Every year on this date—the feast of the North American martyrs—I find myself asking the same sort of questions. Were those Jesuit missionaries of the 17th century guilty of proselytism? Did they respect the indigenous cultures? Would St. Jean de Brebeuf have asked for a blessing from an Iroquois shaman? How would St. Isaac Jogues have responded to the veneration of the Pachamama?
We revere the missionary martyrs, who willingly gave their lives in an effort to bring souls to Christ. But today we shy away from the work they set out to do. Were they wrong, or are we?
When Catholic leaders apologize for a failure to respect indigenous cultures, are we apologizing for these martyrs? If so, why do we keep their names on our liturgical calendar? And if we are not apologizing—if we really do honor their work, seek their intercession, and believe that they won the most precious of victories—why are we reluctant to imitate them?
For the Jesuit martyrs, missionary work was not just a matter of life and death; it was about something still more important, about salvation and damnation. So they could endure torture and death, secure in their belief that what they offered the Native Americans was worth the price—a price that they themselves were ready to pay, for the sake of people who scorned them. They could accept living in primitive conditions, forsaking the comforts of their native France, in order to win the confidence of these people. But they could not accept the primitive native religions.
These Jesuit missionaries were not unique, of course. They came from a long line of heroic witnesses to the faith, who showed no compunctions about and tearing down pagan myths and pagan shrines. St. Boniface felled Thor’s Oak. The prophet Elijah heckled the priests of Baal—and then summarily dispatched them. These men, whom we honor today, did not celebrate diversity. They were judgmental. And they were holy.
Unless something fundamental about our faith has changed over the years, the beliefs and actions that made saints of French Jesuit missionaries a few hundred years ago should produce saints today. What was right and virtuous then must be right and virtuous now. What has happened, then, that makes us hesitate to say that our Christian faith is superior to the faith of pagans—superior because it is the truth, and their beliefs are false?
My old friend, the late Father Paul Mankowski, himself a Jesuit, once remarked that in the late 17th century, the leading cause of death among Jesuits in America was martyrdom; in the late 20th century, it was AIDS. On the same day that I reflect on the North American martyrs, I see the news that Georgetown University, an institution with a proud Jesuit tradition, is now teaching medical students how to help young people deny their true, God-given, sexual identity. How very far the Society of Jesus has come!
Today it is fashionable to apologize for the bold missionaries who brought the faith to lands where it was not welcome—fashionable, I would suggest, because Christianity is again unwelcome today. For my part, I say that yes, we should apologize—but not for the missionary martyrs. We should apologize to them, for the timidity and hypocrisy that allows us to celebrate their sanctity but shrink from their example.
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