The North American Martyrs serve as powerful and self-sacrificing models for the often difficult work of evangelization.
Evangelization is not for the faint of heart. It is for those whose hearts are conformed to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced for sinners. The Church’s mission of proclaiming the Gospel is aided by those saints whose heroic lives provide models of self-sacrificing witness to salvation in Jesus Christ.
On October 19th, the Church celebrates the memorial of several such heroic witnesses, the North American Martyrs. At Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary, where I serve, these holy Jesuits are commemorated in a Pewabic tile in the sanctuary, into which have been sculpted the weapons of their martyrdom. They are similarly honored in a number of the churches throughout the Midwest and Northeastern United States, as well as in Canada, where for understandable reasons they are typically referred to as the Canadian Martyrs.
In order to understand the power of the martyrs’ witness, to those they evangelized and to us today, we need to allow our minds to travel back over 350 years, to a time when the region of New France in which they labored for Christ was an almost totally unknown wilderness. As one traveled west from Quebec, there was not nearly as much farming as there would later be, and the boom days of the lumber industry were not yet dreamed of. Thick forests covered most of the Midwest and stretched farther up into Canada than any living person could reckon.
Into this wilderness of wood and water, of long, frozen winters and hot, bug-infested summers came a squadron of Jesuit missionaries. These Jesuits bathed the native peoples who came to believe in Jesus with the waters of Baptism. And they bathed the very land with the blood they spilled for Christ.
I often vacation on the western shore of Lake Huron, in Michigan, and when I do I like to look out across the lake and to think about the martyrs having worked, and suffered, and died on the other side of the big lake named for the very tribe for which they offered their labors and their lives.
They came to this wilderness from France, which in the mid-seventeenth century offered everything that civilization and culture could offer: community life in cities and villages, fine food, clothing, and medical care, perhaps the world’s finest collection of Gothic cathedrals, and world-class educational opportunities. All this the young Jesuits not only left behind, but longed to leave behind with the burning desire only love can kindle. They were consumed with zeal for the salvation of Native peoples about whom they knew only what they had read.
There are far too many stories about the six priests and two brothers known as the North American Martyrs to tell here. So we’ll take St. Isaac Jogues as a particular model for living out the Lord’s call through the Psalmist to “tell (God’s) glory among the nations” and to “say among the nations: the Lord is king.”
Saint Isaac spent most of his priestly ministry in Quebec and northern New York State. Many priests, when they are first ordained, are assigned to relatively large and stable parishes. At such parishes, the locals might become occasionally irritated with them, but are not likely to cut off their fingers or hack at them with tomahawks.
When Isaac Jogues was ordained in 1636, he neither had nor wished for any such assurances. His first priestly assignment was to serve as a missionary in the wilds of New France, and so he travelled to Quebec in the early summer of that year. From Quebec, he launched zealously into the forest and a life of suffering, isolation, and coping with the constant threat of death.
The food Isaac Jogues and the other missionaries ate was almost always scarce and repellant. The hospitality they received was uneven at best, though many members of the Huron Tribe came to love and revere the martyrs, and embraced the Catholic faith. The shelters they lived in—when they had shelters—were usually cold, crowded, and unsanitary.
When I think of how often I become absorbed by the trivial discomforts I experience, I realize how easily the North American Martyrs could have become discouraged by their innumerable and almost unthinkable sufferings. Yet they endured, and persevered, “keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2). They had chosen to serve Christ their King during their preparation for missionary life, praying through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. They had chosen to honor and serve Jesus as their King, and they longed to share with others the treasure they had received.
They longed to honor the words of the Lord, Who says through the Prophet Isaiah (45:5-6): “It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me. I am the Lord, there is no other.”
In July of 1642, just over six years after his arrival in New France, Isaac Jogues and Rene Goupil set off as members of a group seeking to evangelize and offer medical services to a group of Hurons living near Three Rivers, Quebec. The expedition had only travelled one day when they came upon some hostile Iroquois, who had already caused the Hurons to flee into the woods. The Jesuits were taken prisoner, and at the hands of their captors suffered terrifying tortures. The Iroquois warriors “fell upon us like mad dogs with sharp teeth, tearing out our nails and crushing our fingers,” St. Isaac would later write. He also reports that they were forced to endure beatings as they “ran the gauntlet” and had hot coals placed on their exposed flesh, while they lay helpless with their hands bound fast.
Isaac Jogues is our authority for this account, because Rene Goupil would not live to write again. In the Jesuit Relations, the documents by which the missionaries shared with their superiors the stories of their labors, St. Isaac tells the story of what led up to St. Rene’s martyrdom:
After we had been in the country six weeks—as confusion arose in the councils of the Iroquois, some of whom were quite willing that we should be taken back—we lost the hope, which I did not consider very great, of again seeing Three Rivers that year. We accordingly consoled each other in the divine arrangement of things, and we were preparing for everything that it might ordain for us…
One day, then, as in the grief of our souls we had gone forth from the village in order to pray more suitably and with less disturbance, two young men came after us to tell us that we must return home. I had some presentiment of what was to happen, and said to him, ‘My dearest brother, let us commend ourselves to Our Lord and to our good mother the Blessed Virgin; these people have some evil design, as I think.’ We had offered ourselves to Our Lord shortly before with much devotion, beseeching him to receive our lives and our blood, and to unite them with his life and blood for the salvation of these poor peoples. We accordingly returned to our village, reciting our rosary…
In fact, as St. Isaac predicted, further evil would soon befall them. Saint Rene Goupil was martyred when an Iroquois warrior attacked him with a hatchet on September 29, 1642. He died with the Holy Name of Jesus on his lips, as he had often said he wished to do. Isaac Jogues survived and went to France for a time, requiring a special dispensation to offer Mass with mutilated hands, since both of his index fingers and one of his thumbs had been cut off. All the time he was in France, however, he longed to return to his beloved mission. He did return, and was killed by a tomahawk blow on October 18, 1646 at the hands of an Iroquois warrior. As did Rene Goupil before him, and as would the other North American Martyrs after him, Isaac Jogues in life and in death offered himself completely to the Father in union with the Lord Jesus. Later, the man who killed St. Isaac Jogues would himself seek Baptism and take the Christian name of Isaac Jogues.
It has been said that the saints provide for us a kind of “living Gospel.” Their lives bring to every age the holiness, the sacrificial and saving love of Jesus Christ. So it is with the North American Martyrs, who have brought the love of Christ to these lands and laid down their lives so that others might truly live.
We are the beneficiaries of their witness, of course. But their heroic virtues call forth from us not only our admiration but also our imitation. Their commitment to Christ, their self-sacrificial love for all people, their devotion to the Blessed Virgin and especially to the Holy Eucharist, are all virtues we need to make our own as we engage in the mission of evangelization.
And we must be willing to suffer with perseverance. There is no truly Christian life without suffering. In the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, which beautifully capture the spirit of the martyrs—a spirit we are all called to share:
O simple soul, is it not the law of thy being to endure since thou camest to Christ? Why camest thou but to endure? Why didst thou taste His heavenly feast, but that it might work in thee? Why didst thou kneel beneath His hand, but that He might leave on thee the print of His wounds?
In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we come to taste Christ’s heavenly feast. We should all pray fervently for the Eucharistic Lord to work in us, to leave on us the print of His wounds, that we might both strive and endure all we must to carry our crosses with Him. And we should pray that the North American Martyrs give us the prayers and help we need to imitate them, who so closely imitated our crucified, risen, and Eucharistic Lord.
This article was published previously at Catholic World Report.