Sermon for the Feast of the North American Martyrs

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“The Blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church”

My dear friends, today we celebrate and remember our parents in the faith. We celebrate the north American martyrs. These where 7 Priests and one layman, who died here in North America, for no other reason but their desire to bring salvation to the souls in this continent.

We offer the holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the honor of men, who lived and died, here in this land, to bring Christ, and His Blessed Mother, to bring the Church to us, at the price of their lives.

And I called them our parents in the faith, because we truly are related to them. These men where some of the first Apostles in these lands. If we have the Catholic Church, if we are able to receive the sacraments, and to enjoy so many of the blessings we enjoy, it is because these men came here to bring to us the true Religion.

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

Yes indeed, it is easy for us to read their story and to be inspired by what they did. For us, it is easy to glory on their works, and marvel at them, as we reap their fruits; but my friends, we must not forget the price there is to pay. For as Catholics we are not called to glory on the saints, but to imitate them.  And so, today, in order that we may not forget the price to pay, rather than glory on their merits, we want to remember their actions to imitate them, at least in the little that we can. Allow me then, to tell you a little about their story.

John de Brebeuf was born in 1591 in France. He was a farmer. As He grew up, he decided to join the recently founded company of Jesus, and he received a high education in Europe. But as soon as He could, he asked his superiors for permission to come to America, to bring the faith to the natives.

He was allowed to come, and in the course of the years, he would be joined by other French Priests, who would also suffer martyrdom with him.

He arrived in 1625. As he arrived the difficulties of being a Priest trying to convert the Indians became suddenly quite real.

He did his first experiments, by spending the winter with a tribe of the Algonquin people. That meant living in tents, like nomads, suffocating bonfires being lit inside the tent, among rude men and women, who did not speak his language, nor shared his education.

The food was poor and scarce, he had no one to talk to, and if this was not enough, the Algonquin where given to all kinds of impurity and superstition, and sorcerers would organize feasts and horrible rites in honor of their divinities, things that the Priest had to suffer silently, since he could not even express in words his disapproval.

A big dose of reality, to begin his mission.

 But this did not dampen his fervor and zeal. For his next assignment, he was sent far away, to the Huron tribe, to begin a mission there.

Now, the Jesuits had a rule by which they were bound to keep a written journal of the hapennings in the mission, for the instruction of other Priests. To this day, we still have over 100 books filled with these documents. And it is in this manner that we know, what St. John de brebeuf and his companions had to go through.

The trip to the mission was made in a Canoe. He was not requested, nor appreciated. He simply joined a trading party of Indians, who treated him with all kinds of harshness. The trip was made on a canoe, sitting on the bare wood, without barely been able to move, since the canoes were fragile. If you displeased the Indians, or got sick, or they simply didn’t like you, they would leave you ashore to die, and abandon you there. They traveled like that for 1 month, over 900 miles.

He then got to his mission. He didn’t speak the language, he had no one to refer to. If you have ever struggled feeling alone and isolated, and in a hostile environment, imagine for a moment what this man must have felt, living in these conditions for over thirty years.

All his training was almost useless with them. Is education and manners from Europe where but a hindrance. The language was a language most difficult to learn, since they did not use their lips but their throat to make sounds, and words were barely distinguishable. Their language didn’t have any abstract concepts, and so he had to try to explain the faith using only material things.

After three years, he was learning some of their language, and finally becoming one of them, when he was summoned to go back to Europe, on account of the wars between England and France, between Protestantism and Catholicism.

After a few months He was able to return, but this time more men came with him.

This time, the challenges where still there, but they where able to move forward and start baptizing a few.

Now, my dear friends, too often we might picture the life of a missionary, and we think of it on some very nice terms. We think of a beautiful village, and the Priest walking happily about the village with the Indians saying hello to them, and they all gathering by the fire to eat some tasty animal hunted the night before.

But I want you today to imagine the reality, a Priest living in a miserable hut, eaten by rats, fleas and flies, suffering cold during the winter, and heat during the summer, intolerable stench, where most of the people around him are either indifferent, or hostile, or outright abusive. Commanding him, having him serve, and carry,  and clean for them. Not giving him anything to eat, or drink or heal himself. Imagine the Priest unable to say mass for long periods of time, praying by himself, isolated, with no books or nothing to hold him. Trying to speak to those who would not listen, and once they listened, receiving from them a simple negative, they don’t want to convert.

And these men when through this patiently month after month, until their good example, their prayers, their sacrifice, brought about fruit.

The Blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church.

When Fr. Brebeuf as able to baptize his first child, a child who was dying he said: “For this one single occasion I would travel all the way from France; I would cross the great ocean to win one little soul for Our Lord!”

After several years and the work of more Priests, the Hurons began converting. But the missionaries had to struggle with many other difficulties.

One of them was the plague, disease, which attacked the Europeans and the Indians, but the Indians suffered greatly and died in great numbers, blaming of course, the Priests for it.

Another one was the constant wars between tribes, particularly the mohawks, who were constantly raiding the Huron’s villages.

Add to this starvation and hunger, which in certain years greatly afflicted the whole of the villages.

But throughout all of this, the missionaries remained devoted to their spiritual children. It was precisely the love and devotion that they had for them, which caused the very first martyrdom.

I cannot go into detail on all of their stories, but I would like at least, to bring out some of their heroic character, of the nobility of their souls.

Fr. Isaac Jogues had been sent on an errand to Quebec, which was very far away, in order to bring provisions to the starving village. They completed the perilous journey, but on their way back, their party was attacked by a band of mohawks.

The indian who was leading the canoe for Father Jogues, immediately made it to shore, and threw Father into a thicket of tall grass, in order to hide him. The Indians fought courageously, but were soon overrun, and taken prisoners.

No one had seen Father Jogues. But he could not let his spiritual children go through this ordeal alone. They would need his help. And so He got up and waved towards the enemy, in order to be captured as well.

This would cost Fr. Jogues to suffer immense brutality, and several weeks of torture. The Indians cut and bit his fingers off, burned them, and beated them up repeatedly.

The white man of the party were spared, while the huron Indians were all condemned to be tortured and killed. Most of them were Christians. Father Jogues was forced to watch it all. They all died like martyrs, even one of them, as He was being tortured, he continuously shouted in the huron tonge, begging God to forgive his persecutors.

Father Jogues, made it back to Europe, where he received great honors and respect,  but after only a few months He came back, this time to meet his death again in the hands of the mohawks.

Another beautiful instance of their valor was the dead of Father Anthony Daniel.

He was in a huron village, just about to begin his Mass, when they heard the war cries of the Mohawks outside of the village.

There was no hope, they were greatly outnumbered. Father came out of the cabin, still dressed with his alb, and shouted the words of absolution to all the Indians present, and then said: “Flee, my children, and bear with you your Faith even to your last breath.” They in turn pleaded with him to also escape, “No,” he said“I shall die here to save you; we shall see one another again in heaven!”

As the Indians who could fled away, the Enemy made it into the Palisade, and Fr. Daniel, took up his cross, and walked towards them holding the cross up high.

The Indians stood bewildered. But after some of them recognized that he was another one of the “black robes” He also received the crown of the martyrs.

Finally the martyrdoms of Fr. John Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant are to be related. And here, I don’t think I can go into all the details. It is almost impossible to read or think of what they suffered without shrinking from it.

They were both captured. But Fr. Brebeuf had to suffer first.

Now, among the Indians, there was a certain pagan code, by which if the tortured enemy suffered all the tortures inflicted upon him, without begging for mercy, he defeated his persecutors. But if he asked for mercy, he was then considered defeated.

Father knew this well, and he knew that the only way these Indians would respect the true faith was to see him conquer. And so he determined not to ask for mercy, but only to Jesus.

His dead, was preaching.

I will not go into all the details. But he was burned throughout his body, cut with knifes. His fingers were chewed off. The put a torch of fire into his mouth, to silence his prayers. They hanged red hot irons around his neck. An apostate indian, mocking baptism, poured boiling water upon his head.

When he was already dying, they could not bear the look of his eyes, and they pried them out, with a flaming torch.

Father Lalemant died in a similar way.

My friends, as I finish this story, because I must finish, I will ask you to remember this happened here on your land. I stepped in the grounds where this men died. I saw their bones, still kept up in Canada. He saw the rivers, the woods, the places where they walked.

Their blood as been the seed of your faith. You do not have the Church for free. There were men who died to give it to you.

As we honor them today we learn this lesson and let us put it in practice, that we may never shrink from the sacrifices that our faith may demand from us. These men suffered momentarily. Now they reign forever with Christ, and no one will take away their kingdom.

So too we may reach that blessed place where they live now, if we also stand fast to our faith, and suffer what this brief life might bring to us.

In Nomine Patris….

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