Following in the footsteps of the ‘snowshoe priest’

A 60-foot-tall monument of Venerable Frederic Baraga, the first bishop of what is now the Diocese of Marquette, is pictured at a shrine dedicated to the “snowshoe priest” in L’Anse, Mich., at the base of the Upper Peninsula’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Mike Stechschulte | The Michigan Catholic

“Whoever serves Me must follow Me, and where I am, there also will My servant be” (John 12:26).

Recently, one of the Sisters and I ran a weeklong Vacation Bible School in the Upper Peninsula. While there, we were privileged to visit the tomb of Venerable Frederic Baraga, the first bishop of the Diocese of Marquette. Bishop Baraga is known as the “snowshoe priest,” because he would travel on snowshoe throughout his diocese in the long winter months, even into his sixties.

Reflecting on the journeys of Bishop Baraga, another Sister commented that he would have traveled through the forests before the land was civilized. Rarely would he have seen the sky, even in the short hours of daylight. This was truly a man of missionary zeal and of passion for his Lord and the flock entrusted to his care.

How much are we willing to sacrifice to follow our Lord’s footsteps and lead souls to Him, as Bishop Baraga did? Our sacrifice most likely will not entail cold treks through the snow and woods, but sacrifice is required of us nonetheless in the living of our Christian life. While the landscape is now cultivated, we still live in a world in need of hearing the same Gospel message. We must be willing to sacrifice to share the Gospel and to live it fully. One example that comes to mind is to put God, rather than sports or entertainment, first on Sundays.

By our baptism, each of us has been called to be a missionary — to bring the good news of Jesus Christ and His work for our salvation to the world. We are sent out to share with others the grace, joy and peace we receive in our relationship of love with Him. And yet, many times we can find it difficult to speak about our faith to others in a culture that is hostile to sharing religion or personal convictions. How easy it can be to relegate the faith to time in Mass on Sundays or in church gatherings, rather than to allow it to permeate all our words and actions.

Our sacrifices in living a missionary Christian life involve being willing actually to speak to others about Jesus Christ, even when it might feel at least initially uncomfortable. While this seems easier said than done, let us look to the example of men and women like Bishop Baraga, who were willing to sacrifice innumerable comforts to bring the truth of the Gospel to souls who did not know Jesus Christ.

However, it is important to note that Bishop Baraga and others like him did not begin with preaching stringently about moral truths, although these are certainly important truths to share in the end. The Truth that the missionaries preached was Jesus Christ Himself, without whom no Christian morality makes any sense. The saintly missionaries had so encountered Jesus Christ that they could not rest knowing that others did not yet have the joy of knowing Him, too. Not even hard, long winters — not even, in fact, the threat of martyrdom for many of the missionaries — were enough to stop them from bringing Jesus to others. Let us pray for the courage and magnanimity to follow Christ as they did with a boldness that conquers all timidity in the face of sacrifice for the love of Him and of souls.

Sr. Mary Martha Becnel is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.