Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The French Martyrs of North America

When I was stationed in Toronto, second only to Niagra Fall as a local tourist attraction to take seminarians and other visitors to was the Jesuit Martyrs' Shrine up north in Midland. Ontario, Just below that shrine is the even more interesting, reconstructed historic site of the Jesuits' famous mission settlement, the village of Ste Marie Among the Hurons. It always made for a pleasant summer outing.

But for those "Blackrobes" who lived, worked, and (in some cases) died there - 37 days by canoe from Quebec - spending long cold winters in smoke-filled, native American "long houses," and summers in their village settlement following their rigorous religious routine, it was a rough, tough life of hardship and obscurity - and, finally, failure, when war forced them to abandon that settlement after 10 years of intense effort.

It is easy to forget it in the splendor of the Martyrs' Shrine, but that ambitious, impressive, powerful project appeared in its own time to have failed - not unlike the life and mission of Jesus himself, in whose name those heroic missionaries so dramatically and seemingly tragically struggled.

So much, indeed, of what matters most in human life seems like a dialogue between failure and hope. The absence of failure is an illusion, but the absence of hope is deadly.

Whatever else may be said or sayable about the eight martyrs the US Church celebrates today - 6 Jesuit priests and their 2 associates, martyred in what are now New York and Ontario between 1642 and 1649 - they were certainly filled with hope. Their hope was not that so much that somehow they might escape from their Iroquois torturers, but that, through their misisonary struggles, the Risen Lord's Great Commission to his Church, proclaimed in today's Gospel - Go, make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you [Matthew 28:19-20] - might come closer to fulfillment.

Those French Jesuit missionaries, unstinting in their efforts to accomplish as much as they could for the greater glory of God, found final fulfillment in their complete identification with Christ, on whom they had learned to model their ministry and from whom they acquired the courage to trust and to hope in the triumph of the Cross, which in the end is what every chapter of the Christian story is ultimately all about.

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