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.

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