North American Martyrs

St. Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brebeuf, and companions haven’t been cancelled yet

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Faith History

Today is the memorial of St. Isaac Jogues and Companions — the 17th century Jesuit North American Martyrs — slain in upper New York State. So far, they haven’t been cancelled as have Franciscan Junipero Serra or Jesuit Pierre-Jean De Smet. I feared they might, especially after Pope Francis’s 2022 tour of Canada. Perhaps the dearth of graves at residential schools has something to do with it.

I’m surprised there haven’t been more efforts to “contextualize” these men. Their deaths, after all, could arguably be set against the broader backdrop of Anglo-French geopolitical competition in their day, including the struggle for control of North America that would come to the fore over the following century.

The martyrdom of these North American saints challenges the mythology of the “noble savages” (however much that term might now be politically incorrect) living in peace and love on this continent prior to the arrival of dead white European males. Francis Talbot’s old but still moving accounts (e.g., Saint among the Hurons) of the brutal slaughter of these men refutes naïve claims about the irenic indigenous peoples. And while perhaps some might try to blame the European powers for using these tribes as proxies in their own conflicts, it is clear that the murder of these men took place in odium fidei. They were not tortured because they were French but because they were priests. The killers parodied baptism, not baguettes.

If, as Tertullian notes, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” those seeds were planted liberally in what were the wilds of northern New York and blossomed in the Church in the future United States and Canada. Let’s not forget, for example, that Lake Champlain was once called Le Lac du Saint-Sacrement (the Lake of the Blessed Sacrament).

However one may try to hide it or conflate it with the imperial ambitions of European colonial powers, the truth remains that countless men (and women) dedicated themselves to bringing Christ to the peoples of the Americas, not because it advanced throne and altar but because salus animarum suprema lex. I remember particularly a sermon at Fordham on this feast day by the late Rev. Robert O’Connell, SJ. I think he said that Jean de Brebeuf might have been of the minor French aristocracy. He was a teacher. He could have been a comfortable denizen of some Jesuit school. His first reaction to the smells of a Huron tent were not positive. But de Brebeuf stayed because what mattered to him was not his comfort but their souls. Indeed, after his first trip to Canada, Brebeuf could have remained in France. He chose to return a second (and last) time… to die in North America. The same is true of Jogues who, during his journey in North America, had several fingers amputated by hostile Indians. He, too, came back.

The witness of those who evangelized the Americas is evidence of how every generation has responded to Jesus’ departing command, prior to His Ascension: “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The existence of the Catholic Church in North America came about through the collaboration of divine grace with real sweat, tears, and even blood. For that, there is no apology.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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