Monday, February 23, 2015

James Foley and the North American Martyrs of the 17th Century: Surely All These Good Christians Are Safe in the Arms of God

The New York Times recently carried a story about the murder of Catholic journalist James Foley, who was captured and beheaded by Islamic extremists in Syria last August. Mr.Foley had been captured once before.  In 2011, he and three other journalists were ambushed and imprisoned by forces loyal to Col. Muammar al-Quaddafi in Libya.

Mr. Foley was released from his first captivity after 44 days, and he said later that  he was sustained during this ordeal by his Catholic faith. While a prisoner, he prayed the Rosary in order to make a connection with his mother.

In 2014, James Foley was captured a second time. This time his captors were ISIS, a far more sinister group than Col. Quaddafi's people. ISIS orders its prisoners to convert or be killed--and not just killed. ISIS murders its victims in horrific ways: crucifixion, beheading, and being burned alive.

James Foley
The Times reported that Foley did indeed to convert to Islam, although he was murdered anyway.  What are we to make of this?

Father James Martin, one of the New York Times' go-to Catholic experts, was quoted as saying, "How do we assess [Foley's conversion to Islam]?" Answering his own question, Father Martin  said, "The answer is we can't assess it. We cannot look at what is in someone's soul."

Well, I disagree with Father Martin. If Mr. Foley did indeed convert to Islam while a prisoner of the most brutal people of the 21st century, the state of his soul was not imperiled. As a Catholic, I say with all conviction that the soul of James Foley is at peace in the arms of God. In fact, I am more certain of the state of Mr. Foley's soul than I am of my own.

We know a lot about the trauma that prisoners of war endure. Judith Herman, in her classic work on psychological trauma, expanded the types of experiences that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition to people who experience the horrors of combat, Herman wrote, people in captivity and children who are the victims of long-term physical and psychological abuse may also experience PTSD.

Indeed, some medical researchers have theorized that the victims of severe PTSD undergo physiological changes in their nervous systems from being exposed to severe, long-term trauma, changes that are physiologically  irreversible.

Without question, James Foley was under almost unimaginable stress while a prisoner of ISIS. At some point during his captivity he surely realized that ISIS was going to kill him and that he would die an excruciatingly painful death. And surely he also knew that his murder would be performed in such a way that his killers could demonstrate their contempt for his humanity.

Did James Foley suffer from PTSD at the time of his death? Probably. Did he convert to Islam while under duress? Perhaps. Nevertheless, I am certain God was with James Foley in the last moments of his life.

As it happens, I an reading John O'Brien's book on the North American Martyrs, the eight Jesuit missionaries who died for their faith in Canada or upstate New York during the 17th century. One of these Jesuits, Father Isaac Jogues, lived a life somewhat similar to James Foley. Like Foley, Jogues was educated by Jesuits.Like Foley, Jogues was captured twice and was murdered during his second captivity. And like Foley, Jogues was beheaded.

The story of the North American martyrs is astonishing. During his first captivity, Joques' Mohawk captors tortured him with fire, gnawed off or mutilated his fingers, and sawed off his left thumb with a shell. Jogues lived in constant dread of being burned alive, and he witnessed other prisoners who were burned to death or fiendishly tortured. In fact, Jogues baptized a woman into the Catholic faith while she was being burned to death.

Through all this, Father Jogues never lost his Catholic faith, and he never lost an opportunity to convert and baptize the Native Americans who were his captors and torturers. After escaping captivity almost miraculously, Father Joques agreed to join a peace expedition to the Mohawks that led him to be captured a second time.  He was hatcheted to death by his Mohawk captors and his head was displayed on a pole.

Very few people could maintain their faith under the torture that the eight North American martyrs experienced. I shamefully confess that I would convert to Islam to save myself from being burned alive.

But God does not ask all Catholics to be martyrs. Most of us do not have the courage to give ourselves over to be drawn and quartered or roasted to death. Most of us would succumb to the stress of prolonged torture. Only a few Catholics have the courage to be martyrs; and perhaps a few are enough. We are strengthened in our faith by the witnesses of Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe, who were killed by the Nazis, by the North American Martyrs, and by the 40 sainted martyrs of Elizabethan England--Margaret Clitherow, Edward Campion and the rest.

Of course, most of us will succumb to the terror and fear that can break us down physically and psychologically. Under duress, we may even renounce our faith.

 But God knows our hearts and he knows our terror. Regardless of what happens on the scaffold, He will welcome us home to live forever within the tender embrace of His own loving and powerful arms.

October 19 is the Feast Day of the North American Martyrs. This would be a good day to pray for the repose of James Foley's soul and for the consolation of his Catholic family.

St. Isaac Jogues


Judith Herman. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

John A. O'Brien. Saints of the American Wilderness. Manchester, NH. Sophia Institute Press, 2004.

Jim Yardley. "Keeping the Faith in Brutal Captivity: Catholics Mull Foley's Conversion to Islam as a Hostage in Syria." New York Times, February 22, 2015, p. 6.

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