Saint Kateri A model for today?
The Canonization of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha on October 21st 2012 by the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI was received with much jubilation by the people of Kahnawaké gathered at the Kateri School to view the re-broadcasting of the Canonization Mass from Rome. To many of the First Nations – the Mohawk people living at Kahnawaké, Kateri Tekakwitha was already a Saint, having guided and protected her people for over 300 years. Nevertheless, it is difficult to put into words the sentiments of joy felt at Kahnawaké and at the canonization Mass in Rome, since it was such a glorious and historic moment. A moment eagerly awaited by the First Nations and the Jesuit congregation who evangelized and initiated Saint Kateri into the Christian faith.
For over 300 years the indigenous peoples of Kahnawaké have been patiently awaiting the arrival of this great moment. Even if many of their ancestors have died without witnessing this day, it is interesting to note that the belief in the intercessory powers of Kateri Tekakwitha has been transmitted from generations to generations, from the moment of her death in 1680 up to today. Will her Canonization contribute to the healing of past memories resulting from the encounter between the Church and the indigenous peoples? Bishop Lionel Gendron, of the Diocese of Saint Jean-Longueuil, in his homily celebrated at the Oratory of Saint Joseph, during the Thanksgiving Mass for her canonization called on non-indigenous peoples to remove any negative connotations associated to the indigenous peoples and in the same breath he called on the Indigenous Peoples to continue to accept the Church’s request for pardon by Pope John Paul II. This was well received by the massive attendance at the Sanctuary. It can be said that in the eyes of the indigenous peoples, their identity as a unique people and culture have finally been received and accepted into the heart of the Church. They have now taken their authentic place within the Church, as one of their own is raised to the highest status of sanctity.
Symbol of unity
A culture or spirituality needs to be rooted in a human experience. Various cultures and spiritualities encounter each other in Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. She seems to represent the meeting point or the embodiment of various encounters. First she was born of a Mohawk Father and an Algonquin Christian mother. Consequently, from her family of origin she would have learnt the importance of contradictions, tolerance and respect of differences, in the quest for peace and tranquility in maintaining relationships with others. Kateri as a child had to welcome and accept two different cultures and spiritualities at her home – that of her Father who had a native spirituality while belonging to the Mohawk nation and that of her Mother who was Christian and Algonquin.
Upon her encounter with the Jesuit Fathers, she again had to adjust herself to their European culture and method of teaching the faith. This would have been her first encounter with the external world, and this encounter would make a lasting and profound impression on her in regards to the Catholic Faith. The Jesuit missionaries would have enriched the foundations laid by her mother. The child and teenage Kateri was being formed in an atmosphere of inclusivity, tolerance and acceptance.
The young Kateri embraced the cultures and spiritualities of three different sources – her father Mohawk, her mother Algonquin and the Jesuit fathers who directly evangelized her in the Faith. She symbolizes the meeting of cultures and spiritualities. In other words, she was able to embrace these various cultures and spiritualities and allow them to take root in her. She was able to balance all these experiences together with their similarities and differences. It is this foundation that would bear fruit in her exemplary Christian life, and would thus qualify her to be declared a Saint in the Church.
A model of tolerance and humility
The church and the world can benefit much from the simple and exemplary life of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. She models to the youth today the virtues of simplicity, humility and tolerance in her faith. Kateri Tekakwitha’s experience of accepting and welcoming others, who were different to her, is interesting. This is symbolized upon her arrival in her new home Kahnawake, after having escaped by night from her original home in what is Fonda – New York today. Can Saint Kateri not teach us today the values of respecting other cultures and peoples for the greater good of the Trinitarian God?
A model for purity
Kateri Tekakwitha remained a virgin until her death at age 24. In fact, she wanted to consecrate her life as a religious but was not successful. In this regard the nobility and purity of virginity is honored in her life. She witnesses to the Church and to the world that virginity is still a noble and blessed virtue. Can her vow virginity not speak to the youth of today?
A model for endurance and hope
We live in a secularized world that seems to be rapidly liberating itself from the influences of the Church and the God of Jesus Christ. This rapid separation is being felt more and more in our society today. The world – particularly the economically advanced western world – seems to be more and more publicly and privately rejecting the Church as an institution and its teachings and value systems. The youth who profess their faith in Jesus within the Church do face the challenge of the practicing of their faith. They must be selectively careful in publicly manifesting their faith, in a society that seems no longer interested in the Christian spirituality. Kateri Tekakwitha was able to balance all the present constraints in her life and not lose faith. In addition to health problems, she was ridiculed by some of her relatives for accepting and pronouncing her vows of virginity. This meant that she would not marry as per their traditions. This was a new teaching to her people. She was able to persevere in her belief in the Catholic Faith despite these imminent challenges.
She became the symbol of hope for her people who continued to depend upon her intercessory powers for healings and good health. If the Mohawk First Nation have survived today, isn’t it because of their hope in their Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, whom they have always invoked in times of crisis. Can our youth today, confronted daily by the value systems of a secularized world persevere in faith like Saint Kateri Tekakwitha?
To the Iroquois the land is sacred and must be treated and preserved as such. In what way can this philosophy already engrained in the heart of the Church be beneficial to her theological understanding of the creation; keeping in mind that the Creation Story in the book of Genesis validates and confirms the respect and sanctity of the land and environment within the Christian tradition. She was declared by Pope John Paul II as the patron of the environment. Can the Canonization of Blessed Kateri bring Christians to a greater appreciation of the importance of the environment to human survival?
Challenges and questions?
Keeping in mind that only about 20 percent of the population attends Mass on most Sundays at Kahnawaké, we cannot help but ask ourselves in what way can the canonization of Blessed Kateri help in the re-evangelization of the indigenous peoples? Will it cause an increase in the awareness of the faith among the Mohawk First Nation at Kahnawaké?
There are mixed feelings at Kahnawaké concerning the Canonization of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. While most people seem to be excited about this event there are those who pose these questions.
- Is it a case of too little too late?
- The canonization of Blessed Kateri is a contradiction of the indigenous spirituality. The dead must not be disturbed and thus this canonization is interpreted as the Church’s attempt to once again give life to Saint Kateri.
- Some see Saint Kateri as forsaking the faith of her ancestors to embrace that of the colonizers.
It is now close to one year since I was sent to join my Religious Congregation here in Quebec – the Congregation of the Sons of Mary immaculate FMI, and to be the priest among the Mohawk Nation, where the remains of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha are buried in the Mission of Saint Francis Xavier. The graces I have received are many and numerous. I was warmly welcomed and received by the Diocese of Saint Jean-Longueuil and the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawaké. I truly thank God for this opportunity to “share the faith” with and among the Mohawk people and to learn from their rich spiritual heritage. Though the challenges are many, I am encouraged and strengthened by the faith of the people in Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, and I believe, after speaking to members of the community who are not particularly “church goers” that I have found enough hope that in due time Saint Kateri Tekakwitha will lead a renewal of the faith among her people here in Kahnawaké.
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