Dauntless Faith of Saint Isaac Jogues
By Ralph Capone
In 1958, Father Joseph Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI) wrote an essay entitled “The New Pagans and the Church” in which he called Christian Europe the birthplace of a new paganism. “She is no longer, as she once was, a Church composed of pagans who have become Christians, but a Church of pagans, who still call themselves Christians.” He noted that in the very beginning the Church was founded upon the “spiritual decision of the individual person to believe…”. Individual acts of “faith in the grace of God which was revealed in Christ” distinguished Christians from non-Christians.
Sixty-one years later this observation is proven prescient. While many Catholics during this time have left the Church, some remain as cultural Catholics who have neither thought about nor made a personal commitment of faith. In the encyclical, Redemptoris Missio (1990), St Pope John Paul II wrote about a re-evangelization to “groups of the baptized (who) have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and (who) live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel” (RM 33).
Over the past 50 – 60 years, modernism, secularism, materialism and narcissism in the world and more sadly in the Church have combined to diminish to near extinction the supernatural gift of faith. For many, faith has become a “burden and not a grace.” This has afflicted both laity and clergy alike. Is there a way forward into true discipleship that re-kindles individual faith to achieve a ‘new’ evangelization?
In the Apostle’s Creed, following the avowal of the “the holy Catholic Church” is the statement of belief in “the communion of saints.” The saints intercede for us to the Father for the grace to proceed as “companions and fellow disciples” of Christ. (CCC 957). They also instruct us by their stories marked by a profound and humble faith wholly dependent on God. Lumen Gentium (1964), the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, instructs the faithful to look to the saints who by their close unity with Christ “establish the whole Church more firmly in holiness, lend nobility to the worship which the Church offers to God here on earth and in many ways contribute to its greater edification….(and) by their brotherly interest our weakness is greatly strengthened.”(LG 49) (author’s italics) By many examples of courageous faith they may inspire in us a deeper belief and commitment to the revealed truth of the gospel. One outstanding example is Saint Isaac Jogues, one of the heroic North American Martyrs, whose prayer in the divine office states that “(b)y the help of their prayers may the Christian faith continue to grow throughout the world.”
The Life of Saint Isaac Jogues
He was born on January 10, 1607, the third son of Francois de Saint-Mesmin Jogues and Laurent Jogues and baptized the same day in Orleans, the city of Saint Joan of Arc, in north central France. (editor’s note: all subsequent quotes come from this book). Isaac was educated from the age of ten by the Fathers of the Society of Jesus. The Jesuit college stressed piety and virtue as part of the curriculum and he responded by diligence, quiet assertiveness and perseverance. He frequented the sacraments, especially confession and the Eucharist and he was especially devoted to the Blessed Virgin. At age seventeen he decided he wanted to become a priest of the Society of Jesus. Isaac envisioned a future in God’s service, saving souls, and initially imagined going to India, China or the Levant (Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean.) He implored the master of novices to send him to Constantinople whereupon, after a short pause, Father Louis Lalemant, responded “Brother Isaac, you will not die anywhere but in Canada.” Isaac Jogues was ordained a priest in 1636 and soon after, at age 29, he was granted his fervent desire to serve God as a missioner in New France, Canada. He was going to provide some of the greatly needed assistance to the missions of the Fathers, including another saint-martyr, Jean de Brebeuf. A generation earlier, under Henry IV, exploration and settlement had begun in the Americas, New France, Canada. Since that time it had become a fertile mission field, attracting several religious orders including the Jesuits.
For the next 10 years, until his death in 1646 at age 39, Isaac Jogues, sustained by grace, labored to spread the Gospel to the native Indians of North America. In teaching others about Christ, he endured all difficulties, disease, afflictions, torments, and personal discomfort, ultimately suffering the death of a martyr. In a correspondence to his younger brother Samuel he wrote that “(i)n spite of the fire of persecution, the zeal of the missioners did not relax…(despite) the hate and ill-will of the (village) inhabitants, there were always some who were desirous of following our instructions. I have regenerated (baptized) about one hundred of these in the waters of baptism, among whom were twenty-two little children who are raised up in the Blood of the Lamb.” Enkindled by the love of the Holy Spirit, tirelessly he performed the corporal and spiritual works of mercy; the former limited by his own materially impoverished state. The spiritual works, urged on by his immense faith and love, were inexhaustible. Another letter he wrote to his mother stated “(t)he life of a man, could it be better employed than in this noble work? What am I saying? All the labors of a million persons, would they not be well compensated for by the conversion of one single soul gained for Jesus Christ?” (author’s italics)
In August, 1642, he and his French companions, including another future saint, Rene Goupil, along with a group of Hurons who had accepted the faith were captured by the Iroquois. He was beaten with clubs, stripped of his blackrobe and had finger nails pulled out. In a further fit of fury, some captors chewed and crushed the bones of both forefingers, amputating their ends. Over the next two weeks, each with festering wounds, he and his battered companions were paraded in many villages and subjected to further humiliations and intense physical tortures. At night, they were tied on the ground, spread-eagle, and exposed to further assaults including having hot coals thrown on them. His unwavering concern remained with his fellow Christian prisoners. He sought opportunities often at his own risk to minister to each and to offer encouragement amidst their great fear and suffering. He prayed together with them and heard their confessions, giving absolution. He urged them to persevere knowing that “they would exchange these momentary sorrows for a joy that is eternal.” It was his love for Christ, impelled by a profound faith, that kept his eye “single” and his “whole body full of light”. (Matt 6:22)
After an escape he returned to France as ordered by his superiors to recover his physical health. He arrived on the Normandy coast on Christmas morning, 1643. Immediately, though travel-worn from the hard passage, he sought a priest in the village to hear his confession and then attended Mass for the first time since his captivity. Much to his discomfort, due to his great humility, he was treated in France as a living saint and hero of the order. His only objective was to obtain permission to resume his missionary work in New France and to complete his destiny. Father Jaques Buteux, his confessor in Canada and spiritual director, wrote posthumously of him that “(h)is modesty kept secret from me the principle thing, that which adorns all else: I mean his interior virtues, his charity, his patience, his conformity to the will of God through which he suffered…” Further, Buteux continued, “(n)ot only had he no ill-feelings toward them (Iroquois), but rather intense longings of charity to bring about their salvation, to pray for them…” In answer to his prayers and pleadings he was granted permission to return to Canada only several months later, setting off to return there in April, 1644. His biographer wrote that he was “homesick” for New France and that he deeply desired “to be with the little children whom he might instruct, whom he might baptize if they were dying.”
A Heart Beating for Martyrdom
Shortly upon his return he would die a martyr’s death. One month before this he wrote to a fellow Jesuit in France “…my heart tells me: ‘Ibo et non redibo – I shall go, but I shall not return’”. Further, he said that “(m)y 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.” His letter ended with this – “Farewell, my dear Father, and beg God that He may join me with Himself, never to be separated from Him.” On October 18, 1646, when, in the process of trying to engage his tormenters to mediate peace, he was felled by tomahawk blows to the head. He went to his death proclaiming the kingdom, a martyr by God’s grace and love.
Saint Isaac Jogues and the entire communion of saints still intercedes for us and shows the way to Christ through strong faith and zeal for personal holiness. By their lives often amidst trials and great sufferings, and by their indomitable faith, they persevered to announce the good news and to build up God’s kingdom. These holy men and women, the Church triumphant, provide for us clear examples of living the Gospel even amidst our personal sorrows and challenges in these faithless times. Today more than ever while the Church’s mission is muted and marginalized and “out of season” she needs other fearless ‘saints in the making’ to become beacons of light in this fallen world. May these holy ones who compose this formidable cloud of witnesses become for us that inspiration. May they fill us with that same desire, as Jogues told his fellow prisoners, to “exchange these momentary sorrows for a joy that is eternal.” These saints are, like Isaac Jogues, a ‘pearl of inestimable price’ who once by their lives and now by their heavenly intercessions, point a way for a genuine renewal of faith and discipleship. May they encourage and inspire us to evangelize tirelessly and never cease winning souls for God. May we praise God in gratitude for His saints.