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home : bishop : columns

1/5/2012 10:40:00 AM
BISHOP'S COLUMN
Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a new saint close to home

BY BISHOP EMERITUS HOWARD J. HUBBARD


It was with great joy that we received the news last month that our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, had authenticated a miracle attributed to the intercession of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, which will lead to her canonization - hopefully, sometime this year.

In 2006, Jake Finkbonner, a six-year-old boy living in the state of Washington, cut his lip while playing basketball. Overnight, Jake's face swelled up and he developed a high fever. Doctors at Seattle Children's Hospital stated that a flesh-eating bacterium called Strep A was attacking the boy's face.

Over the next few weeks, it destroyed his lips, cheeks and forehead. Doctors informed the family there was nothing else they could do and Jake was going to die.

The family's priest asked parishioners to pray to Kateri for her intercession on Jake's behalf. Through the internet, prayers for Jake came in from throughout the world. A representative of the Society of Blessed Kateri went to the hospital to place a pendant of Kateri on Jake's pillow.

The next day, the infection stopped progressing and Jake made a full recovery.

Now that the miracle has been studied by medical experts, theologians and scientists and judged to be beyond the healing powers of the medical sciences, the path has been cleared for Blessed Kateri's canonization.

Kateri connections
At first, one might wonder what, if anything, the life of this quixotic Indian maiden, who lived in an historical and cultural context so radically different from our own, might have to say to our contemporary Church and society.

Yet despite the pristine simplicity of the civilization Blessed Kateri experienced and the rather drab ordinariness of her life, there are, I believe, some important lessons to be drawn from her pilgrim journey of faith.

Her life story can be captured quite succinctly.

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 of an Algonquin-Christian mother and a Mohawk warrior at Ossernenon (now known as Auriesville, in our Diocese). Tekakwitha was left orphaned at the age of four, when her mother, father and baby brother were fatally stricken by a smallpox epidemic which ravaged the tribe in 1659 and 1660.

Tekakwitha was also stricken with the dread disease and was left with facial pockmarks, weakened eyesight and physical infirmities which were to plague her for life. She was named Tekakwitha, which means, "she who bumps into things."

Tekakwitha was adopted by her uncle, chief of the neighboring village of Caughnawaga (near present-day Fonda), where she was taken and raised in accordance with ancestral beliefs.

Although Tekakwitha was not baptized as an infant, she had fond memories of her good and prayerful mother and of the stories of Christian faith that her mother shared with her in childhood. These remained indelibly impressed upon her mind and heart and were to give shape and direction to her life's destiny.

At the age of eight, in keeping with tribal custom, Tekakwitha was paired by her foster parents with a boy of the same age with a view to eventual marriage. Tekakwitha, however, made it clear that she did not want to marry, but desired to give her life to the great Manitou - that is, the true God - to whom she prayed frequently in the quiet of the wooded area near her village.

Stirrings of faith
Such unusual, indeed almost incomprehensible behavior under the circumstances can only be explained by the powerful influence of her mother's memory and by the impulse of God's call in her life.

Tekakwitha had only cursory contact with Christianity during her childhood and adolescence, when Jesuit missionaries would stop by her village en route to other destinations. In 1674, however, when Tekakwitha was 18, Rev. James de Lamberville, SJ, established a permanent mission in the village and inaugurated a catechumenate program.

Despite intense pressure from her foster parents and other villagers, Tekakwitha zealously pursued initiation to the Christian life. On Easter Sunday, 1676, she was baptized and given the name "Kateri" - the Iroquois word for the Christian name "Catherine."

Joining the religion of the white man only intensified the ridicule, calumny and hostility to which she was subjected by family and community alike, to the extent that her life was threatened.

In 1677, upon the advice of Father de Lamberville and with the assistance of three Christian catechumens, Kateri escaped from her homeland and migrated north to Caughnawaga, Canada, a Christian settlement of the same name where she was able to practice her religion in more tranquil surroundings.

Short life
Her virtue flourished in her new surroundings under the direction of the Jesuit fathers. On Christmas 1677, only 20 months after her baptism, Kateri was privileged to receive the Eucharist for the first time. According to sacramental practice of the 17th century, it was an unusual privilege to receive the two sacraments within such a short interval of time.

Kateri lived just three years after this, spending most of her time caring for the sick and the elderly in the village. In 1679, with the permission of her spiritual director, she made a vow of perpetual virginity; according to her biographers, she was the first woman of the Iroquois Nation to bind herself to such a commitment.

However, the poor health which plagued her throughout life consumed her with violent pain and effected her death in 1680 at the tender age of 24.

In many ways, Blessed Kateri led a very ordinary life. For example, she did not found a religious community nor new apostolate; she did not launch any great spiritual movement; she did not even exert much influence on those closest to her, her foster parents and fellow villagers.

Three qualities
But her life was extraordinary, I believe, because of three beautiful qualities she embodied in a very heroic way:

1. Blessed Kateri was a woman who understood well and accepted with patient resignation the mystery of the cross, that mystery which proclaims that our faith is founded on a paradox: the paradox of death leading to life; the paradox of suffering leading to glory; the paradox of defeat and failure leading to victory.

God knows Kateri experienced the cross: an orphaned childhood; a lifetime of ill health; the ridicule, scorn and rejection of her foster parents and fellow villagers; the pain and risk of leaving her homeland and launching forth into the unknown and the unpredictable; the anguish of her final excruciating illness which took her life when the first fruits of her newfound faith were just beginning to blossom.

However, she accepted these trials and sufferings patiently and bore them with love. Blessed Kateri did not allow these crosses to discourage or defeat her, but saw in them an opportunity for growth and an inspiration to work quietly and selflessly to alleviate pain and suffering in the lives of others.

In this day and age, when the pleasure-principle so dominates our society, and when people expend all kinds of time, effort and energy to remove the cross from Christianity and to escape the sometimes harsh realities and responsibilities of mature Christian living, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha stands as an heroic example of how to integrate the mystery of the resurrection in a way that gives honor and glory to God and that ensures loving service to God's people.

2. Blessed Kateri was a woman of magnificent fortitude, dogged determination and unswerving conviction. A lesser person might well have yielded to the pressure to conform to the prevailing culture: to go along with the marriage plans arranged by her foster parents; to squelch that thirst for the God of the Christians which the Holy Spirit had so copiously stirred up in her heart; to abandon her pursuit to a more intimate union with God in the interest of domestic peace and tranquility.

But Blessed Kateri was not to be dissuaded; she was not to become the victim of human respect; she was not to sacrifice principle or conviction for expediency. Remember, she did all of this with virtually no human support or encouragement.

What a marvelous example and inspiration for all of us. We live in a culture that runs so counter to many of our deeply-held Catholic traditions and convictions. For example, any contemporary sociological survey reveals that the attitudes of American Roman Catholics about such critical moral issues as abortion, divorce, sexual ethics, individualism, moral relativism, consumerism and poverty are not significantly different from those who have no formal religious belief whatsoever, or from those who belong to religious traditions who may have positions on these matters somewhat divergent from our own.

In the face of such harsh realities, we are frequently put on the defensive, that is, made to feel old-fashioned or irrelevant, out of step with the times, adhering to a teaching or moral code that no longer speaks to contemporary men and women.

If this be true for all of us in general, how much moreso is it a challenge for our young people. Our teenagers and young adults are bombarded constantly with pressures to conform with the latest fad, fashion or movement: drugs, alcohol, the newest philosophy, art form, or cult experience. They are told in so many ways, both subtly and not so subtly, "You've got to go along to get along; you've got to compromise and give in a bit if you are to gain acceptance, popularity and credibility."

They are encouraged incessantly to substitute money for concern, style for substance, things for self, and sex for love. The rising rates of abortion, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, venereal disease, alcoholism, drug abuse, crime, juvenile delinquency and abandonment of religious practice among teenagers and young adults reveal how devastating these pressures can be.

The young, as well as we who are called to be their teachers and role models, need to be strong and courageous. We need to be a counter-witness to the prevailing culture and whimsical wisdom of the age.

Above all, we need to believe deep in our hearts that Christian values and ideals can truly be embodied and attained in the midst of the nitty-gritty push and pull of contemporary 21st- century living.

What better example, model and inspiration could we have than Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, who almost singlehandedly defied the social conventions of her day and made a radical conscience-led decision to follow that God who revealed Himself to her in the most difficult and unlikely circumstances.

3. Blessed Kateri was a woman of great prayer, a woman who had a deep and abiding awareness of the Lord's love for her and an ongoing personal relationship with Him. How else but through her life of prayer can we explain her extraordinary faith response?

Just as prayer was the key to Kateri's life, it must also be the foundation of our lives today - however busy, hectic and frenzied they may be.

I mention this and underscore it because we can tend to be very "activist" these days: We can become so involved with the here and now, or so caught up with doing for ourselves or others, that we frequently excuse ourselves from prayer or make prayer a second or third priority in our lives.

Yet, what a tragic mistake this is - for if there is no prayer in our life, there is no God in our life. If we do not take the opportunity to pray regularly, no matter what the pretense or excuse, no matter how deeply preoccupied we may be, then, for all practical purposes, we are atheists.

In other words, if we do not pray, we do not know who the Lord is nor in which direction God is calling us in our everyday lives. Furthermore, without prayer in our life, we are unable to transcend the many frustrating, unpleasant and at times totally incomprehensible aspects of our human existence, and we are unable to bring to those with whom we live and work and to those whom we are called to serve the love of the Lord whom we have met and known in our own moments of prayer and reflection.

Rev. Karl Rahner, the renowned Jesuit theologian, stated that in a world that offers little institutional support for organized religion, the only Christians in the future will be those who have had an experience of God. As Blessed Kateri's life so well demonstrates, prayer, however one defines it, is the only way to gain that experience and lead others to our God.

Saint and us
In conclusion, may the news of Blessed Kateri's forthcoming canonization also make us vividly conscious of the needs of our Native American brothers and sisters, Kateri's physical and spiritual descendents, who have been so exploited by personal and national greed, paternalism, racism and broken promises.

There is no better way in which we can honor Blessed Kateri's memory than by supporting the priests, religious and laity working in Native American communities - especially through assistance to the American Indian Bureau and by recommitting ourselves to alleviate the injustices suffered by our Native Americans, so that they can taste the fruits of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness which are our national heritage.

In 1980, I was privileged to be present at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and present Blessed Kateri's cause for beatification at a liturgy celebrated by Pope John Paul II. I now look forward eagerly to the canonization of the Lily of the Mohawks, and I hope many from our Diocese and throughout the United States and Canada will be able to attend that joyous event.

Related Stories:
• Kateri connections
• Story of a special saint
• Local reaction to Kateri canonization



Reader Comments

Posted: Sunday, September 16, 2012
Article comment by: Paulina Matias

As a Maya descendant, I join the Native American brothers and sisters in prayer as Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha is elevated to sainthood in October. “Lily of the Mohawks” must be an inspiration of faith to all natives around the world. We too are part of the church and body of Christ.

Posted: Friday, January 6, 2012
Article comment by: Mary Smith

Bravo,Bishop Hubbard.So many points you bring to our attention.
There is always something "WE" can do....
Thank You,again and always for your BLESSED direction....


Posted: Thursday, January 5, 2012
Article comment by: Dennis Poust

Thank you Bishop Hubbard for an excellent column on the Lily of the Mohawks. It gives me a much greater perspective on her life and how her example can resonate for Catholics today.



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