Friday, October 26, 2012

Kateri Tekakwitha: A Saint and the Media

On Sunday, October 21, 2012 seven people were recognized by the Catholic Church as Saints. One of the seven was a Mohawk woman who lived in North America in the 17th century, Kateri Tekakwitha. The media in Canada (and no doubt also in the US) dutifully reported the news and there were many comments posted on news sites of the media. As usual in reporting about the Catholic Church there were some errors in the reports and even more misunderstandings in the comments by readers. But, on the whole, the reporting was not that bad. I listened to CBC’s The National and the report was quite positive. Still those misunderstandings by listeners and readers need to be cleared up.
Who is Kateri Tekakwitha?
Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 in what is now New York State. Of course, at that time the territory was the Mohawk nation as the United States of America did not exist as a country. Kateri’s mother was a Christian Algonquin who had been captured by the Iroquois. Her husband saved her from the fate of a captive by marrying her.
When Kateri was only four years old (some sources say six), her parents died of smallpox and she, too, contracted the disease. As a result her face was badly scarred and she was left partially blind.
In 1667 two Jesuit missionaries from Quebec came and stayed with Kateri’s uncle. It was from them that she first learned about Christianity and believed. She lived a life of virtue in a place where carnage and debauchery was common. Furthermore, she resisted all efforts to marriages arranged by her relatives.
When she was eighteen she was baptized by Father Jacques de Lamberville and afterwards faced great opposition to her faith in her village. Kateri was her baptismal name, a form of 'Caterina' and previously she had been known only as Tekakwitha. Finally a Christian friend helped her to escape to Kahnawake on the St. Lawrence River in New France (now Quebec). There her life, which she dedicated to God, and her deeds impressed both the French and her own people.
Kateri worked at the Mission of St. Francis Xavier until her death at the young age of 24.
It is said that she scourged herself and sat on hot coals to endure the suffering that Christ had endured and that this caused her early death. Critics on the websites comment on an 'evil institution' that would require such acts. The Catholic Church does not require these acts but she did learn about this from those around her at the Mission. It was common during this age to increase one's suffering in order to partake in Christ's suffering. One can read about these scourgings in books written at the time. In the movie, Black Robe, which tells of the Jesuits in early Quebec, one of the priests scourges himself after being tempted. In today's world it is difficult to understand this practice. Whether or not it hastened her death cannot be known for certain; life in those times was difficult in any case.
People who were present said that the scars from smallpox disappeared from her face almost immediately after her death and her skin was once again beautiful. People began to call her ‘The Lily of the Mohawks’. Devotion to her by Native Americans began shortly after her death and her grave was visited by many pilgrims. In 1884 a monument was erected to her memory by Rev. Clarence Walworth.
On January 3, 1943 Kateri was declared ‘venerable’ by Pope Pius XII, the first step towards sainthood. On June 22, 1980 she was ‘beatified’ by Pope John Paul II, the second step towards sainthood and in October, 2012 she was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI raising her to ‘sainthood’. This means that the Catholic Church recognizes her as a saint - the Church does not make her a saint.
What then is a saint?
St. Paul addresses all those who are Christians as saints, for example, “to the saints in Colossae, our faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.” (Colossians 1:2) and so all Christians are in this respect ‘saints’.
Early in the Christian Church it was seen that some Christians lived lives of extraordinary virtue. These people were then venerated or honoured in their local church and eventually the Catholic Church began a process called ‘canonization’ by which these people could be recognized in a special way by all.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life; all are called to holiness. (CCC 2013) i.e. we are all called to be saints. Saints are examples of holiness and show us the kind of life we can lead. Instead of looking to movie stars and sports heroes, who often fail us, we can look to the saints for examples of how we should live.
Saints are also ‘companions in prayer’. Just as we ask our friends to pray for us we can ask the saints to intercede for us. One of the requirements for being recognized as a saint is a healing or miracle, scientifically unexplainable, attributed to the intercession of the candidate for sainthood.
One miracle is required for beatification and a second is required for canonization. In the case of Kateri Tekakwitha there were reported healings after her death. One case was that of a Protestant child, Joseph Kellog, captured by Native Americans in the 18th century. After he contracted smallpox the Jesuits were asked to treat him. The Jesuits used relics from Kateri’s grave and he was reportedly healed. Another priest reported that he had been healed of deafness after prayer to Kateri and a Native woman was healed of pneumonia.
In 2006 a half-native child in Washington State, Jake Finkbonner, had necrotizing fasciitis commonly known as ‘flesh-eating disease’. It was not responding to treatment and his family had already called a priest for the sacrament of the sick (formerly known as ‘the last rites’) expecting that he would not live much longer. They also made arrangements to donate his organs after his death. Mortality rates for necrotizing fasciitis are reported to be very high.
A Catholic nun, also a Mohawk, Sister Kateri Mitchell, brought a relic (see Matt 9:20-22 and Acts 19:11-12) of Kateri Tekakwitha (a fragment of her bone), placed it on Jake’s body and prayed with his parents to Kateri to ask for healing. The next day the infection stopped its progression. There is no clear scientific explanation for the abrupt change in Jake’s condition and Jake and his family believe that his healing was due to Blessed Kateri’s intercession. Miracles to be used in the 'cause of saints' are investigated by a panel of experts in their field - they are not necessarily Catholics. Jake is now 12 and except for scars from surgery he is fully recovered and is an enthusiastic basketball player. Jake and his family and other members of the Lummi tribe attended the canonization ceremony in Rome.
A saint would be the last person to claim that a healing or other miracle was ‘performed’ by them. The miracle is always done by the power of God and not the saint. The saint only intercedes for us and leads us to Jesus, the real Healer. Neither do Catholics ‘worship’ saints; worshipping anyone or anything other than God is a sin. We have pictures of our family members in order to remember them but we do not worship the pictures. In the same way, a statue of a saint is only a representation of the saint; it is not an ‘idol’.
Link to Residential School Abuse?
The media and commentators on some media sites suggest that the Catholic Church has conveniently proclaimed Kateri Tekakwitha a saint in order to ‘pacify’ Native people because of the abuse at Residential Schools. However, Kateri was recognized as someone with extraordinary virtue shortly after her death; schools and churches have been named for her for many years. Her sainthood cause (investigation of her life in order to see if should be declared a saint) was opened in 1932, long before residential schools were called into question and she was declared venerable in 1943. The abuse in Residential Schools was not publicly known until the late 1980’s. In 1990, Phil Fontaine, who was then the leader of the Association of Manitoba Chiefs, called for those involved in Residential Schools to acknowledge the abuse. A year later the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was convened by the Canadian government. The timing seems to indicate that the canonization had nothing to do with ‘abuse’ and would have gone ahead even if there had been no scandals regarding Residential Schools.
Native People and Hope
An estimated 2,000 Native people from North America attended the canonization ceremony in Rome. Several of them were interviewed by the journalists. No one that I heard interviewed mentioned the Residential Schools in connection with the canonization. They expressed joy that a fellow Native American was raised to such an honour and said that this gave them hope. They mentioned how their people had asked for Kateri’s prayers for many years. The fact that there are many devout Catholics amongst the Native people of Canada suggests that not all students of residential schools had bad experiences at the schools. This, of course, does not wipe out the wrong that was done: abusing innocent children and tearing them away from their families. However, it should caution us not to paint all who worked in the schools with the same brush.
Another Native woman of the Carrier Nation, Rose Prince, who lived in British Columbia, may also be on the road to sainthood. When her grave had to be moved for construction, her body was found incorrupt. Relics from the gravesite have been reported in several miracles. Rose attended a Residential School in LeJac, BC and when her schooling was completed she asked to stay on and work there as she did not want to return to her home. Her cause to sainthood is being investigated.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


  A young girl in BC committed suicide the other day. Some time ago she had posted a video on YouTube or on Facebook telling her friends that she had been bullied and was now feeling desperate. She explains how she had been pressured into posting a nude photo of herself to a ‘friend’ and that person made the photo public. Then others online, perhaps even fellow-classmates in school, called her unflattering names causing her much distress. Even after her death people have posted nasty comments about her on a page of remembrance!
There have been many young people worldwide who have killed themselves over bullying. Some of the bullying was because the teens were gay but many were not. It is said that bullying is most often over ‘body image’ but bullies will always find a reason to bully someone.
Parents and educators would like to find the answer to ‘Why young people are bullied’ and how to stop it. There have been campaigns and posters, ‘wear pink’ crusades and clubs formed to stop bullying. What are the causes and solutions to this problem?
Were there always bullies?
There have probably always been bullies around. Even since sin entered the world, there are those who try to take advantage of others. There will always be people who don’t care what pain they cause others. But bullying seems to be on the increase and cyber-bullying is 'attractive' because it can be anonymous.
It may be thought that those who cave in to bullies have low-esteem but in reality it is the bullies themselves that have a problem of low esteem. They have to make others feel badly about themselves so that they can feel good.
We have to prevent bullying but we also have to equip young people to handle bullying. Of course, we always want others to like us. Young people, particularly, want to be popular but if we didn’t let bullies bother us, would the bullying stop?
Why are there bullies?
I have thought back to my school days and tried to think if I, or someone else that I knew, was ever bullied in school. I can’t remember ever being bullied. As a child I had asthma and could not run without being affected. This made me a very bad baseball player but I can’t remember anyone ever picking on me for that. There was one kid in our class who dressed differently, kept to himself and never said much to anyone. I don’t know if he was ever ‘bullied’ - I never saw anyone actually bully him. Sadly, though, we did ignore him.
I grew up in a small farming community in Alberta. Maybe the reason there wasn’t bullying was that everyone was pretty much in the same boat. There were no children of other races in the school. We had never heard of ‘homosexuals’ and ‘gay’ simply meant ‘happy’ then. One girl in high school was ‘boyish’ but I don’t think she was bullied over it. There were people who were poorer than others but most of us had more or less the same kinds of clothes as everyone else. The only ’ labels’ in our clothes were Sears mail-order labels.
How do we teach self-esteem?
Today’s children are taught that if they want to they can be anything they want. Perhaps there is an over- emphasis on teaching children self-esteem. And yet the message of self-esteem has not had any effect. On one hand, our children are told that they are made up of only molecules, there have no soul and when they die that is the end of them. We spend the rest of the time trying to convince them in spite of being just a collection of chemicals they should have self-esteem!
We don’t tell our children that they are made in the image of God and that they are worthwhile because of this very fact. We forget to tell our children that there is a God who made them and loves them.
St. Augustine said, “You have made us for Yourself, Oh God, and we are restless until we find our rest in Thee.” But we have forgotten that truth and we try to find purpose in a world that we say has no purpose. We seek our happiness only in sex, power, popularity and money and if we do not have these in abundance, we are are seen as failures.
The media, television, movies, books and the internet, teach values that are often at odds to the values we would like to pass on to the next generation. Young people lose their innocence as they are exposed to pornography at a click of the mouse. It is impossible for a girl to have self-respect and self-esteem if she thinks she is only wanted for ‘her body’ and ‘to be used by others’.
How we should treat others?
Most of all we forget to teach our children “Always treat others the same way that you would like to be treated.” This means that you shouldn’t bully others because you wouldn’t want to be bullied. Christians know that Jesus said this but apparently other world religions also teach a form of this Golden Rule. But today religious teaching is looked upon with contempt and some even believe that parents should not be allowed to teach religious values to their own children!
Yes, let’s stop bullying. But let’s stop it by teaching children those two important things:
1) You were created in the image of God so you have true worth
2) Treat others the same way you would like to be treated.
Bullying won't be eradicated completely but there may be less of it.