Often, we think of the saints as old, dead people who can’t really help us. I mean, what can a nun who lived in the Middle Ages, or a priest who preached to people now gone, teach us about faith today? Yet as I read about the lives of the North American Martyrs, I’ve been amazed by how much I have in common with them. These eight men, who lived and died over two hundred years ago, weren’t really that different from me. Here are the faith lessons I’ve learned from the lives of St. Isaac Jogues, St. Jean de Brebeuf and their companions.
The North American Martyrs travelled from their safe, comfortable homes in France to a strange, foreign place to make friends. Yes, they came to North America burning with love for God, zealous to spread the Good News across a new continent. They started by living among the Natives and developing relationships with them.
It wasn’t easy. The Hurons lived a lifestyle that was vastly different than the French. They spoke a different language (which the priests often found difficult to learn) and were superstitious and suspicious of the newcomers. The priests learned to paddle canoes, gather food, speak their language. They made friends… and made friends again when those friends betrayed them or moved on.
Similarly, today we can help others grow in their faith—or even come to the faith—by developing relationships. Reach out to a co-worker who’s going through a hard time. Invite a new family from church over for supper. Talk to that other mom at the playground who looks tired and overwhelmed. Make new friends and look for ways God can use you to bless their lives.
Run to Mary
All of the North American Martyrs had a deep devotion to the Virgin Mary. They named one of their missions in her honour and saw Mary as the patroness of their work in North America. St. Rene Goupil and St. Isaac Jogues were praying the rosary together before St. Rene’s death.
Armand, one of St. Antoine Daniel‘s students, became the leader of a sodality of the Servants of Mary. They sent letters and wampum belts to the shrines of Europe. The members of the sodality met on feast days and Sundays to pray a rosary. In the evenings, they gathered for Benediction and sang litanies or hymns to Mary together.
We can also seek to deepen our faith by drawing closer to Mary. Like any mother, she lavishes her attention upon her Son. She points us ever to Him. We can learn from her “yes” to God, from her perspective on Jesus’ life here on earth, from her role in God’s plan for salvation. The North American Martyrs took their work and their desire for souls to her, and we can do the same today.
Wait on God
Several of the martyrs desired to become missionaries to New France, but had to wait years before their desires were fulfilled. St. Charles Garnier wished to leave for New France immediately after his ordination in 1635, but didn’t receive his father’s permission to do so until the next year. St. Gabriel Lalemant made a vow to become a missionary in New France, but didn’t fulfill that vow until a decade later.
St. Jean de Brebeuf was serving as a missionary when England and France ended their war in 1629. New France became the territory of England and the Jesuit missionaries had to leave. St. Jean returned to the Jesuit college at Rouen, France. For four years, he worked and prayed there, while his heart surely remained with the friends he’d made in New France. Finally, in 1633, New France was returned to France and the missionaries were able to resume their work there.
The lives of the North American Martyrs show us that God’s timing is not our timing. He may give us a goal or desire that we wish to see fulfilled immediately, while He says “wait.” Or there may be interruptions to our work, seasons in which we must focus on other activities or people. Continue to seek God’s will in these seasons, to ask what He wishes for you to learn, and when He will open the door to the desire He’s given you.
The lives of the North American Martyrs are full of changing plans. Their missionary goals were influenced by the politics of the day, their personal health problems, and the ideas of their superiors.
St. Antoine Daniel started law school before entering the Jesuit seminary. In New France, he worked in the missions for several years before starting a boys’ school. When it failed, he returned to the missions.
St. Jean de Brebeuf almost didn’t finish his studies because of tuberculosis, but his health improved in New France. He spent six months among the Montaignais when he first arrived, learning their language and culture. Then his superiors decided he should be working among the Hurons instead. Later, as I’ve already mentioned, he had a four-year sabbatical in France because of world politics.
St. Rene Goupil wanted to be a Jesuit priest but was turned away because of his health. Instead, he joined the Jesuits as a donne, a layman. He studied surgery at the hospital and used his medical skills to help the missionaries.
We might have one idea about how we can serve God, but He may have other ideas. Seek spiritual direction from your priest or another mentor about where God wants to use you. Be willing to change your plans, to accept God’s redirection in your life.
The North American Martyrs were newcomers in a strange land, trying to learn a new language and adapt to a new lifestyle. It wasn’t easy (as St. Jean de Brebeuf freely warned his fellow missionaries in letters). Despite this, they practiced the virtue of cheerfulness.
St. Antoine Daniel in particular was a favourite with the Huron children for his gentleness and cheerfulness. He made friends easily and his fellow priests appreciated his smiling face, even in the midst of hardship.
St. Jean de Brebeuf advised his fellow missionaries,
We must bear with the imperfections of the Indians without saying a word—yes, without even seeming to notice them. Should it become necessary to criticize anything, it must be done quietly and humbly, with words and gestures that indicate love and helpfulness, not aversion. In short, we must always try to appear, and really to be, cheerful.
It’s advice we could easily apply to our own lives. Insert the name of your spouse, your friend, your child in the place of “Indians” and tell yourself, “I must bear with the imperfections of ______ without saying a word. I must always try to appear, and really to be, cheerful.”
How do the lives of the North American martyrs inspire your faith?
Catholicism.org has an excellent article about the North American Martyrs and their work in eastern Canada and the US.
Help your children grow in their faith through the lives of the North American Martyrs. North American Martyrs’ Kids Activity Book has over 100 pages of stories, crosswords, word searches, mazes, reflection questions, and other activities. Your children learn from the examples of St. Charles Garnier, St. Jean de Brebeuf, St. Isaac Jogues, St. Rene Goupil, St. Antoine Daniel, St. Noel Chabanel, and St. Jean de Lalande and draw closer to God.