A few Sundays ago, in the Gospel, we heard our Lord tell us about the “Two great Commandments of the Law”—that the whole of the Law and the Prophets revolves around loving God with our entire being, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Most of us see that as a general admonition to stay out of trouble and to be reasonably helpful to those in need. We come to Mass on Sundays, say our prayers at night, try to keep the Commandments, help the family next door to put up or take down their shutters, and open up our wallets for things like the hurricane relief or the tsunami. In point of fact, that really in not too bad—and it would be a pretty good world if everyone did the same. It is not heroic, but then, there really are not too many genuine heroes around.
But tomorrow, September 26th, we will be celebrating the feast day of eight men who can truly be called heroes in the struggle to keep those two Great Commandments—tomorrow is the feast of the North American Martyrs—eight men who were canonized only in 1930 by the saintly Pope Pius XI: Isaac Jogues, John de Brébeuf, Charles Garnier, Anthony Daniel, Gabriel Lallemant, Noel Chabanel, John de Lalande, and René Goupil. Let me tell you a little bit about them, for it is always good to have heroes to emulate. None of us is likely to give of ourselves as generously as they gave themselves to God and to their neighbors, but their story may serve to remind us that (by comparison) we don’t really have very great difficulties, and that there is room for greater devotion to God and to do greater good for those around us.
Our eight Saints were all Frenchmen, all Jesuits (although not all were priests). It should be noted that the Spanish and the Portuguese also sent men of similar devotion to the missions of the New World, as did religious orders other than the Jesuits. The eight were all born around 1600. They lived in the years just following the exploration of territories in modern day Quebec and upper New York State by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain. As early as 1615, Champlain was assisted by the Franciscan Recollect Order, and about ten years later (in 1625) the first Jesuits would arrive in Quebec to help the Franciscans bring the Catholic Faith to the Indians of North America.
Motivated by the love of God, the missionaries gave up every thing familiar to them in Europe to make the journey (perilous enough in itself) to New France. They were all learned men (Jesuits are among the best educated of priests) who gave up all opportunity for scholarly pursuits; they left knowing that there was a very good chance that they would never see their families and friends ever again in this life; they gave up the comforts of living in respected positions in civilized Europe, to dwell in the deepest of backwoods obscurity; they would suffer at least as much at the hands of nature as they would suffer at the hands of the Indians, the English, and the Dutch and French Protestants. To these devout Catholics of the seventeenth century, there was nothing more important than the God who made them—and the greatest gift that they could give to anyone else was the gift of the Catholic Faith, and the saving waters of Baptism for those who would otherwise perish not knowing Jesus Christ.
Their mission was first to the nomadic Algonquin Indians, and then to the more settled Hurons. Their journeys from Quebec to the population centers of the Indians were made under the most difficult conditions. Hours and hours of kneeling in canoes or carrying them and all their belongings overland; forests thick with mosquitoes in the warmer month and frightfully frigid in colder times; always at the mercy of uncivilized men with whom they could barely communicate; days and even weeks without the possibility of offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, their one source of strength is the midst of this desolate fastness. And God help the missionary who upset one of their very tipsy canoes! Things were not entirely better even once they had reached the dwellings of the Indians. During the winter, food was scarce, and the long-houses of the Hurons were thick with smoke from the fire, and jammed with the noise and the smells of dogs and people, for neither White‑man nor Indian wanted to venture outside for very long—the summers brought fresh air, but also the mosquitoes once again. One could make a good case that even the missionaries who died of natural causes lived a life of continuous (if not fatal) martyrdom.
The Europeans brought marvelous trinkets to the Indians, particularly the iron goods of civilization like hatchets and knives and frying pans. But the missionaries were not above suspicion: Why were they there? What would be the impact of accepting the God of the Europeans and forsaking the spirits of the forest? Altogether too many Indians seemed to die shortly after receiving the White‑man’s Baptism. And the occasional devastating outbreaks of smallpox and influenza were surely the doing of the French . . . if they weren’t the work of the spirits made jealous by the black robed missionaries. Then too, the missionaries practiced “magic,” communicating with one another by exchanging pieces of paper with strange marks on them. There was, of course, a natural antagonism between the priests and the medicine men.
Even when the missionaries were able to build their own cabins—which served as churches as well as living quarters—and even after they had learned the Huron language, they were not quick to bring the Indians permanently to the Faith. They would drift back and forth between Christianity and the ancient beliefs, so, apart from the danger of death, very few adults were Baptized. It seemed, though, that there was hope with the children.
But around 1637, the powerful confederation of the Iroquois tribes—always a threat to the relatively peaceful Hurons—moved to a state of near constant warfare. In 1642 Fr. Isaac Jogues and Br. René Goupil were captured and horribly tortured for several weeks, while they were paraded around on display for the Iroquois tribes to see. René Goupil had his skull smashed in by his captors on September 29th—Father Jogues was able to escape, although without most of his fingers, which had been bitten off by his captors.
Isaac Jogues made his way to Europe, but returned to the mission only to die at the hands of the Iroquois in October of 1646, followed by his compatriot John de Lalande on the following day.
Six other Jesuits are identified among the North American Martyrs, all of them dying between 1642 and 1649. By worldly standards they all died terrible and senseless deaths, and left very little evidence of their work behind them. Their Hurons were massacred by the Iroquois in 1650; most were killed, a few were captured, a few escaped to other tribes, but many died of hunger in the terrible winter that year. But the words of Fr. John de Brébeuf before his death speak for all of them: Our Journey across "the great ocean to win one little soul for Our Lord," made all of the difficulties, the hardships, and even the deaths worthwhile. Indeed, they won many souls, including one who was captured and survived among the Mohawk Iroquois, a young convert girl named Kateri Tekakwitha—Blessed Kateri, whom we hope to see honored as a saint some day soon.
No matter how they were frustrated in their plans, their efforts were worthwhile, for they loved God with their whole hearts and minds and souls; and they loved their neighbors as themselves—giving the gift of their own very lives and the gift of eternal life through the saving waters of Baptism. May they inspire us to keep the two Great Commandments, with even a little of their heroism!
Let Us Pray to our North American Martyrs:
Saint Rene' Goupil—September 29, 1642
Saint Isaac Jogues—October 18, 1646
Saint John de Lalande—October 19, 1646
Saint Anthony Daniel—July 4, 1648
Saint John de Brebeuf—March 16, 1649
Saint Gabriel Lallemant—March 17, 1649
Saint Charles Garnier—December 7, 1649
Saint Noel Chabanel—December 8, 1649
Francis X. Talbot, Saint Among the Hurons, the biography of John de Brébeuf is available as an audio recording. http://www.books.your-shopping.org/detail/Saint-Among-the-Hurons--Book-on-tape-.html
Francis X. Talbot, Saint Among the Savages, the biography of Isaac Jogues has been reprinted by Ignatius Press http://www.ignatius.com/ViewProduct.aspx?SID=1&Product_ID=324&SKU=SASAV-P&; http://www.books.your-shopping.org/detail/Saint-Among-the-Savages.html
 Matthew xxii: 34-46 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)