There is a tradition among the various national seminaries in Rome to play in a soccer tournament each year called the “Clericus Cup.” Almost every seminary fields a team, so you’ll have games in which the seminarians from the English College play the seminarians from the French College, or the seminarians who are studying at the Jesuit university play against the seminarians studying at the Dominican university. It gets to be very competitive and there are many heated rivalries. My third year of seminary, the team from the North American College (where I went) ended up winning the tournament. I remember there was a news story about it in one of the secular news outlets. The journalist covering the event was amused by the team’s nickname, the “Martyrs,” and he joked that this seemed an ironic name for a team that had just won the championship.
The nickname, however, is a reference to the North American Martyrs – the legendary members of the Society of Jesus who gave their lives in the missions of North America in the 17th century, including St. Isaac Jogues, St. Jean de Brebeuf, and their companions. There is a shrine dedicated to them in Auriesville, NY, not far from the place where Isaac Jogues was killed by members of the Mohawk tribe who lived in that region. The shrine where Jean de Brebeuf is entombed is located in Midland, Ontario, where he and several others were put to death in 1649 by members of the Iroquois tribe. These men suffered terrible tortures at the hands of their captors, who marveled at their prisoners and the amount of pain they could endure. Jogues had actually escaped captivity in 1643, returning to his native France with the help of Dutch traders who discovered him living in a terrible state among the Mohawks. But he felt called to return to the New World, and to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who had hurt him so badly while holding him captive. He decided to return to Iroquois territory in 1646 and was murdered by members of the Mohawk tribe in October of that year. Interestingly, the man who killed Jogues was later captured by tribes who were allies of the French and who were furious when they learned what their new prisoner had done to the French priest. They wanted to exact revenge on him, but the Jesuit missionaries who were with them protected him. After several weeks under their care, the man decided that he wanted to be baptized. When the priest Christened him, he took the baptismal name of Isaac Jogues. The Jesuits could not protect him for long, however, and he was eventually seized by the hostile natives and executed.
Far from being an ironic name, the seminarians on the soccer team of the North American College took as their patron saints these heroes of the Catholic faith. They knew that the deaths of the Jesuit priests were not defeat, but the greatest of victories. The example of the self-sacrifice of Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brebeuf and their companions not only inspired the young men on the team to give their best effort on the field of play, but also to strive to make their lives as priests an offering for the greater glory of God through their faithful service to the Church in North America. The feast of the North American Martyrs is this Monday, October 19.