A Bloodless Martyr: Fr, Jack Burns, SJ

Fr. Jack Burns, SJ. Courtesy pf Fr. Robert Foliot, SJ


 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

Robert Foliot, SJ is working in pastoral ministry at Martyr's Shrine, Midland and at St. Francis Xavier Mission on Christian Island.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 01:34h, 12 April Reply

    Thank you veery much Bert!

  • Paul Desmarais S.J.
    Posted at 02:21h, 12 April Reply

    Bob thank you for these wonderful words. Jack was truly a saint. Even in novitiate we saw him as a saint. He was a very gracious person. A really beautiful soul.

  • Lois Greene
    Posted at 04:17h, 12 April Reply

    Thank you for your beautifully expressed and inspiring sharing. The truth and worth of such suffering also reminds me of those living with dementia. He was blessed with your friendship.

  • Grace Colella
    Posted at 06:50h, 12 April Reply

    It is consoling to know he was among you who appreciated his beautiful life. Your affirmation of redemptive suffering brings hope to all of us.

  • graeme quinlan
    Posted at 07:11h, 12 April Reply

    To give is to receive. This it would seem was the life of Jack,No matter his infirmities his restrictions in life. Jack let it all just be for the love of the Lord. it seemed obvious that Jack lived in and embraced the deep love of the Lord. His suffering and inner Grace became a source of Grace and Healing for so many who came to know of him.Thank you for sharing His story with us.

  • John Montague
    Posted at 07:42h, 12 April Reply

    I remember his kindness when he was on staff at Our Lady of Lourdes parish.

  • Peter LeBlanc
    Posted at 07:44h, 12 April Reply

    Bert, a beautiful homage. You have reminded us again of the hidden gift of the Canadian Jesuit Martyrs for which Jack had been a constant living presence.

    • David Ramsay
      Posted at 00:52h, 16 April Reply

      Hi Peter,
      If you are so inclined I would enjoy connecting with you.

      David Ramsay

  • Karen Arthurs
    Posted at 08:11h, 12 April Reply

    A beautiful story of love and suffering in our modern world.

  • Margaret Manitowabi
    Posted at 08:34h, 12 April Reply

    Miigwech Fr.Robert Foliot.S.J in being a friend to Jack, and to Martyrs Shrine for sharing the life journey of a bloodless martyr. Intertwining his life of the martyr St. Noel Chabanel who also resided with the Huron People and the service of prayer. I am grateful that he was able to read and for his prayerful and faith in God in trying various measures to live with his Cross the mental illness. Miigeeng

  • fr. Joe Newman SJ
    Posted at 08:52h, 12 April Reply

    Wow, Bert! That is so true, so moving — thank you!

  • Bernard Carroll, SJ
    Posted at 09:18h, 12 April Reply

    Thank you Bert for this very tender and loving recollection of Jack’s life. You have captured his spirit beautifully, faithfully. He is now eternally embraced in the love of the Holy Trinity.

  • Norbert Piche
    Posted at 09:22h, 12 April Reply

    Thank you Fr. Bert for this powerful testimonial on behalf of those suffering from mental illness and those that accompany them. It gives me pause to reflect and pray for the people I know that suffer from mental illness.

  • Bill Clarke
    Posted at 10:00h, 12 April Reply

    Bert thanks for sharing your love and appreciation for Jack who never lost his spirit of kindness and welcome.

  • Catherine von Zuben
    Posted at 11:06h, 12 April Reply

    Dear Bert. How beautifully you have documented the life accomplishments of Fr. Jack Burns. You were a true friend of his and I continue to believe how blessed the Jesuit infirmary has been with people like you working with and administering to the needs of those men awaiting the day that they too will hear the voices of angels singing in harmony in heaven. Thank you for sharing.

  • Kevin Booth
    Posted at 19:04h, 12 April Reply

    What a wonderful testimonial. I’m sorry for your loss yet thankful he had you all as brothers.

  • Michael Rosinski
    Posted at 19:05h, 12 April Reply

    Beautiful said!

  • David J. St Amand
    Posted at 19:34h, 12 April Reply

    Again, your perspective is priceless. Thank-you for your moving tribute Bert. Keep well!

  • Sami Helewa, SJ
    Posted at 19:51h, 12 April Reply

    Hello Bert, this is a beautiful tribute. I can only imagine that Jack is still smiling at you. Thank you.

  • John O'Brien, S.J.
    Posted at 19:41h, 13 April Reply

    Bert, such a beautiful treatment and tribute, and a reminder of the power of hidden sacrifice in the economy of grace. Thank-you.

  • Gerry Forest, S.J.
    Posted at 08:45h, 14 April Reply

    Thank you Bert for your kind words and wisdom of Fr. Jack Burns, S.J., and I
    do recall Jack from my Novitiate days. Always joyful and a man for others and
    a good friend. Miigwetch Bert for your insight into who Fr. Jack was.

  • Sr. Ann Marie Walsh, FCJ
    Posted at 21:23h, 17 April Reply

    Bert, thank you so much for the moving reflection on Fr. Jack’s life. What a gift his ministry of prayer and suffering was for so many ! God bless you for the care you give to your brothers and so many more. Blessings to you.

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