Sunshine and rain in the Jesuit cemetery
NEW YORK—We drove north from the city along the Hudson River, and just south of Albany we made a long looping turn to the left and headed west along the Mohawk River. Along most of the way we had seen only bare black forests; we had missed the yellows and flaming reds of autumn leaves.
Then, as we went along, at the top of a valley, we saw a vast, dark red carpet of forest spread out over the hills ahead of us. It was more somber than beautiful, but it was fitting: We were on our way to the Jesuit Shrine at Auriesville where St. Kateri Tekawitha was born, where St. Isaac Jogues may have been tortured, and where my brother and 500 or more other Jesuits are buried on a hillside by the Mohawk.
It was mid-November but like a summer’s day when we got out of the car. With me were my wife Alicia and Sr. Eileen Hogan, who was a close friend and associate of Fr. Joseph Kane, who is buried next to my brother. It was about 70 degrees, there was no wind, and no sound at all except for the honking of wild geese far off.
Before us in long rows were the graves, each marked with the dead priest’s birth date, day of entry into the Jesuits, and day of death.
Some of the dead priests were well-known in the country and some were very important in Church history. Two of them were Fr. Vincent O’Keefe, who had been the assistant of Fr. Pedro Arrupe (the superior general of the Jesuits in the final years of his life, and who had drawn the suspicion and enmity of Pope John Paul II), and Cardinal Avery Dulles (son of the former US secretary of state John Foster Dulles), whose appointment as cardinal by John Paul II may have been the latter’s way of ending the rift between the Pope and Jesuits. Not everything is known about the matter; some secrets may be buried forever in Auriesville.
John Paul II had pastoral and theological problems with Jesuits, especially in Latin America. He thought they were too Marxist and disobedient. His suspicion fastened on Father O’Keefe when Father Arrupe fell sick, since as assistant, he would manage the general congregation that would select the new superior general and perhaps take the Jesuits on a road that the Pope saw as opposite his own. In Father Arrupe’s last days, the Pope came to the Jesuit headquarters near St. Peter’s Square to see him. He told Father O’Keefe to leave the sickroom, and then he talked to Father Arrupe with only a lay brother-caregiver present.
When the Pope left, Father O’Keefe found the old superior general in an awful state of sadness and pain. Father Arrupe couldn’t say what the Pope had told him, because he had been ordered not to say anything about their conversation. However, the subject of the conversation soon came out: Father Arrupe was removed as superior general and another Jesuit appointed by the Pope to oversee matters among the Jesuits and supervise the coming congregation and election. Father O’Keefe was bypassed.
Father Arrupe died not long after.
We tidied up the graves of my brother Ned and of Fr. Joe Kane, and then we just stood silently and let the warm sun and the total silence of the hillside sink into our bones. We could easily imagine the 500 Jesuits with God in heaven talking, joking, telling old stories.
St. Kateri Tekawitha, the first American Indian saint, was born in Auriesville. She is proof that no culture is a stranger to the Gospel. Life in the Indian villages along the Mohawk was raw and violent—the women of the villages would chew off Isaac Jogues’ fingers. The people were always cold. Disease and hunger were common. Few prayed to any god. And yet there must have been strong values in the Indian culture that the Gospel could cling to, like fish about to lay their eggs cling to reefs. Was it courage, bravery, faithfulness, discipline?
And looming over all are the spirits of the French missionaries who worked among the Indians of the Mohawk and St. Lawrence Rivers in the 17th and 18th centuries. The bones of some are still scattered somewhere in the Auriesville grounds.
Isaac Jogues was one of those great men who shared the primitive living conditions of the Indians to tell them about Jesus and God’s plan for them, and in the end were rewarded by torture and death. Jogues took his wounded hands down the Hudson to New Amsterdam (New York City), which was populated by Dutch traders. These Protestants who were enemies of the Church saw God’s message in the wounded Jesuit and took care of him. He was celebrated in France, and at the Vatican the Pope kissed his hands. When he was asked what he wanted to do, he said he wished to return to the Indians. After some time he did return and, as he expected, he was killed by the Indians he had come to save.
The next morning we went back to the cemetery. The weather had changed. We wore overcoats in the fierce wind and rain. We arranged small rock gardens around the graves of my brother and Father Joe. Before leaving for good, we stood still once again. We were leaving the Jesuits in the cold rain. It wasn’t so easy to imagine them celebrating with God in heaven.
As we neared New York City on the way back, we were met by miles of yellow-leaf forests on both sides of the road. The sun came out. We finally saw the changing of the leaves that we had hoped for. The colors of the leaves in the sunlight were so blinding that we had to turn away at times. They were brilliant in their last dress and dance.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates ([email protected]).
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