Regians Gather for Feast Day of North American Martyrs

On Thursday, October 19, the Regis High School community gathered at the Church of Saint Ignatius Loyola to celebrate Mass in commemoration of the North American Martyrs. Below is a reprint of Fr. Anthony Andreassi, CO's homily delivered at the Mass.

Ever since your arrival at Regis, whether it was last month for the freshmen, or more than three years ago, for the seniors, you have heard that a central part of your Jesuit education is to become Men for Others. And of course that is very much correct. Unfortunately, however, I think there is a common misperception that goes along with this motto. It is my sense that many think that the primary way you are being formed as Men for Others is through the school’s Christian Service program. And of course as director of the senior portion of this, I certainly think that service is big part of this formation. But I would argue that that is in some ways only half the story. There is another aspect of this formation that is just as important but is sadly often left unstated. And what is that? Well it is exactly what we are doing right now. Praying together in our common worship of Christ in the Eucharist. And I would venture to say that at a Jesuit school, and at Regis most particular since all of you share the same Catholic faith, there is really no way to separate prayer and service from each other in your formation as a Man for Others. And the feast of the North American Martyrs reflects that truth quite vividly. And the circumstances of the martyrdom of one of these men actually embodies that truth, this motto of Men for Others almost eerily.

Isaac Jogues was all of 29 years old when he arrived in Canada in 1636. He came, like a small group of other European Jesuits, to Quebec and upstate New York to preach the Gospel to the native peoples of this area. It is hard to describe how tough it was for Jogues and these other men. They left all that was familiar and comfortable in Europe to work in a new world where they did not know the customs nor the language. And they came to labor under conditions that were difficult to say the least. The powerful words of St. Paul in the first reading give voice to this also. These young Jesuits too were earthen vessels. Made of flesh and blood yes, but also made strong and determined to do Christ’s will because of his grace.

But these daunting challenges didn’t stop these pioneer Jesuits. In order to show that faith in Jesus Christ was not something inherently European, they learned the language of the Indians and immersed themselves in their culture too. They began to teach their children and to support the entire community in efforts to raise their crops more efficiently and so improve the quality of their lives. They also made an effort to affirm the goodness of many aspects of Native American spirituality and to use this as a basis with which to explain who Jesus was and the Good News he lived and died for. This was pretty innovative, you might even say radical, for the times. But these were bold and brave men.

Nevertheless, it was tough work. The Indians of this region, were in a state a perpetual warfare among themselves. And the Jesuits soon found themselves caught in their crossfire.

In 1642 Isaac Jogues began working among the Hurons. He made few converts but he was not deterred. He even didn’t lose hope when he and a lay volunteer, Rene Goupil, were captured by a band of Mohwaks. The two were brutally tortured. While in captivity, Goupil made the sign of the cross over a small child. For this he killed by a hatchet to the head. Jogues was a bit more lucky. Though he had a thumb and several fingers severed, he was able to escape. He eventually got to Manhattan and the friendly Dutch cared for his wounds and helped him to return to Europe.

Upon his arrival home, Jogues became a celebrity almost overnight. The queen of France asked to see him and then offered him the job as her personal chaplain. Some of his Jesuit superiors wanted him to go on the lecture circuit to help raise money for their work in North America and martyrs. But he didn’t want any of that. Instead he wanted to return to North America to work among the Indians. His superiors reluctantly agreed and so he went back.

In today’s language, we might say in doing this, he was being a Man for Others. And that is most certainly true. But it is very important to also say that this desire to be of service came from his deep connection to Christ and the spirituality that rooted him. And that spirituality was this: his commitment to daily prayer, the Eucharist and his identity as a Jesuit. You might say that the work he did with his hands was intimately connected to the practice of his faith in Christ that was in his heart. And the deeper the faith of his heart, the more generous he was able to serve with his hands. When Jogues got back to North America, he found the French forces negotiating a peace among the warring tribes. Since he knew some of the Mohawk language, he volunteered to go back among the people who had almost killed him in order to work for this peace. However, once back among the Mohawks, Jogues discovered that this peace the French were brokering would only be valid for Indians who had converted to Catholicism. Non-baptized Indians could still be hunted and killed. Such an agreement would fatally compromise the goals of the Jesuits. It would seem to the Indians that the Jesuits’ only real concern was for the welfare only of the baptized, which would have been a complete perversion of the Gospel. Again, here Jogues’ faith shaped both how he saw the world and also how he responded to injustice.

Rather than see this happen, Jogues immediately set off back to Montreal to protest this policy and to resign from his role as peace-maker. He would not have the Jesuit name mixed up in this dirty business. But as a sign of his commitment to return as a priest to the village and not as an agent of the French, he left behind a box of the materials for celebrating Mass, similar items we will use for this Mass in a few moments. And ironically the sacred vessels which were at the heart of his priestly identity would also be the cause of his martyrdom. In this image we see almost perfectly that faith and the service of justice, for a Catholic, especially one formed in the Jesuit tradition, are utterly inseparable.

After his departure, the Mohawks of this area suffered a deadly sickness which killed many including small children. Sadly they attributed this to evil spirits in the sacred vessels that Father Jogues had left behind. When Jogues returned a few months later to remain faithful to his promise to bring justice for all the native peoples, he was immediately tortured and eventually killed. During this horrendous trial, Jogues never lost his composure, never gave up his faith. In fact, we know all this because the man who killed him later repented and in doing so described the details of this Jesuit’s death. He was so moved by Jogues’ goodness during all this, that he eventually approached one of the other Jesuits laboring in the area and asked to be baptized. When asked what Christian name he wanted to be given at his baptism, the Indian replied “Isaac Jogues.”

Man for Others is a great catch phrase. But if we would like it to be something more, something transformative for our lives, then we ought seriously to consider the example of St Isaac Jogues and the other North American Martyrs. Because of their deep faith and commitment to Christ, they had the strength were to give of themselves completely when the good of the other was at stake. Yes, in the grain of wheat died but over the centuries their deaths have borne much fruit. In many ways the faith we share, the Jesuit school we are, come from the blood of these martyrs and the first roots of the Catholic faith in New York. May their prayers and example root us too in our faith in Christ so that we can be Men for Others in both word and deed, even when giving of ourselves comes at a greater cost.

Posted: 10/19/17