Missionaries to the Americas: A Martyrdom in Life

This week, as we pray together for the men in our diocese who will be ordained to the priesthood and the transitional diaconate on Saturday, we reflect upon Our Lord’s invitation to the priesthood and those who respond generously to His call.

By: Sr. Clare Hunter

My renewed admiration of early missionary life to the Americas has not been awakened by the profound writings of the missionaries themselves, nor from the vivid and harrowing accounts of their lives given to Christ through every physical, emotional and spiritual sacrifice man can make. Rather, my recent reflections come from novels by the American writer, Willa Cather. As I reread Death Comes for the Archbishop last fall, and just completed Shadows on the Rock, I was inspired, and even moved to reflection and meditation, on the lives of the men and women religious who, already having left their families and the world for a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, left every comfort of their native European lands to come to the raw, and even cruel life of the Americas.


In her novel Shadows on the Rock, Cather depicts the Catholic French settlement of Québec. A beloved French priest shares with his friends that he has vowed to stay in Québec working in the dangerous missions after being inspired by the deceased Fr. Chabanel, whose “martyrdom was his life, not his death.” Recounting Fr. Chabanel’s “failed” work with the Native Americans and his repulsion of the life in Québec, one might see a wasted life. Yet, as a priest and missionary, he accomplished all that he was born to do: that is, completely surrender to God. What a beautiful portrayal of total self-surrender, the highest fruit of the evangelical counsels, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, lived in evangelical zeal:

But through all these physical sufferings, which remained as sharp as on the first day, the greatest of his sufferings was an almost continual sense of the withdrawal of God. All missionaries have that anguish at times, but with Chabanel it was continual. For long months, for a whole winter, he would exist in the forest, every human sense outraged, and with no assurance of the nearness of God. In those seasons of despair he was constantly beset by temptation in the form of homesickness. He longed to leave the mission to priests who were better suited to its hardships, to return to France and teach the young, and to find again that peace of soul, that cleanliness and order, which made him the master of his mind and its powers. Everything that he had lost was awaiting him in France, and the Director of the Missions in Quebec had suggested his return. On Corpus Christi Day, in the fifth year of his labors in Canada and the thirty-fifth of his age, he cut short this struggle and overcame his temptation. At the mission of Saint Matthias, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, he made a vow of perpetual stability (perpetuam stabilitatem) in the Huron missions.

It is awe-inspiring to think of the religious men and women who came to the Americas. Though varied in their religious communities and missions, and though they spanned decades, each missionary had in common a personal and total love of God. This love brought forth a radical gift of self, to bring the Gospel message and to serve the children of God. The “yes” to leave the familiar and to risk the voyage over the Atlantic seems heroic enough. Imagine then to arrive in uninhabited lands, or even in areas where Catholics were persecuted or illegal (e.g. in most of the 13 colonies), or the dangers of interacting with the Native Americans, whose anger and mistrust were sadly justifiable. Risking life, enduring unspeakable sufferings and knowing the cruelties of man and creation, they gave everything to God. Yes, they were instrumental in the growth of the Catholic Church, the formation of medical, educational, agricultural and social systems on both continents. But most importantly, they are extraordinary witnesses of radical obedience to the will of the Father. They witness to the Person of Jesus Christ for the world.

We have a wonderful opportunity to learn about one such missionary as we prepare for the canonization of a Franciscan priest who left a prominent teaching position in Mallorca in 1749, at the age of 36, as Pope Francis has called him, to become the “evangelizer of the West in the United States.” This year on September 23, Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Blessed Junipero, often called the “Apostle of California,” founded nine of 21 missions in California, from San Diego to San Francisco. His deep love for God and His people brought him to the New World as a missionary known for his fervent preaching, particularly on the need for penance and reparation for sins.

Archbishop Jose Gomez, of Los Angeles, reminds us:

“[Junipero Serra’s] canonization also reflects the influence of Latino culture in the United States, especially in the Southwest. In the United States, we traditionally reflect more on what happened in the Northeast, with the English settlers to New England — the pilgrims and everything related to their arrival. We may also think of the French influence in America, with settlers coming to New Orleans and then going all the way to Chicago….evangelization in the Southwest United States by way of Mexico was an important part of the origins of our country.” –Archbishop Jose Gomez, Los Angeles, Columbia Magazine, April

Much can be learned about Blessed Junipero Serra from stjunipero.org, prepared in anticipation of his canonization, which includes a resource section for further reading. Though not a young nation any more, there is still much to be done to bring the Good News of Christ to a people enslaved by sin and the temptations of the material world. May our nation be renewed through the canonization of Blessed Junipero Serra.

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