Saint Kateri Tekakwitha
This past October, just a few weeks after Pope Benedict XVI opened the Year of Faith in the Catholic Church and convoked the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization, he canonized Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first indigenous woman of North America to be declared a saint. Fittingly, Saint Kateri – whose feast day is today – is a role model, not only for Native American Catholics, but for the New Evangelization, showing us the importance of deepening and sharing our faith.
Saint Kateri was born in 1656 in what is now upstate New York to a Mohawk father and a Christian Algonquin mother. At the age of 20, she was baptized by French missionaries, and to escape hostility in her village, she fled to a mission in Canada.
The “Lily of the Mohawks” led a simple life of prayer, teaching children the faith and performing acts of charity. She was known for her devotion to the cross and the Eucharist, and her statue in the Hall of American Saints at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception shows her holding a small cross.
The Jesuit missionaries documented her sanctity, and instead of dying in obscurity at the age of 24, Saint Kateri has been venerated by generations of Native American Catholics. Her canonization brought joy to the approximately 600,000 Native American Catholics, who come from more than 300 tribes and nations.
Thousands of Native Americans traveled to Rome for her canonization. On that very day, Piscataway Indians in Southern Maryland gathered before a statue of Saint Kateri in the woods near Saint Ignatius Church in Chapel Point to honor their “northern sister.” Their Piscataway Indian ancestors have been faithful Catholics in that region since 1640, and that very afternoon, a baby of Native American descent was being baptized in that small country church.
Saint Kateri is their saint, and our saint, too. In January, I was the main celebrant at a Mass of Thanksgiving at the National Shrine for Saint Kateri and another new American saint, Saint Marianne Cope, a member of the Sisters of Saint Francis who ministered to people with leprosy in Hawaii.
The homilist at that Mass, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, is Native American, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe. He has pointed out how Saint Kateri shows Native American Catholics they can be true to their native culture and also true to their faith, and she is also a role model for U.S. Catholics today, who face hostility from a secular culture, but who must stand strong in their faith in a time when their religious freedom is threatened.
We can likewise learn from Saint Kateri’s devotion to Jesus. How beautiful would it be if our night prayers included her reported last words, “Jesus, I love you.”
This saint can be a role model for young adults. She was compared to a lily because of her chastity, and that is a virtue that Catholic young adults need to cling to in our sexually permissive society. Anyone who has ever faced teasing or bullying can also look to Saint Kateri for strength, because she bore scars from childhood smallpox, and she later was an outcast because of her faith.
In a world that is too often hostile or indifferent to religion, Saint Kateri shows us how living a holy life can inspire many others to know and love Jesus. That is the enduring gift of the “Lily of the Mohawks.”