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Drawing strength and inspiration from the witness of our fore brothers in the priesthood of Jesus Christ

(Taken from New Jesuit Review)

There is a phrase in the Epistle to the Hebrews that I have always associated with the missionaries of Huronia because it is used in the readings proper to the Jesuit celebration of the Martyrs Feast. 

In telling how people lived in faith, the author of Hebrews speaks of some wandering over the face of the earth while yearning for their heavenly homeland:  Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.  Others suffered mocking and flogging and even chains and
imprisonment.  They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy.  They wandered in deserts and mountains and in caves and holes in the ground (Hebrews 11:35b-38).

Our evangelist is giving a description of how, throughout salvation history, people signalled that they lived by faith, seeking a homeland better than they knew.  Our biblical author shows us that he reads salvation history in a new way—in the lives of the faith community's forebears—hoping thereby to persuade his contemporaries that they, too, can live heroically.  Similarly, the example of the Martyrs, though in a different time and culture, should model our witnessing to Christ in our daily lives.
For they in the past and we in the present are being enlightened by the Holy Spirit into discovering unexpected truths.  The prism through which all of reality and every human experience are being filtered lies in Christ's passion, death and resurrection.  For Jesus is described in Hebrews 12 as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the sake of the joy that was set before Him Jesus endured the Cross, disregarding its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). The same reality can be looked at from a variety of angles.  This is what the New Testament did also with regard to the death of Jesus.  The sign of opprobrium, of rejection, of disgrace and shame—the cross as instrument of crucifixion—became the sign of glory and the model for all of Christian discipleship.  

The power of the Paschal Mystery to shed light on and interpret faith experiences is one of the many parallels we may find in the life and death of the Martyrs and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Today, I would like to focus our reflection on the Martyrs upon the first missionary to die in Huronia, Anthony Daniel on July 4, 1648. Born in Dieppe on May 27, 1601, Antoine Daniel had already begun legal studies when he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus at Rouen on October 1, 1621. He was a teacher of junior classes at the Collège in Rouen (1623–27), studied theology at the Collège in Clermont (1627–30), taught humanities (1630–1631), and was minister at the Collège in Eu (1631–32).  In 1626 Father Charles Lalemant wrote from Quebec to his brother Jerome: “A little Huron is going to see you; he longs to see France. He is very fond of us and manifests a strong desire to be instructed; nevertheless, his father and the Captain of the nation wishes to see him next year, assuring us that, if he is satisfied, he will give him to us for some years. It is of importance that he should be thoroughly satisfied, for if this child is once instructed, it will open the way to many tribes where he will be very useful.” The young Huron lad in question, Amantacha, was baptized at Rouen during the time that Father Daniel was a teacher at the college and the presence of the young Huron at Rouen may have played some part in his missionary vocation.

In 1632, Father Daniel arrived at Cape Breton (Nova Scotia), where the habitation was under the command of his brother Charles, a French captain. The following year 1633, he was at Quebec and was assigned, with Jean de Brébeuf to the Huron Mission though their departure did not take place until 1634.

No missionary experienced the hardships and perils offered at that period by the trip into Huronia as much as Father Daniel did; in 1634 and again in 1638 he was abandoned on the way by his guides.  He soon found himself not only alone but ill, and he attributed to special divine protection the fact that he was able to reach his destination at all. The return trip he made in 1636 was equally arduous, and on arrival at Trois-Rivières he was literally exhausted. Daniel made rapid progress in learning the language, and he had soon taught the children to sing the Our Father and Creed in Huron. His kindness, his gentleness, and his gifts as a teacher caused him to be assigned to a new apostolate that the missionaries, in their lack of experience of the actual circumstances, thought both feasible and full of promise for the propagation of the faith: the founding at Quebec of a seminary to which young Hurons would come to be trained in Christian knowledge and virtues. That college in founded in Quebec is sometimes seen as the foundation of a series of colleges and theological institutes that leads to Toronto’s Regis College.

So great were the hopes aroused by this foundation that Huronia sacrificed for it one of its best missionaries, and the Jesuits at Quebec deprived themselves of the services of five very useful servants. Two years’ experience was to show that the children of Huronia were not suited to, and not suitable for, this European type of education. 

The splendid dream came to naught, and brought about Father Daniel’s return to active missionary life. He devoted himself to it indefatigably and effectively for ten years. On July 4, 1648 the Iroquois overran the Saint-Joseph II mission (Teanaostaiaë, near Hillsdale, Simcoe County, Ontario) just as Father Daniel was finishing his Mass. He encouraged the neophytes and spoke so movingly of the truths of the faith that the pagans in large numbers asked him to baptize them. After wreaking havoc in the village, the Iroquois attacked the chapel: “Flee,” said the missionary to his congregation, “and keep the faith to your dying breath.” 

As for himself, his life belonged to the souls in his charge. He left the chapel and strode towards the enemy, who were astonished by such courage. When the first moment of stupefaction had passed, his body was riddled with arrows. A bullet struck him in the chest, passing through his body, and he fell uttering the name of Jesus. After desecrating his body, the Iroquois threw it into the fire that was consuming the chapel. 

As the first martyr of Huronia, Father Daniel, even after his death, inspired in his brother missionaries a wealth of tenderness and encouragement. Father Ragueneau, his superior, spoke of him in a letter to the Father General of the Jesuit Order as "a truly remarkable man, humble, obedient, united with God, of never failing patience and indomitable courage in adversity" (Thwaites, tr. Relations, XXXIII, 253-269).

In this Year of the Priest 2009-2010, various models of selfless service are set before us: the holy Cure d’Ars and St. Padre Pio of Pietralcina, whose feast was earlier this week: great confessors and reformers of the priesthood in their day. But the model of priestly heroism surely extends to the martyrdom of Anthony Daniel who, like Jesus the Good Shepherd, laid down his life for his flock.
“The first decades of the seventeenth century were a real springtime for the Church in France. 

Mysticism, missionary zeal, charitable works—all came together in an outburst of holiness” (M.J. Lacroix in Companions of Jesus: Spiritual Profiles of the Jesuit Saints and Beati; Rome: General’s Curia, 1974, p. 73). It included St. John Francis Regis, to whose tomb St. Jean Marie Vianney made a pilgrimage as he discerned his call to the priesthood; it also included, I believe, Anthony Daniel and our other martyr saints of Huronia and New York recalled today.  The gospel reading, drawn from Matthew's gospel, encapsulates the spiritual motivation for all that the Christians of Huronia did—how they lived and with what dispositions they wished to die.  The second half of the gospel begins with Jesus telling His disciples about the divine logic that permitted His suffering and death as the way of His total self-donation to others and the Father.  God's response to such selfless love lies in the resurrection, the beginning of a new way of being present to people in their need, the Kingdom of God and life eternal.

The foolishness of the divine logic is that others are called to enter on the same way to eternal life by living in this world as Jesus did.  “If anyone wants to be my follower, let him or her deny self, take up the cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).  This was the outlook the Martyrs absorbed as they prayed daily, and as they steeped themselves in gospel spirituality during their annual retreat, when they contemplated their Lord and Saviour in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, their spiritual guide and mentor.  It was also the experience of St. Paul in the first reading which speaks of the missionary disciple as carrying in his body the “dying of Jesus” so that the risen “life may be made visible in our mortal flesh”.  

Now well into the Third Millennium of Christ's coming in our midst, we want to share the Good News with our age.  In the Jesuit Relation are contained words of advice on how to be an effective evangelist drawing people to Christ.  Written by an experienced missioner for a newly- arrived recruit, it intended to draw the Native People to Christ.  It can serve as a model for us in drawing those who do not yet know Christ to follow Him. Not so much knowledge is necessary as friendship and sound virtue.  The fourelements of an apostolic person in New France are charm, humility, patience and generous friendship.  Too anxious a zeal scorches more than it warms and ruins everything.  Great kindness and adaptability are necessary to attract gradually these Indians.  They do not understand our theology too well, but they understand our humility and our friendliness, and allow themselves to be won. We pray today that, as we strive to emulate the Jesuit Martyr-saints of North America in evangelizing others with the Gospel of Life, we may take these words to heart along with the genuine self-sacrificing love of those who lived the faith in Huronia before us.  Then we will know how to give ourselves in love as Anthony Daniel did and gladly share the Good News in our day as the Canadian Martyrs did in theirs.


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