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Today marks the feast of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Four years ago, when she was canonized, I preached a homily about her, mentioning that the reredos behind our altar included a small statue of this new saint. I noted that it was dedicated decades before she was even beatified, and that her journey to sainthood was not exactly brief:
St. Kateri was born to the Algonquin-Mohawk tribe in upstate New York in 1656. When she was a child, she suffered from smallpox, which left her partially blind, with scars all over her face. She often went out in public with a blanket to hide her scars. But her encounters with Christians, and the stories she heard of the gospel, moved her. And so, at the age of 20, on Easter Sunday, she was baptized. Kateri’s devotion was total. Every morning, even in the coldest days of winter, she stood before the chapel door until it opened and remained inside the church until after the last Mass. She had a great love of the Eucharist and the crucified Christ. She helped catechize the young, and care for the old. You’ll see her depicted holding a small cross made of twigs. She often would fashion these crosses herself and place them throughout the woods. But she suffered for her devotion. She was shunned by other members of her tribe, who accused her of witchcraft and promiscuity and incest. Because of the smallpox, her health was always frail, and she died young, at the age of 24. Her final words were: “Jesus, I love you.” Moments after her death, it is said, her face became luminous and the scars vanished. And now today, four centuries after her death, she has become the first Native American saint. In many ways, her life is a perfect companion to today’s gospel. James and John came to Jesus seeking their own glory. And Jesus turned the tables on them. “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant,” he said. “Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” Greatness, Christ tells us, lies in humility, in servitude, in simplicity. Its ambition is fulfilled in small acts of sacrifice for others. A familiar example is St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. But so is St. Kateri, the Lily of the Mohawks. She is the saint for all who are scarred, all who are ashamed, all who are shunned. She is the saint of the weak and the orphaned, the quiet and the resolute. Kateri is the saint for all who are outside, standing at the door, waiting to be let in. She is the saint of holy patience. It took over 400 years for her to be officially recognized as a saint. And it was 73 years from the day this church was dedicated to the moment today when she was canonized.
St. Kateri, pray for us!
The image above was commissioned by the National Museum of Catholic Art and was featured at the canonization celebration at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, NY. Read more.