Catholics in America – Radical fidelity to Christ and his church

When my friend and mentor Cardinal Avery Dulles was dying, we had some serious conversations via the system of nods and blinks that we had established since his paralysis had spread to his vocal chords and he could no longer speak. Ever the pragmatist, he wanted to plan his own burial. He could have requested to be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with his father, the former Secretary of State, or in St. Patrick’s Cathedral with other Princes of the Church.  However, he was adamant about his desire to be buried with his brother Jesuits in Auriesville, N.Y. Because of the frigid winter and frozen ground, the internment took place in June following his December 2008 death. Since someone so important to me chose to sleep in the ground sanctified by the presence of saints, the North American martyrs and Kateri Tekakwitha, who have ties to the property on which his grave rests, both hold special places in my heart. Each deserve space in this series, and so I’ll focus on the former here and return to Kateri in the future.

Born in Orleans, France in the 17th century, Isaac Jogues entered the Jesuit novitiate, was ordained, and eventually accepted the call to work in the mission fields. He crossed the Atlantic and began to live with and catechize the Native Americans in what is today New York state. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Blackrobe,” you appreciate what a difficult and unrewarding task these missionaries often faced.

He and his companions, Jean de Lalande and Rene Goupil, gave their lives to the spread of the faith, eventually being tortured and killed by tribesmen in present-day Auriesville who were unconvinced of their political allegiances and religious intentions.

It is problematic to frame these figures in the classic “saint among the savages” motif within a contemporary pluralistic society today better equipped to recognize the ray of Truth reflected in various traditions and ways of life. Francis Xavier’s vision of the unbaptized falling like snowflakes into hell, and the other Jesuit missionaries’ motivation flavored by such pessimism, no longer holds the same persuasive power to many modern minds. Yet Jogues and his companions were undoubtedly heroic in their commitment to abandon every personal and physical comfort to a radical fidelity to Christ and his church.

On a number of occasions, Jesus places intense, almost divisive, demands on his followers. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brethren, and yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). “Whoever loves father or mother….son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37). “Pointing to his disciples he said ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mt 12: 49-50).

Jogues, Lalande and Goupil recognized the call of these statements, not to disregard or “despise” those close to us by blood (for charity and the commandments demand that we do not), but to dedicate oneself unqualifiedly to Christ, to name him alone as that which theologian Paul Tillich calls the principle of Ultimate Concern — the reality in the face of which all other concerns become secondary or trivial.

In their lives and death, the North American martyrs instill in those of us devoted to them a beckoning to name with honesty the trepidation involved in enthroning Christ not in a position of honor, or reasonable importance, or self-seeking utility, or comfortable vagueness in our lives, but rather to enshrine him in the seat of unreserved primacy, and then to act with boldness in ignoring the fears that elicits. Our subjective feelings on the matter aside, he alone is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Word through whom all things were made, and the font from whom all good things come.

The North American martyrs and their missionary forefathers not only propositionally acceded to these doctrines, but had already been embodying them in their lives and deaths on our shores years before the Mayflower ever arrived here.

Michael M. Canaris is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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