Over Labor Day Weekend 2016, the IVE Novice Brothers and Seminarians as well as the SSVM Novice Sisters made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs at Auriesville, New York [more news on Shrine Facebook]. Fr. Nathaniel Dryer, IVE preached a homily reflecting on labor, rest, and the example of the North American Martyrs. We share it with you here. [PDF format: north-american-martyrs-homily-2016]
By God’s grace, today we find ourselves celebrating Labor Day here at the Shrine of the North American Martyrs. If we have a day of celebration commemorating the labor by which, through our own efforts, we’re able to put food on the table and pay the bills, how much more should we celebrate that labor whereby men and women are fed with the bread of eternal life and the price for their eternal salvation is paid and applied to their souls: the divine work of redemption.
Perhaps, then, there’s no better place to commemorate Labor Day than here at the Shrine, because here, in this sacred place, we see clearly two points regarding “laboring in the Lord’s vineyard,” points that we can apply to our daily lives: first, how God labors in the midst of the darkness by means of weak instruments, and, second, how everyone has a part in this divine task.
Regarding the first, we should remember that the saints whom we celebrate here were confronted with a world that was entirely unlike anything they had ever known. Sin upon sin and more sin were simply a part of daily life, and even the mindset of those they came to evangelize was entirely at odds with their own. Writing to his superior general, Saint John de Brebeuf remarked that upon explaining the truths of the faith to the natives, they would always give the same reply: “Such is not our custom; your world is different from ours; the God who created yours did not create ours.” Perhaps this situation is not a far cry from our times, when men and women are blinded to the reality of God’s goodness and mercy, and cannot see beyond the veil of their sins.
Yet, the world that Christ Himself came into was one of strife and difficulty, and He spared no effort to call sinners back to God and to Himself. In the evangelization of New France, and in our own day, He continues to work through His servants, laboring for the salvation of souls through us, who hold “this treasure in clay vessels.” In order to be fit and able instruments in the Lord’s hands, tools that He can work through, the first and most indispensable condition for a missionary is personal holiness: Brebeuf made the point of writing his superior to tell him that “all who are here are zealously striving towards perfection.”
As we become holier, we draw nearer to God, and become the men and women that God intended us to be. Sin tends to make all of us the same, bleeding the color of our lives out and replacing it with its own pallid hue. Holiness, on the other hand, makes us more ourselves, and more the people that God intends us to be and needs us to be in order to serve Him. It’s worth remembering that the North American martyrs were a varied group: Charles Garnier was weak and frail, but survived almost two decades in the mission. Noel Chabanel could never master the difficult language, and was repulsed by every aspect of the native lifestyle, but made a vow to remain in the mission until death. God’s power is made perfect in weakness, and the closer we draw to Him, the more we come to share His thirst for souls. This can clearly be seen in the martyrs: after baptizing a dying child, Brebeuf remarked “For this one single occasion I would travel all the way from France; I would cross the great ocean to win one little soul for Our Lord!” This is the value of a soul, but we can only truly appreciate it if we first value our own souls enough to work to become “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.” The call to holiness is universal, as is the mandate to go out and preach the Good News, and the two are inextricably linked.
This leads us to our second point, that everyone has a part in this divine task; we hear and read a great deal about the labors of these missionary saints, but we must remember that the labors of these missionaries was supported by the prayers and work of many lay people and religious. In his 1637 report to his provincial, Brebeuf comments briefly about the lay people who have support his work; however, since he promised to keep their names a secret, the list of his supporters is known only to God. All we have is this brief mention he makes: “If I dared to violate the secret, I would place here the names of a number of persons, very high in honor, in virtue, in merit, whose hearts and hands contend along with us, in heaven and upon earth. . . . I desire to speak and am condemned to silence; I wish to render some acts of thanksgiving . . . and I am commanded to be ungrateful.” Saint John considered these people as his “fellow laborers” in the Lord’s vineyard, working alongside him.
Brebeuf also gave a long list of the sacrifices offered by the religious in France. Detailing this, he wrote: “The Prioress of the Carmelites of . . . Provence informs me that [they have] established a hermitage in their enclosure, where all prayers which shall ever be offered there, will be addressed to God for the salvation of new France. All this holy Order takes arms for us with so much ardor that I am overwhelmed. . . . There has fallen into my hands a vow signed by the Nuns of the Annonciade, lately established at Paris, by which they offer all their mortifications, their fastings, their prayers, in a word, all their acts of holiness, to be united and presented to God with our little labors, that it may please him to open the eyes of a people blind for so many centuries. I will say nothing of the Ursuline mothers; they write me with such ardor, and in so great numbers, and from so many different places, that if the door were open for their desires, a city of nuns would be formed, and there would be found ten teachers to one pupil. . . . If I had to report all the acts of devotion of the Sisters of Montmartre, of the Nuns of Ave Maria at Paris, of the daughters of sainte Marie, of notre Dame,—in a word, of a multitude of holy institutions, I should make a Relation of what is being done in your France for the welfare of ours.”
When we don’t see the fruits of our efforts, we can recall that Saint Isaac Jogues and his companions never saw one of the greatest fruits of their efforts: Saint Kateri Tekawitha, who was born ten years after Jogues was martyred. Neither was this fruit seen by the many who prayed, offered sacrifices, and fasted for the fruits of the mission; they lived in the monotony of sacrifice without any visible reward. But the God who sees in secret is faithful, and never allows Himself to be outdone in generosity.
As we celebrate this Labor Day, let us pray, through the intercession of the North American martyrs and Our Lady, Queen of Martyrs, for the grace to hunger and thirst for holiness and to work with Christ in His labor of redemption and sanctification.
Fr. Nathaniel Dryer, IVE
Labor Day, September 5, 2016
Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs at Auriesville, New York [more news on Shrine Facebook]