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Martyrdom & Suffering

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North American Martyrs

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Tape #1 Side #1

Our reflections for this afternoon are on the North American Martyrs. That's the Church's official name, either the Martyrs of North America or the North American Martyrs and they were all members of the Society of Jesus. There were eight of them. It might be well to know who they were, or in Heaven, who they are. They were Saints John de Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues, Anthony Daniel, Gabriel Lalemant, Charles Garnier, Noel Chabanel, Rene Goupil and John Lalande. The last two were what we call, Oblates, they were not yet accepted and had not pronounced their vows, but the Society has always considered them members and surely martyrs of the Society of Jesus. All eight were canonized in 1930. They lived in the 17th century and the eight of them were killed for the faith between 1642 and 1649. The story of their martyrdom, and in fact the whole history of the founding of the faith in our country should be read. It is in some fifteen volumes called "The Jesuit Relations of North America". St. Ignatius himself kept a careful record, spiritual diary you might call it now, himself, he commended this to his followers and he passed on the duty of missionaries writing back regularly to their superiors in Rome and consequently, these fifteen volumes of the effect of that directive of obedience like most men, Jesuits were no different, by and large men are not good writers; they don't like to write. Young Jesuits will tell me they'll receive ten letters from mother to two paragraphs from their Dad. It's just the way it is. In any case, these men wrote in great detail the most thrilling account of missionary work ever published. Those Jesuit relations are available in print and would make excellent spiritual reading.

Our North American Martyrs labored in what is now northeastern United States, northern New York and on to New England and southeastern Canada, that is given our present national geography. A11 of that was then called 'New France'. You can see who conquered whom, the British conquered the French. All of these Martyrs were killed for the faith by the Indians because they preached Christ. Unlike what I've been doing so far because we have eight of them, I thought I would give you just a little episode here and there from the martyrdom of at least some of these eight. Rene Goupil was tomahawked in 1642, as far as we can tell, the first to go for making the sign of the cross on the brows of the children he was catechizing. The parents were angry and tomahawked him to death.

Isaac Jogues was first taken as a slave by the Mohawks in doing the most humiliating tasks among the Indians. He was tortured, in the process had his fingers chewed off. He managed to escape, went back to France and the question was--would he be able to say Mass. Pope Urban the 8th gave him permission. The Holy Father declared it would be unjust for a martyr of Christ not to drink the blood of Christ. So Isaac Jogues was, when he came back to the New World, was tomahawked to death. Anthony Daniel was offering Mass when the Iroquois attacked a Huron village. The Hurons were interested in the faith and Daniel was preaching among them and most of the people were interested in being received into the Church, but the Iroquois attacked. Daniel during the attack, ran around baptizing everybody in sight. Well, he baptized quite a few, but, he still saw a crowd that he had not reached so he took some wet rags and squeezed the water on these people while pronouncing the words of baptism. He himself did not try to escape. He was pierced with arrows and then all the people were huddled into a Church, the Church was set afire and the pierced body of Daniel, still breathing, was thrown into the Church where he had been offering Mass. From all accounts the worst tortures were reserved for Brebeuf and Lalemant. Among other excruciating pain which they had to suffer, they had their hands lopped off, had red hot hatchets applied to their bodies, then the Indians made belts of bark, soaked these belts in tar, bound their bodies with this resin dipped bark and set the bark and tar on fire. They were still not dead so pieces of their flesh were cut off with huge knives and miraculously they stayed alive so then the Indians to finish them off had cauldrons of boiling water poured on their bodies. It is no wonder given the circumstances of their martyrdom that the Indians were so impressed by the courage of these two men that after they died, the Indians drank their blood in order to acquire some of their courage.

Chabanel, who was one of the last martyrs, he vowed under the most excruciating pain and this went on for a long time, he vowed to remain among the Indians until he died, took a vow of perseverance until death. Finally, Garnier. He, too, like one of his conferees, died while he was teaching, in this case, already converted Indians. As you know the Indians, one tribe was always warring against another. Garnier, therefore, died while his Christians were being attacked and in order to make sure that they were all prepared for death, he went about, ran about actually, giving them absolution and then, he himself was killed with a blow of an Indian hatchet. So much for the description. All I know is that when I was a novice, you can't imagine with what delight I read these stories and thought to myself, "what a wonderful order I was joining". I can tell you their martyrdom has given me courage many times over the years. It's why I'm absolutely sure, although we've lost ten thousand Jesuits throughout the world, since the second Vatican Council, and the Pope as you know, is bound to reform the Father, St. Ignatius and I'm sure he's going to succeed and in my own little thimble way I'm trying to help the cause. I'm sure a reformation will take place and we'll get back to the spirit of Ignatius. We don't have men like this interceding for you in Heaven without assured success. So much for the collective biography.

What can we learn from these martyrs, let's call it their 'martyred spirituality'?

First of all, a deep faith. These are all highly-cultured, educated, intelligent men. I'm not sure anyone has ever mentioned this to you, but, for people who are intelligent, who know the ways of the world, women, but especially men, who are not notoriously pious by nature, to see a deep faith in such people is a powerful grace for everyone whose lives we touch. They went to totally illiterate, to say the least, uncultured barbarians and they did not think it was beneath them to try to learn the Indian dialect, which was quite a feat, because they had such a strong faith.

Second feature, from which we can all learn. They recognized as Christ, Himself more than once told us, "it is not enough to have the faith, we must proclaim it." One of the most frightening words of the Savior were the statement He made "anyone who will confess me before men I will confess before my Heavenly Father and he that is ashamed or afraid to profess me before men, I will not profess Him before my Heavenly Father." Read the letters of St. Paul ... made a veritable fool of themselves preaching to people who wanted to listen and those who didn't want to listen, didn't want to listen? We read what he endured from audiences that just didn't want to hear him. That's what inspired the North American martyrs. A true believer in Christ does not keep that faith to himself; he wants to share it and for all times just to make sure we know what we're saying, there are three ways we proclaim Christ. By what we say, by what we do and by how we live. And I'm not sure which of these three methods is the most effective. You people walking down the street in your religious habit are proclaiming Christ. Or the tavern that I walked into last night when the sisters got lost and I had to find out where we were, and it was a tavern, otherwise known as a dive. I wasn't sure the door would open, but it did. You should see the look on the patrons when I walked in, … having just gone to confession to the Benedictines at Bennett Lake and they got off over their shock, they told me where Rte. 83 south was, but it took them about 20 seconds to get hold of themselves. So what? If my confreres can proclaim Christ to the wild Indians, why can't I by walking into a dive on legitimate business--I want to know how to get to where I'm going.

Third feature, and this is where you who are specially consecrated to pray and sacrifice for priests, the North American martyrs realized you must preach Christ, you must talk about Christ, and the ones whom Christ first and mainly chose to do the proclamation by word of mouth of his priests. There are things that people expect from a priestly mouth and things they don't expect. Priests are to preach Christ. And if you want one intention to pray your hearts out for, that priests might preach Christ in their homilies. And not as a woman told me last night from Michigan by telephone yesterday morning, the feast of Our Lady's Assumption, for fifteen minutes the Church was regaled to a homily where the priest was describing his summer cottage--not one word about Our Lady. I know the kind of a temper I have so I know what I've got to control. Pray that priests might preach Jesus.

Fourth feature: It didn't take very long for our North American Martyrs to find out they were not going to make a lot of converts--a lot of converts! they were lucky to make any. What a lesson. We all need this--that the success of our work even as noble a work as conversion of people to the true faith, the overt success of our labors is less important than the efforts we expend to please the Master. And there is nothing more disheartening for a priest, as I know, than to preach and council by the hour. Earlier this year I was counseling a young woman and the man she was living with. She by the way, already married, separated from her husband, supposed to be a Catholic, try to get some sense into that girl’s head, absolutely blank; it was like talking to the walls and the child she had by her husband growing up, seeing this horrible living of his mother. In other words, we all need, how well I know, we all need to be encouraged by the fact that as Christ looks to our labors, it is not how effective we are in doing in what ever we want to do. And let's face it we often fail. We make mistakes. We can do the most stupid things, nevertheless, what Christ counts is the heart we put into our work, the effort we make, the desire to please Him, even though we botch up everything we do. By human standards, the North American martyrs were a dismal failure. Don't we need this? But then, by that same standard, Christ was a failure.

Fifth feature: I'm sure now over as many years as I have been, shall I say, with your community or near your community, I can't possibly remember all that I've said. I must have used this Latin phrase, sanguis marcurum ascsenen christianorum--the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. The soil of men's souls must first be drenched in blood before those souls, in God's providence, will grow into the followers of Christ. I know I'm talking to the right audience. Don't forget the symbolism of the habit you wear, as Fr. Gerald couldn't have been clearer in telling you. Blood is effective, blood does save, blood does redeem; our blood, because of Christ's blood shed on Calvary and that we undeservingly receive everyday. Not too many people, I don't say believe that because every Christian should believe it, but I'm afraid not too many Christians, and even nominal Catholics, priests. It was in Chicago, I wouldn't dare identify the bishop … it was a meeting we had in Chicago at the Institute on Religious Life … number of superiors general there, myself and a bishop … a good man, but, was not doing what he might have done in order to stop the tide of secularization among religious communities in his diocese. So one of the mothers general asked the bishop, 'how come, this and that is going on in your diocese'. He gave some lame explanation and like mothers general, she pressed. Finally, he couldn't give anymore excuses. As long as I live, I won't forget his final answer. He blushed, "You can see, he said, I am not a St. John Fisher", remember, the one member of the English hierarchy during the persecution of the Catholics, to remain firm and along with Thomas More was martyred. Pray that our bishops and priests might have the blood of martyrs in their veins. The single most needed grace in the Catholic Church today is the courage of martyrs in our priests and bishops, barring none. Their weakness has now become the tragic weakness of millions who are as sheep without shepherds.

Sixth feature: All of this that we have been talking about can be summed up in one word--suffering. Not all of us are privileged to actually shed our blood for Christ. What we all, in greater or less measure, all of us, called upon if we're going to be faithful to the Savior, we're called upon to suffer. Right? It's the law of life, an offering from people and in ways and in circumstances we least expect. How can I forget, again it happened to be in Chicago, more accurately in Palatine, to the little sisters of the poor. Four hundred some sisters had crowded the larger Chapel which the sisters have there. It was a day of recollection when the revolution had just broken over religious communities. They came from far and near. I gave I think, three talks. One of my afternoon talks, make it 2:30 in the afternoon, just because it was the right thing to say, I talked about the importance of wearing a religious habit, well, one nun who still had her habit on, but was soon to take it off, stalked out of Chapel, and she was sitting near the front and it's a long Chapel; she had wooden heels, how well I remember, so I figured, 'what a dramatic opportunity', so I let her heels click out of Chapel, I paused, she got up took one glaring look in the direction of the pulpit, clicked out of Chapel, the vestibule doors slow opened, swished closed. Everybody was breathless and I then continued with my conference. One of the saddest letters I've ever received was from a sister in the mid-western community that had begun to secularize. The sister wrote it the morning that the episode occurred. She was out before breakfast, finishing her meditation after Mass … it was about this time in the summer. She looked out over the large statue of Our Lady on the mother-house grounds with a large pool of water surrounding the statue. And she couldn't believe her eyes. She looked, she got closer, she looked again and there was the habit of one of her sisters floating on the water--the sister had committed suicide, the second that year. She was driven out of her mind by the cruelty as only women can be cruel to other women, the necessity of suffering to plant the faith. I am confident that religious life will be stronger than ever before, mark my words, ever before. Given the dreadful suffering that so many religious are undergoing in our day in order to remain faithful to the spouse to whom they had vowed their chastity. And so with married people in rearing the family that God wants them to have, it's very hard. To rear children in today’s' insane world is hard. Tell yourselves, tell everyone who is willing to listen, the faith is planted and strengthened when it is watered by suffering.

Seventh feature: Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. I've read and reread over the years the lives and the martyrdom of these fellow Jesuits of mine often enough to be able to tell you what sustained them to their years of ordeal and prepared them for martyrdom was their devotion to Christ in the Eucharist. Be comforted by this yourselves, tell it to others; you're in trial, come before the Eucharist; you've got a problem, come before the Blessed Sacrament; you don't know where to turn, talk to Our Lord. In the Sacrament He instituted to give us strength.

Eighth feature: In the ordinary providence of God, the likelihood these men would never have been canonized, not because they hadn't died heroic deaths, but who would know about it unless they had written out their experiences. I seldom, at least in public, make the recommendation. Not all of us have a flair, if that's the word for writing. For some people it's very difficult just to read what you've written, well, it's hard to reread. In any case, a record of our experiences, spiritual experiences is very pleasing to God. In other words, it is a good idea, having done it myself for years, I've recommended this to many people: a very good way of clarifying one's mind of expressing oneself spiritually on paper has been the practice of some of the greatest friends of God.

Ninth feature: They said that the success of the North American martyrs during their apostolic labors in North America, the success was not much to brag about. Well, that's not quite true. And this, too, is good to remember; it is not the number of people that you bring to Christ, it's the kind of people and surely the outstanding converts that the North American martyrs made was now blessed, Kateri Tekakwitha. She is now beatified only because the Jesuits who instructed her wrote so much about her. There are pages and pages all about her great devotion to the Savior, her consecrated chastity, remember? And this is among the same barbarians that killed the missionaries who instructed her. In other words, the success of our efforts to bring people to Christ is not to be counted in the number of people who are converted, it is in the quality of their conversion.


And finally, as you read or reread the lives of these North American martyrs, you see to what length they went to adapt themselves to the barbarians among whom they labored; they tried to master the language; they ate their impossible nauseating food; they inhaled their suffocating smoke and they put up with the most atrocious insults in the hope of converting at least one soul to the Master. Let us ask the North American martyrs to obtain for us something of their great love for Christ asking Jesus to give us the grace of mingling our blood with His because even though we may not shed our blood in death, we are all expected, and as religious, it is our obligation though we don't die a martyr's death, we are expected to live a martyr's life. North American martyrs, St. Isaac Jogues, John Debebreuf, and companions, pray for us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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