by Stephen Beale
Recently canonized Saint Kateri Tekakwitha obviously has a special meaning for Native Americans, but she’s already being held up as a powerful inspiration for other faithful Christians in many other ways.
One is reminded of St. Paul, who wrote in 1 Corinthians 9 that he had “become all things to all, to save at least some.” Much the same could be said about St. Kateri regarding the many ways she can inspire Christians at different points in their faith journeys—based on reactions to her canonization in the Catholic News Service and First Things magazine:
Courage to be a Christian in a Hostile Culture: Converting to Catholicism as a Native American in the nineteenth century had to have been an extraordinary act of courage. And, as might be expected, St. Kateri was ostracized by her community. Her fellow tribesmen pelted her with stones when on her way to a local chapel and she was calumniated as a “sorceress and seductress,” according to First Things. She eventually had to go into exile. “I think many young people today are embarrassed about embracing the Catholic faith because they live in a secular culture that’s hostile toward religious experience,” said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, himself of Native American descent.
An Inspiration to Women: For some, it’s not her Native American heritage as much as it is her lowly position as a woman in her society that is inspiring their faith. As one Cree woman from Canada told the Catholic News Service: “Kateri inspires me because she’s an aboriginal woman. According to sociologists, aboriginal women are at the lowest (social) strata, and for the church to raise up to the communion of saints an aboriginal woman is so awesome and wonderful.” (Certainly Mary, as an unwed pregnant Jewish teenager, comes to mind as a parallel figure.)
Sanctity in the Small Things: Kateri did not found any new religious orders, she held no formal office in the Church or in secular institutions, and she did not leave any major writings or spiritual works. Instead, her life is a lesson in how sanctity can be achieved in the “small things.” “Saints don’t have to do extraordinary things, they just have to love,” said Archbishop Gerald Cyprien Lacroix of Quebec. It reminds one of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and her teachings about the “little way.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both saints have floral epithets: St. Therese was also known as the “Little Flower of Jesus” and St. Kateri has been called the “Lily of the Mohawks.”
The Beauty of Holiness: Kateri survived the smallpox epidemic, but was left disfigured and visually impaired. (For those readers not familiar with the terrible scars left by smallpox, I’ll leave it to you to find this for yourself on Google.) As if the ravages of disease were not enough of a cross for her to bear, she also reportedly would lie down on a bed of thorns as a practice of corporal mortification—identifying with the crucified Christ. On her deathbed, her followers reportedly saw the “scars on her face miraculously” fade away moments after she passed, according to a story in First Things.
Longing for Christ: Before Jesuit missionaries had set foot in her village, Kateri displayed what one First Things writer describes as “pre-Christian tendencies.” Her mother, who apparently was Catholic, passed on some teachings of the faith to Kateri, who embraced them wholeheartedly, reportedly going out into the woods for periods of long contemplation, “listening to God’s voice within her heart,” according to First Things.
Truly St. Kateri is a wonderful reminder—in more ways than one—that the Catholic Church is authentically catholic, i.e. universal.