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Catholic Heroes… St. Jean De Brébeuf

January 5, 2021 saints No Comments


Perhaps Jean de Brébeuf’s future was inevitable, for he was born in Normandy, France, on the Feast of the Annunciation, 1593. And 29 years later we believe he said his first Mass on that same Feast of the Annunciation, 1622. Thus, perhaps we should not be surprised that he authored the first Canadian Christmas carol, celebrating our Lord’s birth.
We don’t know much of Jean’s early life; he was from a well-to-do family and was sickly, thought to have had tuberculosis. However, his health must have improved because three years after Ordination he traveled as a missionary to the New World.
His teachers had neglected to note an outstanding ability for languages, which turned out to be indispensable to his chosen profession. Indeed, he attributed the lack of converts to a failure in Jesuits to learn the native tongues faster. Brébeuf not only learned Huron, he wrote a grammar and then translated a catechism into Huron.
About seven years before his death he also penned the first Canadian Christmas carol. Below follows a more literal translation than the one commonly sung. Entitled, Jesuous Ahattonnia, or Jesus, He Is Born, it was written in the Wyandot, language of the Huron.

Let Christian men take heart today
The devil’s rule is done;
Let no man heed the devil more,
For Jesus Christ is come
But hear ye all what angels sing:
How Mary Maid bore Jesus King.
Iesus Ahattonnia, Jesus is born, Iesus Ahattonnia.

Three chieftains saw before Noel
A star as bright as day,
“So fair a sign,” the chieftains said,
“Shall lead us where it may.”
For Jesu told the chieftains:
“The star will bring you here to me.”
Iesus Ahattonnia, Jesus is born, Iesus Ahattonnia.
(Translation: Julie Pyle)

Privation existed everywhere in the New World. Travel was arduous, food hard to come by, and there was constant danger from Indians. But by 1626 Brébeuf was ministering happily amongst the Huron. Due to squabbles over Quebec between the French and the English, he was forced to absent himself four years but then returned. Traveling back meant traversing some 800 miles over land and water and foraging for food with great difficulty, but he was warmly welcomed on his return.
Priests like Brébeuf were under no illusions; they were aware they lived a life fraught with danger and could be martyred at any time. The Huron population alone was decimated by smallpox, unwittingly brought by Europeans. Yet the Hurons had no antibodies to fight the disease and lost half of their population by 1640, some 15,000 dead.
Naturally, among a superstitious population, it was easy to blame the black-robed fathers, seen sprinkling water and using “magic” on their people. Nevertheless, we are grateful to the Jesuits, not just for their heroic sacrifice and courage, but also to them for their regular reports back home; these form the earliest ethnographic studies among the natives, 1633-1673. Known as The Jesuit Relation, two centuries later the reports were assembled and indexed for posterity and number over 70 volumes, telling us of their lives, their struggles and experiences in this wilderness of North America.
In addition to Brébeuf”s official reports, some fragments of his spiritual writings were found after his death by his superior, Fr. Paul Ragueneau, written variously in Latin and French. These contained details of his visions and mystical experiences. One remarkable aspect is that he chose to take an extra vow, one of martyrdom. Here is an excerpt:
“I then make a vow, — in the presence of your Eternal Father and of the Holy Ghost; in the presence of your most sacred Mother, and of her most chaste spouse, St. Joseph; before the Angels, the Apostles and Martyrs, and my blessed Fathers St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier, — yes, my Saviour Jesus, I make a vow to you never to fail, on my side, in the grace of martyrdom, if by your infinite mercy you offer it to me some day, to me, your unworthy servant.”
Brébeuf had visions of our Lord, St. Joseph, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints. The cross was a central theme. He also was confronted by demonic images which did not faze him at all. His only fear was not pleasing our Lord.
Today it is almost de rigueur to lament in ignorant, secular circles how the Europeans “interfered” with the habits of native peoples in converting them to Christianity. What these observers conveniently ignore is human sacrifice, torture, oppression of women, and other horrific practices that only ended with Christianity. The Huron worshipped false gods, were neither monogamous nor chaste, and both Fathers Brébeuf and companion Lalemant felt their turning to false gods and offerings was demonic. Violence between Indians and even by Indians involved repulsive torture and barbarism.
Time would soon show just how barbarous native cultures could be, as the Iroquois began war against the Huron and Christian settlements, murdering even women and children. During one such attack, Fathers Brébeuf and companion Gabriel Lalemant were captured by the Iroquois — a great trophy.
An account of Brébeuf’s torture reads like something demonic. With his fellow priest, he was stripped naked, fingernails torn out and beaten all over before tied to a tree. Hatchets were heated in a fire and placed under his arms, on his loins, and laced around his entire neck to burn him. Then a belt of pitch and resin was placed around his waist and lit on fire. He bore all suffering “like a rock,” the accounts say, except that he often spoke up to encourage and offer spiritual support to those around him, urging them to “lift their eyes to Heaven” where their reward awaited them. His enemies, infuriated, cut out his lips and tongue. Infidel Hurons who had joined the Iroquois, in mockery “baptized” the priests by pouring boiling over their heads, scalding these men who had wanted only their salvation.
Then Iroquois stripped pieces of flesh from the priests, cooked and ate them as they watched, before opening the chests of the martyrs to drink their warm blood and cannibalize their hearts. Fr. Brébeuf died at 56, was canonized in 1930 (along with companion Fr. Gabriel), and his feast is October 19.


In his vow of martyrdom, Brébeuf had written also:
“When I shall have received the stroke of death. I bind myself to accept it from your hand with all pleasure, and with joy in my heart. And consequently, my beloved Jesus, I offer to you from today, in the feelings of joy that I have thereat, my blood, my body, and my life; so that I may die only for you, if you grant me this favour, since you have indeed condescended to die for me. Enable me to live in such a way that finally you may grant me this favour, to die so happily. Thus, my God and my Saviour, I will take from your hand the cup of your sufferings, and I will invoke your Name, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
Eleven years earlier, on Christmas in 1638, Fr. Brébeuf held the first Amerindian or native-European Christmas Mass in the Huron nation (Wendake). The air was then full of singing as they received the Sacred Species. When Brébeuf gave his own blood and flesh back to Christ, surely the saints were also singing, perhaps part of his Huron Carol:

Let no man heed the devil more,
For Jesus Christ is come
But hear ye all what angels sing:
How Mary Maid bore Jesus King.
Iesus Ahattonnia, Jesus is born, Iesus Ahattonnia.

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