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Video by Fr. W. Tucker Redding, SJ

Story by Rachel Amiri

The precious relic of the skull of St. Jean de Brébeuf, who was martyred in 1649.

The history of the Society of Jesus is rich with the witness of saints who offered their lives as missionaries and martyrs. A desire to inspire a new generation of missionaries led the vocations teams from the Jesuits USA Central and Southern, Midwest and East Provinces to bring the relics of three North American martyrs on a tour through the United States.

Vocations promoters from the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province collected the relics of the skull of St. Jean de Brébeuf and his companions, St. Charles Garnier and St. Gabriel Lalemant, from the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario, Canada. They then set out on a mission to bring the relics for veneration, Mass and prayer, sharing the story of Brébeuf’s life along the way. In 17 whirlwind days, they made 23 stops at cathedrals, Jesuit high schools and college student centers from Colorado to Florida to Missouri.

It was the first time the relics left the Martyrs’ Shrine, where they have been safeguarded for over a century. The journey continued through the Jesuits Midwest and East Provinces before concluding in March.

“The idea was to encourage modern-day missionaries to evangelize this new generation and new culture,” said Fr. Robert Murphy, SJ, the province’s vocations director. “St. Jean de Brébeuf was a great missionary bringing the faith and Ignatian spirituality to a new group of people, people that hadn’t heard the message before. In our modern context, we are looking for men who want to share the faith with people who haven’t heard it preached before, translating it for new generations and cultural contexts, as he did.”

The team has already seen the fruits of the tour through new inquiries and renewed connections with many current discerners. They hope that the collaboration across provinces will continue.

Retrieval team from the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province prepares to transport the sacred relics of St. Jean de Brébeuf and his companions from the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario.

Jesuit Heroes for Today

The first Jesuit missioned to the Wendat (called Huron by the French) people in present-day Canada in 1626, St. Jean de Brébeuf was known for his gentle strength and availability to the Indigenous people. He learned their language and customs and worked to earn their trust, winning the nickname Echon, “the man who carries the load.”

His 20 years in New France were marked by epidemics, war and sporadic missionary success. Eventually, Fr. Brébeuf and his companions found themselves caught up in the Hurons’ war with the Iroquois. St. Jean de Brébeuf courageously faced brutal torture and martyrdom without asking for mercy, dying in 1649. His personal sacrifice, as well as those of other Jesuit missionaries in Canada, planted the seeds of faith that would later flourish.

The journey with the relics today was another chapter in the missionary-martyrs’ enduring legacy for the Society of Jesus in North America.

Isaac Beck and Fr. Michael Wegenka, SJ, carefully place the reliquary for veneration.

Vocation Promoters Frs. Michael Wegenka, SJ, Joseph Hill, SJ, and Juan Ruiz, SJ, were joined by Isaac Beck, a recent graduate of Saint Louis University who served as official custodian of the relics, as they traveled to sites for public veneration. “Being the personal companion of the relics of these great saints was a humbling experience,” said Beck.

They hope the martyrs’ stories and intercession inspire a new generation of discerners and evangelizers.

“The saints are incredibly powerful witnesses that communicate to us what it means to follow Christ,” said Fr. Hill. “Christ’s call can be lived out if we are generous and docile.”

The reliquary was kept in a protective case in the back seat of a small SUV, which Beck never left unattended. The trip was free from scheduling snags and bad weather. “I felt an abiding sense of God’s providence and of Jean de Brébeuf’s protection,” said Fr. Wegenka.

Instead of the wilderness, they traveled through the contemporary “spiritual desert.”

“This younger generation is starving in a spiritual desert. They’re lost, and they’re seeking meaning, God and purpose,” said Fr. Hill, explaining the tour’s mission to restore a sense of the sacred, especially for those who have never experienced it. “This generation does not have any heroes, and the leaders that have been proposed to it are not very virtuous. The heroes of the Church are the saints. Telling the stories of the saints and providing direct contact with the saints is one way – not the only way – we can hopefully inspire vocations.”

Father Joseph Hill, SJ, speaks to students at Jesuit High School New Orleans about the veneration of relics.

“People respond well to a challenge,” said Fr. Wegenka. “These giants of history, these saints, these martyrs who are just a whole other level of holiness — they draw men to the Society and the service of the kingdom of God. That’s the sort of person we want as a Jesuit.”

Even with short preparation time and minimal publicity, that positive, prayerful response could be seen at stop after stop. Women and men religious, families, students and others took time to pray, learn about the martyrs and celebrate the sacraments. The faithful’s quiet prayer and devotion were a moving witness for those involved in the tour.

Thousands of prayer intentions were collected to be taken back to the shrine, and many touched prayer cards, rosaries and crucifixes to the reliquary. “Seeing the students at Jesuit High New Orleans and Jesuit Tampa venerating the relic, they were very prayerful, and they received it well,” said Fr. Hill.

“Venerating a relic is not something most of these people, I think, had ever really done before, certainly not a complete skull,” said Fr. Wegenka. “I think it really surprised people.”

A family venerates the relics of St. Jean de Brébeuf and companions at St. Isidore Catholic Student Center at Kansas State University.

Jesuit Community on the Road

Despite the ambitious schedule that meant many miles on the odometer and many meals from the drive-through, the experience of Jesuit community was an invigorating change of pace from typically solo travel for each of the vocation promoters. They filled long hours on the road with conversation, listening to audiobooks, reading aloud the life of Brébeuf and praying the liturgy of the hours. “We talked a lot about different aspects of his life and how we could apply that and preach about it, just telling his story again and again to each other,” said Fr. Wegenka.

Along the way, they found that introducing others to Jesuit martyrs brought them a deeper connection to their Jesuit brotherhood and to the mission of the Society of Jesus. At each stop, they shared responsibility for preaching at Mass, giving talks and offering the sacrament of reconciliation.

“We had a huge collaboration,” said Fr. Wegenka. “The quality of our invitation is just a little higher when we’re together. People like to see that. And it certainly is fun for us.”

“It’s great to be able to use each of our gifts and see each other using his gifts for the mission. It reinforces the reality of the Church on mission,” said Fr. Hill.

Students gather to venerate the relics at St. Mary’s Catholic Student Center in College Station, Texas.

The experience of Jesuit brotherhood included the saints traveling with them.

“I feel very close to him now,” Fr. Wegenka said of Brébeuf. “He’s more alive than ever and able to intercede for us and bless us through his prayers.”

Both Frs. Wegenka and Hill found themselves moved to sorrow as they heard the account of Brébeuf’s martyrdom and inspired by his discipleship.

“Now I have this icon in mind of someone who ‘carries the heavy burden,’ ultimately the cross,” said Fr. Wegenka. “He had a huge devotion to the Cross of Jesus Christ and to his passion, and saw his work, his mission, to be a special invitation to unite himself to the Cross of Jesus Christ. I found this indomitable spirit of courage without complaint, taking whatever comes, very inspiring.”

Cristo Rey Jesuit Preparatory School of Houston students venerate the relics of St. Jean de Brébeuf on Ash Wednesday.

The consolation of the tour experience endures for the participants. “It was dynamic and there was a lot of spiritual fruit that came from it,” said Fr. Hill.

“I am inspired to ask, ‘Where is my mission field?’ and ‘Who are the people I am called to love?’” said Beck. “I now ask the question, ‘What would Brebeuf do?’ I am grateful for his spiritual fatherhood in my life.”

“I have this great sense of confidence in God’s plan and God’s mission and the mission of the Society continuing today, as it has for hundreds of years,” Fr. Wegenka added.

Is God inviting you to follow him as a modern-day missionary? Learn more about Jesuit vocations at www.BeAJesuit.org.

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