Anyone who wants to do so can learn that there are eight Jesuit martyrs
called, depending on what side of the border one is on, the Canadian or
the North American Martyrs and that they met their deaths by the Iroquois between
1642 and 1649. All now canonized saints, they are René Goupil (September
29, 1642), Isaac Jogues and Jean de la Lande (October 18-19, 1646), Antoine
Daniel (July 4, 1648), Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant (March
16-17, 1649), Noël Chabanel and Charles Garnier (December 8-9, 1649).
In the pages that follow Father Francois Roustang has given us excerpts from the writings of four of these men and to these he has added four more selections written by their companion missionaries, who were spared the grace of red martyrdom. In doing so he has broadened the seven-year time frame into which the martyrs are generally placed, and he has expanded the field of what is certainly one of the most heroic chapters in religious history.
Many of these writings originally appeared in The Jesuit Relations and all serve to give the experiences of each man the animation and life of a modern novel. Roustang has also done us a great favor in giving, by way of introduction, a snapshot of his eight subjects, allowing us to study each man's background, his sanctity, idiosyncrasies, defects and talents and the circumstances of his narrative. The result is that we can learn much, not only about eight Jesuits of heroic virtue and about the times in which they lived, but also about human nature itself, how grace builds on that nature and, from our vantage point almost four hundred years later, how the hand of Providence can reconstruct the seemingly inscrutable messiness of life into a beautifully designed masterpiece.
The writings themselves, like the authors who wrote them, are worthy of reflection for each is marked by a distinctive mannerism, but it is Roustang's presentation that helps us to ask ourselves if the world has ever seen anything like those Jesuits who were sent as missionaries to New France between 1610 and 1660.
Of course, this was the golden age of spirituality in old France, where the eight men were born and molded. It was the age that began with Pierre de Bérulle in the first decade of the 16oos and ended with St. Louis Grignion de Montfort one hundred years later. In between there were such giants as Jean-Jacques Olier, Louis Bourdalou, Jean de Berniéres, Marie de l'Incarnation, Charles de Condren and Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet and saints like Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, John Eudes, Julien Manoir, Francis Regis, Jeanne de Chantal, Francis de Sales, Claude de la Colombiére and Margaret Mary Alacoque.
Very much part of that school was the Jesuit Father Louis Lallemant, who personally formed some of the eight men in this study and who exerted a powerful influence on all of the Jesuit missionaries of New France. Modern readers used to affirming the goodness of human nature will understandably feel uncomfortable with the insistence on such themes as discarding the world, the sinful condition of man as opposed to the grandeur of God and the need for a radical love for the cross, the symbol of absolute self-annihilation, which are found in the writing of representatives of such spirituality in general and in the letters and reflections of these missionaries in particular.
Without defending or excusing such themes, they explain the mindset and the motives of action of all the Jesuits highlighted in this book, and it must be admitted that these are also themes, however limited, not foreign to the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament. No one can claim that these eight Jesuits were unaware of the New or the Old Testament. All of them peppered their correspondence with copious citations from Scripture, and since frequently they did not have Bibles at hand when they composed their letters, it must be concluded that such citations were deeply fixed in their memories. One gets the impression that these missionaries were in the habit of penetrating the Word of God, not merely spouting Biblical verses for the edification of their readers.
The golden age of French spirituality coincided with the golden age of French literature, architecture and political hegemony. It was the age of Corneille, Moliére and Racine, of Versailles, Charles Le Brun and Madame de Sévigné, of Richelieu and the Sun King. Jacques Amyot, the great Renaissance humanist of whom Montaigne said, "He taught France how to write", died the year Jean Brébeuf was born.
Meanwhile, throughout the cities of France the Jesuits were successfully applying the norms of the Ratio studiorum in their numerous collèges, with the result that a number of young men imbued with humanistic learning as well as the spirituality of the age were taking their places in society. Paul Le Jeune's accounts of the mission of New France, into which he sometimes slips sly humor, and St. Isaac Jogues' descriptive letters remain compelling evidence of the literary and cultural presence of that humanism among those Jesuits missioned to New France.
Both men fascinated their readers by recounting in unparalleled Classical style anecdotes that told what life was like living among the "savages of New France"and the reader should remember that the term savage in French does not carry with it the pejorative connotation associated with the same word in English.
Not all of the missionaries were stylists, a fact that Roustang makes clear. Enemond Massés nervous notes owe their charm in part to chopped, hurried phrases that but enhance their spiritual depth, and there is no example given of any writing of René Goupil, whose gentle and perceptive personality is described by Jogues. The physically strong, handsome giant Jean de Brébeuf is a chronicler who writes in laconic straightforward, no-nonsense sentences, whereas the onetime picaresque Pierre Chaumonot can be chatty. His reflections on the Mass, however, should be compulsory reading for today's priests and seminarians.
Both the style and content of Charles Garnier's letters inspire one to doubt that if there is free seating at the celestial banquet the place next his will not be quickly filled. But then one would be immediately shaken from such musings by reading of his fearless courage. Courage was the virtue that shines forth in the lives of each of these men, but it took on an almost holy arrogance in the demeanor of Garnier. Cicero teaches that fortitude is the chief quality among men, and Aristotle observed that cowards are necessarily pessimists because they fear everything. By contrast a courageous man is confident, optimistic. Optimism is not a Christian virtue; hope is.
And if there is any virtue that is made evident from the words and actions of these men it is hope, a hope built on what God has done in the past through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and what he promises for the future, the sharing of that same life for all eternity. Such hope, riveted on a fathomless faith, enabled these men to live in the present with that purity of heart which is having no other desire than being opened to God and his grace that Lallemant taught his disciples was the shortest way to perfection. But generally it took long nights and a weary route through dry deserts to learn how to disentangle the designs of God from those that were not from God; to arrive at that stage of total self-annihilation that enabled these missionaries to live intimately united with God at every moment.
How else does one explain the serenity with which Brébeuf underwent such barbaric tortures before his death or how Jogues and Goupil suffered their captors to pull out their nails and bite and saw off their fingers? But most of all, how else does one explain that, after continuous, day-by-day frustrations and sufferings, Pierre Chaumonot could vow never to leave his Indians, who all but despised him?
The Huron mission began with an irresistible momentum of success; quickly floundered and ended in dismal failure. Brébeuf, who after six years of work baptized only one single adult, blamed it on the Indians' immorality, on a lack of their creative energies and on the epidemics that reduced the population more than fifty percent within a few years' time. By 1650 the Iroquois were in complete control of what had been the Huronia.
And so was all of this hope impracticable? Ironically the opposite is true, although the missionaries did not live to see it. The popularization of letters from the missionaries of New France was a decisive event in the subsequent history of the Catholic Church. The enthusiasm they generated in Jesuit collèges in France, particularly at Rennes, where many of these missionaries had matriculated or taught, resulted in a veritable mission mania.
This of course, is another story. For our purposes, suffice it to say that the reports of the Jesuit missionaries in New France eventually inspired former students from the collèges to establish the Missions Etrangères seminary in Paris from which generations of priests brought the faith to many parts of Asia. Then there is the subsequent history of the Iroquois, the protagonists in the drama of the Jesuit martyrs.
Over the course of the next two hundred years many of the different tribes of this nation submitted to baptism. The most famous of their number, Kateri Tekakwitha (1656) has been since beatified by the Catholic Church. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, a shortage of food forced some two-dozen members of the Iroquois nation to migrate west, where they finally settled beyond the Rockies and were adopted by the Flatheads. These Christian Iro
quois taught their pagan hosts the prayers they had learned and prepared them to receive the faith of Jean de Brébeuf and his companions. Between 1831 and 1839 the Flatheads sent four delegations to St. Louis to beg that Blackrobes come and teach them what their predecessors had tried to teach the Hurons and their own Iroquois ancestors. Finally in 1840, the Jesuit superior at St. Louis appointed Peter De Smet to reconnoiter the territory and give a report on the prospects of establishing a mission. His report was positive, and following year, he, two priests, one of whom was Nicolas Point, and three lay brothers were participants in the historic first wagon train to the Oregon Territory where they established the famous Jesuit Rocky Mountain Mission.
As a teenager in France, Point read some of the same letters contained in the pages of this book, and he determined at that moment to follow in the footsteps of the heroic men who wrote them. He had no idea that Jesuits still existed, and when he found out they did, he joined the Society and was eventually sent to the United States where he attempted to carry on the titanic labors begun by Jogues, Le Jeune and Brébeuf among the Flatheads, Coeur d'Alènes and Blackfeet.
Almost seventy years after Nicolas Point had pondered the letters that changed his life, a newly ordained French Jesuit read the same letters and underwent a similar experience. The result was that Louis Ruellan shocked his superiors when he asked to be sent to North America to work among the native peoples. Father Ruellan gave promise of becoming an outstanding Jesuit academician, a professor or a writer of scholarly articles, and so it was after some time and with great reluctance that in 1884 he was at last assigned to the Rocky Mountain Mission, where he hoped in some way to replicate the lives those he had read about in the Jesuit Relations.
But when he arrived in Spokane he was told to forget the Indians and direct his talents to building a collège for the whites, the future Gonzaga University. Here he learned the hard lesson that imitating Jogues and his companions did not mean performing great and splendid exploits. Rather it meant imitating their fidelity to grace in all matters, and this called for the same kind of quiet self-annihilation that characterized their lives and enabled them to hope In God's providence. Such a state was the by-product of detachment from all self-interestand that included working with the Indians; of seeing God's presence in all people and events and of his ascertaining God's will in whatever task was given to him under obedience.
Ruellan learned this lesson painfully but in record time. He lived less than a year after coming to America, but the news of the untimely death of this exceptional young man had a miraculous effect. His death so greatly shocked religious Superiors in a number of European countries that they sent scores of missionaries into the American West and Alaskaonce again changing the course of the Church's history and once again demonstrating the miraculous and continuous power of the seventeenth-century Jesuit martyrs and missionaries to North America.
Hopefully some modern-day collègien, some Point or Ruellan reading this book, will feel the power and attraction of the lives, reflections and exploits of these Jesuit Missionaries to North America and will respond to the challenge they continue to offer.
Cornelius Michael Buckley, S.J.
Thomas Aquinas College
Santa Paula, California
October 19, 2005