A martyr [Greek: a witness] is a person who, for the Christian faith, freely and patiently suffers death at the hands of a persecutor. Martyrs choose to die rather than deny their faith by word or deed; they suffer patiently; after the example of Christ, they do not resist their persecutors. True martyrs die for holy causes. False martyrs die for the most unholy of causes.
The early Christians, who bore witness to the truth of those facts upon which Christianity rests, were liable at any time to be given a choice between death and denial of their testimony. Many of them, refusing to deny Christ, actually suffered death. There were martyrs in the early Church of the new world known as the North American Martyrs (sometimes called the Canadian Martyrs): six Jesuits and two lay associates who worked selflessly as missionaries to the Hurons in the colonial days of New France and who were killed between 1642 and 1649 not far from Toronto. Having been martyred for their faith, they were canonized by Pope Pius XI on June 29, 1930.
We know their names well in these parts of the world and a great shrine stands in their memory in Midland, Ontario: St. Jean de Brebeuf (1593-1649); St. Noel Chabanel (1613-1649); St. Anthony Daniel (1601-1648); St. Charles Garnier (1605-1649); St. Issac Jogues (1602-1646); St. Gabriel Lalemant (1610-1649); St. Rene Goupil (1607-1642); St. Jean de Lalande (?-1646)
Their Jesuit mission of Sainte Marie in Huronia, the largest of all the Jesuit missions in North America, was also one of the most difficult in the history of the Society of Jesus. The missionaries encountered what appalling conditions, including climate, food and shelter. They found themselves in the middle of a game of commercial competition being played out by Dutch, English and French, as well as caught in hostilities between the Hurons and Iroquois. The Jesuit missionaries had only one option: openly declaring their plans to evangelize and dissociating themselves from the commercial goals of the European nations. The Jesuit missionaries of Huronia could not accept mediocrity. They were full-time martyrs.
For too long now Christian martyrdom has been talked about in terms of torture, execution and hatred of the faith, which completely misrepresents what is most profound about it. However the Second Vatican Council taught that martyrs follow in the footsteps of Jesus to the point of making even their death a gift to Christ: “…Martyrdom makes the disciples like their master, who willingly accepted death for the salvation of the world, and through it they are made like him by the shedding of blood.”
Vatican II did not refer to hatred of the faith. Instead, the determining criteria for martyrdom are positive: giving one's life for Christ and for one's brothers and sisters out of overwhelming love. It is not the executioner, the persecutor or the historian who declares someone a martyr. It is a decision that the Church makes on the basis of what motivated the martyred person.
At a time when many Christian values are at odds with our society, the heritage of the North American or Canadian Martyrs can help us all in repairing the spiritual fabric of our Church and society, just as their spirit of self-sacrifice and openness to others challenges each of us. Through the Huron Christians and the blood of the Jesuit martyrs, the faith was kindled throughout North America. This was martyrdom for a very holy cause.