TUESDAY, APRIL 17: Pay close attention to today’s honoree, because you’ll be hearing her name in the news later this year: It’s the feast day of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to qualify for Roman Catholic sainthood. (For clarification: Most Catholics observe her feast in July, but Catholics in Canada observe it today—on the anniversary of her death.) On October 21, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI is slated to officially declare Bl. Kateri canonized. That’s the official recognition by the Vatican that she is a saint worthy of worldwide veneration.
In northern New York, Bl. Kateri was born the daughter of a Roman Catholic Algonquin and a Mohawk tribal leader, in 1656. Kateri’s mother was captured in war and taken to the Mohawk homeland. When she was 4, Kateri lost both parents and a sibling to a smallpox epidemic, and she was left disfigured for life. Left alone, an uncle (and chief of the Turtle Clan) came to care for the young orphan. (Wikipedia has details.) Although she had been given a Rosary by her mother, Kateri was discouraged from practicing Christianity.
The French attacked Kateri’s village when she was 10, and as part of a peace treaty, Jesuit missionaries eventually entered her village. Kateri was so drawn to the Jesuit way of life that she was baptized at age 20 and Bl. Kateri soon was recognized for her unusually deep understanding of the Christian faith. Kateri already had begun to regard her many sufferings as a road to sanctity, and she steadfastly endured the emotional torment she received from her native tribe for six months after news spread of her conversion. Finally, Kateri moved from her village to a new Christian colony of Indians in Canada. (Read more at American Catholic.) Here, she prayed, cared for the sick and spent long hours in the chapel, while still continuing sometimes extreme practices of self-mortification with other Jesuit women. Bl. Kateri died at 24, as what the Catholic church describes as a professed virgin to God. Various miracles were associated with her death, including: Her marred complexion reportedly became beautiful once again; she reportedly appeared after her death to several people.
WHY IS CANONIZATION SO MOMENTOUS?
The road to Catholic sainthood is a long one—Bl. Kateri’s canonization process began in 1884—and particularly in the era of 21st century technology, proof of a miracle is becoming more and more difficult. Nonetheless, the final miracle of Bl. Kateri was certified at the end of last year, involving a boy healed of a near-fatal illness when his parents prayed to Jesus and invoked Bl. Kateri in their prayers.
Since the reign of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican’s slow-moving canonization division has been directed to pay special attention to cases of sainthood reported among native peoples around the world. Catholic theology holds that there are countless saints—and the path to sainthood is open to millions. To this day, Protestants also declare that they believe in the “communion of saints” when they repeat ancient creeds in worship. The purpose of canonization is to officially investigate and carefully discern whether particular saints in that far larger body of saints are worthy of local, regional or global veneration. As a candidate moves through the various stages toward full canonization, the pope and other Vatican officials are looking for men and women who will inspire others and who embodied “heroic virtue.”
The Vatican process has been criticized from many perspectives. It’s achingly slow. It’s often politically influenced. And, many Catholics around the world have been pushing for some examples of ordinary, blue-collar, married men and women with children to hold up for their heroic virtue as official saints. Bl. Kateri is another example of the many saints who are virgins, who never became parents and who separated themselves from the everyday world to enter religious communities.
However, the Vatican generally is praised by native leaders for honoring her in this way. Ever since Pope John Paul II made his historic North American tour in 1987, including a visit to native peoples in Canada, the Vatican been encouraging Kateri’s cause for canonization. Many Catholics among the native population have called for the declaration, as well. Only 50 years following Bl. Kateri’s death, a convent for Native American nuns was opened in Mexico; these nuns have consistently prayed for Bl. Kateri’s canonization ever since. (Discover other ways Bl. Kateri is remembered at the site for The Kateri Tekakwitha Fund and by the Annual Tekakwitha Conference.)