This homily was preached at the Martyr's Shrine in Midland by Fr. Peter Bisson, Provincial of the Jesuits in English Canada, on Saturday, September 22, 2012, for the Feast of the Canadian Martyrs. The actual feast was celebrated this past Wednesday.
Thee hundred and sixty three years ago, here in this place, Christ did a new thing in North America. Just as His own identity was fully revealed in His death and resurrection, so too was His life made manifest here in the lives and deaths of Sts. Jean de Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues, Gabriel Lalement, Noel Chabanel, Antoine Daniel, Rene Goupil, Jean de LaLande, as well as in the lives and commitments of their Huron and French companions. True life and true human flourishing - which is to be a friend of God's - is to be found only through the death that is to give yourself away in love.
This is the message that has attracted you here!
But martyrdom is not a thing of the past. The 20th century had more martyrs than all previous centuries of Christianity together. Some scholars estimate their number to be in the millions, but Blessed Pope John Paul II asked the Church to compile an official list of Catholic martyrs of the 20th century. That number came to 12,000 of whom over 40 are Jesuits, 400 are also Blesseds, and 14 are also Saints. What does it mean that Christ should have been made manifest so much in the 20th century? Why have we had such a great cloud of witnesses so recently?
The word "martyr" means witness. As Vatican II and our own bishops teach us, the core of martyrdom is not death by torture or because others hate the faith nor is it even death, but rather love, love so boundless that you give your life away to be a friend of Jesus, and a friend to all whom Jesus loves, that is, all our fellow human beings.
I'd like to tell you about two that I knew personally, and who have marked me. One is a Canadian Jesuit priest, Fr. Martin Royackers. He entered the Jesuits some years before me, yet we were close enough in training that I got to know him a little bit. He was very bright, and very dedicated to a radical Christian lifestyle and to justice for the poor. He also smoked like a chimney! He was often uncomfortable in his early Jesuit life, and many others found him difficult too, until he was sent to Jamaica. There indeed he fell in love. He learned to preach in Jamaican style, and in many ways became Jamaican. Together with Jim Webb, our previous provincial, he worked very hard for justice for Jamaican farmers. He was killed 11 years ago, and all the evidence suggests he was killed because he worked for justice, out of love. He is buried in his beloved Jamaica, and many go to visit his grave.
Another I want to tell you about is someone named Bill Tomes. He worked with street gangs in Chicago. Bill is not dead, but I consider him a martyr because he gave himself away in love. I got to know him when I was being trained in philosophy in Chicago some years ago, and would spend every Saturday accompanying Bill. He had a special grace for dealing with violence. He would know when a fight was about to break out, and would simply stand in the middle of it to stop it. After we would visit a building controlled by one gang, we would very visibly visit a building controlled by a rival gang. Bill's only tools were his love of Jesus and his love of the gang members. Whenever a gang member would ask him what he thought of what he did in the gang, he would always answer only with, "I love you." He meant it, and they knew it. Through his fearless love, Bill succeeded in making a number of neighbourhoods more peaceful, and he helped turn around the lives of many gang members. Indeed, today many of these former "gang bangers" work for Catholic Charities in Chicago!
Whether a martyr is killed for one's love or not, we are challenged by their witness. We are challenged to examine our own experience of Christ crucified and risen and active among us. To discover that God is deeply, madly, totally and unconditionally in love with you is to enter into a new spiritual world. This new spiritual world was made manifest in the Risen Jesus, the Risen Jesus who is also gave his life away in love, to the point of death on the Cross.
I come back to my earlier question: why have we had so many witnesses to love in the past century? I can only speculate prayerfully. Our civilization has many, many brilliant achievements about which we should be proud. But we have also made it very easy not to believe in God, not to be a friend of God's. While we have gained much knowledge, we have lost knowledge of God and the language in which we express our experience of God, our friendship of God. So in this spiritual desert many know that this flat world is not enough. Many are searching for meaning, thirsting for love and justice, and do not know where to look. I find myself wondering if the great cloud of witnesses we have had in the past century is not to prepare ourselves for some new things in faith, for new ways of conversion, new paths of holiness. Christ is indeed doing something new, and we need eyes of love to recognize it.
The Martyrs' Shrine together with our partners at Ste. Marie Among the Hurons not only preserve the memory of radical examples of love and of companionship of Jesus, they also offer a welcome for searchers, for people who are searching for meaning, for new paths of holiness, for a more deeply rooted life than the world now offers.
What will they discover when they come here? What I hope for them is well expressed in the words of one of our recent Superiors General, the Servant of God Pedro Arrupe:
Nothing is more practical than finding God
Than falling in love in an absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
What seizes your imagination,
Will affect everything.
It will decide what gets you out of bed in the morning,
What you do with your evenings,
How you spend your weekends,
What you read, who you know,
What breaks your heart
And what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love
And it will change everything.