Ministry in a culture that is hostile to the faith seems to be a theme of every age and place. It takes different forms in different places and times, but there is always some hostility to the faith that needs to be fought. We certainly see this in our own day, when the mere mention of the Catholic faith can bring out accusations that we are hateful and intolerant, despite our offering the grace of God’s love in Jesus Christ. The culture was different in the seventeenth century, but the hatred of the faith was still there.
Saint Isaac Jogues and Saint John de Brébeuf were among eight missionaries who worked among the Huron and Iroquois Indians in the New World in those days. They were devoted to their work and were accomplishing many conversions. The conversions, though, were not welcomed by the indigenous tribes, and eventually Saint Isaac was captured and imprisoned by the Iroquois for months. He was moved from village to village and was tortured and beaten all along the way. Eventually he was able to escape and return to France. But amazingly, zeal for his mission compelled him to return, and to resume his work among the tribes when a peace treaty was signed in 1646. His belief that the peace treaty would be observed turned out to be false hope, and he was captured by a Mohawk war party and beheaded.
Saint John worked among the Iroquois and ministered to them amid a smallpox epidemic. As a scholastic Jesuit, he was able to compose a catechism and write a dictionary in the Huron language, which made possible many conversions. He was eventually captured, tortured and killed by the Iroquois.
Saint Isaac, Saint John, and their companions inspire us to take up the mission: to make Christ known, relying on the treasure of grace he brings us and promises us, and accepting that this world’s glory is not worth our aspirations. This will not be easy, of course, in a culture that largely rejects the promises of heaven in its pursuit of instant gratification. But perhaps the witness of these French Jesuits would help us to bravely witness to the Truth with the same zeal for the mission that they had. Our mission may not be to a culture so different to us as the Indian cultures were to these men, but that mission is none the less vital to the salvation of the world.