The North American Martyrs: Testament to Authentic Evangelization

The Second Vatican Council, citing the words of Christ – “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19) – decrees: “Therefore, all must be converted to Him, made known by the Church’s preaching, and all must be incorporated into Him by baptism and into the Church which is His body” (Ad Gentes, 7).

At a time when this authentic mission of the Church – as defined by Vatican II and reaffirmed by Saints Paul VI and John Paul II as the “new evangelization” – is confronted with compromise by a creeping religious indifferentism, it is edifying to reflect on the preeminent mission of the North American Martyrs.

Saint among the Hurons: The Life of Jean de Brébeuf, by Fr. Francis X. Talbot, S.J. (1949),* tells the story of the early seventeenth century French Jesuits who with heroic fidelity to Christ’s commission to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15), did proclaim authentically, unambiguously, the Good News to several indigenous tribes around Lake Ontario in North America.

St. Jean and his confreres shared a fervent resolve to bring to the native people of New France nothing less than the salvation of their immortal souls, to deliver these abjectly fallen humans from the profound oppressions of original sin – from spiritual and moral destitution and bondage.

The Jesuit fathers acknowledged that these children of God were endowed with a conscience and a hope for better things: “This people is not so stupefied,” St. Jean observes, “that it does not seek and acknowledge something more lofty than the senses.” But he goes on to say that “their licentious life and lewdness prevent them from finding God” (p. 73). These missionaries knew unequivocally that liberation, redemption, of these precious souls could come only through baptism and incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church.

Jean de Brébeuf holy card, c. 1897, via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

St. Jean’s characterization of the life of the natives he evangelized as licentious and lewd was not a condemnation of them as innately evil or racially inferior, but rather a recognition that all of humanity is degenerate without the salvation God’s Son has provided by his Cross and Resurrection.

Some brutal details of the destitution and depravity of the Hurons’ existence are in order here if we are properly to comprehend their desperate state — as well as the valiant efforts of the “Black Robes”.

The days were ruled by cruel cycles of epidemic disease and deadly famine, by a very harsh climate, and, worst of all, by chronic, internecine, wars. Suffering and death dogged them. Their shamans exploited for their own empowerment their terrible travail by enforcing upon them hideous superstitions and rituals for deliverance from the many demons they said inflicted upon them all misery. Speaking from the dictates of oracular dreams, the shamans mandated such debauched acts as animalistic howling, violent writhing, and self-wounding in appeasement of the very devils that tormented them.

It was, however, this people’s fiendish actions in war that most exhibited the Evil One’s power over their benighted souls. In battle, their braves made wanton use of the tomahawk to brain, not only their warrior adversaries, but women, children, and elders; and it was not uncommon for them to cannibalize a slain foe. Their cruelty did not abate but rather intensified in victory when they took prisoners and subjected them to a merciless regimen of torture, such as running a gauntlet of women, children, and elderly who would bite, stone, club, slash, and burn them with fire brands—while mocking and bitterly berating them. Then after such additional torments as being scalded with boiling water, having their eyes put out and their mouths filled with live coals, the captives would be burned, slowly, at a stake. St. Jean de Brébeuf and some of his confreres eventually suffered such afflictions.

The degenerate life of these tribes was also evident in their social mores. Although they maintained recognizable family units and a generous code of hospitality, sexual promiscuity was openly practiced. Children grew up undisciplined. Women did all of the menial labor – butchering and cooking bagged game, making clothing, planting, harvesting, lugging baggage on trips. The men, when they weren’t hunting or at war, spent their time playing games and socializing.

Genuine inculturation was adroitly practiced, indeed significantly developed, by the Jesuit missionaries to help instill the Gospel in these indigenous people. They appreciated and sought not to destroy or change the culture’s essential character but to engage it. They were careful not to ban or discourage morally indifferent native customs and activities they may have found unsavory because unfamiliar; but brutish and diabolical behaviors were resolutely condemned by the Jesuit fathers as they strove to inculcate Christian values.

These missionary fathers did not want to remake this aboriginal people in their own European image. They wanted to make them Christian Indians. But neither were these sober-minded priests beguiled by any sentimentality about the “noble savage.” They found nothing noble in the wicked barbarity plaguing the lives of these poor souls, to whom they had come to bring a better life — by throwing away their own.

This Jesuit genius for inculturation is particularly observable in St. Jean de Brébeuf. He lived for awhile in a multifamily long-house with minimal privacy, sharing good naturedly in the Huron ways so uncongenial to the sensibilities of a Renaissance gentleman. He also very assiduously learned the particularly difficult Huron language which was like no language known to him, and he even wrote a lexicon and grammar of the cryptic tongue. And so well did he master the subtle rhetoric the Huron chiefs used at the councils in which he participated he became regarded as a chief and was given the name Echon.

Fr. Talbot sums up how such valid inculturation eventually created a native church: “While preserving their own traditions and customs, they had totally renounced all Algonquin superstitions, feasts, revels, and orgies that were in the slightest way objectionable, and they almost fanatically condemned the native code of promiscuity and changing mates,” (p. 259).

The Jesuit missionaries were extraordinarily robust and long-suffering – patiently able to withstand debilitating sickness, chronic hunger, injury, and vicious native assaults. And they were, of course, subject to the most malicious machinations of Satan. These tough priests had to fight despondency and doubt, temptations against chastity among a people who knew nothing of chastity, the natural impulse to despise and abandon those often uncouth people they were pledged to serve and love, and other attacks upon their bodies and hearts and souls.

Their grit and perseverance, their forbearance and mercy, were clearly the fruit of a graced and practiced holiness. Recognizing their weakness, they prayed to God, to Jesus and Mary, ardently and constantly for strength, for forgiveness and charity — depending in a special way on St. Joseph, whom they regarded as their patron. And their commitment to the Eucharist was paramount, for nothing was more protected by them in their travels and when under attack than their vessels, vestments, and the book for Mass.

St. Jean de Brébeuf toiled for a quarter century to bring the Gospel to the natives of North America, until his martyrdom in 1649. And it was not until the very end of his mission that the North American Martyrs’ efforts came to full fruition with the conversion of virtually the entire Huron nation. As missionary Fr. Francois Bressani testifies:

“The faith had taken possession of almost all the country. Public profession was made of it almost everywhere. The chiefs themselves were its protectors and sons. The superstitious rites, which were formerly a daily occurrence, began to lose credit. Persecution against us had already ceased. Curses against the Faith had been turned into blessings” (p. 302).

Such is the spirit and power of authentic, uncompromised — suffered — Catholic evangelization.

*Author’s note: All factual information and quotations are from this source, Saint among the Hurons: The Life of Jean de Brébeuf, by Fr. Francis X. Talbot, S.J..

image: North American Martyrs by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The martyrs depicted are St. René Goupil (1642), St. Isaac Jogues (1646), St. Jean de Lalande (1646), St. Antoine Daniel (1648), St. Jean de Brébeuf (1649), St. Noël Chabanel (1649), St. Charles Garnier (1649), and St. Gabriel Lalemant (1649).

By

Alfred Hanley, Ph.D., is retired as Professor/Department Chair of Humanities from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. He has written several works of religious and literary commentary, poetry, and fiction — including Fatima at a Hundred Years: God's Mother Speaks a Crucial Message, Then and Now. Hanley and his wife Loretta have raised six children, one a Catholic priest and the other five happily wed, who to date have blessed them with twenty grandchildren and three great grandchildren. His web site is http://oblations.org/index.html.

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