Those Christians through the centuries who bore witness to Christ and to His Catholic Church with their sufferings and with their lives and deaths continue by their heroism to be beacons of inspiration to us as we journey in the Church toward her destiny and ours. It is consoling to know that they are also always available for us to join their prayers to ours and thus to intercede on our behalf before the throne of God in heaven. (Revelation 6:9-11). Every age and every part of the world seem to have had the benefit of the martyrs' presence, and perhaps will continue to have this until the end of time.
When I was a lad attending a Catholic elementary school in Milwaukee, I recall reading an account of the missionary life and martyrdom of Saint Isaac Jogues and being deeply moved by it. I seem to remember that the book was called something like Mangled Hands. Perhaps what impressed me most was the fact that Saint Isaac Jogues and his companion martyrs gave their lives for Christ and for the salvation of the Native Americans, whom they loved so much, right here on our North American continent. Since the liturgical feast of the North American Martyrs occurs in the middle of this month of October, their story might be a good place to begin a consideration of the martyrs. The blood of the North American Martyrs moistened the soil of our land, and their earthly remains now await the resurrection at the end of the world here in our midst, and so they can be called in a special way "our martyrs." Let us ask them frequently to pray to God for us.
Canada & USA
Both Canada and the United States rightly claim these saints as their own. Their missionary labors and deaths took place in New France in the 17th century, on both sides of what is now the border between our countries. There were eight of these martyrs, all canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930: Saints Isaac Jogues, John de Brebeuf, Antony Daniel, Gabriel Lalemant, Rene Goupil, Charles Garnier, Noel Chabanel, and John Lalande. The best known undoubtedly were the two Jesuit priests, de Brebeuf, who was martyred in what is now Canada, and Jogues, who suffered his death in what is now upstate New York. It is interesting to note that both Jogues and de Brebeuf had early on asked God for the grace and privilege of being martyrs for the faith, and God affirmatively answered the prayers of both.
Isaac Jogues was seventeen years old when he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Paris. He was asked by the novice master, Father Louis Lalemant, (whose nephew, Gabriel, ironically was later to be one of the North American Martyrs, dying at the stake next to de Brebeuf), why he was seeking to enter the Society of Jesus. He answered that he wanted to be a missionary priest in Ethiopia and there to suffer martyrdom. Lalemant replied in a startling prediction, "Not so, my son, instead you will die in New France."
Saint John de Brebeuf kept a "spiritual diary" in the course of his missionary work. After his death, it found its way back to France, where it was eventually published in the collection called "The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents". It contained his well known prayer:
"For two days now I have experienced a great desire to be a martyr and to endure all the torments the martyrs suffered. Jesus, my Lord and Savior, what can I give You in return for all the favors You have first conferred on me? I will take from Your hand the cup of Your sufferings and call upon Your name. I vow before Your eternal Father and the Holy Spirit, before Your most holy mother and her most chaste spouse, before the angels, apostles, and martyrs, before my blessed Fathers, Saints Ignatius and Francis Xavier, in truth I vow to You, Jesus my Savior, that as far as I have the strength I will never fail to accept the grace of martyrdom, if some day You in Your infinite mercy should offer it to me, Your most unworthy servant."
"I bind myself in this way so that for the rest of my life I will have neither the permission nor freedom to refuse opportunities of dying and shedding my blood for You, unless at a particular juncture I should consider it more suitable for Your glory to act otherwise at that time. Further, I bind myself to this so that, on receiving the blow of death, I shall accept it from Your hands with the fullest delight and joy of spirit. For this reason, my beloved Jesus, and because of the surging joy which moves me, here and now I offer my blood and body and life. May I die only for You, if You will grant me this grace, since You willingly died for me. Let me live so that You may grant me the gift of such a happy death."
"My God, it grieves me greatly that You are not known here, 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."
Samuel Champlain, the Governor of New France, was continually imploring the various religious orders in his home country in the 17th century to send missionaries to the New World to work for the salvation of the Indians. Franciscans and Jesuits responded but the work was filled with ups and downs and many initial failures. Brebeuf arrived in Canada in 1625, and in the midst of appalling discomforts and near starvation managed to learn quite well the Algonquin and Huron languages. He was repeatedly robbed of almost all his goods by the Indians and was even driven out of Canada for a time by the Protestant English, being allowed to return only in 1632, when he brought Father Antony Daniel with him.
He eventually managed to befriend some Hurons who had come to Quebec City to trade, and they offered to guide him to their fellow Indians in the back country, but they soon stole all his supplies and abandoned him in the forest. With Daniel, however, he did make his way to some of the Huron encampments, and together they began to teach the catechism to the children, to teach the Indians how to pray, and to baptize dying babies, of which there were many. It was there that they witnessed the frequent raids made on the Algonquins and Hurons by the Iroquois, their bitterest enemies, who often attacked them in order to obtain slaves, wives, and to steal their possessions, as well as to obtain captives which they would then torture to death as form of sport. The missionaries' association with the Hurons made them objects of Iroquois suspicion and hatred.