The Incomparable Courage of the Canadian Martyrs

(September 26th would be the feast of the Canadian Martyrs here in Canada, our secondary patrons – this year, Sunday takes precedence, but we should still ask their intercession, not least in these troubled times, as too many of our leaders display the contrary vices – cowardice, complaisance – to the virtues of these men – courage and steadfastness in the truth. So here is a re-post of our column on these eight saints we honour).

We are living in dissociated times – and by that I mean that we have become unhinged from our moral law, our customs, our traditions and our history. As the new barbarians take power – those who can only destroy what others have built – we should strive to preserve at least some knowledge of whence we came and whither we go, which is one of the purposes of this humble apostolate of Catholic Insight. Rather than always looking for the next titillating scandal or disturbance, ponder God’s holy work, a significant part of which are the glorious deeds of his saints, who lived through their own ‘dissociated’ times, always with the deep knowledge that the Almighty has all things in hand, and laughs the kings of this world to scorn, and their sneers will wither, as with trembling lips they realize what they have done.

It is with these thoughts in mind that we should celebrate the Holy Canadian martyrs on this day in our noble Dominion, six priests and two laymen, put to death for the Faith between 1642 and 1649. In the universal Church, they are celebrated on October 19th, when the layman Jean de la Lalande was put to death in 1646, one day after the priest whom he was serving, Isaac Jogues, was also martyred in what is now Auriesville, New York, where a shrine now exists.

Here in Canada, we celebrate the martyrs on this day, September 26th, perhaps because it may well be too cold in mid-October, and our bishops would rather commemorate these secondary patrons of this fair Dominion while the gold and crimson tapestry of fall colours are beginning to fully manifest themselves. The others members of this noble band of men who gave everything for God are Jean de Brebeuf, Gabriel Lalemant, Antoine Daniel, Charles Garnier,  and Noel Chabanel, all put to death near Midland, Ontario, while René Goupil, a layman, was the first, also in New York, in 1642.  All were members of Saint Ignatius’ merry band of Jesuits, back in the most zealous, unified, and intrepid early days of the Society, which did untold work holding the Church together in those fractious years, torn by war and religious division.

Each of their stories, their backgrounds, how they ended up on the missions, are all different. But they were one in their religion, their orthodoxy, their dedication to the Faith, in the rule and ideals of Saint Ignatius, as well as their desire to spread the joy and hope of that faith to their Native brethren, who, for all their noble qualities, contrary to modern myths, were by and large mired in despair and misery.  One of the sad revisionisms of late is painting pre-colonial, which means pre-Christian, life in Canada as an Edenic paradise, in the rosy hues of Rousseau’s bon sauvage. As the vivid, detailed and all-too-human accounts of the Jesuit Relations make clear, life in the wilderness was anything but ideal, with brutality, sexual licence, flies, dirt, thick smoke in longhouses, bitter cold, and early death by disease, infection, starvation or war perpetually lurking just around the corner.  ‘Savage’ may now be an inappropriate term for the first nations, as the saying goes, but it is accurate enough to describe their eked-out existence.

The Jesuits and their fellow missionaries were sadly accompanied and followed by unscrupulous men who gave Catholicism, and European culture in general a bad name, a trend that, need we belabour the point, continues today, and is now accelerating under the neo-savagery of BLM. Yet the good more than outweighed whatever imperfection there was, something our modern, jejune virtue-signalers should learn. From the manliness of Jean de Brebeuf to the milquetoastness of the mammy-singing Justin Trudeau is not a mark of progress.

These Jesuits were men of noble ideals, for which they worked indefatigably their entire lives, in the midst of the same hardships as their beloved Natives, for whose good they were willing to suffer and die; and die they did, in the most horrific of ways. Indeed, they were even desirous of such a death, to shed their blood for Christ, and for the conversion of all peoples to Him and His salvific truth, and none more so than the powerful, yet gentle, giant Jean de Brébeuf. As he once confessed in his spiritual journal:

in truth I vow to you, Jesus my Saviour, that as far as I have the strength I will never fail to accept the grace of martyrdom, if some day you in your infinite mercy should offer it to me, your most unworthy servant…

My God, it grieves me greatly that you are not known, that in this savage wilderness all have not been converted to you, that sin has not been driven from it. My God, even if all the brutal tortures which prisoners in this region must endure should fall on me, I offer myself most willingly to them and I alone shall suffer them all.

Indeed. A true man, and saint. We may not have to give up our lives, but we must do what we can to stand against the tide of this culture of death, made all the ironically worse by an panic-driven fear of death, and be counted, and proclaim the truth, boldly and without compromise or complaisance.  Jean de Brebeuf recalled of the Natives that if you picked up a paddle in their canoes, you had to ply it all day; also, they expected you to carry your own fair share on the portages, silently, without complaint; and all of this on a handful of cornmeal at breakfast.  They would take the measure of a man by how much he could endure, and they were impressed by the steadfastness of the ‘Blackrobes’, not least de Brebeuf, whom they called ‘Echon’, a term of great respect and admiration.  Father Brebeuf was martyred at the age of 55, and I have oft wondered what he looked like – his noble Norman face weathered and lined by his years outside in the elements in the missions, his eyes radiating kindness, holiness and a zeal, that he would give anything to save your soul alone. Eric Blair (George Orwell) commented once that we get the face we deserve at 50 – and I’m sure there are exceptions – but, more to the point, we do get the soul we have forged, or not forged, by the grace of God, in the days of our youth, and it is that soul which shines forth through our face.

In our diminished and dissociated homo urbanus lives, we could stand to gain some small share in the fortitude of our spiritual ancestors, to whom this country owes so much, indeed everything, yet now knows so little.

On a final note, it is fitting that the last of the martyrs to meet his glorious end, Noel Chabanel, who had such an antipathy to the work, and could never really learn the language, and who had to bind himself by vow to stay, was hatcheted by a renegade Huron on December 8th, 1649, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception – a fitting day to close off their sacrifice.

Our bishops consecrated Canada to Our Lady Immaculate on this day four years ago, so let us beseech her intercession, along with these holy Jesuits, for this fair Dominion,  that their sufferings may bring back the Faith to a people who know not what a treasure they have lost.

Holy Canadian Martyrs, orate pro nobis!