Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Blessed Trinity in the Life—and Death—of St. Isaac Jogues

The Eight North American Martyrs

(Trinity Sunday 2018: This homily was given on May 27, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Deuteronomy 4: 32-40; Psalm 33; Romans 8: 14-17; Matthew 28: 16-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Trinity Sunday 2018]

As many of you know, last Saturday (May 19) we took 50 people on a one-day pilgrimage to the shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York (which is about 30 miles west of Schenectady just off the New York Thruway).

Many Catholics are not aware of the fact that there are actually canonized martyrs in the Church who shed their blood for Jesus Christ on North American soil.  But there are!  Eight of them, to be exact.  Three died in what is now Auriesville; the other five died at another mission site in Midland, Ontario (which is about 2 hours north of the city of Toronto).  They were all Jesuits—or at least in some way associated with the Jesuit religious order.

They came from France in the early part of the 17th century and worked primarily with the Huron Indians, who were a relatively peaceful group—at least compared to the Iroquois, with whom the Hurons were at war.  They came because they heard and took seriously the words of Jesus in today’s gospel: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

And they were tough!  These eight men were tough, strong men of God.  The tortures and sufferings they went through, especially when they were being martyred, are almost beyond belief.  (You’ll be happy to know that I will spare you most of the gory details in this homily.)  Incidentally, the reason we know so much about these missionaries and about their martyrdoms is because the Jesuits were required to write to their superiors back in France, to keep them updated on what was going on in the missions.  So we know about the brutal living conditions they faced, and the pagan culture they were trying to evangelize: a culture that was marked by things like war, promiscuity, cannibalism and superstition—which was an especially big problem.  For example, whenever something bad happened, like the outbreak of a contagious disease that spread through the settlement, the Indians would say that it was because the Jesuits—the “Blackrobes”—had put a curse on them. 

It’s very hard to defend yourself against that kind of superstition.

And yet, despite all the sufferings and challenges they had to deal with, these missionaries loved the Indians, and they were willing to pay whatever price was necessary—even the shedding of their own blood—to bring these native North Americans to Christ.  In fact, at times they even longed for it!  As one of them, Jean de Brebeuf, wrote in his diary, “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 someday you in your infinite mercy would offer it to me, your most unworthy servant.”

As I indicated earlier, these were extraordinary—and strong—men of God.

My personal favorite among them is St. Isaac Jogues.  For six years, beginning in 1636, Fr. Jogues ministered to the Hurons.  However, in 1642, while on a canoe trip to get some supplies, he was captured by the Iroquois, who proceeded to torture him mercilessly.  I won’t go into all the gory details, but let’s just say that, among other things, they cut off his thumb, tore out his fingernails, and gnawed off the ends of his fingers until the bones were visible.  That meant he could no longer say Mass, because, as some of you will remember, in the old Liturgy a priest could only touch the Eucharist with his thumb and forefinger.

About a year later, with the help of the Dutch, he escaped and eventually sailed back to France.  There he was received as a hero (remember, people in France knew what was going on in the missions because of the reports sent home by the Jesuits).  Jogues was honored by royalty; he was called a “living martyr” by the pope at the time, Urban VIII.  The Holy Father even gave him a special dispensation to say Mass with his mangled hands.

And Fr. Isaac Jogues lived happily ever after, right?

Well, not quite.  All the attention and all the accolades proved to be too much for him, and so, only a few months later, he asked to go back to the missions—knowing that, in all likelihood, he would never return to France again.

And he didn’t.

He was martyred a few years later, on October 18, 1646.

Now you might say, “Well, Fr. Ray, that’s a very nice story, but today is Trinity Sunday.  What does that story have to do with the Blessed Trinity?”

The answer is: Quite a bit!

The Catechism tells us that the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is “the central mystery of Christian faith and life.”  (CCC, 234)  It reminds us that God is a “family” of Persons united in an eternal bond of love.  The Catechism puts it this way: “We firmly believe and confess without reservation that there is only one true God, eternal infinite … and unchangeable, incomprehensible, almighty and ineffable, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit: three persons indeed, but one essence, substance or nature entirely simple.” (CCC, 202)

Now that sounds really theoretical, doesn’t it?

But what about on the experiential level?

Is it possible for people to experience the Blessed Trinity in the ordinary events of their daily lives?  Is it possible for people to experience the Blessed Trinity even in the midst of trial and suffering? 

I would say yes!  And we find a great example of this in St. Isaac Jogues!

People (whether they realized it or not) actually experienced the Blessed Trinity in and through the ministry and martyrdom of this extraordinary man.  First of all, they experienced through Isaac Jogues the merciful love of God the Father.  Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.”  In his unending mercy, the heavenly Father gave us his Son to save us from sin and Satan and eternal death, and to bring us eternal life.  Well, Isaac Jogues and the seven other North American martyrs came to our shores to do the same thing for the Huron Indians—and everyone else who would give them a hearing.  They came to bring these people mercy and salvation through Jesus Christ.

But it doesn’t stop there.  People (especially the Huron Indians) also experienced the sacrificial love of God the Son through the ministry of Father Jogues.  Jesus said, “Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”  The love of God the Son went the distance (unto death)—and so did the love of Isaac Jogues for the Indians he served in the New World.  And, like Jesus, he sacrificed himself willingly.

And, finally, people experienced the abiding love of God the Holy Spirit in Isaac Jogues.  At the Last Supper Jesus said to his Apostles, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate [the Holy Spirit] to be with you always.”  The love of the Holy Spirit is an abiding love.  It doesn’t waver.  It’s not greater on Sunday than it is on Tuesday and Wednesday.  It’s constant.

Which is precisely how Isaac Jogues’ love was for the Indians—including the Iroquois.  Despite all the suffering and torture they put him through, he still loved them.


The merciful love of God the Father;
The sacrificial love of God the Son;
The abiding love of God the Holy Spirit—

All of these were experienced by people through the words—and through the deeds—of Isaac Jogues and the other seven North American martyrs.

Of course the real question of the day is: Are the people in our lives having a similar experience of the Blessed Trinity through us?