Learning from St. Jean de Brebeuf

Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the North American Martyrs, a group of eight 17th-century Jesuits who were murdered during their missionary work among the Hurons.  Though today–informed by pluralism and more open to religious diversity — we may not agree with the Jesuits’ goal to convert the non-Christians, we can learn much from their methods in interacting with them.

One of these martyrs is St. Jean de Brebeuf, the patron of my Jesuit high school in Indianapolis.  Originally from a family of minor nobility in France, Brebeuf had a gift with languages, and quickly learned the Hurons’ language and even composed of book of its grammar.  He wanted to reach out to the Hurons on their own terms–in their own language–and not on his own.  He realized that if he ever expected to find a place in their community, then he had to fully participate in their life and activities.  Brebeuf ate simple cornmeal cakes, rowed down the Canadian rivers for days, and carried their canoe and supplies over rocky terrain–always alongside his Huron brothers. I’d like to share a few passages of his writing about the Hurons, which continually inform my interactions with the Muslim community, as well as others who may differ from me in cultural, ethnic, or religious aspects. It is through full immersion in the lives of others, and by making an effort to understand and respect that way of living, he says, that we can come to share a deep bond with them, sometimes teaching them, but more often learning.

“First of all, love the Hurons as brothers.
Never keep the Indians waiting at the time of embarking.
Try to eat the food they offer you.
Do not carry water or sand into the canoe.
Be the least troublesome to the Indians.
Do not ask too many questions.
Silence is golden.
Bear with their imperfections.
Readily accept the fatigues of the journey.
Always try to show a cheerful face.”

“We see shining among [the Hurons] some rather noble moral virtues. You note, in the first place, a great love and union, which they are careful to cultivate….Their hospitality to all sorts of strangers is remarkable; they present to them, in their feasts the best of what they have prepared, and, as I said, I do not know if anything similar, in this regard, is to be found anywhere.”

Successful in converting many Hurons, Brebeuf was brutally martyred by the Iroquois in 1649.  The method in which he was killed may be one of the worse endured by any martyr–and yet he uttered no sound in his agony.  (He trusted in God, even as his tongue was cut out and boiling water was poured over him in a mock ritual of baptism.) After he was dead, the Iroquois cut out his heart and ate it, a gesture that signaled their acknowledgement of Brebeuf’s courage and their desire to possess it themselves.

Today, we too hope to adopt Brebeuf’s courage, as well as his humility, respect for and curiosity about others, and his trust in God.

For a short biography of Jean de Brebeuf, check out this article, by Fr. James Martin, SJ.

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