Feast of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha
European colonization in North America has left a checkered and much debated legacy as complicated as human beings themselves. With European expansion came difficult choices for indigenous peoples as two cultures and ways of entering the world collided.
In 1665, Kateri Tekakwitha was born a member of the Kanien’kehá:ka, People of the Flint Tribe. This people are known to history as the Mohawk. She was the daughter of a Mohawk father and an Algonquin mother who had converted to Christianity.
Europeans brought with them many diseases to which native American had no immunity. Foremost among these was smallpox which decimated indigenous populations across the Americas. Kateri was the only member of her family to survive a smallpox outbreak. Although she lived, it left her own health fragile.
Following the death of her family, she lived with an uncle who was vehemently opposed to Christianity. In spite of his opposition, she came to respect three visiting Jesuits whose lives and example impressed her deeply. One of these was Jacques de Lamberville SJ. She received religious instruction and was baptised Catherine or Kateri.
Conversion led to her persecution by the tribe. Harassed, stoned and threatened with torture, she fled to the mission of St. Francis Xavier at Sault Saint-Louis, near Montreal. Her kindness, life of prayer, deep faith, and heroism in the face of suffering led to her being referred to as the Lily of the Mohawks. She died at the age of 25. Fr Lamberville and fellow Jesuits wrote of her life of piety and heroism and it was these accounts which were instrumental in her canonisation by Pope Benedict in October of 2011.
As was true for the Mohawk in the 17th Century, choices for indigenous peoples today remain difficult. The challenge of retaining native traditions and culture continues to face people around the globe. In engaging in a journey of discernment Kateri reached out for the Sacred, the presence of God. Regardless of the culture or religious tradition, this quest for truth is universal, part of what it means to be truly human.
St Kateri is a patron saint of the environment, reminding us that all creation is linked. Our destiny is bound together with that of all our fellow humans and with the created world. Today, in the context of Covid 19, she gives us a heroic model of someone who knows the frightening impact of a deadly illness. Her experience of life between two cultures reflects the experience of so many today where historical injustice and current inequality continue
to blight humankind’s best attempts to seek harmony. Yet, it is her life of faith, her kindness, prayer and heroism which continues to provide inspiration to our generation, reminding us of where true greatness and the Sacred reside.
1 Corinthians 15:10
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.
Lord, teach us to reach out in love to everyone, regardless of the colour of their skin, nationality, religion, language, gender.
You who created the universe with its diversity, crowned that creation with an abundance of human cultures, traditions and wisdom.
When you walked among us, you left no one out. You reached beyond the norms of your culture and time to women, children and men, Jew, Samaritan and Gentile, speakers of Aramaic, Greek and Latin.
Your love knows no bounds.
Teach us to treat all your creation with the reverence and awe.
Help us to heal the earth and nurture it.
Give us the wisdom to see your light in every human being, so that upholding the dignity of each we may delight in diversity and share your love with everyone we meet.
Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, pray for us.
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Image credit: Kateri Tekakwitha (1656–1680), Native American Catholic saint, 1681, by Claude Chauchetiere, SJ, the Granger Collection, NYC.