As Catholics, I hope that we understand the importance of learning about the lives of saints. These were men and women, much like you and I, except in their love for the Lord and their zeal to serving His Will. For the most part, they were not men equipped with great physical strength or above average intelligence. No, for all intents and purposes, they were average….created in the same way as we were. What separates them from us though, is their love and their devotion to serving the God Who created them. By submitting their will, and accepting the graces that God bestowed upon them, they were able to develop a prayer life that allowed them to unite their will to that of the Lord…in all things..their sufferings and their joys alike. How many of us can say the same? We are more likely to turn away from our sufferings… or pray that God will take it from us…instead of embracing it…. that’s human nature...As Catholics striving to reach our eternal reward...which is to be with God in Heaven... we need to familiarize ourselves with holiness. Of course, the first way to accomplish this is by reading Sacred Scripture, but we also need to read about these saints and the lives they led, and condition ourselves…condition our hearts… our minds…and our wills to do God’s nature…and follow their examples, and do what God created us to do.
A perfect example of this holiness….and uniting one’s will to that of the Lord, can be found in the lives of Saint Isaac Jogues and the other Jesuit priests who were his companions. These brave men left their lives of comfort and traveled to the New World…to North America, to spread the Word of God to the people who lived in the wild untamed lands….They were among the first missionaries to serve the North American Indians.
In 1624, Isaac Jogues and several of his companion priests traveled to Quebec with a group of missionaries, under the leadership of John de Brebeuf. After sailing on the rough seas for several months, they headed up the coast and landed in Quebec. Upon arrival, St. Isaac wrote to his mother: “I do not know what it is to enter Heaven, but this I know—that it would be difficult to experience in this world a joy more excessive and more overflowing than I felt in setting foot in the New World, and celebrating my first Mass on the day of the Visitation.” His later letters show the same exaltation of spirit and a willingness to do whatever the Lord requested. (Wow…can you image anything so beautiful)
Once there, the priests worked with to the Hurons, converting many to the Faith. For six years, the Jesuits lived among the Huron people, working side by side with them. Saint Isaac Jogues learned the language and became a skilled woodsman with great determination and stamina. He was sent on many missions to make acquaintance with the Indians that were further south, and then later, he traveled to those further to the North.
On the latter trip, he and his companions traveled on uncharted lands and waterways, perhaps becoming the first white men to set foot on the shore of Lake Superior. Upon their arrival, there were about 2000 Ojibway Indians gathered at the site to celebrate their Feast of the Dead. Father Jogues addressed them, and erected a cross facing west towards the country of the Sioux. Good will was enjoyed from the Native people they encountered. Many of the Native people converted and it was a time of spiritual growth. But all the while, the Mohawks, who were another tribe who despised the Hurons and the Euoropeans, developed a hatred for the priests and never forgot the ‘black coats’ and sent out scouts to find and kill the priests, and any of their detested Huron neighbors who were living with them, especially those who converted to Christianity.
After living among the native people for several years, Father Jogues along with several of their Huron converts were traveling the waterways in canoe and were captured by an Iroquois war party. Once captured, they were paraded through the village and tortured repeatedly. The Iroquois were brutal in their methods of torture, and repeated it often, just sparing the prisoners life, so they could continue the torture another day. They had a hatred in their heart for the Hurons who had converted, and forced one such prisoner to cut Saint Isaac Jogues’ thumb and finger off. Fortunately for Father Jogues, one of the elderly Mohawk woman took a liking to him, and brought him into her hut and cared for him. She referred to him as her nephew and he was afforded some protection, because she was a respected elder of the tribe. During this time, he would secretly pray and would often baptize any of the children he would find that were sick and dying.
After over a year of being help captive and being tortured, word was sent back to his homeland that Father Jogues was still alive, and the French sent in a group to secure Father Jogues’ freedom. At first it seemed that it was not to be, but after the first failed attempt to escape, Father Isaac Jogues was able to escape on his second try and was able to make his way home to France, where he was welcomed as a hero. His bravery did not go unnoticed by the Holy See. For even though the mutilated condition of his tortured hands would have made it impossible for him to celebrate Mass according to the canonical norms, Pope Urban VII allowed him the very exceptional privilege of celebrating Mass. This was the first time such a concession had been granted. The Holy Father stated, “It would be unfitting to refuse permission to drink the blood of Jesus Christ to one who has testified to Christ with his blood.”
After living in the comfort of his home, he realized that the Lord’s work was not yet done in the New World. And after convincing his superiors, he returned to the untamed land to continue his work with the native people there. While on the trail traveling south, his party was met with a Mohawk war party. He was led back to the hut of the Chief. There he spoke with the Chief saying: “I am a man like yourselves. I do not fear death or torture. I do not know why you wish to kill me. I come here to confirm the peace and show you the way to Heaven, and you treat me like a dog.” His words moved the council, and the majority of them were ready to allow the priest to regain his freedom, but the younger members of the tribe, the Bear Clan, took matters into their own hands. They invited the priest to pay them a visit, and even though he knew that this was a dangerous journey, to refuse the invitation of the Bear Chief, was an insult to the young clan leader. Placing his trust once again in the Lord, St. Isaac entered the cabin where he was immediately attacked. The clan members brutally beat him with a tomahawk, and beheaded him. His companion was also attacked and killed. Their bodies were thrown into the river and their heads placed atop poles facing the trail which they had traveled… as a warning to other priests…or Black robes, as they were called, that they were not welcome among these lands.
Shortly after the martyrdom of the Jesuit priests, the Iroquois tribe continued to attack and plunder the Huron villages, killing all of the inhabitants they encountered, whether they had converted to the Faith or not. But the Mohawk tribe did not forget the example of Saint Isaac Jogues’ bravery. The gentle priest had been able to win over the elders due to his gentle nature, but more importantly, the courage he displayed in his daily struggles. Years later, when the area was enjoying a time of peace, more Jesuit priests were sent from Canada to establish missions there. Even some of the Mohawk people who converted began to travel to the seminary in Quebec to become trained as Christian leaders.
Today in the same area where the first Jesuit martyrs shed their blood, there is a Catholic Shrine dedicated to the martyrs. Many faithful continue to travel and make pilgrimages to honor the memory of these brave Jesuits of the 17th century who faced the untamed wilderness armed only with the grace of God, who with their gentle courage were able to tame a wild nation. The eight martyrs -Jogues, Lalande, Brebeuf, Lalemant, Garnier, Daniel, Goupil, and Chabanel—were solemnly beatified in 1925 and canonized in 1930. An interesting fact is, that only ten short years after Saint Isaac Jogues blood was spilled upon the land in an area known as Mohawk Valley, Blessed Kateri Tekawitha was born in a Mohawk village. Because of her purity and devout nature she became known as Lilly of the Mohawks. Once again proving to us the Faithful that where ever the blood of martyrs spills upon the land…new Christian growth will sprout.
So as we read the stories and familiarize ourselves with the lives of these brave souls, let us pray for their intercession, that if we may ever be in a situation that calls for courage and a willingness to lay down our life for our Faith, or even lay down our life for another …let us not forget to invoke the intercession of these brave and holy men. Saint Isaac Jogues, pray for us.