Today, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Isaac Jogues and companions. St. Isaac Jogues was a Jesuit missionary priest martyred on October 18, 1646 by Mohawk Indians in present day upstate New York.
After entering the Society of Jesus in 1624, Isaac Jogues was sent to North America in 1636 where he set to work evangelizing the different Native American nations he encountered. Six years into his mission, Jogues and his traveling party were captured by a group of Mohawk Indians and savagely tortured. Cutting off his thumbs and index fingers, Jogues’s persecutors sought to render him incapable of celebrating the Mass. After 13 months of cruel enslavement, Jogues finally escaped and returned to France. Though priests with maimed hands were not normally permitted to celebrate the Mass, the Holy Father, Pope Urban VIII, granted a special dispensation allowing Jogues to celebrate the Mass once again. Zealous for the salvation of his persecutors, after recovering from his injuries, Jogues decided to return to his mission in the Americas. He was martyred one year later in 1646.
The undying zeal for the proclamation of the Gospel is not unique to Isaac Jogues. In fact, it is this zeal for souls, this determination to confess Christ that is a defining feature of all the saints. Throughout the history of the Church, from the greatest to the least, every saint has lived a radical, undying love sustained in grace.
To the world without faith this zeal seems foolish. The disdain for worldly success and the willing sacrifice of personal safety seem utterly incomprehensible. Without Christ, we cannot begin to understand, let alone internalize, this path to holiness. And yet the Church teaches us that each person is called to this holiness. Does this make sense? Are we all called to be martyrs, fearlessly marching into the darkness, disregarding the obvious danger?
In one sense, yes, because we are created to be with God. We are created to turn to him as our true fulfillment. Our hearts forever long to be satisfied, and nothing of this world truly satisfies. If we stop and think about this, we know that the infinite longing of our being can only be satisfied by the Infinite. There is no way around it. And to settle for nothing short of God is to accept an all or nothing sort of deal. To have ourselves filled and perfectly satisfied we must be rid of all that stands in the way. We must remove everything that does not bring us to Christ. Our inflated egos, our disordered attachments to worldly goods, our desire to be exalted and adored—we must throw it all away. For many of us, this is our martyrdom.
When Christ calls us to be saints, he is calling us to be truly human. It is the saint who most truly realizes his humanity by living in the graced image and likeness of his Creator. Away from God, we are a mere shadow of humanity. Our sin traps us and leaves us in a state of potentiality—an unfilled and incomplete state. When we return to God, we fill this potentiality and become what we were created to be: a human being in union with God. This is our fulfillment.
Only in understanding this dynamic can we understand the sacrifice of the saints and martyrs. If we believe that true life is found in giving ourselves to the Lord, if we have faith in the Lord’s sustaining grace, only then can we begin to understand how St. Isaac Jogues could endure torture, and then turn to face the same dangers again. We may not all be called to shed our blood for Christ and his Church, but we are called by our baptism to give ourselves in witness to the Gospel.
May we be imitators of Isaac Jogues, heeding the final words he wrote to a friend just a month before his death,
My 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.
Image: Albrecht Durer, Christ on the Cross with Three Angels