Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Black Robe

Today the Church commemorates the North American Martyrs - Saints John de Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues, Noël Chabanel, Antoine Daniel, Charles Garnier, René Goupil, Jean de Lalande, and Gabriel Lalemant -  French Jesuit and Jesuit Oblate missionaries to the Huron and Iroquois Indians in 17th-century New France (in today’s terms, the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, and part of what is now New York State. The most famous of them, Saint Isaac Jogues (1607-1646), whose life we studied in high school when we read Francis Xavier Talbot's classic, Saint Among Savages: The Life of isaac Jogues, is now one of the patron saints of the Paulist Fathers. (The excellent 1991 film Black Robe is a fictionalized account of a French Jesuit missionary and his companions obviously inspired by the story of Saint Isaac Jogues.) 

In addition to being a great missionary and martyr, Saint Isaac Jogues is considered the discoverer of Lake George in New York’s Adirondack Region, where the Paulist Fathers have had their summer vacation home since the 1870s. (A copy of the above painting, showing the saint with his mutilated hands, hangs in the common room of the priests' house at Lake George.) Jogues is believed to have been the first European to see Lake George, which he named "Lac du St. Sacrament" in honor of the Feast of Corpus Christi, May 29, 1646. (After it became became part of the British colony of New York, the lake was renamed Lake George after King George II.)

From its inception, the Jesuit order had a strong missionary impulse,  and in 1625 the Jesuits initiated their first mission to New France. The Jesuit missionaries inspired Jogues, and, soon after his ordination in January 1636, he sailed to New France with several other missionaries. Arriving in Quebec on July 2, he wrote to his mother: “I do not know 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 Visitation."

After several years serving among the Huron Indians, he was captured and tortured by Mohawks in 1643. According to the The Jesuit Relations, during his captivity Jogues  had a vision: in which he bought a book that reminded him that to enter into heaven it would be necessary for him to experience many tribulations. His captivity dragged on until a party of Dutch traders from Fort Orange (now Albany, New York) ransomed him and paid for his passage down the Hudson to New Amsterdam (now New York City) en route to France. Jogues was thus the first Catholic priest ever to visit Manhattan. 

Pope Urban VIII considered Jogues a "living martyr," and gave him a dispensation to say Mass with his mutilated hand. For, according to the law at that time, the Blessed Sacrament was to be held with the priest's thumb and forefinger, which Jogues obviously could no longer do.   But the Pope said of Jogues: “A Martyr of Christ should be allowed to drink the blood of Christ.”

He returned to New France in 1644. But, on October 18, 1646, the Iroquois killed him with a tomahawk. He and the seven other North American Martyrs were canonized on June 29, 1930. they are venerated together in Canada on September 26 and in the United States on October 19.

When I was stationed in Toronto, I used to like to visit the Jesuit Martyrs Shrine in Midland, Ontario, and the nearby reconstructed site of Sainte Marie Among the Hurons near Georgian Bay.  In its time that was the farthest west any Europeans had travelled in America north of Mexico and is a vivid reminder - despite the Mission's short-term failure - of the necessarily longer view which it behooves any missionary - and a missionary Church - to cultivate.

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