Friday, 31 March 2017 08:47

Eucharistic Spirituality II: The Eight Great Jesuit Martyrs.

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St. Ignatius of Loyola was so overwhelmed by Christ’s love that he desired “to be considered a fool and a madman for love of Him who first was considered as such for love of me.”  Like their founder, the Jesuit Martyrs of North American and Canada were fools and madmen for Christ. This article is a continuation of a previous one called “Eucharistic Spirituality.” Here, and in our next article after this one, we will recall, and honor, the Eucharistic lives and deaths of these eight men.

We begin by pronouncing with reverence their names, in the chronological order of their deaths, and their birth to eternal life: St. René Goupil, St. Isaac Jogues, St. Jean de Lalande, St. Antoine Daniel, St. Noël Chabanel, St. Jean de Brebeuf, St. Gabriel Lalemant, and St. Charles Garnier. 

Each and every one of the above-mentioned men came from cultured and well-to-do family backgrounds in 17th century France. Fr. Charles Garnier, for example, the last of the eight to die, was the son of the secretary of Henry III, King of France. René Goupil was a surgeon. Others were university professors. They left promising careers and a comfortable life to bring the Gospel to the Indian tribes of “New France.” 

In stark contrast to 17th century Old France, the Indian tribes of New France lived in extremely primitive conditions. They were committed to constant brutal wars with their neighbors, and their customs included the cruelest forms of torture and the eating of human flesh. Therefore, missionary activity involved the real and immediate threat of torture and death. The missionaries knew this, and anticipated it. Their lives and deaths are intimately associated with the Eucharistic sacrifice. At the Jesuit community chapel in Sainte Marie, for example, St. Isaac Jogues spent “long vigils” before the Blessed Sacrament. During this retreat, Fr. Isaac was moved by the Spirit, in the Presence of the Eucharistic Christ, to make an extraordinary prayer, to which he received an extraordinary response: 

One afternoon—it was in the spring—when the chapel was deserted, he was kneeling before the altar in adoration. He felt surge up within him an overwhelming desire to suffer for God, to endure pain, to undergo fatigues, to face dangers, to be subjected to extraordinary trials. He bent his head low, so that it touched the wood of the altar step. There, he begged and demanded of God that he would be immolated, would be sacrificed as a victim of Divine love. He offered himself, body, soul, will, mind, memory to God, that God might do with him as He pleased. 

He burned as if with fever. Then the emotion relaxed, and as he came to himself he was conscious of thought forming in his mind. Something was being told him, but at first obscurely, vaguely. He waited, passively and expectant. Then he heard drumming in his ears, as clear and resonant as speech, the words: Exaudita est oratio tua; fiet tibi sicut a me petisti. Confortare et esto robustus. The message was repeated, again and again: “Thy prayer is heard. It will be done to thee as thou hast asked. Be comforted, be of strong heart.”   

When the hour of Satan and the power of darkness arrived, his heart was indeed strong. Eustace, his Huron Christian companion, vocally defended Fr. Isaac to his Mohawk torturers in the midst of the murderous din: 

“Don’t get the idea that his tears are caused by weakness. They are the tears of courage and of the love which he has for me. They are not a sign of cowardice. He weeps for me, not for himself. He never wept while you were tormenting him. His face remained dry and cheerful. He weeps for me and not for himself. Your cruelty and my pains and his love, they are the reason for his tears.” 

“It is true what you say, Eustace. I do not feel my own wounds nearly as much as the sorrow which I suffer for you. Look at me all covered with blood and with wounds. I do not count that anything in comparison to the anguish I feel when I see you suffering this way. Take courage, my dear brother. Keep remembering all the time that there is another life, remember there is a God who sees everything and who knows well how to reward all the things which we endure now, on this occasion, for his sake.” 

“I am trying to do that. I am remembering very well. I will remain firm, even till death.”  

When a Mohawk brave seized Fr. Isaac’s nose and raised his knife to slice it off, Fr. Isaac prayed, “Lord, take not my nose only, but also my head.”  When the thumb of his left hand was sawn off, he offered it in reparation for any lack of devotion throughout the years of his priesthood in the celebration of the Mass: 

“Picking up the severed thumb with my right hand, I offered it to You, my living and my true God, for I remembered the Holy Sacrifices which I had offered to You upon the altars of your Church through seven years. I accepted this torture, O my God, as a loving vengeance for the want of love and respect that I had shown in touching your Holy Body. You heard the cries of my soul.”  

René Goupil, was the first of the eight Jesuit martyrs to die. Together, he and Fr. Isaac had suffered cruel tortures that left their bodies scarred and mutilated. Sensing that death was imminent, they resolved that the sacred name of Jesus would be the last word of their lives. Goupil was murdered soon afterwards by two “braves” for performing the sign of the cross over a three-year-old child. They split his head with tomahawks. Sure enough, his last words were “Jesus, Jesus,” as he collapsed to the ground. Fr. Isaac’s blood would be mingled with Christ’s in the very same way, when he too was struck down by tomahawk blows to the head. His companion, St. Jean de Lalande, met his death the next day in the very same way when he left his cabin to search for Fr. Isaac’s body. 

Fr. Antoine Daniel, the fourth to die, was serving at Teanaustayé, the chief town of the Hurons, in July 1648, when the Iroquois made a sudden attack on the mission while most of the Huron men were away on a trading expedition to Quebec. Fr. Daniel had just finished celebrating the Holy Eucharist when the Iroquois launched their attack. Still wearing his white alb and red stole, he ran back and forth throughout the village giving general absolution and then back to the chapel, where the women, children, and old men were gathered. Wetting his handkerchief in a bowl of water, he shook it over them, baptizing them by aspersion. Then, a dramatic confrontation unfolded between the lone priest and the marauding hordes of Iroquois warriors: 

He stood at the door of his chapel. He saw a band of Iroquois burst from behind the cabins, their faces and bodies striped with the crimson war paint, their upraised tomahawks dripping with blood … He must halt them, and save the escaping Hurons. From the chapel door, slowly, with crucifix uplifted, he strode against them

The Iroquois stumbled in their onward rush and drew back before this portent. Who was this bearded being clothed in a white robe and a red sash over his shoulders? Who was this demon that, all alone, came toward them, without fear, as if threatening them with the thing in his raised hand, shouting at them words they could not understand. They slunk back in awe, muttering to one another in whispers, their eyes fixed on this strange apparition. Was he a devil that would strike them dead where they stood? He showed no fear of them, no, not any. 

“The Blackrobe!” one of them cried out. “The Blackrobe sorcerer!” One lodged a musket ball in his heart, while others let fly their arrows in his face and neck. They stood still, awed even yet by this frightening spectacle.  

They dragged his dead body back into the chapel, which they set on fire. In the meantime, many of the Hurons had been able to escape. When the temple guards came to arrest Jesus at the Mount of Olives, He went forth to meet them with the words, “I am He, the one you seek. Let these others go” (Jn 18:8). Fr. Daniel died like his Master. 

Here, with the Christ-like death of the fourth of the eight Martyrs, is a good moment to pause and reflect. (We will reflect on the remaining four in our next article). The definition of a saint, said another Jesuit, Fr. Segundo Llorente, is “someone who never complains.” The American Martyrs, who could have had such a comfortable existence and instead chose love unto the giving of their lives, invite us to consider, at the very least, giving up complaining for Lent.


Fr Colm PowersFr. Colum Power, born in Cork, Ireland, in 1965, is a Servant Priest of the Home of the Mother. He obtained a Master's degree in literature in 1991 and a doctorate in the History of the Church in 2013. He is author of A Touch of the Gardener's Hand, Honey from the Lion's Carcass, and James Joyce's Catholic Categories. He devotes his time to apostolic activities for the youth organized by the Servant Brothers of the Home of the Mother. Fr. Colum Power is author and editor of the FFA blog "Random Reflections".