ODAY is World Mission Sunday, a day on which we focus on praying for the missions and supporting them financially. The work of the missions is to bring the Gospel to lands where it has not yet been preached. Today is also October 19th, the date each year when the Church observes the feast of St. Isaac Jogues & his companions, who were among the earliest missionaries to work in what we now call the United States. These remarkable men are, of course, the patron saints adopted by Corpus Christ Watershed.
It may be worthwhile today to take a brief trip back to the mid-1600’s, when Fr. Jogues and his Jesuit companions were working among the Iroquois & Mohawk & Huron Indians of upstate New York. The missionaries began by teaching the Indians the very basics of the Catholic faith. If you visit the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, NY, you can still see how they wrote the name “Jesus” on the trees to teach love and respect for the divine name. They learned some of the native languages so that they could teach catechism lessons and the basic prayers. They really lived out the spirit of Psalm 96 to “tell His glory among the nations, among all peoples.”
Not all of their efforts, however, were met with a terrific welcome. One day, one of the lay Jesuit brothers, Bro. Rene Goupil, was teaching a child how to make the Sign of the Cross. Some of the Mohawks who did not approve of the Christian missionaries saw this, and they martyred him with a hatchet.
Another day, in August of 1642, Isaac Jogues was captured in Ossernenon (now called Auriesville, NY). There, he was ritually tortured and had his two index fingers cut off in the process. This was a very intentional act on the part of his tormenters, since a priest was required to have his two index fingers and two thumbs in order to celebrate Mass. After the dismemberment, Fr. Jogues had to leave America and return to Europe to ask permission to celebrate Mass even with mutilated hands. Pope Urban VIII granted him this dispensation.
At this point, most people would have given up. Most people would not have returned to the New World. Most people would have been happy just to have returned to their homeland and the comparatively comfortable life of Renaissance France. Amazingly, Fr. Jogues wanted to return to the missions to continue his work. He did, in fact, return, and months later, on October 18th, he was killed with a tomahawk. The next day, October 19th, another of his companions, Bro. Jean de LaLande was also martyred.
HOSE JESUIT MISSIONARIES gave so much—including their very lives—to bring the native peoples of our country to faith. The great pioneer of the Jesuit missionaries was a priest named John de Brébeuf. Once, after anointing a dying Indian child, 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.” Their efforts bore much fruit. We have them to thank for St. Kateri Tekakwitha and for paving the way so that we might also have faith and the freedom to practice it.
Since the time of those missionaries, the United States has brought up thousands more missionaries and sent them all across the world. There is a strange reality, though, in which our country is again, in many ways, mission territory. So many people in our cities and in our countryside do not know their catechism or their basic prayers. So many have strayed from the practice of the faith that they were once taught. More & more priests & sisters are coming here from Africa & Asia—areas to which we once sent American missionaries.
We need a revitalized missionary spirit—in our world, in our country, in our dioceses, in our neighborhoods. We need a renewed and re-energized spirit of evangelization and zeal for souls.
St. John de Brébeuf wrote a beautiful prayer in one of his diaries:
My God, it grieves me greatly that You are not known, that in this savage wilderness all have not been converted to You, that sin has not been driven from it. My God, even if all the brutal tortures which prisoners in this region must endure should fall on me, I offer myself most willingly to them and I alone shall suffer them all.
Is the same missionary spirit that was in the hearts of those Jesuit missionaries of the mid-1600’s alive in you?