsiders.
“These tortures are very great,” he said, “but God is still greater, and immense.”
Second, I would have to be willing to “waste” my talents and education.
These 17th-century Jesuits were the cream of the crop — excellent students who studied a wide array of subjects. They had studied the best ideas in theology, philosophy, and science.
Their life in the wild was far from the halls of the French academies they came from. On the 19-day journey to the Huron village where he would stay, Isaac Jogues ate only a little bit of corn each day and slept outside on rocks. The most painful part, though, was the canoe ride.
The Natives spent a lifetime riding in their canoes, perfecting the muscle movements needed to handle them, but Jogues had to spend all of his energy just keeping upright. “The posture that you take in the canoe is the most uncomfortable; you are not able to stretch your legs, so small and crowded is it. You dare not move, even a little, for fear of causing the canoe to capsize,” the priest wrote.
Third, I would have to love like Jesus, who sees our worth despite our cruelty.
Throughout their time with the Indians, the Jesuits witnessed the ferocity of tribal battles and the cruelty with which tribes treated enemies who fell into their hands. They knew they could be next, too. Plagues or bad crops would be blamed on the “Blackrobes,” which is what natives called the priests. Certain tribes were dead-set against him.
“These Iroquois swore if they ever took another Frenchman captive, they would burn him alive over a slow fire, in the same way that they inflict the direst tortures on their other prisoners,” he said — yet he refused every opportunity he had to leave his flock for something safer.
Four: I would have to learn to embrace hardship, even when it seemed to gain nothing.
One astonishing theme in the notes of these missionaries is their appreciation of hard circumstances as good in themselves.
“As for the dangers of the soul, to speak frankly, there are none,” Father John de Brébeuf said. “Is it not a great deal to have in one’s food, clothing, sleep, no other attraction than bare necessity? Is it not a glorious opportunity to unite oneself with God when there is nothing else whatsoever that gives you reason to spend your affections upon it?”
Five: I would have to accept tortures that made me immediately recognizable to strangers …
The worst happened in 1642 when rival Indians captured Father Jogues and put him through a gauntlet of torture in which his fingernails were torn out, his fingers bitten until bone showed, and his thumb cut off. He was held captive for more than a year before he escaped.
On the way to France he had to pass through the Protestant town of New York at a time when Protestants and Catholics did not associate with each other.
He was surprised when a young man saw him, dropped to his feet, and kissed his mangled hands, shouting, “Martyr of Jesus Christ! Martyr of Christ!”
“Are you Catholic?” asked Father Jogues.
“No, I am Lutheran,” said the man. “But I recognize you as one who has suffered for the Master.”
2019 was a year of Christian martyrs
Six: … but unrecognizable to my friends.
When Father Jogues made it back to France just before Christmas, the rector heard that he came from Canada and asked, “Do you know Father Jogues?”
“I know him very well,” said Father Isaac.
“Is he dead? Have they murdered him?” asked the rector.
“He is alive,” answered Father Isaac, “and it is he who speaks to you!”
The harrowing experience had left Jogues looking like a different man. Nonetheless, he requested to return to the missions, where he was martyred in 1646.