On October 21, 2012, the Algonquin-Mohawk woman, Kateri Tekakwitha, was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI, along with six other holy men and women, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.
Against All Odds, I Was There
Many years before, I had promised myself that if this American Indian woman whom I had come to love, would be canonized a saint in my lifetime, I would be present at the event. Although I had prayed often that the event would someday take place, I did not hold too much hope that I would be called upon to fulfill my promise. If after more than 300 years since Kateri’s death, and the numerous accounts of miraculous cures attributed to her and documented, the Church had not yet bestowed sainthood on this worthy and heroically virtuous woman, what was the likelihood that it would happen in my lifetime? But there I was, unreal as it seemed, amid the throngs at the wonderful canonization Mass where Blessed Kateri became Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. Looking back, now, on all the circumstances that led up to the fulfillment of that promise, I realize that its accomplishment had very little to do with my feeble efforts, and everything to do with God and His lovingly merciful plan for my life.
Kateri and I
Have you ever seen something in retrospect with a new vision, and said in wonderment, “Oh, now I get it, God! Now I see something of the greater gift You had in mind.” It was like that with me and Kateri. I do not remember where she came from or why I was very attracted to her in particular from among the hundreds of other women saints. As a matter of fact, St. Kateri became my Confirmation saint under an odd set of circumstances because I did not have a Confirmation name, to begin with.
When I was in my twenties, I recounted to my spiritual director, who was a priest, that I had been Confirmed in Guatemala, my mother’s homeland, when I was three years old, where the custom of choosing Confirmation saints did not exist at the time; it was 1960. Later, back home in California, when I understood who the saints were, and had to sit in on the Confirmation preparation sessions of my 7th grade classmates (wisely mandatory for me even though I would not be participating in the ceremony), I felt a bit left out and mused about which saint I would have chosen to take as my sort of companion for the journey. After much deliberation, but not completely convinced, I thought I might have chosen St. Catherine of Siena if I had been given the opportunity. And I suppose that I would have, had I not been too painfully shy to speak up for myself. I must not have even told my mother because she would have seen if anything could have been done about my being “nameless.” But had that circumstance been different, I would not have been able to claim Kateri, for I did not even learn of her existence until at least 1980 when she was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II. The year of that 7th-grade Confirmation ceremony was 1969.
It was curious, too, in a lovely way, that when my spiritual director, being a priest, granted my request that, then, Blessed Kateri, be my official, albeit belated, Confirmation saint, I learned a little-known fact about her Christian name. She and the good Jesuit missionaries (her people called them “the Blackrobes”) had decided that she would be christened “Kateri” (the equivalent of “Catherine” in her language), in honor of St. Catherine of Siena, at her longed for Baptism on Easter Sunday, 1676. Kateri was 20 years old. I had not known that Kateri was not her given name, nor that it was derived from Catherine, so I smiled at the new knowledge.
Through the years, I have read literature on the life of this amazing, holy young woman, whose parents and brother were taken from her by smallpox when she was a small child. Her Algonquin mother had sought and received Baptism from Jesuit missionaries before her abduction by a Mohawk chief who took her in marriage. In 1677, several months after her own Baptism, Kateri fled North 200 miles, from her uncle’s Mohawk village, near present Auriesville, New York, to St. Francis Xavier Mission, run by the Jesuits on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada. There, among other baptized Indian people, she could live peacefully as a Christian. Two of the Jesuit missionaries who had counseled, taught, and worked closely with Kateri, knew her uncommon sanctity and wrote extensively on her life at the mission: Fr. Claude Chauchetiere (whose 1690 oil painting of Kateri is the oldest portrait of the saint), and Fr. Pierre Cholenec (the 2012 translation of his 1696 work, Catherine Tekakwitha, is available from ARX Publishing, and titled, Kateri Tekakwitha: Iroquois Saint).
Fr. Cholenec writes as an eyewitness, having been at Kateri’s side when she died and recording what followed just minutes after her death at the age of 24:
“[Kateri’s face,] so disfigured and so swarthy in life, suddenly changed about fifteen minutes after her death, and in an instant became so beautiful and so fair that just as soon as I saw it (I was praying by her side) I let out a yell, I was so astonished, and I sent for the priest who was working at the repository for the Holy Thursday service. At the news of this prodigy, he came running with some people who were with him. We then had the time to contemplate this marvel right up to the time of her burial. I frankly admit that my first thought at the time was that Catherine could well have entered heaven at that moment and that she had–as a preview–already received in her virginal body a small indication of the glory of which her soul had taken possession in Heaven.” [excerpt from Fr. Pierre Cholenec’s, Catherine Tekakwitha. Translation by Fr. William Lonc, S. J., Summer 2002, p. 50, found at kateritekakwitha.org ]
Why St. Kateri?
Yet I questioned God, why St. Kateri? Why did my heart single out this young woman, even long before she officially was hailed a saint? So many of the saints have extraordinary, even incredible stories to tell. The fact is that to be a saint is to be extraordinary, extraordinary in closeness to God, thus, extraordinary in virtue. Such love of God and neighbor often brings down the mighty and miraculous hand of God upon such persons, and those whose lives they touch, in seemingly incredible ways. I guess, quite simply, Kateri was touching my life right where I was at. She was everything I loved but was not.
Kateri Tekakwitha, even as a child, endured the many bitter hardships of her life with great inner strength and courage. She was a woman of remarkable determination and a profound, selfless love of God and others. Once she had reached the mission of the Jesuits in Canada, her days revolved around the Eucharist and the Mass. She attended every Mass during the day, and spent all her free hours in Eucharistic Adoration, arriving outside the chapel before the priests each morning, and was the last of the village to leave at lockup time each night. Additionally, at a time when young Indian women were seeking marriage and a family, not only as a way of carrying on the line of their people but to ensure a certain amount of security for themselves in later life, Kateri was the first to insist that she would remain celibate, pledging a vow of virginity in order to live for Christ alone. She would not be daunted, even at the advice of her spiritual director, Fr. Cholenec, that she delay her decision for further discernment. The wise Jesuit knew that such a vow was a serious step and inconsistent with her cultural norms and attitudes. As it turned out, after her example, she inspired other like-minded peers to profess perpetual vows to Jesus as well.