Reading the life of our martyrs has always given me an uncomfortable sense of my own weak nature. To endure the physical suffering, torture really, that our martyrs have undergone for the sake of the Gospel and to speak of it in a way that glorifies brutality cannot help but make one wonder. I wonder if I could have done it. Only by the grace of God would anyone be able to endure what many of our sainted martyrs did.
The North American Martyrs, whose memorial we celebrate October 19th, Sts. Isaac Jogues, John de Brebeuf and Companions were treated brutally by the Huron and Iroquois Indians they had come to evangelize in Canada in the 17th century. These Jesuit priests, filled with a determined zeal for souls, must have been granted special grace from heaven to maintain the perspective they did.
St. John de Brebeauf, in his spiritual diaries, writes: “My God, it grieves me greatly that you are not known, that in this savage wilderness all have not been converted to you, that sin has not been driven from it. My God, even if all the brutal tortures which prisoners in this region must endure should fall on me, I offer myself most willingly to them and I alone shall suffer them all.” And his prayer did come true both for himself, for his brother Jesuit Isaac Jogue and their companions.
But, their lives are not only about the way they died heroically. It is about their zeal for the Gospel. As young Jesuit missionaries, on fire with the Lord, they envisioned great things. When they arrived in what is now Quebec, Canada in 1636, they found the Huron and Iroquois tribes bitterly at war with each other. And in to that mess they walked with faith, conviction, and a love for Jesus Christ and his Church.
Despite primitive conditions and constant threat they did not tire. St. John de Brebeauf came to Canada at the age of 32 and spent the next 24 years among the people. He composed a catechism in the Huron language. Before his death he saw 7,000 native people converted to the Christian faith.
These priests are heroes for me in my safe, clean, comfortable surroundings. How much do any of us really suffer? These Jesuit missionaries endured everything rather than limit the Gospel. Their willing sacrifice is a wake up call when we seek a Christianity of ease, predictability and comfort.
The Vatican's website offers the following prayer:
O Almighty God, by whose grace and power your holy martyrs Antony Daniel, Charles Garnier, Gabriel Lalemant, Isaac Jogues, John de Brebeuf, John Lalande, Noel Chabanel, and Rene Goupil triumphed over suffering and were faithful even to death: Grant us, who now remember them in thanksgiving, to be so faithful in our witness to you in this world, that we may receive with them the crown of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.