Martyrdom by any other name is still martyrdom

Today is World Mission Sunday in the Church’s liturgical calendar.   In upstate New York and Quebec, though, October 19 marks another memorial: the feast of the North American Martyrs.     These are eight Jesuit priests and lay brothers who died in the seventeenth century while evangelizing among the Iroquois and Huron. Parts of their stories provide the basis for the 1991 film Black Robe. My home diocese of Albany thus features an interesting pilgrimage destination: the North American Shrine in Auriesville standing over the Mohawk village of Ossernenon. Here three saints met their death (Rene Goupil in 1642, and then Isaac Jogues and Jean Leland in 1646) and then ten years later, in 1656, St. Kateri Tekakwitha was born there. Canonized this month two years ago, St. Kateri received baptism in nearby Fonda, endured persecution from her own family and husband, and then made her way to Quebec where she died in 1680. The Jesuit martyrs didn’t make it that far. Goupil, Jogues, and Leland all suffered torture before being tomahawked. (The 2010 article by Father Martin SJ includes some graphic descriptions of St. Jean de Brebeuf’s 1639 martyrdom.) Their remains were often discarded in the nearby woods.

Auriesville pilgrimage Sept 2012 023

Just remember: whenever you see televangelists in round churches, American Catholics got there first.

The Martyrs’ Shrine in Auriesville celebrates all this history. Catholics older than forty from all over eastern New York have memories of parochial school day-trips there. Scout troops still camp out there every September, a pilgrimage now in its 64th year. Dominating the shrine grounds is the Martyrs’ Colosseum , one of the first “church-in-the-round” buildings in the United States.

More to the point, the Colosseum church celebrates the Jesuit martyrs and the native Americans they served. The high altar stands atop a log palisade reminiscent of the Mohawks’ own protective wall at Ossernenon, and the crucifix (which also provides essential support to the roof!)The crosses adorning the columns refer to those carved on nearby trees by both St. Isaac Jogues and St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Around the walls light streams through seventy-two windows which recall Christ’s commission of disciples in Luke 10:1-24. Of course, the name and architectural style recall the early Christian martyrs in the Roman Colosseum.

Rome 3rd and 4th days canonization 413So often our histories and experiences emphasize the distance, the chasm, between Rome and the United States. The Auriesville shrine recalls an earlier time when American Catholics looked at their own, comparatively short, history and built their own spaces to recall the Church’s simultaneously rooted yet universal origins. In this view the insignificant, the remote, the overlooked (three adjectives unfortunately attached frequently to the Martyrs Shrine) possess their own spiritual significance in Christ because their connotations—through architectural space as well as martyrdom—to Rome. Fittingly, the Jesuits still maintain a cemetery on the ridge above the Shrine. There lie the graves of Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, and Pete Corrigan SJ of On the Waterfront fame.

If that were not enough, October 19 will also see the beatification of Pope Paul VI. Born Giovanni Battista Montini, Paul VI reigned from 1963 to 1978. To make a long story (his fifteen year pontificate still ranks as the second longest since Pius XII’s!) short, Pope Paul embodied a different sort of martyrdom. His quiet, studious demeanor departed significantly from his predecessor, the popular (and now canonized) John XXIII, and his smiling, even cheery, successors: the short-lived John Paul I (who reigned for only 32 days) and the long-reigning St. John Paul II (whose pontificate lasted longer than all but Pius IX’s). Paul pledged to continue the Second Vatican Council that Pope John had inaugurated. In fact, the Council’s major achievements all occurred under Paul’s watch. Still, his pontificate seemed to bear a lingering sorrow throughout. Even a Presbyterian college student visiting Rome in 1989 (your humble author) understood the difference. Deep in the Vatican grottos I saw several eldery women bring flowers to Pope John XXIII’s tomb, but nearby Paul’s seemed forlorn.

Perhaps it is not surprising, as Peter Hebblethwaite’s biography (itself now over twenty years old) shows, that Paul’s pontificate seemed exhausted by 1970, if not earlier. The overwhelming negative reaction to Humanae Vitae , the 1968 encyclical that reaffirmed the Church’s opposition to artificial birth control and abortion, clearly played a role (and figures prominently in Hebblethwaite’s biography). Part of it was the culture, which lumped Paul’s papal authority into a widespread rejection of all authorities. Paul’s Ostpolitik of rapprochement with Soviet Communism and its satellites likewise did not bear the fruit Paul expected. It took a pope from the Warsaw Block, who knew its realities and brutalities, to bring that down.

That history still offers rich resources for the revitalization of Catholic life today. The question remains: what prompts Paul’s beatification? Because, it seems, his pontificate—and his quite successful clerical career before—offers a more ordinary, readily-at-hand, martyrdom. Despite widespread ridicule, Pope Paul stood by Humanae Vitae as well as other positions that many, religious or not, often accept unthinkingly. “If you want peace, work for justice” adorns bumper stickers and felt banners, and it comes from the same pope who gave us Humanae Vitae.   For all of the furor swirling around the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, both sides might be seen as embodying Pope Paul’s quiet, committed spirituality: proclaim the Gospel, come what may. The North American martyrs certainly greater physical pain, but Paul’s spiritual and psychological pain surely approximated their own. Paul’s path and the struggles it brought him offer a more familiar road to American Catholics than the red-hot tomahawks the Jesuit martyrs faced. In other parts of the world, though, other Christians still confront them.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

Mind, Will, Heart, and Body

Previously I explored the remarkable dual canonization of Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. John Paul II. Not surprisingly, the same event has prompted its fair share of humorous takes, too. Will the Church simply go ahead and canonize every pope?   While those particular links asks it satirically, the question does have some legitimacy.

Pope Pius XI

Pope Pius XI

All joking aside, one pope overlooked in the current papal-canonization-craze is Pius XI. This pope deserves renewed attention amid the just and extensive celebrations of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II. These popes’ legacies rest largely on their social witness. Each in his own way boldly proclaimed the Gospel and addressed the modern world’s questions and needs. In doing so they followed the path of their predecessors, of course, but most closely Pius XI. Born Achille Ratti and elected the 259th successor of St. Peter in February 1922, Pius XI reigned exactly seventeen years when he died in 1939. Thus his pontificate witnessed almost the entire period between the last century’s two World Wars. Like the Polish pope, Ratti was an avid hiker and mountain climber. Some video footage exists of his election and funeral, alluding to the future spectacles that Vatican II, St. John Paul II, and Pope Francis routinely display. Like his papal namesakes Piuses IX and X, Pius XI made ample use of encyclicals. Here the dimensions of his pontificate’s legacy become fully known.

When elected, Pius XI took as his motto: Pax Christi in Regno Christi (Christ’s peace within Christ’s Reign).   To the extent that he is remembered, Pius XI’s legacy rests on three encyclicals: Casti Connubii (1930), a discussion of marriage; Quadragesimo Anno (1931), a commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and itself a statement of Christian social reconstruction; and Mit Brennender Sorge (1937), an explicit condemnation of the Nazi agenda. Each merits its own consideration, because each fulfills in some way Pius XI’s own motto. Our earthly lives don’t truly make sense until they stand ordered under Christ. A certain Augustinian/Anselmnian vision pervades Pius’s legacy: we must believe in order to understand. In like fashion, we must believe in order to act and live appropriately.

This trajectory began with Pius XI’s first encyclical: Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio (December 23, 1922). Devoted to explaining his own papal motto, the encyclical recounts the destruction wrought by the Great War. While decrying assaults on the Church itself, Pius does not stop with mere Catholic boosterism. The war’s catastrophic violence denigrated human dignity (see #21) and only through faith do people fully recover a sense of this (see #38). Thus the foundational principle of Catholic social thought is established in the aftermath of the First, not Second, World War. Throughout his pontificate Pius XI wrote encyclicals extolling Catholic intellectual leaders. In 1923, he began with St. Francis De Sales (Rerum Omnium Perturbationem) and St. Thomas Aquinas (Studorium Ducem). Across two weeks in May 1925, he canonized St. Therese de Lisieux, St. Madeline Sophie Barat, and St. Peter Canisius. These new saints illuminated the spiritual path Achille Ratti had taken himself, one of quiet, conscientious commitment to one’s faith and the Church. We know now, of course, that the Great War’s end only suspended tragic military and civilian deaths. The world would soon again experience the consequences of secular hubris.

Pius XI himself recognized the shift later in 1925 with his encyclical Quas Primas. Released on December 11, 1925, the encyclical established the Feast of Christ the King, now celebrated on the last Sunday of the liturgical year. In so doing Pius XI returned to his papal motto and asserted Christ’s spiritual and temporal authority (see #s 15 & 17). Christian faith is necessarily embodied, and thus the Church stands in the world, but free from control by the secular state (see #31). The laity especially stand to benefit from meditation upon Christ’s kingship. If Christ died for all, then, Pius concludes, “it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire” (#33). Christ must reign in our minds, wills, hearts, and bodies. Each faculty contributes to both spiritual sanctification and social justice, and serves, Pius XI prays, as evangelical examples to all non-Catholics. The peace that passes understanding, if authentic, moves beyond the individual to include others, not just Catholics but all peoples. After all, each person possesses intrinsic dignity given by God alone.

So when Pope Francis tells us “Confess Jesus. If we [the Church] don’t do that, we will be a pitiful NGO”, his words recall his Petrine predecessor almost one hundred years earlier.   Social justice requires more than just spirituality, but actual orthodox faith. After all, Christ reigns our minds, hearts, and wills as well as our bodies. And in like fashion, that faith must not remain merely mental or spiritual. Our bodies put faith into action, and both Pius XI and Francis repeatedly ask that we do just that. Neither one of them suffered under the illusion that doing so would be easy.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.