This past week, the feast day of a fairly recent saint was celebrated in the Catholic Church. As the church stresses a call to the peripheries, the person and witness of St. Kateri Tekakwitha stands as a living example to us of what can happen when the church is faithful to this commission. The life of this Native American saint can also show us what the peripheries look like and what gifts they can reciprocate to the Church.
As the seventeenth-century missionary effort spread in the twists and turns of North America, the Mohawk tribe was engaged by the Jesuit priests and the Good News was proclaimed. Many dismissed the message, while some were interested but quickly fell away. Among these diverse responses was Tekakwitha, a young woman who heard about the God who cared for her, who died and rose for her, and wishes for her to have eternal fellowship with him.
Who was this young woman from the peripheries of North America with such a unique openness to the gospel?
Tekakwitha was born in 1656 near Auriesville, New York. She was the favored daughter of a highly regarded Mohawk warrior. In her native language, her name meant “she moves things.” When she was four, small pox struck her tribe and took the life of her father, mother, and brother. Tekakwitha had the disease but survived. The illness, however, deformed her face with multiple scars and left her practically blind. Following tribal custom, she was adopted and raised by extended family members.
It was when Tekakwitha was a teenager that she first heard the gospel. She was immediately moved by the presentation of such a tender and gentle God. She desired to know more about Jesus and how best to to follow him. When she was twenty, Tekakwitha was baptized and took the name Kateri. The name was the Mohawk version of Catherine.
After her baptism, Kateri Tekakwitha’s faith was a constant source of strength to her. Unfortunately, it was also the cause of hostility and rejection. Kateri was pressured to compromise her beliefs and adjust her convictions. She wanted her faith to be pure as a sincere gift to Jesus Christ. This desire, however, caused friction with her family and tribe.
The young, half-blind woman was beaten, neglected, dismissed, mocked, and her very life was threatened. Kateri’s life was not easy, but she wanted to be faithful and true to her beloved Jesus.
For her own protection, Kateri moved into a mission post, where new converts among the native peoples assembled and lived together. In the post, Kateri was noted for her life of prayer, penance, and the care of the sick and aged. She missed her own tribe and family but, in Jesus Christ, she accepted the inhabitants of the mission post as her new family and sought to love and honor them as her own.
Kateri desired to enter the convent but was not able to do so. Instead, she took a private vow of virginity and sought to live a personal life of contemplation and service. In many respects, her life would anticipate the later vocation of “single for the Lord.”
Kateri was known for the purity and fortitude of her faith, which had matured through difficulty and suffering. She was hailed as the “Lily of the Mohawks” and praised for her goodness and love for others. Kateri never let herself fall into self-pity, nor did she blame others or God for her struggles and hardship. Kateri saw Jesus as her loving friend and companion, the one who could show her God’s face.
At her death in 1680, Kateri’s last words were: “Jesus, I love you!” In passing from this life, the body of Kateri Tekakwitha was healed of all its scars and a previously disguised physical beauty revealed itself.
And so, we have the witness of a devout Christian, converted in the peripheries of her day. And while the story is impressive, even as it is disturbing, what help can it give to us today? What lessons can this person of the peripheries offer to us in our world?
The life of St. Kateri offers us many reminders and opportunities for renewal. Her life was motivated by a keen sense of divine providence, which convicts us in our pride and false assertions of power. She was committed to prayer that unmasks our egotism and sense of self-sufficiency. Kateri Tekakwitha understood the spiritual usefulness of suffering, while many of us labor and go to extensive lengths to avoid any suffering or to ignore the sufferings of others.
And she knew the importance of bodily purity, which embarrasses our overly sexed culture and objectification of others as mere means of pleasure or utility.
In summary, St. Kateri knew the radical demands of faith in Jesus Christ and was willing to give everything to fulfill and live them without measure. In an age of compromise that fears commitment within societies that privatize religion and exclude its contribution to the public forum, our newer saint shows us the liberating and joyful path of faith and love and the enrichment they offer to the human family.
St. Kateri Tekakwitha, therefore, offers us a voice from the peripheries that reminds us and calls us all to our first love, namely, to God and to a life of love, self-control, and generous service.