Message for the 2010 National Day of Prayer for Aboriginal Peoples by the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council

Wednesday, November 24 2010

Joseph Chiwatenhwa

To all the faithful in parishes and dioceses across Canada:

We turn to the Lord for peace, solidarity and inner strength for all!

December 12 marks an important celebration in the Catholic Church in Canada, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the National Day of Prayer for Aboriginal Peoples. We ask, especially today, that you devote your prayers for the special intentions of all indigenous peoples, in Canada and around the world. On the occasion of the 2010 National Day of Prayer for Aboriginal People, we honour the life of Joseph Chiwatenhwa.

When Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to Canada in September, 1984, he visited the National Canadian Martyrs Shrine in Midland, Ontario. He explained that the Jesuits came in the 1620’s and founded the first house of prayer in Huronia. The Jesuits were assisted by the Huron and relied on the support of people such as Joseph Chiwatenhwa. The Pope spoke of him, saying: “of great importance to the Church of Huronia is Joseph Chiwatenwa, who, together with his wife Aonnetta, his brother Joseph and other family members, lived and witnessed to their faith in a heroic manner.”

This may have been the first time that the people of Canada heard of Joseph Chiwatenhwa. His story is contained in a book entitled Friends of God, written by Bruce Henry in 1991. Chiwatenhwa was his birth name. When he first met the Jesuits in 1636, he was very touched by their teachings, even though they were being blamed by other Huron for the epidemics that were ravaging Huronia. Chiwatenhwa himself fell sick; after his recovery, however, he was baptized, on August 16, 1637, by Father Jean de Brébeuf, and given the Christian name Joseph. His wife, Aonette, was baptized on March 19, 1638; her Christian name was Marie. Their marriage was blessed on the same day; this was the first Catholic wedding in Huronia.

Joseph became the first lay administrator in the Catholic Church in Canada, in 1639. He helped the Jesuits translate hymns and prayers from French into Huron. He was impressed with the teachings of Saint Ignatius and the Spiritual Exercises. During his eight-day silent retreat, he composed a prayer that reveals his profound experience with Jesus: “You love us so deeply that all I can do in return is to offer myself to you. I chose you as my elder and chief. There is no one else.” In adopting his new faith, Joseph drew on many of the spiritual and cultural teachings of his people; he entered the Catholic Church as a Huron. This helped him spread the Good News to many members of his family and tribe.

Joseph Chiwatenhwa had a premonition that his life would be taken in a violent way because of his dedication to and fervent love of Jesus. He was martyred on August 2, 1640, at the age of 38. Father Lalemant wrote a letter in which he described him as “a teacher of the Christian faith among the native people. In this past year, he has made himself their apostle.

After Joseph’s death, more members of the Huron nation were baptized into the Catholic Church. His wife Marie Aonette, his brother and other members continued to help and assist the Jesuits.

Pope John Paul II said at Huronia that “the worthy traditions of the Indian tribes were strengthened and enriched by the Gospel message … not only is Christianity relevant to the Indian peoples, but Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself Indian.“ Let us be inspired by the faith of Joseph Chiwatenhwa, his wife, Marie Aonette, and their families. They believed in their brother and Saviour Jesus when he spoke the words recorded by Saint John (20:29): “You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.