September, when one finally feels that welcome first hint of autumn, always reminds me of Canada, where I spent 6 years form 1994 to 2000 - first as a deacon at the Catholic Information Centre (as it was then named) and then as a priest at our Paulist parish in Toronto. There, September 26 is the feast of the Canadian Martyrs - – Jesuits Jean de Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues, Antony Daniel, Gabriel Lalemant, Charles Garnier, Noel Chabanel, and Jesuit Oblates Rene Goupil, and Jean de la Lande – whom the US calendar commemorates on October 19 (under the title “North American Martyrs”). Their feast also always reminds me of the beautiful and popular shrine of the Canadian Martyrs at Midland, Ontario – and the perhaps even more significant historical site of the Jesuits’ 17th-cenury mission settlement of Sainte Marie that stands reconstructed in the shadow of the modern shrine church. It makes a great day trip from Toronto, and I remember well my memorable first visit there as a seminarian in 1984 with Paulist Father Jim Donovan and then later taking my own parents there in 1995.
In its time, Sainte Marie was the westernmost European settlement in North America (north of Mexico) and surely qualifies as an integral part of that glorious early history – that epopee des plus brillants exploits of which the French version of the Canadian anthem sings so movingly. But for those Jesuit “Blackrobes” and their associates who lived and labored there - 37 days by canoe from Quebec City, spending long cold winters in smoky “longhouses” in Indian villages and the hot summers in that settlement, following their rigorous religious routine of prayers and spiritual exercises (starting daily at 4:00 a.m.), it was a rough obscure life. It only importance in worldly terms proved, paradoxically, to be its undoing, as conflict between the warring European Powers’ Indian surrogates forced the French Jesuits to leave that outpost after 10 years of intense missionary effort – abandoning what they had earlier built with such undoubtedly high hopes.
At the time, the French Jesuits’ ambitious, impressive, powerful project appeared in worldly terms a colossal failure – as indeed, in the immediate shadow of the cross, must also have appeared the earthly mission of Jesus himself, in whose name those missionaries so heroically struggled.
Now that North America is again becoming mission territory, we do well to keep such apparent failures as well as the seeming successes in mind as we consider anew how to re-establish the Good News in this New World.