St. Jean de Brébeuf is probably my favourite of the martyrs. In fact, I was going to choose him as my Patron Saint at my Confirmation, but, because I was converting from Protestantism, and my parents are still protestants, and because the name they gave me means so much to us, I thought they might not understand when the priest said "Jean, be sealed with the Holy Spirit." Because of that, I chose to take Sts. Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus as my patrons.
St. Jean de Brébeuf still has a special place in my heart, though, and that's for three reasons. 1st, he's known as a Canadian
saint, and one of the Patrons of our great Country. 2nd, he was a missionary, one who spreads the Christian faith--which is something that I feel called to do. And 3rd, he was a martyr--and, in my mind, the martyrs just rock out loud. Hence my writing about them here!
St. Jean de Brébeuf was born in Normandy, France, in 1593. From an early age, he knew that he wanted to be a part of spreading the Gospel, so, when he was old enough, he went to the Jesuits in order to become a lay missioner. However, he strongly felt that God was telling him that being a layperson wasn't the plan--God wanted him to become a priest. So, he thought, he would study theology and the Bible and the history of the Church, and become one of the smartest priests around, so that he could train others to do missionary work. So he enrolled in the Jesuit University in France, and began studying.
Well, this lasted all of maybe a month, and then Jean became really sick. He was so sick that he had to return home in order to get better. His sickness stayed with him for nearly nine years
! But, during this time, Jean realised that God was calling him to more than simply instructing others. God wanted him to actually go out and do the mission work himself! And so, when he was well enough, Jean de Brébeuf signed up to be a part of the team that was going to the newly discovered country of Canada!
Now, in my mind, it is definitely an act of God, when someone who is too sick to even study
, is suddenly well enough to accept the call to travel across the ocean, to Canada, and face our harsh winters and other rough climates! Nevertheless, St. Jean de Brébeuf went, and thrived there!
At this time, in the early 1620s, the Protestant revolt had been going on for about 100 years. Tensions were high, and oftentimes violent, as whole European countries would often side with either Protestantism or Catholicism. England, on the one hand, for example, had become totally Protestant, and even outlawed Catholicism. France, on the other hand, became rather totally Catholic, and outlawed Protestantism. This fact merely fuelled the rivalry between the two countries that had existed for centuries, since the French Normans had invaded England back in 1066.
Well, it just so happened that it was an English Protestant captaining the ship that was carrying St. Jean de Brébeuf and the other Jesuits to Canada, who more than once threatened to "turn this boat around and take you back to France!" because they were Jesuit missionaries, and the English and the French were fighting over who got Canada.
Well, despite the threats, St. Jean de Brébeuf and the others arrived safely in Canada, and travelled to Trois-Rivières, Québec, where the Jesuits were headquartered. When he arrived, Jean did not simply begin proclaiming the Gospel, because he would not have been understood! The Natives only spoke a very little English or French, if any, and he didn't speak their language at all--nor did he understand their customs or culture. So the first thing that he did was begin to study the customs of the Native people, so that he could better understand and communicate with them.
After some time of this, he was assigned to travel with a tribe of natives known as the Hurons back to their land in Upper Canada (modern day Ontario, basically in the Simcoe area). It was a three-day canoe ride with the Hurons, and because St. Jean de Brébeuf was so large of a man, the Hurons even hesitated to let him in the canoe with them, for fear it would sink! As it was, he had to travel alone with a group of Hurons, while the other Jesuits were each in separate canoes. Since he still couldn't communicate with the Hurons, it was a three-day trip in silence, with only God to talk to.
Finally, they arrived in the Hurons' home, and the Jesuits worked to set up their Mission, and to continue to build relationships with the Hurons, learning their language and ways. Jean de Brébeuf found this task particularly difficult, but he continued to strive at learning Huron. After years of it, he managed, and even wrote a Huron Catechism, and a Huron-French dictionary to aid his fellow Jesuits in their learning and communication. Through these means, and their cheerful and friendly attitudes with the Natives, friendships were finally forged, although the Hurons were still not open to receiving the Gospel.
Back in Québec, however, things were not going so well at all. Tensions between the English and the French were heating up, and growing to the point of war. The Jesuit Superior at Trois-Rivières instructed the missionaries in Huronia to return. This order broke Jean de Brébeuf's heart, because he had grown to really love his Huron people. The Hurons also felt hurt, and abandoned, because they did not understand about Superiors and Orders. But Jean had to go. Back at Trois-Rivières, the situation was even worse than he'd feared, and the Jesuits had to return all the way to France.
Back in France, Jean tried to do whatever service he could with the Jesuits, but more than anything he wanted to return to Canada, to his beloved Hurons. Finally, God answered the prayers of his heart, and after a 4-year exile in France, he was able to return. But when he was back with the Hurons, Jean found that he had to rebuild those friendships that he had forged. Trust had been lost between them, and he had to work harder than ever to reach them with the Gospel.
Complicating matters was the fact that the Natives often got deathly ill with the white men's diseases, since their immune systems had never encountered them before. To the Hurons, it seemed as though the white men were cursing them with death. Jean de Brébeuf would minister to the sick and dying Hurons, telling them about Christ and Heaven. Those who converted, he would baptise--but they were so sick that they would often die the next day. This caused the Hurons to be rather afraid of Baptism, thinking that it was the cause of death for their friends and family--and so, it became still harder for St. Jean de Brébeuf to make converts!
Patiently, however, Jean de Brébeuf continued his work, and sought the intercession of Mary, and of St. Joseph, whom they had long ago established as the Patron Saint of Canada. After nearly four years, the earnest prayers of the missionaries were answered, when two healthy adult Huron men, Pierre Tsiouendaentaha and Joseph Chiwatenha converted and were baptised. Because of their example, Christianity began to make a slow but steady headway. St. Jean de Brébeuf continued his work among the Hurons for nearly 16 years, and conversions among the Hurons grew until they could be numbered in the thousands!
However, not all was peaceful in the land of Huronia. The Hurons had enemies in the deadly savage tribe of the Iroquois, and these enemies would often savagely attack the Hurons, who frequently kept poor guard. In 1648, Huronia began to fall to the well-armed Iroquois, who were intent on destroying their enemies. The Iroquois kept destroying Huron villages, causing them to flee. Finally, on March 16, 1649, the Iroquois attacked the village of St. Ignace, causing the Hurons to flee to St. Louis. The Iroquois took that as well, and, killing many Hurons, they captured several, as well as St. Jean de Brébeuf and his colleague, St. Gabriel Lalemant, who were taken back to St. Ignace.
The two missionaries were fastened to great stakes, and tortured in various ways, such as placing necklaces of red-hot tomahawk heads around their necks, and pouring boiling hot water on their heads in mockery of baptism. Through it all, St. Jean de Brébeuf never complained, but endured it stoically. His friend, Paul Ragueneau, wrote, "No doubt, his heart was then reposing in his God." This went on for several hours, and his silence astonished and angered his captors. Finally, when Jean de Brébeuf did begin to speak, it was to preach the Gospel of Christ to them, and to encourage the Hurons with him to continue to cling to God, and await the reward of Heaven. They replied, saying, "We will call on God as long as we live. Please, pray for us!" Finally, the Iroquois killed the saint at about 4 pm on March 16, 1949.
Since the Iroquois had all but exterminated the Hurons, and those who had survived had fled into the USA and could not be found, the remaining Jesuits retreated to Trois-Rivières to determine what they should do. Should they go back to France, in defeat, or should they return to the Iroquois to face what seemed like certain death? They decided that they were called to be missionaries here, and, following in the spirit of Jean de Brébeuf, they returned to the Iroquois. Because of the example and courage of St. Jean de Brébeuf, and the love and courage of the Jesuits who returned, the Iroquois people were deeply moved, and many became Catholic!
Again, we see that the death of the martyr is never the end of the story--but their sacrifice is used by God to bring incredible change! Because of the work of these early Canadian missionaries, our Country was started as the Christian nation that it was. Let us seek the intercession of St. Jean de Brébeuf and the Holy Canadian Martyrs that Canada would continue to be a nation that upholds Godly values!
St. Jean de Brébeuf, pray for us!
Labels: Confirmation, Martyrs, Saints, Salt and Light, St. Andrew's