When I returned to Chicago last September for the conclusion of the diocesan investigation into the life of the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, I picked up a copy of Jesuit Missionaries to North America: Spiritual Writings and Biographical Sketches by Francois Roustang, S.J. and translated by M. Renelle, S.S.N.D. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006). I am glad I did and recommend it to you highly.
As I read through the biographical sketches of the eight martyrs of North America, I was struck by the boldness of their faith and by their love for those who abused them so severely. Their spiritual writings continue to provide inspiration and, as it were, much food for thought. This is an important part of the history of North America and of the Church that were too lightly of.
As we celebrate today the memorial of Saints John de Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues, and Companions - the North American Martyrs - it is good for us to consider just what these martyrs suffered and they did so.
In a lengthy letter written to his provincial on August 5, 1643, Saint Isaac Jogues described the tortures he and others suffered for the name of Christ at the hands of the Iroquois. The letter makes for rather difficult reading, but doing so is necessary to understand the faith not only of Jogues, but of his companions, as well.
What follows, then, are excerpts from this lettering pertaining directly to the wounds inflicted upon him:
Others [of the Iroquois] then fell upon me, tore off almost all my nails, and gnawed off my two index fingers with their teeth -- all of which caused me incredible pain. They did the same to Rene Goupil but left the Hurons unharmed....But what seemed to me the cruelest of their torments was that, when we were exhausted after five or six days of traveling, they came up to us with no semblance of anger and in cold blood tore out our hair and our beards and scratched us deeply with their fingernails, which they keep sharply pointed, in the most tender and sensitive parts of our bodies. All these sufferings were external, however. My interior sufferings were much more intense when I saw that sad procession of Hurons, now slaves of the Iroquois. Among them were many Christians, five of them converts of long standing and pillars of the infant Huron Church....
First they gave thanks to the sun god, to whom they ascribe success in wars. Then they fired their muskets as a sign of good fortune. Each one then went into the nearby woods to cut clubs with which to beat us. They ordered us to get out of our canoes, and having arranged themselves in two parallel rows, they forced us to "run the gauntlet" between them, beating us ferociously with their cudgels....Then they ordered me, scarcely breathing, to come down from the platform; and again heaping upon me insults and opprobrium, they covered me once more with innumerable blows on the head, the neck, and the rest of my body. This letter would be too long if I were to try to enumerate in detail what we French had to bear. They burned one of my fingers and crushed another with their teeth. They twisted my other fingers - the ones they had already chewed on - and so strained the ligaments that even now, though healed, they are still frightfully deformed. But the lot of my companions was not any better....But even more agonizing than my physical sufferings was the sight of my poor Hurons suffering like torments, especially Eustache, whom they tormented most cruelly. They had torn off both his thumbs and through the wound in his left hand had trust a pointed stick all the way up to his elbow....The first ones told us, by way of greeting, that we were to be burned over a slow fire. The next group welcomed us with sticks, blows, and stones. And because they have an extreme aversion for a man whose hair is sparse and short, a veritable tempest exploded, particularly on my bald head. I still had two fingernails. These they now tore off with their teeth, and with their own sharp fingernails laid bare the bones of my poor fingers....They beat us not only with sticks but with with whips having metal pieces at the end. They have a great number of these, having obtained them from the Europeans. In addition to the whip lashes, one of the chiefs had a lump of iron the size of his fist tied to the end of a rope. He gave me and my companions a blow with it that almost felled me to the ground. The only thing that kept me from fainting and that sustained my strength and courage was fear that he would strike me with it a second time....One old man led a woman towards me and commanded her to cut off my [left] thumb....They threw coals and live embers on our bare flesh. We could not throw them off because our hands were bound. this is the way the Iroquois apprentice their youth to cruelty and accustom them gradually to greater tortures....As for me, they hung me in the middle of the cabin by the upper part of my arms, which they fastened to two stakes, one on each side, using as ropes some bark that they had taken from the trees.
In the end, the Iroquois killed Father Isaac Jogues, S.J. with a tomahawk.
Despite the tremendous and extended sufferings he endured in fidelity to the name of Jesus, Father Jogues was able to say, in the midst of his tribulations: "I thank you, Lord Jesus, that I have learned from this slight test how much you deigned to suffer for me on the Cross when the weight of your whole body was suspended not by ropes but by your hands and your feet cruelly pierced with nails."
Early on in his letter, Jogues acknowledged that he did not have to accept the assignment to the missions among the Iroquois, but he accepted it willingly out of love Jesus and for the salvation of the Iroquois. When the Cross was presented to him, he did not run away from it but instead embraced it.
In another letter written just a few weeks before his martyrdom, he asked, "When shall I begin to give myself completely to him who has given himself to me without reserve?" The many sufferings he received culminated in his death; in the end, he gave himself to Jesus completely. May he intercede for us and teach us to do the same.