Today is the feast of the North American Martyrs, who were Jesuits killed during their missionary labors. Our Dean of First Studies, Fr. Tom Regan, preached the following homily today, which I thought was well worth posting.
What struck me most, however, was not the pomp and circumstance of the event itself but rather the very ticket, on whose reverse side was an image of Francis Xavier copied from a famous painting that is on display in the castle. So often portraits of Francis Xavier depict him as being what appears to be an old man. For the first time in looking at this painting it really dawned on me that Xavier did his amazing missionary work while he was still a very young man. Born in 1506, he was only thirty-four years old when the Society of Jesus was approved by Pope Paul III in 1540. A year later on his 35th birthday, he departed Rome for India with the hopes of converting China. He would never to return to his European homeland.
It amazed me to think that if a young man growing up today in this remote region of Navarre were to have thoughts of journeying to the Far East with the hope of converting India and China, it would be an incredible ambition. That someone would have thought to do so in the sixteenth century, struck me as simply mindboggling.
Such was the amazing creativity and apostolic zeal of the early Jesuits. Today as the Church celebrates the Feast of the North American Martyrs, the titular feast of the Society in North America, we are presented with a special opportunity to reflect upon the gifts of those whom the Church calls to be priests and the real sacrifices which so many of them have made on behalf of Christ. For a group like we have in this chapel today, with so many who are presently engaged in studying for the priesthood, this is an opportunity both for encouragement and edification.
For many American Jesuits a pilgrimage to Auriesville, New York, where many of the North American martyrs met their demise, is a common facet of our two year novitiate program. Today the ravine in this remote upstate New York town seems like such a quiet place far removed from the 17th century. There is little there amongst the landscape that would reveal that this was the crucible in which the blood of martyrs was shed. But who were these Jesuit priests and what can they teach all of us gathered here today?
John de Brebeuf grew up on a farm in eastern Normandy. He was only thirty-two when he arrived in “New France” in 1625. The Parisian-born Charles Garnier was thirty years old at the time he arrived among the Hurons, eleven years later. He had been a priest all of but one year.
Isaac Jogues, a native of Orleans, was twenty-nine when he arrived in September, 1636, a month after Garnier. He was ordained just two months before leaving France. Anthony Daniel, from Dieppe, was thirty-two-year-old. Like some here today, he had studied law before entering the Society of Jesus in 1621. Noel Chabanel was all of thirty-one when he arrived to work among the Hurons.
Even after the martyrdoms had begun in 1642, the young priests kept coming. In January 1649, Garbriel Lalemant, an “old” man at thirty-eight, arrived at Sainte Marie most eager to offer his life ministering to the needs of the Indians. He knew full-well the risks since he was the nephew of Father Jerome Lalemant, a former Superior of the Huron mission.
We imagine these martyrs to be old men, but in fact they were anything but that. They were young men in the prime of their life and their dedication to serving Christ and his church was total.
From the very beginning of the church, being a witness to the gospel has always come with a price. In our first reading today St Paul chronicles a series of horrific tortures that created the first great cloud of witnesses who gave up their lives for the faith. Many of the sufferings which they endured seem mild given what we know was done to these six young priests from France who attempted to spread the gospel in the “new” world.
In legal language we might say that Jesus was into “full-disclosure” mode in not masking the real cost of Christian discipleship. We read in today’s gospel passage from Matthew, that to those who gathered around him, Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
We sometime think that “formation” whether it is in a college seminary, a major seminary, or in a religious order is all about the future, preparing to be the priest that I will become when I am finally done. But in thinking in those terms, we run the risk of losing the present tense. In the colloquy at the end of the very first exercise of the very first week of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, the exercitant is invited to reflect upon him or herself and ask, “What have I done for Christ?” “What am I doing for Christ?” “What ought I to do for Christ?”
Today’s feast invites all of us to ponder how these six young men from France along with their two lay colleagues René Goupil and Jean de Lalande answered the call of Christ. They were simple ordinary men not that different from you or me. Their response to Christ was generous and complete. They now stand among the great cloud of witnesses about which St. Paul speaks.
You and I live in the present tense and from our philosophical studies we realized that we cannot do otherwise. Potentially our response to Christ can be equally generous and equally complete as the North American martyrs. Will we embrace Christ’s invitation or hold back?
While Loyola University’s tag line is “preparing people to lead extraordinary lives,” we are aware that people who truly lead them never put off until tomorrow what can be realized today. AMEN.