Black Elk: Future Patron Saint and Model for Instituted Lay Catechists?

Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota holy man and catechist, up for sainthood has captured the attention of Pope Francis and could be a model for bishops instituting lay catechists.

Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk, daughter Lucy Black Elk and wife Anna Brings White, photographed in their home in Manderson, South Dakota, ca 1910.
Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk, daughter Lucy Black Elk and wife Anna Brings White, photographed in their home in Manderson, South Dakota, ca 1910. (photo: The Sixth Grandfather/Public Domain)

Could Nicholas Black Elk become the Catholic Church’s patron saint of lay catechists? That thought could be on the mind of Pope Francis. 

The canonization cause of Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota holy man and Catholic catechist who brought 400 Lakota people into the Catholic Church, is right now being examined by the Vatican. At a July 26 Mass with Lakota traditions celebrated by Bishop Peter Muhich at St. Isaac Jogues parish in Rapid City, South Dakota, the bishop revealed that the positio was not only complete and in the hands of Rome — but Pope Francis was personally interested in the cause.

“This is a wonderful thing: to see a holy soul and to be able to share that story of that person’s life,” the bishop said at the Mass honoring Nicholas Black Elk, urging the faithful to continue their prayers for Black Elk’s intercession and canonization. 

The ministry of lay catechist has been on Pope Francis’ mind. The Holy Father formally established the lay ministry of catechist in May with the motu proprio Antiquum Ministerium, where he charged bishops to form and ritually institute laypersons to this ministry. 

“The history of evangelization over the past two millennia clearly shows the effectiveness of the mission of catechists,” Pope Francis said. He cited the Second Vatican Council’s “renewed appreciation of the importance of lay involvement in the work of evangelization.” 

“The Council Fathers repeatedly emphasized the great need for the lay faithful to be engaged directly, in the various ways their charism can be expressed, in the ‘plantatio Ecclesiae’ and the development of the Christian community,” he said. The Pope added these lay ministers should be “faithful co-workers with priests and deacons, prepared to exercise their ministry wherever it may prove necessary, and motivated by true apostolic enthusiasm.”

But the lay ministry of catechist, while it includes religious instruction of adults and children in the faith, involves much more. And Nicholas Black Elk’s holy life and story could also provide Pope Francis a powerful illustration of what he is looking for. 

Deacon Bill White, who is Lakota and the diocesan postulator for Black Elk’s cause, told the Register that he believes Black Elk models what Pope Francis envisions for the lay catechist. 

As a catechist, Nicholas Black Elk sought to instruct people in the Catholic faith, which he lived integrated with his Lakota culture after his 1904 reception into the Church. He used a “Two Roads” pictorial catechism where he would explain the “sacred red road” of faith in Jesus Christ. And he would also write pastoral letters, sharing the teachings of the faith or inviting people to grow in their faith through the St. Joseph’s society (for men) and the St. Mary’s society (for women), or at events such as the 1910 Catholic Sioux Congress. 

“Now is the time that we Catholics everywhere must come together and remember that as our Savior has shown us a way, to remind ourselves and grow to ever live like him; to remember to be careful (vigilant) at all times,” Black Elk wrote in one such letter in 1907, the year he was appointed catechist. “When you have received the sacred sacraments, you are a child of God. When you become God’s children, live the way he wants us to live, to be patient and honest as you can with yourself.” 

But Deacon White also said Black Elk’s lay ministry as catechist involved “so much more” than religious instruction. The deacon spoke with the Register at St. Agnes Catholic Church, where Black Elk once organized and led a Eucharistic procession of 1,000 Lakota Catholics in the 1920s. 

The deacon said lay catechists like Black Elk “ran the church in between the times when the priests weren’t around.” Deacon White, whose family grew up 20 miles down the road from St. Agnes, said they had Mass only once a month. But on the other Sundays, catechists would provide a Communion service or Scripture service to keep the people’s faith in Christ alive and growing.

“He buried people in between the times when the priest was gone. People went to him for prayers when someone was sick,” Deacon White said. At that time, priests on the 3,500-square-mile reservation had to cover a lot of miles spread out between 30 churches. They could only spend a few days with a parish to celebrate Mass and other sacraments, so the catechist’s stable ministry was key. “[Black Elk] picked up the slack.” 

The deacon said he believed this model is “going to be more and more important” for the Church to look at, especially as the Church will have increasingly limited numbers of priests able to serve the Catholic faithful. According to 2020 statistics gathered by Georgetown University’s Center for Research in the Apostolate, approximately 20% of Catholic parishes do not have a resident priest pastor. The ratio of total priests to Catholics is 1 priest for 2,000 Catholics; however, when active priests are taken into account, the ratio increases to 1 priest for at least 3,000 Catholics. The rate of ordinations to the priesthood is unable to keep up with the rate of priests taken out of active ministry by death or old age. 

Canon law (Canon 517.2) does allow bishops to put a deacon or layperson in charge of parish life instead of a priest— an arrangement similar to what Black Elk and other catechists experienced — but CARA's data shows bishops have exercised this option so far in less than 300 of the country’s 16,000 parishes. 

 “I think [Black Elk’s] role as a catechist is really what Pope Francis is envisioning,” Deacon White said.

Jesuit Father Joseph Daoust, the superior of Holy Rosary Mission Jesuit Community that serves Catholic parishes on the Pine Ridge Reservation, agreed. He said that while the priests were away visiting other parishes to offer Mass, hear confessions, bless graves and officiate marriages, “the one running the services and doing the preaching, visiting the sick, putting people into the ground, and baptizing babies was the catechist,” he said. “They were major religious figures. They did the catechizing, not only in the sense of sitting down and running through Jesus Christ as our Redeemer or whatever [teaching], but in the way they lead the very local Church.” 

Father Daoust explained that the Pope is very familiar with the robust role of catechist from the Latin American experience. But for the rest of the Catholic Church, Nicholas Black Elk’s canonization could help “expand the notion of catechist in a very productive way.”


Ancient & New Ministry

Damian Costello, an international theological expert on the life and legacy of Nicholas Black Elk and the author of Black Elk: Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism, told the Register that Black Elk “played a very conventional role as a catechist,” which the Jesuits had innovated by “drawing deeply on tradition.”

“This is nothing new. And that's what Francis is saying: We have to come back to this,” Costello said. 

Black Elk’s lay ministry as a catechist highlights for the Church an alternative path to carry out its mission amid the decline of available priests: one which can both grow the Church without closing parishes, which can reduce or remove entirely the Church’s presence in communities. 

As the lay catechist, Costello said, Black Elk had “a vibrant role, with a lot of agency.” In many ways, he added, Black Elk exemplifies “a very helpful model” for the Church to envision co-responsibility for the parish: lay catechists who provide stable parish community leadership while evangelizing and forming people in the faith and the clergy who serve multiple parishes by providing sacraments to nourish people in the life of grace and forming catechists for their evangelical role. 

Father Daoust said Black Elk exemplified this collaborative relationship to share the Gospel. When he accompanied the Jesuits on missionary outreaches to the Shoshone and Arapaho, “Nicholas was the one who really impressed upon them the need to embrace Christ.” 

“So the Jesuits depended on [catechists] like Nicholas,” he said. “They didn’t just give them a job. They said, ‘Please help.’ And they did.”

Costello noted that Black Elk, who had prior experience as a spiritual leader for the Lakota, lived the kind of deep life of faith that Pope Francis is seeking in catechists. 

“He preached the word: He understood it; he lived it; he embodied it fully,” Costello said. “He understood that it was his role to bring the Gospel to people, because he believed it and loved it, and it was infused in his life in a very meaningful way.”

The next step in Nicholas Black Elk’s cause is for the historical and theological commissions to determine he lived a life of heroic virtue and should be declared “Venerable.” After that, two miracles will be required to make him a saint, which would put his ministry as a lay catechist front and center before the entire Catholic Church. 

 “If he becomes a saint,” Father Daoust said, “he would be a great patron of catechists.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.