Indigenous Holiness

“O God, who desired the Virgin Saint Kateri Tekakwitha to flower among Native Americans in a life of innocence, grant, through her intercession, that when all are gathered into your Church from every nation, tribe and tongue, they may magnify you in a single canticle of praise. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen” (Collect of the Votive Mass of Saint Kateri).

Iroquois_5_Nation_Map_c1650
Map of Iroquoia

The Church celebrates today the Memorial of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), the daughter of an Iroquois father and Algonquian mother. She was born in a Mohawk village of the Iroquois people in present-day Montgomery County, New York. Her father followed traditional Iroquois religious practices and her mother was a Christian. Orphaned early by a smallpox epidemic, which left her also with scars and poor eyesight, Tekakwitha was raised by an aunt and uncle. She spent her childhood as a Christian neophyte among her traditional Mohawk relatives. During a diplomatic opening with the French, Tekakwitha tended to the needs of a newly-established Jesuit mission. An eye-witness biographer remembered “the goodness of her temper, the vivacity of her spirit, her simplicity and candor” [1]. After catechetical instruction, Tekakwitha received baptism on April 18, 1676, taking the baptismal name of Catherine, or Kateri, in her language.

Kateri Tucson
Shrine image of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, venerated in a special way by the Tohono O’odham people at the Mission of San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona. Photo by Galen R. Frysinger.

In 1678, Kateri, with the help of a Christian relative, escaped from the control of her uncle and made for a Jesuit outpost in Canada, Sault Saint Louis (present-day Kahnawake in Quebec Province). She spent the last two years of her life there, tending, as she had done in her own village, the needs of the Jesuit chaplaincy. Pope Benedict XVI officially recognized Kateri Tekakwitha as a saint in Catholic Church on October 21, 2012, after centuries of a lively veneration at her gravesite and beyond. What remains is something to be said about her heroic virtue, her holiness incarnated in the pre-Colombian culture of North America, and her Gospel witness for today.

The Church canonizes some of the faithful as models of heroic virtue and as intercessors in heaven, especially for the faithful aspiring to lead good lives and sometimes living through difficult times [2]. Saint Kateri’s cause for canonization was in the works from the end of the 19th century. Pope Benedict XVI’s words at her canonization capture some of Saint Kateri’s heroism. The Pope singled out the strength of her Christian vocation in the face of not a lot of surrounding support.

“Kateri impresses us by the action of grace in her life in spite of the absence of external help and by the courage of her vocation, so unusual in her culture. In her, faith and culture enrich each other! May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are. Saint Kateri, Protectress of Canada and the first native American saint, we entrust to you the renewal of the faith in the first nations and in all of North America! May God bless the first nations!” [3]

Kateri Santa Fe
Estella Loretto, of the Puebloan Jemez Nation, sculpted this image of Saint Kateri for the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2003.

Saint Kateri embodied Christianity incarnate in the indigenous population of North America. Never wavering from traditional life, she joined the annual hunting journeys, ground corn, searched for water, and gathered wood [4]. She was not the most popular among the women of her village when they went about their chores, as she insisted on hymns or conversation about holy topics, a killjoy to gossip and ribaldry. A few like-minded Christian Iroquois women found her and together they formed close bonds of spiritual sisterhood. Like great Christian mystics of any culture, she spent long hours in prayer and enjoyed a special regard for Jesus present in the Eucharist and meditation on His Passion. One of her spiritual sisters recalled Kateri’s remarks when they had been discussing a new wooden church under construction in their village: “Alas, it is not in this material temple that God most loves to dwell. It is within ourselves that He wishes to take up his abode. Our hearts are the Temple which is most agreeable to him” [5].

The Gospel witness of Kateri Tekakwitha is timely for today as we learn to endure the pandemic of COVID-19. She survived the ravages of smallpox to blossom as “The Lily of the Mohawks,” a title given her after her passing. Historical responses to epidemics have been threefold. There is a giving over to reckless abandon, or extreme social distancing to wait out the disease, or the deepening of religious conversion in the midst of society. Saint Kateri chose the third path, for which the Church celebrates her this day and presents her to us as a model, a Gospel witness, and an intercessor in heaven when we need support in prayer and action.

Kateri Chauchetiere 1696
Portrait of the saint by an eyewitness, Father Claude Chauchetière, S. J. (1645-1709).

Notes:

[1] Pierre Cholonec, Kateri Tekakwitha: The Iroquois Saint, trans. Ingraham Kip and Ellen H. Walworth (Merchantville, NJ: 2012). Kindle edition, location 126.

[2] See The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 828.

[3] http://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/homilies/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20121021_canonizzazioni.html

[4] Cholonec, Kateri Tekakwitha. Kindle edition, location 52.

[5] Cholonec, Kateri Tekakwitha. Kindle edition, location 303.


Photo credits:

Wikimedia Commons and Brother Charles (Santa Fe image).

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