In narrating the birth of our country, no one would forget figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and, of course, George Washington. Yet Catholics know that it is truly the spiritual that forms and shapes the external reality. In this sense, when we look for the true spiritual fathers of our country, we would be absolutely remiss to forget the figure of St. Isaac Jogues (1607-46). Though on mission to French Canada, his captivity brought him deep inside the present territory of the United States; he may have been the first white man to traverse the Adirondack Mountains on foot and was one of the first to sail down the Susquehanna River through central Pennsylvania. If only his christening of the present day Lake George had stuck as Lake of the Blessed Sacrament! St. Isaac Jogues, along with his other fellow Jesuits, sanctified our nation with their blood, laying the true spiritual foundation for our country, one that we need to take up and make our own.
We could say that St. Isaac is the true standard bearer of the faith in a new land, carrying the banner of Christ into unchartered territory. In this he followed in the footsteps of Christ himself, laying down himself in sacrifice out of love for others, even those who despised him, and in doing so became a pioneer in the truest sense: “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:2). This deliberate following of Christ can be seen in a consecration of himself that Jogues made while still safely within his Huron mission in French Canada. Fr. Francis Talbot, S.J., in his monumental biography of Jogues, Saint among Savages, recounts this incident: “He begged and demanded of God that he would be immolated, would be sacrificed as a victim of Divine love. He offered himself, body, soul, will, mind, memory to God, that God might do with him as He pleased.” Like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, this prayer ought to be considered one of the foundational statements of America. This willingness to endure death at the hands of savage torturers helped birth a new Christian realm in this continent.
Interestingly enough, during his captivity Jogues had a dream in which his ministry and martyrdom appeared to him as a tour through a large city, built upon the exact spot as the Mohawk village of his imprisonment. He describes his first sight of the city as follows: “I had gone out of our village as I usually did…. When I returned, everything seemed changed. The tall palings that surrounded our village on all sides were transformed into very beautiful towers, battlements, and walls…. some savages…came out and assured me that it truly was our little hamlet.” Entering the first wall of this city he saw a slain lamb over the gate. Passing through a second gate he encountered a garrison and was apprehended and brought to a palace. Outside the gate of the palace Jogues saw many people who knew from France. He was taken in and judged and punished by the king of this city in a manner similar to how the Mohawks had tortured him. Jogues interpreted his judgment of suffering as the price he had to pay to abide in this city. He does not, however, provide us with an explanation of the rest of the dream. Could this great city be an image of the new realm of Christendom which was formed in the continent of America? What strikes me most about the city is that it combines images from America, France, and Heaven with Christ as king ruling over all. The city was placed on the site of the Mohawk village, with the natives outside of and exiting the outer ring; the second ring that of his fellow Christians and guarded by angels; and finally the palace, the seat of Christ. To me it seems that from the palace Christ’s reign would extend to the outer circle through the mediation of the more interior one. Thus, we can see Christ’s plan for the extension of his domain, creating a unity that draws all together, but through the mediation of Christian suffering.
Unlike most martyrs, we could say that Jogues was martyred twice. After a successful stay with the Hurons (where he made the consecration described above), he surrendered himself to the Mohawks, who had captured or killed most of his travelling party. He was subjected to excruciating torture, running the gauntlet of Indian clubs, suffering from fire and knife, hanging by his arms, extreme hunger and cold, constant fear of death, and even having several of his fingers cut and bitten off. Kept alive as a slave, after more than a year he was able to escape with the help of the Protestant Dutch settlers. He returned to France and received a dispensation from the Pope Urban VIII to celebrate Mass without the use of the proper fingers (the Pope reportedly said “It would be shameful that a martyr of Christ be not allowed to drink the Blood of Christ”). Jogues’s vow of self-offering, however, was not complete without a second and complete martyrdom. He returned to the Mohawks first as an ambassador of the French and then as a missionary, when he was killed with the blow of a tomahawk.
America’s history can be seen as an enduring conflict between the Christian faith and pagan savagery. Jogues’s ministry powerfully manifests both the power of the faith in this conflict and also the cruelty of its opposition. His ministry among the Hurons bore abundant fruit, birthing Christians of extreme patience, humility, and virtue. The story of their deaths, also at the hands of their rivals, the Mohawks, can move the reader to tears. On the other hand, the Mohawks, though not universally, manifest a deliberate embrace of cruelty and aggressive domination of others. Nonetheless, the site of Jogues’s martyrdom, the village of Ossernenon, became the cradle of a saint: St. Kateri Tekakwitha. The hallowing of the soil America was not in vain, as the blood of the martyrs planted the seed of sanctity, literally bringing forth a great Saint from the midst of savagery.
Although the Jesuit martyrs tilled the soil for a new Christendom in America, we can honestly say that the conflict with savagery in America continues, though in new forms. We not only face brutal violence, especially against the unborn, but also widespread ignorance and hatred of the faith. This is all the more reason to turn back to the foundation of our martyrs, looking to them as a model of witnessing to Christ through charity, patient endurance, and even suffering. As Jogues himself said of America: “This kingdom held for thousands of years in the power of Satan, could not be taken except by the passage of time and the invincible constancy of the soldiers of Christ.” Are we willing to offer ourselves as Jogues did? Are we willing to risk our lives to say that Christ is really needed by the people of America? Can we follow the courage of the martyrs, even in little ways of persecution, from family, at work, and by the attempt to marginalize us?
Turning back to Jogues’s dream, we can see that Christendom ultimately is not simply one particular, historical manifestation of Christian culture. Rather, it is our ability to allow Christ to rule over us here and now. It is allowing the orders and judgment from his throne in his heavenly palace, to proceed outward, into the lives of Christians first, and then from there into a savage world. Even those who live apart from Christ fall under his rule. It is our role to bring them closer to the place of Christ, not through any outward compulsion or simply exterior conformity, but by a union of charity. That union is not simple to achieve, and St. Isaac Jogues shows us what it requires: nothing short of the willingness to lay down our lives for others, following in the footsteps of Christ. Before his death, in his love, he described the Mohawk nation as “a spouse of blood to me” (Ex 4:25) and prayed: “May our good Master, who has acquired that nation by his Blood, open to it, if He will, the door of His Gospel.” St. Isaac Jogues confirmed these words with his own blood. Even if we are not called to be martyrs in the full sense, his example shows us how to follow Christ in America, how to make America a sacred place for God’s honor and glory. In this, he is a true Founding Father of Christian culture. May we follow the example of this pioneer of the faith in America in our continuing conflict with savagery.
Author’s Note: I would like to thank my friend, Fr. Colum Power, for providing the inspiration for this piece.
(Photo credit: Paul Lowry; St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NY)