Today is the Memorial of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be on the road to canonization, a process that was given formal recognition on December 19, 2011, when the Holy See announced that Pope Benedict XVI had approved the Congregation for the Causes of Saints’ findings that miracles attributed to Tekakwitha and six others blesseds were authentic. Here is a bit about her life, from this February 2012 Catholic World Report article by Brian O’Neel:
Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha
Born in 1656, near Auriesville, NY, and nicknamed the “Lily of the Mohawks,” Bl. Kateri Tekakwitha was the daughter of a Mohawk chief and an Algonquin mother who was Catholic. After her parents and brother died of smallpox, she became a ward of her uncle at age eight. As her mother passed, she enjoined her daughter to always hold onto her holy Christian faith and pressed her rosary into Kateri’s hands. The young girl also had the disease but survived, although it left her with cratered skin and very bad eyesight. In fact, Tekakwitha, which most normally think of as her last name, is actually an Indian sobriquet meaning, “She who bumps into things.”
Keeping her promise to her mother was difficult as her uncle hated his late sister-in-law’s faith. Like many Iroquois, he attributed the disease, death, and woe that had done so much damage to his proud people on Christianity and the missionaries who spread this strange religion.
By the time she turned eighteen, remembering her mother’s Catholicism, she began receiving catechesis. This coincided with her uncle betrothing her to a local boy. Given his attitude toward Christianity, however, one can imagine how well he received Kateri’s refusal to accept the match, as well as her declaration that she belonged to God alone and would for the rest of her life. Though upset, her uncle respected her wishes and even reluctantly agreed to her receiving baptism. The condition: She must stay with her people.
The problem was that her people thought her the biggest fool and even something of a traitor for professing Christ. She became the village pariah, and she received several death threats. For two years she endured this abuse before finally fleeing to a village of other Indian Catholics in neighboring Canada. It was there that she received her First Communion on Christmas 1677. And there she became a beloved member of the community and served her fellow Indians as a consecrated virgin.
Within a short time, though, she contracted a painful illness, and after years of suffering, she died on April 17, 1680, uttering the words, “Jesus, Mary, I love you.” As she expired, the severe small pox-induced scars that had marred her face since childhood faded bit-by-bit as if they had been part of a mirage. People were amazed at her radiant beauty, since they had only known her as something of an ugly woman.
Believing they had a saint on their hands, her former neighbors immediately began asking heaven for her intercession, and the priest who had given her last rites claimed many miracles were wrought by her prayers. Her cause for beatification began in 1884 and concluded in 1980, when she became one of the first people Bl. John Paul II beatified.
A hint of the pride many Native Americans are taking in the canonization announcement are the words of Anna Dyer, 84, a Mohawk living in New York, who said, “She was always Indian. She never forgot.”
Still, not every Indian is thrilled. Tom Porter is a Mohawk living near the Canadian-New York border whose mission is to return his people to their ancient beliefs in the moon, the sun, and thunder. He asserts, “She was used.”
“I don’t know if she really was a Christian or not,” he told Agence France Presse. “They were in poverty at that time. The Europeans had destroyed everything, people were destitute and starving, and if you wanted to get help of any kind you had to be a Christian.”
Acknowledging that some of his Catholic relatives have a deep devotion to Bl. Kateri, he says, “It breaks my heart.”
Nonetheless, those Catholic Americans of all stripes—indigenous or no—who know of Bl. Kateri are thrilled and proud such an outstanding example of holiness has come from their shores.
Furthermore, in more universal terms, both women are a good example of what the Pope told a general audience in January 2010: “In every age the saints are the true reformers of the Church’s life,” for as blogger Rocco Palma has noted, both had the “ability to inspire and challenge others to embrace a deepened fidelity to Christ and the Gospel, and [to imitate] the integrity of their witness.”
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