Auriesville, New York — “This . . . is a cri de coeur, a cry from the heart. I am a lifelong Catholic, and I’ve been a priest for thirty-three years and a bishop for four years. I have dedicated my life to the Church. The sexual abuse scandal has been for me, for millions of other Catholics, and especially for the victim-survivors, lacerating. I have written this book for my fellow Catholics who feel, understandably demoralized, scandalized, angry beyond words, and ready to quit. What I finally urge my brothers and sisters in the Church to do is to stay and fight — and to do so on behalf of themselves and their families, but especially on behalf of those who have suffered so grievously at the hands of wicked men.”
I cracked open a copy of Bishop Robert Barron’s Letter to a Suffering Church and read this while sitting on the grounds of a “natural reliquary.” In the 17thcentury, French Jesuit missionary Father Isaac Jogues was among the Catholic priests tortured and killed in this Mohawk village. It’s hard to walk around here now and not feel intense awe and sorrow. Awe at these men who loved God and His people enough to be tortured for them — fingers mutilated to the point that Father Jogues couldn’t celebrate Mass (just about the worst thing you can do to a holy priest). Sorrow at the lack of faith in our day — so often in our lives and certainly in our culture.
Not too long after, a girl named Kateri Tekakwitha was born here, a place now known as The Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs, or of the North American Martyrs. She would be baptized not too far from here by Jesuit missionaries, in total love with Jesus Christ. When he canonized her in October, Pope Benedict XVI said:
Kateri Tekakwitha was born in today’s New York state in 1656 to a Mohawk father and a Christian Algonquin mother who gave to her a sense of the living God. She was baptized at twenty years of age and, to escape persecution, she took refuge in Saint Francis Xavier Mission near Montreal. There she worked, faithful to the traditions of her people, although renouncing their religious convictions until her death at the age of twenty-four. Leading a simple life, Kateri remained faithful to her love for Jesus, to prayer and to daily Mass. Her greatest wish was to know and to do what pleased God. She lived a life radiant with faith and purity.
“Kateri impresses us by the action of grace in her life in spite of the absence of external help and by the courage of her vocation, so unusual in her culture,” he added. “In her, faith and culture enrich each other! May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are.”
When you think of Father Jogues and his fellow Jesuit missionaries and Kateri Tekakwitha, you start to dive even deeper into the depths of “a suffering Church.” After the shrine archivist talked about the mortifications Tekakwitha would subject herself to in penitential reparation for some of the brutality around her, I remarked that I often complain when my flight is delayed. Some of us do endure suffering, some of it great. But how many of us enter into it joyfully, believing it might have a redemptive purpose? How many professed Christians see it as uniting us to the suffering of Christ?
Coming to a place like this, a Catholic begins to feel that she must be a part of a renewal of the Church. Being here you know you must stay and fight — and not just in the Church, but in the world. This place is about a 45-minute drive from Albany. I started the day, in fact, in the cathedral that is a stone’s throw from the governor’s mansion. Andrew Cuomo, who has described himself as a former altar boy, earlier this year enacted his own kind of brutality on the state, expanding abortion and then celebrating it — including at the Freedom Tower, a place that was meant to be a sign of rebirth in the wake of the attacks on the 9/11 World Trade Center 18 years ago.
Our culture can be harsh in all kinds of cruel ways. There’s something here in the trails of this holy site that reminds us that no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in, we can be who we say we are. Father Jogues had been subjected to torture. He escaped but came back for the people he loved whom he had baptized. He wanted to serve and be a priest for the people who wanted Jesus in their lives. Surely, even in the face of evil in the Church and in the world, Christians can stay. By all means come here or another place of pilgrimage and be renewed. Because the legacy of these martyrs and this young, courageous girl is who we are — the evil isn’t. And the world — people of all faiths — needs people who believe the truths of the Gospel and who want to live His mandate of love in the world.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.