Visiting the school of courage

After lectures as well as in dinner conversations, I often get asked what I think is the biggest challenge — or need or crisis — facing the Church in the United States.

“Faith” is always an appropriate answer to that query: since God is always faithful, what we need is to trust in him, bank on his promises, receive well the help he gives, and respond wholeheartedly.

Over the last several years, however, when prompted about what the Church in our country needs most, I have been responding, “Courage!” While there is no doubt there is a widespread crisis of faith, I think a more urgent issue is that, among those with faith, there’s a softness and timidity before the challenges, contradictions, and crosses we face.

When, for example, Jews encounter anti-Semitism and Muslims confront Islamophobia, they respond vigorously and marshal the public to get involved, whereas Catholics, despite our much greater numbers, largely let bigots get away with it. Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice because Catholics tolerate it. We permit it not because we’re “turning the other cheek” — by which Jesus instructed us not to “play the victim” but rather to defend our dignity without vengeance! — but because we often don’t have the resolve to stand united against the cultural bullies.

The lack of courage happens not just in terms of religious freedom concerns, but also with regard to the call to defend the truth and share the faith. Many Catholics are cowed before the elites who are forcing their values revolution on everyone else. Rather than witnessing to Christ and the faith, many Catholics, to echo Cardinal O’Malley’s quip, have seemingly entered a witness protection program.

Inside the Church we see a similar faint-heartedness with regard to confronting all types of conspicuous problems: clergy who violate their sacred promises and live a double life, parishes and schools that no longer come close to paying their bills, Catholic politicians who betray God and their faith to win elections, faithful who require fraternal correction with regard to practices that everyone knows are immoral. And at a personal level, many of us are wimpish in the fight against sin and in the persevering effort to love and grow in holiness.

Cowardice is antithetical to Christian faith and life. The most common phrase in Sacred Scripture is “Be not afraid!” It appears 104 times in the Old Testament, 44 times in the New. Against our fears, God insistently tells us to take courage. In the Gospel, Jesus tells us not to be afraid of his call (Lk 5:10), of drowning at sea (Mt 8:26), of wars and insurrections (Lk 21:9), of the death of loved ones (Lk 8:50), of those who can only kill the body but can’t harm the soul (Mt 10:28), or of what will happen to him in his Passion (Jn 14:1). To believe in him, to trust in his accompaniment, to have faith in his victory over suffering and death, he suggests, is to be filled with courage.

We see that fortitude, a gift of the Holy Spirit, in the apostles after Pentecost, when they boldly announce the Gospel even when the same members of the Sanhedrin who had had Jesus crucified were trying to intimidate them. They continued unafraid, trusting that since even savage execution couldn’t keep Jesus in the tomb, they had nothing to fear.

The Church in every age is meant to be at a spiritual level what a marine boot camp is meant to do militarily: to train people to persevere courageously. But where can Catholics go to grow in courage? Where can we learn how to remain faithful despite our fears? Who can be the drill instructors of our Christian soul?

I think there’s no better place in the United States to be formed in courage than the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, New York, a short distance northwest of Albany. It is the site of the martyrdom of Sts. Isaac Jogues, Rene Goupil, and Jean de Lalande, and the birthplace of St. Kateri Tekakwitha.

If one can’t but become more Marian visiting Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima, or more Eucharistic at Lanciano or Orvieto, one also can’t help growing in holy audacity in Auriesville.

I have recently been spending a lot of time there, praying, traversing the sacred spots fertilized by their blood, leading pilgrimages of young adults to ponder the faith and love that made those saints dauntless until the end, and celebrating Masses in the unique 6,800 seat Church on the grounds — called the “Colosseum” after the Flavian Amphitheater in Rome, where so many early Christian martyrs proved that they had more valor than the greatest gladiators.

The Shrine is truly one of the great treasures in U.S. Catholicism, but also one of our country’s most underutilized spiritual resource. If we’re going to have a rebirth of Catholic courage, I think the school of the North American Martyrs and the Lily of the Mohawks is going to play a major role. It’s impossible to get to know Sts. Isaac, Rene, Jean, and Kateri and not be fortified by their fortitude.

St. Isaac Jogues’ life is one of the greatest examples of courage and apostolic ardor in the Church’s annals. During his first Missionary journey (1636-1644) to Quebec and Ontario as a Jesuit missionary, he, along with lay missionary (and eventually Jesuit brother) Rene Goupil, was captured by the Mohawks, dragged hundreds of miles to Auriesville, and brutally tortured. Goupil was soon tomahawked to death for blessing a Mohawk boy. Jogues, however, survived and after a couple of years was rescued through the help of the Dutch.

He returned to France, where — because his missionary letters had made him famous — he was treated as a hero. His thumbs and index fingers had been bitten off by captors to prevent him from using guns, but it also meant, by the rubrics of the time, he couldn’t holy the Host in the celebration of the Mass, leading to his going 17 months without receiving the Eucharist and 20 months without celebrating Mass. Pope Urban VIII, however, gave him an exemption, saying that it would be inappropriate for a martyr for Christ not to drink Christ’s blood.

Despite his mangled hands and other injuries, he courageously asked to return to the Missions, and even more valiantly returned to Auriesville in 1646, with Jesuit lay brother Jean Lalande, aware that it might eventually mean their death. Out of love for God and those who had tortured him, they took the risk — and were tomahawked to death in October 1646. But their death was not in vain.

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians. Ten years after their martyrdom, St. Kateri Tekakwitha was born in the village. When she was 20, she asked the new wave of Jesuits who had come to her village for instruction in prayer and baptism. Normally, candidates for baptism had to wait two years, to test their faith to ensure they would keep it despite the many hardships it might bring, including martyrdom. After one month, however, her faith was recognized as indomitable and mature enough to endure.

Her sufferings on account of her baptism — from her uncle, from her fellow residents, even from the children — would become so acute that the Jesuits, to save her life, arranged for her escape to their mission of Kahnawake south of Montreal, where she would spend the last three years of her life dedicated to prayer and to charity in the midst of brutal wintry conditions. She is a simple, approachable, contagious example of the courage that loves God with all one’s mind, heart, soul, and strength, without counting the costs.

A pilgrimage to Auriesville — to the place of St. Kateri’s humble birth and Sts. Isaac’s, Rene’s and Jean’s glorious birth into eternity — helps everyone to breath the air of audacity and to be bolstered with the courage needed to remain faithful on the pilgrimage of life. It’s part of the means our faithful God provides to help us meet the challenges of the age.

- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See's Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.