Monday, October 19, 2009

Notes on the Feast of the North American Martyrs.

In Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States, today is the Feast of the North American Martyrs. This liturgical commemoration of the seventeenth-century French Jesuits Jean de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues, Noël Chabanel, Antoine Daniel, Charles Garnier and Gabriel Lalemant and their lay assistants (donnés) René Goupil and Jean de la Lande honors the heroic sacrifice of missionaries who died while spreading the Gospel among the Huron (Wendat) and Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) peoples in present-day Ontario, Québec and upstate New York. Admired among their brother Jesuits for their zealous commitment to the Huron Mission and for their willingness to lay down their lives in the service of Christ, the North American Martyrs gradually attracted the devotion of the larger Church and were finally canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930.

The martyrdom of the eight saints remembered today occurred in the context of wider conflicts - both between the Huron and Iroquois and between the French and the English, who backed opposing tribes as part of an effort to further their own political and economic interests in North America. These conflicts ultimately brought about the near-destruction of the Huron nation and led to the death and dispersion of many native Christians. While the cause for which they gave their lives may appear to have failed, the North American Martyrs did not give their lives in vain. Another member of the Huron Mission, Italian Jesuit Francesco Giuseppe Bressani, expressed this point very eloquently in a letter to his Superior General, Father Vincenzo Carafa:
Do not imagine that the rage of the Iroquois and the loss of many Christians, and of many catechumens can bring to naught the mystery of the cross of Christ and the efficacy of his blood. We shall die, we shall be captured, burned, butchered. Be it so. Those who die in their beds do not always die the best deaths....
As a contemporary Jesuit who lives and works in relative comfort and security, I can't help but find something of an indictment in Father Bressani's words: Those who die in their beds do not always die the best deaths. And yet, the Society of Jesus still produces its fair share of Christian martyrs - over 300 Jesuits died for their faith over the course of the 20th century, and several more have done so in the last decade. Of course, the number of Jesuits who have lost their lives by martyrdom is relatively small; the reality has been - and likely will continue to be - that most Jesuits die in their beds.

Most of us are not called to martyrdom, it seems, but that is not to say that we cannot take inspiration from the example of Saints Jean de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues, and their companions. On the contrary, I believe that their witness can be a source of strength and inspiration for contemporary Jesuits in all of our varied ministries. Thus, I can say that my own humble efforts in the classroom at SJU are my way of taking part in the same great mission that energized the North American Martyrs. The idea that my mission coincides somehow with that Jean de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues can be quite sobering, but it has also given me courage and hope on difficult days. The Jesuit kinship I share with the North American Martyrs has given me a deeper sense of the reality of the communion of saints - in a very real way, those whom I call upon as holy intercessors are also my brothers in this least Society.

Aside from the connection that I share with the North American Martyrs as a member of the same Society of Jesus, I should note the role that they played in my own vocation story. Just as Georgetown University gave me my introduction to the Society, it also gave me an introduction to the Martyrs. The Hilltop's Dahlgren Chapel includes a stained glass window of St. Isaac Jogues, which you can see in the photo at the start of this post. If you'll look closely, you'll notice the damage to the saint's hands: in an attempt to prevent Jogues from being able to offer the Eucharist, the priest's Iroquois captors chewed off both of his thumbs and forefingers. (It was all for naught, of course, as Jogues later received a papal indult that allowed him to continue saying Mass despite the loss of the canonical digits.)

When I first saw this window in Dahlgren Chapel, I had no idea who Isaac Jogues was. When I learned more about him, I found myself deeply moved by his story and the stories of his fellow martyrs. I came to feel a deeper association with Isaac Jogues and his companions when I lived in Copley Hall, a student residence that includes a chapel named for the North American Martyrs. Somewhere along the way, I remember being told (though I don't remember by whom or on what authority) that St. Isaac Jogues was the patron of Georgetown University. At the time of my First Vows, I took Isaac Jogues as my vow name partly as a way of honoring the saint's link with the place where I first encountered the Society of Jesus and began to feel the stirrings of a Jesuit vocation. On his feast day, I pray in thanksgiving for the gift of my vocation and for the bonds that unites all Jesuits, past, present and future. AMDG.


At 10/19/2009 10:43 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

Isaac Jogues is a favorite saint - not the least for his willingness to go back again. The Jesuit Center where I go often is at the old novitiate, named for Isaac Jogues.

Martyr means a "witness" - and even if we die in our beds, we can be that!

At 10/20/2009 7:53 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

That's really awesome. I actually intended on commenting on how Wernersville's retreat center is named St. Isaac Jogues and I also totally dig the Jesuit Center...but I was beaten to it.

The idea of martyrdom is really tough for me--even when I was reading 'Silence' I thought to myself...well obviously I would have apostosized, doesn't God have a better purpose for me alive than dead?

Also, I just went mad because I could've sworn that I read in 'Silence' or elsewhere that there were more Japanese Jesuit martyrs than any others, but there weren't any on the link you put up. But those are just from the 20th Century. I still don't know if what I read is correct...I'll just assume I'm right until I am proven wrong.

At 10/20/2009 8:22 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

I thought about mentioning the Wernersville link to Isaac Jogues in my post, but opted not to - thanks to both of you for bringing it up. Wernersville is also a special to me, as I made my first Ignatian retreat there as a Georgetown undergrad and returned there later while I was in discernment.

On the martyrdom point, your comments made me think of a line from one of Flannery O'Connor's stories: "She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick." I suppose that the idea of dying violently is one reason that many people fear martyrdom. Still, I think Sal raises a more serious challenge: is it better to die for one's faith if one can better serve God's purposes alive - even, perhaps, if one must commit outward apostasy to stay alive? A hard question to answer.

Sal, I don't have an answer handy to the question about Japanese Jesuit martyrs... However, I do recall that when I was reading Tylenda's "Jesuit Saints and Martyrs" the stories seemed to blend together after a while because there were so many from Japan and from Civil War-era Spain.


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