For two days now I have experienced a great desire to be a martyr and to endure all the torments the martyrs suffer.
Jesus, my Lord and Savior, what can I give you in return for all the favors you have first conferred on me? I will take from your hand the cup of your sufferings and call on your name. I vow before your Eternal Father and the Holy Spirit, before your Most Holy Mother and her most chaste spouse, before the angels, apostles, and martyrs, before my blessed fathers Saint Ignatius and Saint Francis Xavier—in truth, I vow to you, Jesus my Savior, that as far as I have the strength I will never fail to accept the grace of martyrdom, if some day you in your infinite mercy should offer it to me, your most unworthy servant.
I bind myself in this way so that for the rest of my life I will have neither permission nor freedom to refuse opportunities of dying and shedding my blood for you… further, I bind myself to this so that, on receiving the blow of death, I shall accept it from your hands with the fullest delight and joy of spirit. For this reason, my beloved Jesus, and because of the surging joy which moves me, here and now I offer my blood and body and life. May I die only for you, if you give me this grace, since you willingly died for me.
From the spiritual diaries of St. Jean de Brebeuf, priest and martyr
Reflection - Happy feast of the Jesuit martyrs of North America – Jean Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues and companions. Well, in Canada, at least. The rest of the Church celebrates them on October 19; for reasons obscure to me, in Canada their feast day is moved to today.
In my short nine years of priesthood, one of the most moving experiences I have had has been celebrating Mass on the very spot, the very field, where Jean Brebeuf is believed to have been martyred. There is a large cross erected on the site of his torture and death, and a simple stone altar nearby. It is an ordinary farmer’s field, with nothing to distinguish it from any other farmer’s field… yet there it is. Brebeuf and (I believe) Gabriel Lalemant (sp?) were killed there after truly gruesome torture, the details of which I will spare you. They were killed by inches.
Well, we started well in Canada, the Catholic Church, that is. Besides their heroic deaths, the Jesuits lived heroically, laying down their lives with great energy for the native people of this wilderness land. And in this era, subsequent misdeeds and horrific failures coming later, the mission was done in a spirit of profound respect for the people, their language and culture. They learned the language; I believe it was Isaac Jogues who developed a written alphabet for it. They inculturated themselves into the tribal life of the Huron people, although for cultured Frenchmen of the 17th century this was no small thing indeed.
And of course, they died with and for the people they had come to serve. We started well in Canada, and it is good to remember that and give due honor to them and to God who made it all possible. Given our current state of spiritual morbidity and cultural confusion, it is good to be mindful that Canada truly was built in its beginnings on the labor of the saints and the blessed, starting with these Jesuit martyrs but encompassing a vast array of holy men and women who shaped this nation from the beginning as a land of peace and charity, prayer and love of the poor.
For myself, when I look at the Jesuit martyrs I have a soft spot for one of the more obscure of them. Isaac Jogues and Jean Brebeuf were giants—men of prodigious brilliance and physical endurance, true heroes in the order both of nature and of grace. Spiritual and (in the case of Brebeuf) physical giants.
I like to think of Noel Charbanel, myself. He was not a giant. He was not a great success as a missionary. He couldn’t learn the language. He couldn’t adjust to the food and the genuinely harsh living conditions. He was sick a lot. He couldn’t put up a brave front about it all, and the Huron people had little respect for him. Children made fun of him. He was a bit of a screw-up, a failure, a back number. For reasons that are obscure to me, and which are perhaps better left unexplored, I have a soft spot for that kind of person.
And… after some time of being a lousy failure in New France, he knelt down before his superiors here and made a vow to spend the rest of his life as a missionary here. Why? Because God had asked him to do so, and he decided (I guess) that it was better to be a failure doing God’s will than a great success doing his own will. I like that very much.
We can admire the great giants, the larger than life figures who explode upon world history and leave a permanent mark on it. But most of us are a little bit closer to the Charbanel model of things, I would suggest. And it is indeed better to be a failure doing God’s will than a success at our own stuff. And whatever level of failure Noel Charbanel experienced, God succeeded where he failed, and he did die a martyr’s death, and is St. Noel Charbanel now. So, happy feast day, all you failures out there! May God succeed in our lives where we cannot, and see us through to a happy conclusion. Amen.