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In the footsteps of St. Isaac Jogues

The larger-than-life courage of St. Isaac Jogues has captivated me ever since I first encountered the 17th-century Jesuit missionary some 30 years ago in college.

I was then a young student at what is now Loyola University Maryland when I happened across a multivolume ­collection of translated letters written by missionaries in the New World to their Jesuit superiors in France.

Sitting on the floor of the college library as I pulled down volume after volume from the stacks, I was mesmerized for hours as I read first-person accounts of how these learned men – the most educated of their time – gave up everything to bring Christianity to the native peoples of what is now Canada and New York.

The descriptions of tortures St. Isaac underwent are not for the faint of heart. After being captured by the Mohawks, the former professor of literature was beaten and mocked. His fingernails were torn out and his fingers mutilated.

With the help of the Dutch, St. Isaac made a daring escape to France after more than a year’s captivity. He ultimately went back to missionary work only to be killed by a tomahawk in 1646.

For me, it’s always been the fearless quality of St. Isaac’s life that’s been most inspiring. He and seven other Jesuit missionaries, along with many Native Americans who embraced Christianity only to undergo martyrdom themselves, believed in Christ so completely that they were ready to lay down their lives for him.

In these days of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s another aspect to St. Isaac’s story I find equally inspiring.

In St. Isaac’s era, canonical regulations forbade any priest who could not hold the Eucharist in the way prescribed by the church from being able to celebrate Mass. That meant that for 17 months after his fingers were disfigured, St. Isaac himself could not celebrate Mass or receive Communion in his captivity.

Imagine crossing an ocean to bring Christ in the Blessed Sacrament to newfound nations only to be barred from taking Communion.

When St. Isaac made it to France after his escape, it was on Christmas Day when he finally received the Eucharist.

“It seemed to me that it was at this moment that I began to live once more,” St. Isaac wrote.

Not long after St. Isaac’s return to France, Pope Urban VIII gave him special permission to celebrate Mass, allowing him to go back to missionary work despite his injuries.

As spiritual shepherds throughout our country, including our own Archbishop William E. Lori, have made the difficult, but necessary, decision to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus by limiting the celebration of the Eucharist to private offerings without the physical presence of the faithful, we face the possibility of an extended period without receiving the Eucharist.

We can find solace in knowing that holy people such as St. Isaac Jogues have also been separated from reception of the Blessed Sacrament. Maybe we can find courage and perseverance in their example.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Whether our own separation from the Blessed Sacrament lasts a few weeks or maybe even a few months, I pray that we can use that time to grow in our appreciation of the gift Christ gives us in the Eucharist.

Then, like St. Isaac, when we are again able to receive Communion, we will be recharged to bring Christ out into the world in a bold way that draws others into his love.

Email George Matysek at gmatysek@CatholicReview.org

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