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home : bishop : columns

11/8/2012 11:09:00 AM
COLUMN
Bishop's homily for Kateri canonization
BISHOP HUBBARD GIVES his homily at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome as pilgrims from the Albany Diocese and others listen.
BISHOP HUBBARD GIVES his homily at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome as pilgrims from the Albany Diocese and others listen.

BY BISHOP HOWARD J. HUBBARD


(Editor's note: Bishop Hubbard delivered this homily at the Mass of Thanksgiving for the canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Nov. 4 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany. He delivered a similar homily during the diocesan pilgrimage to Rome for the Oct. 21 canonization ceremony.)

Two weeks ago today, I had the privilege of concelebrating the liturgy in the piazza of St. Peter's Basilica at which Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, canonized seven saints, including:

•  Maria del Carmen, the Spanish foundress of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception;

•  Pedro Calungsod, a 17th-century Filipino martyr;

•  Jacques Berthieu, a French Jesuit priest;

•  Giovanni Battista Piamarta, an Italian priest who founded the Congregation of the Holy Family of Nazareth (for men) and the Humble Servants of the Lord (for women);

•  Anna Shaeffer, a German laywoman; and two from upstate New York:

•  Mother Marianne Cope, who for 45 years, from 1839 to 1883, lived in the then-Diocese of Albany and served as a Sister of St. Francis, founding hospitals in Utica and Syracuse before the daughter Diocese of Syracuse was formed from ours in 1886 (at a time when she had already left our shores to minister to the lepers on the isle of Molokai, Hawaii, along with Rev. Damien de Veuster);

•  and, of course, our own Kateri Tekakwitha, whose canonization has brought us to this liturgy of thanksgiving this afternoon.

What a thrill it was to stand at the altar erected in front of St. Peter's Basilica, in the shadow of Michelangelo's magnificent dome, overlooking approximately 100,000 pilgrims - including 250 from our own Diocese - crammed into every corner of the piazza encircled by Bernini's majestic colonnades, and to realize the long way we had come to be in the center of our Catholic Christian faith:

•  from the wilderness of 17th-century North America to the 21st century in ancient Rome...from the banks of the Mohawk River in upstate New York and the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Southern Canada to the banks of the Tiber in the Eternal City...from the written accounts of the French Jesuit missionaries and the oral histories of the Native American people to the pomp and splendor of the solemn canonization ceremony in St. Peter's Square...

•  from the introduction of Kateri's cause in 1884 to the Italian Pope Pius XII declaring her venerable in 1943, to her beatification by the Polish Pope Blessed John Paul II in 1980, to her canonization by our present German pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI.

In one sense, the fact that this obscure Indian maiden who lived such a relatively short and (by the world's standards) rather ordinary and uneventful life is now presented to the universal Church as a model of holiness and ministry is truly extraordinary.

But, in another sense, it is very much in accord with the divine plan of which St. Paul speaks in our second reading today, taken from his first letter to the Corinthians: "God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong; and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God. It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption" (I Cor 1:27-30).

Accordingly, God chose Kateri to be a humble and lowly witness to Jesus Christ and, through her courageous life of deep faith, loving compassion and selfless service, she has inspired millions over the years. As a Native American, hopefully her canonization will help to heal our First Nations people who have been victims of such oppression, abuse, exploitation and betrayal over the centuries.

The outline of Kateri's life is simple yet profound, and known to most present today. She was born in Ossernenon, a Native American village on the banks of the Mohawk River, which is now in the State of New York and known as Auriesville. Her father was a Mohawk chief and her mother a Catholic Algonquin.

At the age of four, her village was ravaged by a smallpox epidemic, taking the lives of her parents and brother and leaving Kateri terribly weakened, her face scarred permanently and her eyesight severely impaired. She was adopted by her two aunts and her uncle, also a Mohawk chief.

After their village was burned down by French forces, the family moved to a new village called Caughnawaga, five miles away on the north side of the Mohawk, which is now known as Fonda.

Although not baptized as an infant, Kateri had fond memories of the stories of Christian faith related by her mother, which remained impressed upon her indelibly.

When Tekakwitha was 18 years old, Jesuit missionary Rev. James deLamberville came to Caughnawaga to establish a chapel. Kateri learned more about the Christian faith and, on Easter Sunday at the age of 20, she was baptized and given the name "Kateri," which is Mohawk for "Catherine."

Unfortunately, the so-called "black robes," with their strange religion and association with the European fur traders, were looked upon with suspicion by many of the villagers, and Kateri soon was ostracized because of her embrace of Christianity.

Due to increasing hostility by her fellow villagers, Kateri left Caughnawaga and fled 200 miles north on a two-month journey through the woods, mountains, rivers, lakes and streams of the Adirondacks to the Catholic mission of St. Francis Xavier at Sault Ste. Louis near Montreal in Canada.

There, Kateri received her first holy communion on Christmas Day 1677. Two years later, on the feast of the Annunciation, she made a vow of perpetual virginity - as far as we know, the first Native American ever to do so.

Then, at the tender age of 24, she died on Wednesday of Holy Week 1680 - her body simply worn out by the long-term effects of the smallpox disease, as well as by the harsh penance she took upon herself. For example, she exposed herself to the pain of cold and to the burn of hot coals as well as piercing her skin with thorns to imitate the suffering of Christ. Her last words were, "Jesus, I love you."

Fifteen minutes after her death, the two Jesuits and a roomful of Native Americans who were present at her passing testified that the ugly scars which disfigured her face from childhood disappeared miraculously.

One may ask what the virtuous life of this 17th-century Indian maiden, the so-called Lily of the Mohawks, raised in such a different social and cultural environment than our own, has to offer us today. Let me suggest six contemporary lessons which might be drawn from Kateri's life of heroic Christian virtue.

1First, Kateri embraced the cross. In addition to being orphaned and permanently scarred, after her baptism she became a village outcast. Her family refused her food on Sunday because she wouldn't work on the Sabbath and children would taunt her and throw stones at her. She was threatened with torture or death if she did not renounce her Christian faith. This led to her enforced exile in Canada.

This willingness to embrace the cross, which Kateri did so wholeheartedly, is too often missing in our age of instant gratification. We in the 21st century have been sold and, to a large extent, have bought a bill of goods. This bill of goods tells us that pain and suffering - that tension, anxiety and discomfort of any sort - need not exist, and that life at all times and under every circumstance is meant to be pleasurable and comfortable.

In other words, we have been convinced that for every pain there is an antidote, for every depression there is a mood reverser and for every bit of discomfort there is some new, magic formula that can alter our life's situation.

However, as we all know from experience, life just isn't like that. There is always the need for discipline and sacrifice in our lives. This is one of the great mysteries of our faith, the mystery of the cross.

Hence, we must recognize and appreciate, as Kateri did, that the cross must be an integral and essential part of the Christian life: the cross of accepting a message that is countercultural and that, consequently, will be frequently ridiculed, scorned, and rejected...the cross of living in a Church that is still in the throes of transition in our post-Vatican II era, where age-old moorings have been cut off and set adrift, and where we are experiencing the tension and stress of forging new ministerial models and approaches...the cross of giving up some ideas which once seemed unchangeable or of shedding attitudes that used to provide security...the cross of being misunderstood and misjudged, but also the cross of not seeing clearly and, thus, of misunderstanding and misjudging others...the cross of racial, ethnic and cultural discrimination and oppression...the cross of being patient and kind, even when humanly speaking we want to strike back..the cross of showing compassion toward others when precious little compassion is shown in return.

Yes, accepting these and other crosses too numerous, too unpredictable and too personal to mention - a job loss, the death of a loved one, a child gone wrong, an alcoholic family member or a serious illness - becomes an inevitable part of our journey of discipleship. Kateri grasped and demonstrated this acceptance of the cross par excellence.

2Second, Kateri witnessed the importance of other-centeredness. Despite her poor eyesight and infirmities, she was constantly looking to serve others. She appreciated the Gospel message that "unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it will bear much fruit."

Kateri devoted herself tirelessly to serving others in need: catechizing the young, attending to the plight of the sick and caring for the frail elderly and dying. Like Jesus, she was a person for others, and her life serves as an antidote to the individualism of our age wherein "my needs, my wants, and my feelings" become the focus of our existence and the basis for decision-making and action.

3Third, Kateri offered a marvelous witness to a chaste life which is so desperately needed in a world that is sex-oriented and sex-saturated, but not truly sexual in the fullest and finest sense of that term.

Since the so-called "sexual revolution" of the 1960s, which has led to the hook-up culture in which we live, the growing numbers of couples involved in cohabitation and the rising rates of adultery and divorce, it has become truly countercultural to live a chaste life. Indeed, sexual pleasure and gratification are seen by many as essential for a meaningful and fully actualized life.

But as already stated, Kateri became the first known Native American to commit herself voluntarily to a life of virginity, which was so foreign to her culture, and she inspired others by witnessing to the fact that such a chaste life could truly be fulfilling, affirming and life-giving.

As Rev. Thomas Rosica, CEO of the Catholic Salt and Light media foundation and television network in Canada, notes, Kateri "is a model of chastity and purity, a sure guide, teaching how to live the gift of our sexuality with delight and respect for God's loving plan. The more we accept chastity and make it our way of life, the more people around us will sense that the Holy Spirit dwells within us and be able to find God through us."

4Fourth, Kateri is the patron of ecology and the environment. In accord with her Native American heritage, she taught us how to respect the created world, to protect it and to care for it.

Certainly, this is a needed lesson for our day as we continue to exploit the universe by industrial pollution, strip mining and harmful carbon dioxide emissions from coal, oil and natural gas, which contribute to the growing challenge of global warming and climate change.

Our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has written extensively on this devastating reality, and in so doing has become known as "the green pope."

For example, in his 2010 World Day of Peace message, Pope Benedict stated that the degradation of the environment is a pressing moral problem that threatens human life itself. He noted that the "Church's commitment to environmental protection flows from a religious duty to protect earth, water and air as a gift of God's creation meant for everyone, and above all to save humankind from the danger of self destruction."

Thus, we must learn to blend green theology with practices like waste recycling, the use of biodegradable and organically grown food products and renewable energy supplies, as well as taking responsibility for protecting our ecosystems and watersheds, improving air quality and responding to the needs of those most victimized by climate change: the poorest and most vulnerable members of our human family.

Let us, then, urgently and incessantly seek Kateri's intercession so that we will make environmental awareness, sustainability and justice part and parcel of our sacred responsibility to care for God's creation, and to pass it on to future generations better than when we inherited it.

5Fifth, Kateri is an enduring role model for the new evangelization, given the fact that she was an instrument in her own lifetime of the first evangelization.

With the secularism, moral relativism, scientism and new atheism of our age, all the industrialized countries of our globe have experienced a dramatic decline in Mass attendance, sacramental participation and adherence to Church teachings. The numbers of Catholics who have stopped practicing their faith and the growing number of unchurched throughout the world is astronomical.

Further, there is a growth of those whom sociologists now label as "the spirituals:" those who seek transcendence and meaning in their lives, but feel no need to identify with any organized religion.

Thus, Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have called for a New Evangelization - one marked not by the restoration of a past age, but by bold new steps to proclaim afresh the joyful and liberating message of the Gospel.

Today, we are confronted with a need for a rapidly renewed proclamation of the Good News for those already baptized, but who have long since not experienced a real relationship with Jesus Christ. It must be a relationship based not on externals or mere conformity to a ritualistic tradition, but upon a genuine love for Jesus Christ and the Father He revealed and the Spirit He promised.

It must be a relationship which permeates all that we do - not only through our formal worship, but through our own family, social, work and community interactions.

Our laity, especially, must appreciate and put into practice their baptismal and confirmation call to holiness and ministry, and then find the courage and strength to share with others - family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers and even strangers - the joy, hope, peace, serenity and consolation of our Catholic Christian faith, and how this faith gives meaning, purpose and direction to our lives.

At great personal cost, then, we must emulate by word and example Kateri's evangelizing spirit in our day.

6Sixth, and finally, Kateri was a woman of deep prayer and devotion. She spent hours of her day kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, often in a cold chapel. She loved reciting the Rosary and always carried it around her neck. Her favorite devotion was to fashion crosses out of sticks and place them throughout the woods. These crosses served as spiritual markers which reminded her to stop and spend a moment in prayer.

We also must learn to be people whose lives are permeated by prayer. It has been said that the crisis of our age is a crisis of spirituality. We have lost a sense of the transcendent. We have lost the art of contemplation. We have failed in our efforts to integrate liturgy and work, prayer and service, faith and action into our everyday lives.

To be sure, we have moved away from the monastic approach to spirituality which dominated the life of the Church for many centuries. However, we are still struggling in our efforts to foster an authentic apostolic spirituality: one which enables us to harmonize our work with our prayer; one which enables us to be doers who contemplate; one which enables us to reflect upon the wonder of God's creation, the beauty of the redeemer's love and the pulsating presence of God's spirit in our own lives and within the world, and then to translate that reflection into words and deeds that speak to contemporary realities.

The only way we can do this is if we are people of prayer, for it is only in prayer that we can touch base with the Lord. It is only in prayer that we can see ourselves as we really are and as God sees us - and it is only in prayer that we can overcome the frustrating, unpleasant and at times totally incomprehensible aspects of our daily life and bring to those with whom we live and work and to those we are called to serve the love of God whom we have met and known in our own moments of prayerful reflection.

Karl Rahner, arguably the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century, put it this way: "There is only one road that leads to God; it is prayer. If someone tries to show you another, you are being deceived."

The secret of all secrets, then, is that our lives must be rooted in a deep, intimate, personal relationship with God through our liturgical and personal prayer. To the extent that our lives are so rooted, to that extent can we be convincing without being arrogant, able to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and authentic role models and witnesses without being manipulative.

I hope and pray, then, that we who rejoice today in Kateri's canonization will celebrate it by imitating her embrace of the cross, her other-centeredness, her chaste living, her love for the environment, her commitment to evangelization and her life of prayer. If we do so, we can be assured that our lives, like hers, will truly give honor and glory to God and bring hope, peace and betterment to God's people.

May it be so!





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