Simply called the North American martyrs, Sts. Isaac Jogues and seven companions are remembered every year in October for sharing the Gospel with the Native Americans of the Huron nation across the Great Lakes region. It was their Christian baptismal call that propelled them forward across the ocean to a new culture and land. Their baptizing others led to their martyrdom.
From the blood of St. Isaac and two of his companions in 1646 sprang seeds of faith. In the same upstate New York village where they were killed, 10 years later the next North American saint, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, was born and raised Catholic.
Originally from Orleans, France, St. Isaac was from a middle-class family and educated well. He joined the Jesuits in the city of Rouen and was ordained a priest. Hearing stories of fellow Jesuits serving in Asia, he desired go abroad as a missionary.
Sent to Canada, then called New France, he served among the Huron people for six years, teaching and baptizing many. St. Isaac desired, though, to offer his whole self, his life, for the conversion of the entire Huron nation.
He became the first European to visit Lake Superior and the first priest to travel into New York state. He named the Lake of the Blessed Sacrament, now called Lake George.
Because of the French and Indian War, travel and ministering to the tribes became dangerous. St. Isaac and a lay companion, a surgeon, Rene Goupil, were captured, along with fellow Christian Huron friends, by a warring Iroquois party. Tortured and forced to run the gauntlet, St. Isaac’s hands were then mutilated, making it impossible for him to hold the host in proper form during Mass.
Goupil was killed for making the sign of the cross on a child’s forehead. St. Isaac was kept as a slave, but finally escaped via some Dutch traders back to France.
His fellow Jesuit, St. Jean de Brebeuf, had been serving in North America for years. The first Jesuit missionary in Huronia, the tall, giant of a man had a gentle spirit and a heart for the Huron people. He originally wanted to serve the Jesuits as a brother but was so smart that he was asked to study to become a priest.
In 1626, St. Jean began mission outposts. He wrote letters back to Europe inspiring a new generation of missionaries; learned the native language, customs and beliefs; translated a catechism; and wrote a grammar and phrase book, all in the Huron language. Writing a treatise to his fellow Jesuits of how to treat and serve the local Native Americans, learning their customs, respecting them and speaking their language, St. Jean paved the way for the future missionaries to come.
Along with Father Gabriel Lalemant, he was at a Huron mission outpost when an enemy Iroquois band attacked it. St. Jean was tortured for hours. The Iroquois were impressed how he never cried or screamed aloud, only encouraged his fellow Hurons in the faith; but they killed him nonetheless.
Together these priests and layman served God as companions and in the sprouting Jesuit missions of North America. They prayed, offered Mass and taught the neophytes, preaching in the Hurons’ native tongue about Jesus and showing God’s love in their actions. Together they journeyed down rivers, paddling for hours across portages, canoes and supplies on their back, along forest trails to the people whom they were called to serve.
That which propelled the companions forth to North America and across the frontier began at their baptism. The baptismal call of St. Isaac was like that of every other Christian. In the sacrament, all the faithful are sent forth as priest, prophet and king to serve God’s people and share the good news. This is explicitly stated in Jesus’ last words to His disciples at the ascension, as recorded in Matthew 28:18-20: “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
We are all called to be missionaries, going out of our comfort, out of our little worlds, out of ourselves and go and serve God’s people.
We don’t have to leave our city and country to be a missionary. That is certainly one way to live the call, as St. Isaac and St. Jean joyfully did.
Nothing less will satisfy our baptized souls. Ask St. Isaac. He could have stayed back in safety in France. He could have kept teaching at the university with the other Jesuits. He was already hailed a living martyr in France, acclaimed by the Pope Urban VIII and given permission to celebrate Mass with his deformed, hazed hand. But he couldn’t. He didn’t. His zeal for God, his love of the Huron people and his desire to share the good news compelled him back to North America.
Four months later, St. Isaac indeed returned to the Canadian missions. There he was martyred by some still-warring Mohawks, along with another French layman, John de la Lande.
With our eyes fixed on Jesus on the cross, we can share in the broken bread and wine, the transformed body and blood of Christ, and be spiritual companions of St. Isaac Jogues in following Jesus.
We can remember St. Isaac’s words: “My confidence is placed in God, who does not need our help for accomplishing his designs. Our single endeavor should be to give ourselves to the work and to be faithful to Him and not to spoil his work by our shortcomings.”
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