A Bloodless Martyr: Fr, Jack Burns, SJ
A BLOODLESS MARTYR – FR. JACK BURNS, SJ (1947 – 2021)
Some are saying, “Such a sad life! He suffered so much! He has nothing to show for his life! He made his mark on the world!” If that is how you are feeling, you have missed the gift that is Fr. Jack Burns, SJ.
At the Martyrs Shrine on June 19, 1988 the Society of Jesus confirmed its reception of the gift that is Fr. Jack Burns. Twenty-five years earlier, Jack had traded in his hockey sweater, which may have led to a career in hockey, for the Jesuit cassock. It is not without significance, that the Jesuits finally received the gift of Jack, who by then was suffering from epilepsy and schizophrenia, at the Martyrs’ Shrine.
Jack had a lot in common with two of those martyrs. First of all, with St. René Goupil, who like Jack was ill in the novitiate. But unlike Jack, René was dismissed from the novitiate. So, René became a donné or Jesuit volunteer. Just days before he was martyred, he begged to pronounce vows as a Jesuit at the hands of St. Isaac Jogues.
And secondly with St. Noel Chabanel. Despite his intelligence, his desire, and his facility for learning the European languages, Noel could not learn Huron. He felt useless. He lived in depression in the shadow of the other Jesuits. In response, he took a vow to stay in Huronia for the rest of his life.
At the Palm Sunday Mass one year ago (2020), in a strong, loud voice Jack Burns led the Jesuit community at René Goupil House in praying Psalm 22, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? I said to myself, “This man knows deep down in his own experience the anguish of those words.
Jack suffered all his life from mental illness and instead of complaining, he did what the Psalm expresses – he trusted in God. He travelled to India seeking a drugless therapy for his schizophrenia. After 2 years he returned home only to end back up on the heaviest of psychiatric drugs for the next 23 years.
At one point, tortured almost 24 hours a day by negative voices, Jack agreed to clozapine therapy, even though the doctor told him that this drug could kill him. The drugs freed him from the torture of the voices, but destroyed his will power, his physical fitness, his interest in sports and in life in general.
It took away much of his affectivity. Jack who once skated so very gracefully and flew by opposing players like a rush of wind, now could only manage one lap around the arena ice, and even that was with a walker fastened to skis.
Jack who was so welcoming and wise could no longer initiate conversation and when questioned about anything, he would respond with, “I forget.” Jack was always very close to his family – to his father and mother, to his two brothers, to his sister and to his nephew and nieces. His face came alive when their names were mentioned. But for the last 4 years of his life, even they felt they were losing him.
No one was able to really connect with him very much. He listened attentively and he understood, but his only real response was his warm smile.
Like St. Noel Chabanel, Jack may have felt like a failure. And some may have asked, “Did he accomplish anything?” Oh, yes! He was a bloodless martyr. For over 20 years he did the Ministry of Prayer for the Church and for the world at the Jesuit Infirmary, the house named after St. René Goupil.
The Jesuit Martyrs believed that more was done by prayer and suffering than by all their other efforts. Always an avid reader, Jack knew about redemptive suffering. In his Morning Offering he would say, “O Most Sacred Heart of Jesus I offer you all my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day for …”
And that is where his suffering took on great meaning. It became redemptive for all the people he was praying for and especially for his family, his friends and the people who asked for his prayers. And when the Host and the Chalice were raised high at Mass, he offered himself through Christ, with Christ and in Christ in love to God, the Father.
Was Jack’s life at all meaningful? Oh yes! His heart full of love for others was infinitely pleasing to God. Fr. Jack Burns was a bloodless martyr who suffered terribly nearly all his life. Like Jack, so many people struggle with mental illness. Sidelined from work, from much social and physical activity the mentally ill live lonely lives and they often cannot do anything to change their situation.
Daily they take up their Cross and try to trudge through still one more day. But if they carry that Cross in love for others, as Jack did, they grace our world and give great, great glory to God. They too are bloodless martyrs given to the world to assist and to love it. They go straight to heaven. And as the Jesuit martyrs said, “We have gained more than we have lost in their death. We will see in time, what their lives will produce.”
Robert Foliot, SJ – A friend of Jack’s