By Denise Trull
Feast of the North American Martyrs. These are the great Saints - the lilies and roses St. Therese was talking about. I have always pretty much admired them from afar. They are what even Homer would hail as epically heroic. The GREAT Saints.
But surely St. Jean de Brebeuf and Isaac Jogues, as on fire and confident and smart and strong willed as they were, woke up on that very first morning after being unceremoniously dropped in those deep woods the night before, stood up in a sea of sleeping Hurons in the Longhouse they shared with them, smelled the bear grease, the sweaty bodies, the smoke that hurt their eyes, not one evidence of the cultured France they loved and knew so well, among a people they did not know at all, whose language baffled them. I KNOW they must have said helplessly, "How. will. I. ever?”
I am also sure they discovered much more quickly than I would have, that the "I" never will. It is God that will, through our weakness and availability to His grace. We just begin. We give what we have, as these men did.
They shared their love of the faith. They told saint stories. They described the Sacraments. They shared beautiful artwork of Jesus and His Mother. They taught the Indian women how to pray the rosary and talked to them about Mary, the great woman. They prayed the Mass with a group of mystified and suspicious Hurons looking on. Every day. Catechism, sacraments, and the Mass.
But heroes are not always successful in the world’s eyes. The Huron Indian village was invaded by their sworn enemies, the Iroquois, who captured all the priests and brought them to their own camp as a coveted prize. They tortured these 'Black Robes' and then put them to death.
St. John so brave that the Indians ate his heart to partake of his bravery, and Isaac Jogues who WENT BACK after escaping with maimed hands to a certain and more final torture and death. And one other who questioned his vocation amidst the hardships of this New World, but persevered to the end unto martyrdom. They were each brave the way God wanted them to be brave.
And most heroic of all, they saw nothing of accomplishment. They died thinking it had all failed. Once again that incredible purity of heart and purpose shows its heroic face.
They died because Jesus asked it and love for the Indians compelled them. Oh amazing faith!!! All of it fed by fidelity to the ordinary channels of Grace we all can drink from.
The most beautiful result of their martyrdom was this: their blood was to water the seed that was to become the Lily of the Mohawks, St. Kateri Tekawitha. And their efforts made it possible for Fr. Peter Desmet to find the small seeds of the faith growing in the deserts of the Southwest a hundred years later. It was said that Indian converts from the original mission in New York had traveled there in a small group to spread the faith.
It's so glorious in hindsight. But in the here and now it is always the FAITH of heroes. The how will I ever?
God will show us how.
*An earlier version of this piece mistakenly attributed their martyrdom to the Huron. It has been corrected to reflect that it was at the hands of the Iroquois.