Martyrs’ Shrine hosts International Symposium on Martyrdom

Midland - Symposium Group Shot
Photo by Wu Xiaoxin, Ricci Institute, University of San Francisco

Theresa Rowat, The Archive of Jesuits in Canada

November 7, 2018 — Picture the Jesuit with suitcase packed, ready to travel wherever he is directed to minister—ever ready to respond to the call of the Pope or Jesuit superiors. This image evokes the world-wide presence of the Society of Jesus and aptly conveys the sense of duty inherent in the Jesuit vows. As the Archivist for the Canadian Province charged with the stewardship of their documentary legacy, every day I am reminded of the arrival of the first companions in New France in 1611, followed only a few decades later by the events of martyrdom in Huronia, and the sustained telling of encounters and experiences in the Relations. But four very special days in October not only brought me closer to those events in New France over four hundred years ago, they also helped to position the Christian missionary presence in the global context. Bridging centuries, bridging oceans and continents, scholars presented and analyzed narratives of martyrdom.

Fr. Antoni Ucerler opened the symposium with a historical overview of missionaries in East Asia. Drawing on early map-making, he spoke of the legacy of Saint Francis-Xavier and the subsequent importance of print culture for the dissemination of the Relations which would bring the stories from other continents to readers in Europe. He spoke of Matteo Ricci, Portuguese and Chinese dictionaries, and facilitation of communication between European Jesuits and Chinese literati as a ‘meeting of minds’ and the development of faithful friendships based on mutual respect. He drew parallels with the relationship of Jean de Brébeuf and Joseph Chiwatenhwa in Huronia. The political, intellectual and religious dimensions of 16th century East Asia provided the framework for understanding conversions, persecutions, expulsions, invasions and martyrdom in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and China, as well as the paths to religious freedom.

Fr. Michael Knox, SJ at St. IgnaceFr. Michael Knox followed with his contextual presentation on Huronia. He spoke of the Jesuit worldview, the journey with Christ crucified, self-offering and a desire to be with the suffering Christ, and martyrdom where an inner life is more essential than physical life. Settling at the invitation of the Huron Wendat, Jesuits had strategic reasons for a mission in Huronia and a clear vision for Sainte-Marie as an exemplary Catholic community—a harmonious place of evangelization through dialogue. With our sessions held on the site of the reconstructed Fort Sainte-Marie, the connection to both Jesuit and Huron Wendat histories was palpable. Fr. Knox discussed the documentary and archeological sources for the reconstruction and brought past experience into the present with his evocative descriptions of Indigenous daily life and spirituality. He closed with Ragueneau’s difficult decision to burn Sainte-Marie rather than leave it to the invading Iroquois. Having set the stage, participants witnessed a dramatic opening of the conference hall doors to expose the village reconstruction, and Fr. Knox invited us to enter into the site. On this beautiful, brisk autumn day, Fr. Knox conducted a guided tour of the site bringing each building and each feature to life.

Three days of intense panels followed, covering the Boxer movement in China, encounters between Confucianism and Christianity, questions of inculturation, and views of martyrdom not as fanaticism but as acculturation. Cultural patterns of death and death rituals led to a discussion of death viewed as the highest form of social protest and the resonance of Christian martyrdom for Vietnamese people. As depicted in the Scorsese film, Silence, the clandestine survival of Christianity in Japan was discussed, along with a session on women martyrs in Japan.

This very quick overview of only a few of the topics does not adequately express the depth of scholarship and the profound exchanges that took place during the symposium. Speakers not only addressed the narratives of martyrdom, they introduced differing views, probed questions of aesthetics, iconography, human rights, religious freedom, and social hierarchy. From my perspective as an archivist, I learned much about how material history and documentation contributes to intergenerational transmission. As an archivist, my role is to provide historians with access to the documents of the past: I was privileged over these four days to hear how scholars have interpreted this precious legacy and how they continue to bring new readings and make new connections that link the histories of cultures and continents.

Watch for the forthcoming symposium proceedings, projected for publication by the Ricci Institute. With special thanks to Rev. M. Antoni J. Ucerler, S.J., Rev. Michael Knox, S.J. and to Dr. Wu Xiaoxin of the Ricci Institute for making this such a rich experience.


Historians and curators from China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, USA and Canada met in Midland, Ontario on October 18 to 21, 2018 for an invitational symposium titled "Life & Death in the Missions of New France and East Asia: Narratives of Faith & Martyrdom".Organized and co-sponsored by The Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the University of San Francisco and The Canadian Martyrs’ Shrine, the event offered a unique opportunity to hear outstanding scholars discuss the comparative histories of European missionary encounters in New France and East Asia.

Rev. M. Antoni J. Ucerler, S.J., Director & Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at the Ricci Institute, based the meeting on the approach of ‘connected histories’ where developments in the history of Christianity in one culture or region impact the histories of other cultures and regions. Participants explored how missionary letters and relations from Asia informed missionary relationships with Indigenous Peoples in New France.

Participants visited the reconstructed Huron-Wendat site of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, stood beside the grave of Brébeuf and Lalemant, and visited the nearby site Saint Ignace II where Fr. Michael Knox, S.J., Director of the Martyrs’ Shrine spoke about the events of martyrdom that took place there in 1649.




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