Pope Benedict XVI presided over the Church’s canonization of the first American Indian, Kateri Tekakwitha, at St. Peter’s Square yesterday. The 17th-century virgin and laywoman, informally known as the “Lily of the Mohawks,” was born in 1656 in present-day New York and died at the age of 24 at the Jesuit mission village of Kahnawake, south of Montreal, in New France.
In advance of the Oct. 21 canonization, Father W. Carroll Paysse, executive director of the Black and Indian Mission Office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke to Rome correspondent Edward Pentin Oct. 17 about the significance of the life of St. Kateri and what her canonization means for the Church in the United States and the universal Church.
How important is this canonization, both to the United States and the American-Indian community?
First and foremost, to the Native-American community, this is something that they have been waiting for — for many, many years. When we shared the word with people across the United States, they were overjoyed in our Native-American communities. Many people were saying things like: “Oh, I wish my parents were alive; they had prayed to Blessed Kateri for so many years.” Other people talked about their parents, their grandparents, aunts and uncles, saying: “This will be a glorious day, a glorious day.”
It’s really brought a lot of pride and is recognition for them to share their own spirituality, their own gifts, as indigenous people in the U.S. Many of them probably feel they now have a place at the table where, perhaps, they’ve been absent, not included, for various reasons historically.
How many Catholic American Indians are there in the United States?
Across the U.S., we have about 500,000-800,000. Those are just rough estimates.
Do the majority of American Indians still follow their traditional religion?
Some follow their own traditional religion/spirituality. Then, of course, like the general population, you have Indians that have embraced different Christian faiths, not only the Catholic faith.
What does Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha’s example teach us today?
First of all, she was true to herself as an Indian woman; she didn’t forget she was an Indian woman; she didn’t live anything other than an Indian life. But she met this person called Jesus Christ through the preaching of missionaries, and her heart was changed.
Once her heart was changed, she saw so many beautiful things that she saw in her own rearing among her native people — but she saw it through the prism of Christ. She understood why it was important to go out of your way to help the elderly, to take time to teach the youth, to go out of your way to sacrifice your time for your friends.
She was known to be a very helpful, cheerful person, and she was known to be a very holy person long before she was declared a saint. She was beatified in 1980, and, at her death at age of 24, the word that went around the village was that the “saint is dead; the saint is dead.” So she has been declared a saint in the hearts of the people.
Have many miracles have been reported?
I’ve been in Washington since 2007, and I travel across the United States visiting Native-American reservations, schools and parishes. And I’ve heard many stories from Native-Americans about miracles. They have not been accepted officially from her intercession, but they say, “Kateri healed my son” or “Kateri healed my father.”
A number of accounts say that Blessed Kateri had interceded on their behalf. But it was this one healing — of Jacob Finkbonner — that [officially] was accepted as a miracle. Jacob was just hours away from death’s door, and his relatives were told to prepare for his funeral. They called for the priest to anoint him, and Sister Kateri Mitchell — executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference and herself a Mohawk like Blessed Kateri, from the St. Regis [Mohawk] Reservation — placed that first-class relic on Jacob. And, almost immediately, his whole health began to change. The doctors said they couldn’t explain this through medicine. All the statistics showed that a person with this illness should have died.
When [Blessed Kateri] was 4-5 years old, a smallpox epidemic went through her village, killed her parents and little brother, and she herself was left with scars on the face and poor eyesight. That didn’t affect her in any way pertaining to her ordinary duties, but we have eyewitness accounts from the Jesuit priest and others that at her death and within minutes her face and complexion changed to become like that of a newborn baby. She appeared to the priest and to others.
What does this canonization mean to the wider Church?
Kateri’s canonization says this to us: First of all, the Catholic Church globally recognizes the holiness of this indigenous woman from what we call the United States of America. She’s the first indigenous woman from the United States [to be canonized]. She speaks to us about what it means to be a true native American, and she speaks to us about what it means to be Catholic.
Once she was baptized, she responded to that grace [given at baptism], which is God’s life within her. That’s what allowed her to endure so much persecution from her own people in living out the Catholic faith — and that’s how she was able to continue to be kind, loving, patient and sacrificing, because she knew that with Christ she could do all things.
Christ doesn’t promise us a perfect life; he promises to be with us in our suffering — and she understood that. So she really models what it is for us to be Christian.
This year, the Holy Father has declared a Year of Faith — another significant time for her to be canonized a saint. She models the faith for us, our personal faith as Catholics and our Christian community as Catholics. It’s also a time when the Holy Father has called a Synod of Bishops to talk about a “New Evangelization.” She was evangelized. Jesus teaches us that he was the first missionary, sent from heaven. He called the apostles, sent them out, and then the missionaries came to her people, and she became a Christian; and, then, by her example and modeling, she drew other people to the Christian faith.
So it’s because of her baptismal grace — and that she responded in such a beautiful way — that all these beautiful components, if you will, beautifully fit together and culminated in raising her up to the altar of the Church.