When the Mohawk discouraged Kateri and others from their faith if Christ, they were reacting to what they saw as a threat to their way of life. Kateri chose her way with freedom and dignity, and so did her people. The result was a painful division, one that many saints and even Jesus himself faced.
Having fully accepted the Christian faith, even to the point of leaving her family and people, Kateri lived in a small community called Sault Mission. Today, let’s think about what the life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha means to us? How can we understand the tensions she faced, and especially, the conflict between her and her people? And how can this person who lived three centuries ago be a part of our lives today? History allows us to compare what Kateri faced with what was going on at around the same time in 1686 France: the Catholic King Louis XIV ordered an all-out military attack on a small and vulnerable Protestant community that wasn’t even in France: the Vaudois in Piedmont . The troops overran the resisting fighters and imprisoned as many as 12,000 men, women and children, many of whom died of malnutrition while in prison. As difficult as Kateri’s personal journey was because of the stresses on Mohawk culture, it was tame by comparison with what was going on in Europe between Christians.
And of course, the full legacy of religious oppression on this continent was overwhelmingly carried out by Christian governments and churches, in the criminalization and suppression of First Nations cultural and spiritual practices. I believe St. Kateri Tekakwitha stands with the victims and survivors of Indian Residential Schools, which so violently attacked First Nations beliefs and wisdom. She would be the first to say everyone ought to have the freedom to believe what their heart knows to be true.
So we can imagine her new home Sault Mission to be at peace, but also bittersweet, as she must have missed her family and community. Kateri wanted to establish a convent for First Nations Christian women, but her spiritual director advised her against it because he thought she did not have the strength. Maybe he ought to have been more open, and more optimistic.
Kateri was only 24 years old when she fell ill, probably with tuberculosis, another imported disease. She approached death with calm and peace, though her illness was physically torturous. A young woman who loved her was called to her side, where Kateri said she would pray for her and be a guardian always. To her best friend, Kateri said,
“I will love you in heaven. I will pray for you, I will assist you.”
The accounts of Kateri’s death give witness to the first miracle associated with her: within 15 minutes of her death, when her body was laid out for the community to grieve, the priest who accompanied her in death saw her face radically changed. The scars of smallpox vanished, leaving perfect, radiant skin that revealed the beauty of Kateri’s face. Several others witnessed the transformation, including two French laymen who knew Kateri well; when they saw her body they asked who had died, because they did not recognize her.
Immediately after her death, those who knew and loved her continued to draw strength and inspiration from her example. Spreading the news to other communities, they merely said,
“The saint is dead,”
Within a week of her death, those close to her began to experience visions of her - she showed images of the future and healed those who prayed to her. Devotion to her continued to spread. For different reasons, her cause for sainthood was not brought forward for centuries.
Love for Kateri and more miracles could not be ignored forever. In 1915, a 10 year old boy with a hole in his hip was miraculously cured when a relic of Kateri was touched to his cast. In World War II, three Polish prisoners of war each had a vision of a First Nations woman who said she would secure their release; when they told a Jesuit priest about their dreams and subsequent freedom, he identified her as Kateri. Finally, in 2006 a kindergarten boy caught a deadly bacteria. When his family prayed to Blessed Kateri and touched him with a relic of hers, he was healed with no trace of the bacteria in his body. Medicine could not explain why. It was this miracle that led to her canonization in 2012.
The entire Church has received a wonderful gift in St. Kateri Tekakwitha - her love and kindness continue to extend beyond her Earthly life. What would it be like to love so powerfully that not even death could stop it? When we look around at the people we are in relationship with, can we imagine St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s life and try to treat others with more love? When we fear that we are too weak, too helpless, too alone to do any good, can we call on her and ask her for help?
St. Kateri Tekakwitha, you upheld your dignity and strength by believing in Christ’s unconditional and perfect love for you. Your faith transformed you into someone who was strength and kindness for others. We ask for your prayers for us, that you would be our protector and helper. May all people look to you and see the glory of God shine through your wisdom, your courage, and your love. Bring us into the freedom of loving unity with each other, with our whole community, and with the Creator.
St. Kateri Tekakwitha, pray for us.